4 Biblical Sayings That Spice Up Today’s Hebrew

As I noted in the first article in this series, “In the Diaspora, Hebrew was retained primarily as a holy tongue, a language of prayer and sacred study.” But with the onset of Zionist settlement of the Land of Israel in the late 19th century, Hebrew gradually became the official language of the Yishuv, the prestate Jewish community, and then of the state of Israel itself.

That, however, required a good deal of modernization and adaptation of classical Hebrew. The driving force behind that project was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1921), a Lithuanian-born Jew who moved to Palestine in 1881 and—among much other activity on Hebrew’s behalf—produced a 17-volume lexicon of ancient and modern Hebrew, sometimes working on it 18 hours a day.

If Eliezer Ben-Yehuda could see today’s Israel, he would know that his labors were crowned with great success. Hebrew now permeates all dimensions of Israeli life, from scientific studies to street slang.

And yet, with all the modern coinages—many of which originated with Ben-Yehuda himself—Hebrew’s biblical core remains vibrant. It pops up, for instance, in colorful phrases and sayings that are part of today’s Israeli Hebrew.

1. A land that eats its inhabitants.

In the thirteenth chapter of the biblical Book of Numbers, with the Israelites camped out in the wilderness of Paran (probably somewhere in or near Sinai), Moses is commanded by God (13:2) to send scouts to “search the land of Canaan” (that is, Israel).

Moses sends some twelve scouts there, and when they come back, most of them give a mixed report: while it is a land that (13:27) “floweth with milk and honey,” it is also populated by tribes of huge, frightening people and is (13:32) “a land that eateth up [its] inhabitants….”

The biblical Hebrew for that striking phrase is:

ארץ אוכלת יושביה

That is, eretz ochelet yoshveiha, or literally, with typical syntactical concision, “land eats its inhabitants.”

In modern Israel I’ve heard a grumbled eretz ochelet yoshveiha while standing in a long, dreary, maddening line at a bank. True, that was years ago; nowadays you get a number and can sit in a chair at a bank, though the wait may still be long.

I’ve also heard eretz ochelet yoshveiha in wartime. There is still a harsh side to Israeli life: war, tortuous bureaucracy, economic pressures. When you want to let off some steam, there is no phrase as biting and expressive as “a land that eats its inhabitants.”

2. Don’t take Ahitophel’s advice.

In the Second Book of Samuel, Ahitophel is an adviser to King David considered so astute that his (16:23) “counsel…was as if a man had enquired at the oracle of God….”

Yet when King David’s son Absalom stages a rebellion, Ahitophel—his loyalty not up to his sagacity—goes over to Absalom’s side. There he lays out a battle plan—which gets rejected in favor of the plan of another adviser, actually a mole sent by King David. This other adviser’s deliberately faulty plan leads to Absalom’s defeat and death.

Meanwhile Ahitophel, seeing his advice has been rejected, goes home (17:23) “and put his house in order, and hanged himself, and died….”

The biblical Hebrew for “Ahitophel’s advice” is:

עצת אחיתפל

 That is, etzat Ahitophel.

And yet, strangely, in today’s Israeli Hebrew, etzat Ahitophel means “bad advice,” advice you should not follow. It may even carry a connotation of intentionally, craftily bad advice.

So it seems that Ahitophel still can’t win: not only was his good advice ignored, but he’s become synonymous with bad advice. On the other hand, considering his lack of loyalty, this may be poetic justice.

3. Don’t brag that you’re a great soldier when you haven’t even fought yet.

In the twentieth chapter of the First Book of Kings, the Syrian king Benhadad gathers an army and besieges Samaria. He sends messengers to Ahab, king of Israel, to inform him (20:3):

Thy silver and thy gold is mine; thy wives also and thy children, even the goodliest, are mine.

As Benhadad, boozing in his palace, keeps boasting of what he’s going to do to Samaria, King Ahab sends him this counter-warning (20:11):

 אל יתהלל חוגר כמפתח

 Al yithalel hoger ci’mfateah is translated in the King James Bible as “Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off.”

In other words, “Don't act as if you’ve already won when you’re just going to battle.”

And indeed, with God promising Ahab (20:13) that he will “deliver [the Syrians] into thine hand,” Ahab’s forces rout them so badly that Benhadad is reduced to (20:20) “escap[ing] on a horse with the horsemen.”

Even though it originates in a not-so-known biblical episode, Al yithalel hoger ci’mfateah is a common retort in today’s Hebrew.

In this news tidbit from 2005, politician Yosef (Tommy) Lapid tells politician Amir Peretz, who has called on voters for Lapid’s party to return to voting for Peretz’s party, “Al yithalel hoger ci’mfateah.” People will soon be reminded, Lapid says, of Peretz’s bad leadership in the past.

4. You can’t keep a good man (or people) down.

In the first chapter of the Book of Exodus—that cornerstone of Western civilization that includes the Ten Commandments—the new Egyptian king observes that the Israelites in Egypt are (1:9) “more and mightier than we.”

Fearing that this is a danger, and if there is a war the Israelites will join Egypt’s enemies, Pharaoh comes up with a remedy (1:11):

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.

However, it doesn’t work; the Israelites show an iron resilience. As Exodus 1:12 puts it:

 וכאשר יענו אותו כן ירבה וכן יפרוץ.

 The King James version renders Ve’kha-asher ye-anu oto, ken yirbeh ve’khen yifroz as:

But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.

And indeed, that will be the story of Exodus: the Israelites will trounce Pharaoh in every way and exit his kingdom of oppression.

In today’s Hebrew the saying Ve’kha-asher ye-anu oto, ken yirbeh ve’khen yifroz has a broader compass; it can be used about anyone who’s tough and resilient. Like so many other phrases from the ancient text, it lives, in somewhat adapted form, in today’s Israeli speech.

And it remains a cogent observation about the people as a whole.