What does the Hebrew word ‘olam mean in the Bible?

Q. What does the Hebrew word ‘olam mean in the Bible?

The Hebrew word ‘olam means “to indefinite futurity,” that is, “for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.” For example, when at the dedication of the ark in Jerusalem David tells the people to “remember [God’s] covenant for ever” and that it is an “everlasting covenant,” he is using the word in both cases. He wants the people to obey the covenant for as far into the future as anyone can imagine, and he is saying that God himself intends to keep the covenant for that long.

But the word can also indicate “from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine.” Wisdom says of herself in Proverbs, “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth was.” In other words, “I was formed (or appointed) from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine.”

Sometimes the word is used in both senses at the same time. We see this usage in Psalm 90, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” In other words, “You have been God from from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine, and you will continue to be God for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.”

In many English Bibles, ‘olam is thus understandably translated with adverbs such as “forever” and with adjectives such as “everlasting.” I certainly don’t see a sense in ‘olam that the time period is finite or expected ever to end.

How old was King David when he died?

Q. Is there any record as to how old David, King of Israel, was when he died? 1 Kings just says, “He died at a good old age.” Thank you.

Yes, there is a record. 2 Samuel 5:4 says, “David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years.” This means that David was seventy years old when he died.

Why do Judaism and Christianity not have a proper name for God?

Q. Why do currently active religions like Judaism and Christianity not give a specific name for, but refer to descriptions of God generically? Current Islam seems to have assigned the name of Allah. Current Hindu gods have names. Expired religions seem always to have used names for gods and god-men.

Because Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic, in general they do not use a proper name for God, since God does not need to be distinguished by name from other divine beings, which these religions do not believe to exist.

However, there actually is a proper name for God in the Hebrew Bible. When God sent Moses to Egypt to deliver the ancient Israelites from slavery there, Moses asked God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God gave a very interesting answer to this question, saying in Hebrew, ‘ehyeh asher ‘ehyeh, or “I am who I am,” and then telling Moses to say to the Israelites: “‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.”

This may not actually have been the disclosure of a proper name at all, but the claim to be the only God who truly existed, i.e. “I am who I am, and all those other so-called gods are not.” But Moses took the phrase “I am,” expressed in the third person as “he is,” since Moses was speaking about God rather than as God, and used it as a proper name for God, Yahweh. This usage is found throughout the books of Moses or Pentateuch, as well as the rest of the Hebrew Bible, so that this name actually occurs thousands of times there.

However, in order not to violate one of the Ten Commandments, the one that said not to take this name in vain, Jews completely avoided saying it out loud. When reading aloud from the Scriptures, they would substitute the expression Adonai, “the Lord.” When vowel points were added to the consonants in the written text of the Hebrew Bible, the vowels for Adonai were put with the letters YHWH, and when the Scriptures were translated into other languages, the expression “the Lord” was used in place of the proper name. Greek translations of the Bible used the term kurios or “Lord,” and this usage is reflected in the New Testament. That is, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it says “the Lord” where the Old Testament says Yahweh. As a rule, English Bibles follow this same practice. They say “the Lord” wherever the name Yahweh appears, although many of them put the word “Lord” in small caps to show that it represents the name..

That is how we get the impression that Judaism and Christianity do not have a proper name for God. They do. It is actually found throughout their Scriptures. But they tend not to use it, both as an affirmation of monotheism and as a way of showing respect for the name of God.

Ancient religions, by contrast, did tend to use proper names for specific gods because they felt they had to distinguish them from other divine beings. The same would apply to Hinduism, which is a polytheistic religion. Islam, for its part, is monotheistic, but I think you are correct that the name for God in Islam, Allah, should be understood as a proper name. It actually means “the God” in Arabic, but it is treated as a name. However, I do not think that this takes anything away from the strong commitment to monotheism within Islam. After all, the basic statement of faith, the first of the five pillars of Islam, is, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” So while I am not an expert on Islam, I do believe that Muslims would say that the one true God has self-revealed to humans under this name.

When did Zipporah convert to Judaism?

Q. When did Zipporah convert to Judaism? I have not been able to find a source that would provide that information.

Zipporah was the wife of Moses. We learn early in the book of Exodus that when Moses fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, he found refuge in the home of a man named Jethro, who was a “priest of Midian.” Moses worked for him, tending his flocks in exchange for his own keep. Moses eventually married one of his daughters, Zipporah.

