Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Meaning of Navi

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

What is the Meaning of the Word “Navi”?
I previously wrote about this word. But that was three years ago. Presumably, you are all mortals and not prophets, and need some refreshing. (I also improved the article slightly.)
In English, the word “navi” (Nun-Bet-Yod-Aleph) is usually translated as “prophet.” This English word has a connotation of someone who is able to predict the future. But what is the root of the Hebrew word? Is ability to predict the future implied in the Hebrew? I admit I always thought this, because the letters Bet-Aleph (“come”) are part of the word.
Rashi (commenting on Exodus 7:1) connects the word with the word “niv” (Nun-Yod-Bet), relying on Isaiah 57:19 (“niv sefatayim”). The word “niv” in this verse in Isaiah means something like the “outgrowth of” or “something that flows from.” Rashbam (commentary to Genesis 20:7) also connects “navi” with “niv.” He adds that a “navi” is someone who is “ragilwith God and speaks God’s words, and that God loves his words and answers his prayers.
But Ibn Ezra argues strongly that the root of “navi” is Nun-Bet-Aleph. Despite the eminence of Rashi and Rashbam, it is hard to disagree with Ibn Ezra here. The alephs are always present in the word, so it seems very likely that the aleph is a root letter here. With regard to the meaning of the root Nun-Bet-Aleph, Ibn Ezra tries to infer its meaning from the context at Amos 3:7. There it is stated that God will not do anything unless he is “galah sodo el avadav ha-neviim.” Therefore, Ibn Ezra concludes, a “navi” is fundamentally someone to whom God reveals his secrets.
Rav S. R. Hirsch (commentary to Genesis 20:7) also accepts Nun-Bet-Aleph as the root. He tries to deduce its meaning by extrapolating from a similar root: Nun-Bet-Ayin. The latter means “to flow” or “to be the source of.” Rav Hirsch concludes that a “navi” is “the source from which the word of God issues, the organ through which the spirit of God speaks to men.”
Most scholars today view the root as Nun-Bet-Aleph. But based on Akkadian and several other Semitic languages, they view the fundamental meaning of this root as “to call.” Then the issue becomes whether the “navi” was “one who was calling out to the people,” or “one who was called (=appointed).” According to Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, the earlier scholars preferred the former view, but now the prevailing view is the latter. (See also Encyclopaedia Judaica, 13:1152, which follows the latter view.)
In most instances in Tanakh, a “navi” is someone who was called by God to communicate a Divine message to the people. One verse where this is not the case is Exodus 7:1. Here God tells Moses that “Aaron your brother will be ‘neviekha.’ ” We see from here that not just God can have a “navi.” A human can have one as well.
Scholars also suggest that, most likely, the Hebrew verb Nun-Bet-Aleph was derived from the noun. (Usually, the process is the reverse: the noun is derived from the verb.) Since the verb was derived from the noun, the meaning of the verb in Hebrew was “to act as a navi.” (If the verb came first, the noun would likely have had a “mem” prefixed as the first letter. Another such atypical situation occurs with the noun “kohen.” Here too, the noun likely preceded the verb.)
We see from all the above that it is obviously a mistake to rely on English translations. We must ignore the common translation “prophet” and whatever that may imply. We first have to determine the Hebrew root. But sometimes, like here, that is only half the battle. Figuring out what the root means can be another battle. Here Ibn Ezra tried to learn it from a context (Amos 3:7). Rav Hirsch tried to learn it from a different but similar root. Scholars try to learn it from related Semitic languages.
One last issue needs to be addressed. The English word “prophet” has the connotation of someone who can predict the future. It is derived from a similar sounding Greek word. Did the Greek word have this connotation as well? Most likely, the Greek word meant merely “one who speaks on behalf of.” See, e.g., Encyclopaedia Judaica (13:1153).
Last week, I made an interesting error when I tried to calculate the number of Mishneh Torah sets in Teaneck. I made a calculation based on an assumption of two boys in each family (with each getting three sets of Mishneh Torah as bar-mitzvah presents), plus the sets of Mishneh Torah owned by their fathers. A reader then pointed out to me that his daughters received Mishneh Torah sets for their bat-mitzvah. I also overlooked our new generation of educated adult women, many of whom may own their own Mishneh Torah, separate from the ones owned by their husbands. I apologize for my old-fashioned thinking! I think I will have to have my wife and daughter review my columns each week to correct my old-fashioned thinking and add in the female perspective!
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He checks his emails, and has not yet been called upon by God to deliver any lexical discourses.

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