Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Hebrew Letter ג Gimel

The 3rd letter of the Hebrew Alphabet is the Gimel ג. The name of this letter גמל is also a word that describes one of its meanings, camel.  And as a number, the ג gimel represents the number three and means to lift up or to benefit.  Like many Hebrew words and letters גמל can have a number of meanings depending on the context in which it is used.  In the Torah scrolls and other ancient Hebrew documents from antiquity, there were no vowel markings to indicate the varying pronunciations, and therefore, meanings of words.  Meanings are implied by context.

As an example, take the English words “boat” and “bat”.  If we were to write both of these words without the vowels, we would get “bt” in both cases.  How is a reader to know which of these two words is intended by the author if a sentence in which they are used contains no or limited vowels as in these examples?

“I wnt fr a crz n mi bt tda” (I went for a cruise in my boat today)

“I swng the bt wll in the gm” (I swung the bat well in the game)

The answer is context, context, context!  It is fairly easy to read these sentences without vowels.  We just put the missing vowels in as we read them because we understand not only the immediate context of the intended word where the “bt” is used, but also we have a cultural context that we consider in making our choice.  Someone from 18th century America may not understand the cultural context of the reference to baseball in the example using “bat” and may be prone to misinterpret what “bt” means.  In these examples, the pronunciation of the two words, spelled identically as “bt” are different based on these types of contextual considerations.  The same thing is true of the Hebrew text when no vowel markings are present.  This is one of the major difficulties in translating Hebrew to English.  We not only have linguistic challenges, but we are faced with historic and cultural factors as well.

Getting back to our letter ג.  Here are two examples of different words all spelled the same but pronounced differently and having different meanings:

גמל pronounced “Gimel” is the name of the third letter of the Hebrew Alphabet.
גמל pronounced “Gamal” is a “Camel”, the “horse” of the desert.

These two words are spelled exactly the same way גמל in ancient texts.  We have to be able to understand these ancient documents in their historic and cultural context in order to properly interpret and translate the intentions of the author.  Let me give you a classic example.  We are all familiar with the story of the young, rich man who asks Yeshua what he must do to enter the Kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:21-24 NKJV 21 Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 "And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

The word translated as “camel” here is from the Greek manuscripts “kamelos” kam'-ay-los which is of Hebrew origin.  In other words, it is a transliteration of a Hebrew or Aramaic word that is spelled using Greek letters, and as such did not exist in the Greek language of that time. 

#2574.  kamelos,  kam'-ay-los of Hebrew origin (1581); a "camel":--camel.

#1581. גמל gamal,  gaw-mawl'  from 1580 (in the sense of labor or burden-bearing); a camel:--camel.

#1580. גמל  gamal,  gaw-mal'  a primitive root; to treat a person (well or ill), i.e. benefit or requite; by implication (of toil), to ripen, i.e. (specifically) to wean:--bestow on, deal bountifully, do (good), recompense, requite, reward, ripen, + serve, mean, yield.

We see many different definitions of the word גמל as “gamal”.  Which definition, and therefore which translation, is correct depends on the context of the passage of scripture being read or translated.  This word is used in Psalms 119:17 and translated as “bountifully."

Psalms 119:17 NKJV Deal bountifully (גמל) with Your servant, That I may live and keep Your word.

In other places in scripture גמל (gamal) is translated as “weaned” as in a child being weaned.  As “Recompense”, “requite”, to “yield”, to render “punishment” and to “benefit”.  But most often it is used in the context of direct reference to camel or camels (ie beasts of burden).

But what is this phrase about a camel going through the eye of a needle as in the Matthew passage above?  It really doesn’t make much sense in the overall context.  I have heard many explanations for this odd passage, the most common is that the “eye of a needle” refers to a small gate at the entrance to a city where a traveler would have to “unload” his camel in order to get himself and his stuff through the small opening. There is a major problem with this explanation.  There is no verifiable historic evidence that such a small gate was ever called the “eye of a needle” at the time of the writing of this gospel account!  Secondly, the implication of this common English translation is that the rich man could keep his possessions in the Kingdom of God.  That he doesn’t really loose, or need to “sell” his riches, he just has to get them through the gate.  This is a contradiction with Yeshua’s very words in verse 21 where the rich man is told to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and not keep them.

The key to understanding this verse is to look at the Aramaic word that is spelled exactly the same as the Hebrew word for camel.

גמל pronounced “Gamala” is of Aramaic origin and means “heavy rope” (Aramaic is a closely related language to Hebrew and shares the same alphabet with Hebrew.  Much the same as Spanish and Italian today share a common alphabet and many common root words.)

(There is strong textual and historic evidence that a majority of the New Testament documents were originally written in Aramaic or a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew.  The exploration of this will be done at a later time.  See Hebrew Origins of New Testament Scripture on this blog)

The word גמל (gamala) in the Aramaic manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew as well as the Hebrew manuscripts known to exist, are the same.  But when we use this Aramaic meaning of גמל, in Matthew 19:24, and translate it as “heavy rope” the entire passage begins to makes much more sense.  Especially since one must reconcile the seeming contradiction between verses 21 and 24.

With this Aramaic word in mind, we have a picture of two things here, a heavy rope and the eye of an actual needle, both of which are being used by Yeshua as a kind of metaphor to illustrate His teaching.  Can a large heavy rope go through the eye of a needle?  The answer is yes, but only after it is unwound or unraveled.  This is just as Yeshua answered the rich man in verse 21, “go and sell your possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow me.”  The rich man must “unravel” his life; he must remove the very thing that is holding him down to this world.  This is the lesson that Yeshua was teaching his disciples.

So, with that said, what does this have to do with the letter ג gimel?  In the ancient form of Hebrew, the gimel was a pictographic symbol resembling a camel or beast of burden.  The modern symbol looks something like a man walking slightly bent over as if carrying a load.  And as we see from the definitions above, the letter by itself can mean “benefit” or to “lift up.”  Like the rich man of Matthew 19, we carry burdens in this life.  We collect things; we have possessions that tie us down when we put a misplaced pride in them.  We carry emotional and spiritual burdens that can be an even greater hindrance to our relationship to God.  Yeshua said in the gospel of John:

John 12:32 NKJV 32 "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself."

He also said in Matthew:

Matthew 11:29-30 NKJV 29 "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."

When we lift Him up we receive redemption.  Take a look at the Hebrew word for redeem:

#1350.  גאל ga'al, gaw-al' a primitive root, to redeem, i.e. to be the next of kin, deliver, purchase, ransom, redeem(-er), revenger.

The word picture for ga’al, or redeem

ג = To lift up, benefit
א = Strength, leader, first
ל = Control, authority, shepherd

The last two letters of ga’al are אל = Strong leader, or a shortened name of God, pronounced “El”

When combined with the fires letter, the gimel we get גאל = Ga’al = To lift up the strong leader or the shepherd or God

When we lift up God, we are redeemed!

 שלום ברוך
Shalom and be blessed
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

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