The Bible does not say specifically that Zipporah embraced faith in the God of Israel when she married Moses, but we do have one slight indication that she probably did so. In a passage that is admittedly strange and difficult to understand, in order to keep God from being angry with Moses, Zipporah circumcised their son Gershom. So somehow she knew that God expected this of his covenant people, and she was prepared to do it.

That is all we really have to go on. There are some things that the Bible does not tell us as much as we would like to know about. But I think we do have enough to go on to conclude that Zipporah did come to share Moses’ faith in the God of Israel.

Why did Naomi tell Ruth to anoint herself?

Q. Why did Naomi tell Ruth to anoint herself?

As I explain in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, at the point in the book of Ruth that you’re asking about, Naomi was giving Ruth instructions that would signal to Boaz that the mourning period for Ruth’s late husband was now over and so Ruth was available for him to marry.

Naomi literally says “put your clothing upon you,” but by this she clearly means “your best clothing.” In other words, Ruth is to lay aside the widow’s garments she has been wearing, and instead put on something designed to be beautiful and attractive. Naomi also tells her to “anoint” herself. This means to put olive oil on her hair and head. This is still done in many similar climates and cultures to refresh the hair and skin. Some interpreters speculate that this could have been perfumed olive oil. If so, that would have been a further signal that Ruth was eligible for marriage.

You can read my study guide online or download it from this link. For a longer discussion of the meeting between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor, see the series of posts that begins here.

When did Esau “break off the yoke” of Jacob?

Q. Isaac promised his son Esau that even though he had made his younger brother Jacob his “lord,” someday “you will throw his yoke from off your neck.” Did the yoke get broken off from Esau in the later episode when Jacob bowed down to Esau and called him “lord”? Was Esau saved?

As you suggest, I think it would be accurate to say that Jacob’s yoke was broken off Esau when Jacob returned from being away for 20 years and bowed down to Esau and called him “lord.” We may conclude this not just from the events of the narrative in Genesis, but from the very shape of the narrative itself. The episode in which Jacob cheats Esau out of his position as the family leader in their generation and the episode in which Jacob returns and makes restitution are parallel elements in an elaborate arrangement. Here is how I illustrate that in my study guide to Genesis. (You can read the study guide online or download it free at this link.) Note how episodes marked with the same letter balance each other:

A Jacob deceives his father and steals Esau’s blessing

B Jacob flees towards Harran and encounters God at Bethel

C Jacob arrives in Harran

D Laban deceives Jacob

E Jacob’s children are born

D Jacob deceives Laban

C Jacob leaves Harran

B Jacob returns towards Canaan and encounters God again

A Jacob returns Esau’s blessing and they are reconciled

So the narrative in Genesis is put together in such a way as to indicate that when Jacob came back home and returned Esau’s blessing, bowing down to him as his “lord,” that was a fulfillment of the promise that their father Isaac had made to Esau that he would eventually “throw off” the yoke of servitude to Jacob.

I talk more about how Jacob made restitution to Esau in this post.

As for whether Esau was saved, the Bible does not say specifically. I do not believe we should take Paul’s comments in Romans to mean that Esau was not saved. Paul is speaking specifically of which brother the covenant line would continue through, not of individual salvation, when he says that “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand,” Rebekah was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Paul also quotes the statement from Malachi, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” but we need to appreciate that the Hebrew language uses the term “hated” in contexts like this to refer to a son or wife who is not favored, by contrast with one who is favored. The meaning is, “I favored Jacob, but I did not favor Esau.”

So, we do not know for sure whether Esau was saved. But we might conclude from the fact that Esau did not attack Jacob when he returned, even though he had said earlier that he was going to kill Jacob, that Esau somehow found the motive and power to forgive, and so perhaps he had experienced God’s forgiveness himself.

Why are the numbers 144,000 and 12,000 in Revelation so mathematical?

Q. In John’s vision in Revelation of the “servants of God” who were sealed, any ideas as to why these numbers (144,000 and 12,000 from each tribe) are so mathematical? That is, apparently the Lord picked these exact numbers to be included here. Just curious. Is there something more?

You are on to something here. Yes, those numbers are mathematical. 12,000 = 3 x 4 x 10 x 10 x 10, and 144,000 = 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. I discuss the symbolism of such numbers in this post: Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

I also have a separate post on, Who are the 144,000 in the book of Revelation?

In these posts I draw on my Daniel-Revelation study guide, which you can read online or download for free at this link.

Why does Luke mention Phillip’s daughters?

Q. Why does Luke mention Phillip’s daughters in the book of Acts?

This is an excellent kind of question to ask, because Luke no doubt had a lot of material to work with as he was putting together the book of Acts, and presumably he did not include everything that was available. So we can and should ask why details like this one were included. How do they fit into the overall plan and theme of this biblical book?

The episode you’re asking about comes in one of the “we” sections of the book of Acts, in which Luke is relating events that he took part in personally. Luke is accompanying Paul on his way to Jerusalem to deliver the offering from the Gentile churches, and about this specific incident, which took place as the travelers neared Jerusalem, he says: “We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.

By “one of the Seven,” Luke means that Philip was one of the seven people who had earlier been appointed to oversee the distribution of food to needy members of the church in Jerusalem. But Philip did many things after that to help spread the good news about Jesus, and at this point he was no longer living in Jerusalem. Luke probably mentions that the daughters were “unmarried” to indicate that they were still living at home. And while his language could be understood to mean that they “prophesied” as a regular ministry (some Bibles say that they “had the gift of prophecy” or “were involved in the work of prophecy”), it seems to me that they must have prophesied while Paul and Luke were staying in their home, and that is how Luke knew that they had this gift.

So why does he mention it? Was it just a memorable experience along the way? He probably had more reason than that, since the travelers no doubt had many other memorable experiences on this trip that he could have included. I think Luke mentions these four prophesying daughters specifically because this detail illustrates the overall theme of his book. As I say in my study guide to Luke-Acts (which you can read online or download at this link), Acts describes how the community of Jesus’ followers “spread throughout the Roman Empire as it proclaimed the good news about Jesus to people of many different backgrounds, languages, and regions.”

Early in the book, Luke records how the Holy Spirit descended on the young community on the day of Pentecost and enabled its members to speak all  the different languages of the visitors who had come to Jerusalem for that festival. That was a picture of how the community would spread to people of all backgrounds. To explain to the crowd that gathered what was happening, the apostle Peter quoted these words from the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.

The Pentecost episode is like an overture, encapsulating the themes that play out in the rest of the book. The prophetic gifting and ministry of Philip’s daughters is a fulfillment of the words, “Your … daughters will prophesy.” So I think that when Luke was putting together the book under divine inspiration, he recognized that staying in their house and witnessing them using this gift was not just a memorable personal experience, but something that he should share with his readers as an example of how the words of Joel continued to come true as the Holy Spirit empowered the community of Jesus’ followers—men and women, young and old, of different social classes—to spread the good news.

Why did Abraham send all his sons away from Isaac?

Q. Why did Abraham send all his sons away from Isaac?

The book of Genesis tells us that after Sarah died, “Abraham married another wife, named Keturah.” She bore him six sons. The book goes on to explain that “Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.” The plural word “concubines” refers both to Keturah and to Hagar, another wife of Abraham who was the mother of Ishmael.

So the reason why Abraham sent the other sons away seems to be that he wanted to make sure that Isaac indeed inherited his estate. He may have been concerned that after his death, the six sons of Keturah, whose mother would likely still have been living (since Keturah seems to have been younger than Abraham), might have banded together against Isaac, the son of a different mother who had died, to try to claim the inheritance for themselves.

The case of Jephthah presents a comparable, even though slightly different, example. He was the eldest son of a man named Gilead, though his mother was a prostitute. The book of Judges relates, “Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. ‘You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,’ they said, ‘because you are the son of another woman.'” Abraham may have been concerned that the same kind of thing would happen to Isaac, and so he sent the other sons to live in another place.

The Bible does not say whether Keturah’s sons actually would have tried to get the inheritance away from Isaac. It does not say whether Abraham sending them away was a good or a bad thing. So we have to come to some conclusion about that ourselves. In this post, “Who was Abraham’s second wife, Hagar or Keturah?” I say that Hagar (along with her son Ishmael) “is one of the figures in the Bible who is treated worst by the people who were supposed to be following and obeying God.” We might similarly wonder whether it was right for Abraham to remarry after Sarah’s death but then treat his second wife’s sons so unfavorably compared with his first wife’s son. We would probably not think that was suitable if someone did it today. So beyond the question of why Abraham sent the other sons away, we have the question of whether that was a proper thing for him to do. And we must come to some conclusion about that by reflecting on all the principles that the Bible teaches us.