On the meaning of the old Hebrew word olam

Regarding the misleading translations ‘forever’ and ‘everlasting’ in the Old Testament

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Many bible-versions contain such expressions as “for ever” and “everlasting”. An example: The Old Testament part of NASB95 contains the expression “forever” in almost 300 passages, and the word “everlasting” in more than 100 passages. Such translations can easily cause casual bible-readers to think that the things mentioned in those passages are “for all time to come” (“time without end”). But, that is not the case.

This article contains some notes on the misleading translations “forever” and “everlasting” in the Old Testament. It concentrates on the actual meaning of the old Hebrew word olam. It will be shown that it did not mean “for ever”, the way that English expression is used and understood.

A note: This is not a matter of mere semantics. This is a vital key to better understanding of the Scriptures. If one is not aware of the fact that numerous bible-versions translate the word olam in misleading ways, then one is easily misled even in regard to fundamental matters in the Bible, such as the matter of the two covenants, old and new.

Another note: This study contains a number of translation-related comments. If you have been subjected to dogmas which claim that all things in some particular bible-version are correct and “without error”, make sure to read the article hs03.htm.

Most bible-versions do not translate the Hebrew word olam in a correct way. Instead, they make it seem that many of the instructions that were given to ancient Israel, were “for ever” (or “everlasting” or “eternal”, or whatever) and would thus apply even today. That is not so, of course. Below, it will be shown that in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word in question, olam, does not mean “for ever” but simply “a long time”, either past or future.

Linguistics: It is thought that olam was related to the verb alam which apparently meant something like “to hide from sight”. The idiomatic meaning of olam perhaps was “of long duration, so that the beginning or end of the matter cannot be seen” (on the relatively short and narrow human point of view). In some cases, “long-lasting” can be a fitting English translation for olam. Not “ever-lasting”, but simply long-lasting.

More linguistics, for those who are interested: In the ancient Greek text of the Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew olam is mostly translated as aiôn or (sometimes) aiônios. The Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott shows that the old Greek word aiôn meant “a period of existence”, such as “life-time”, “life”, “an age”, “generation”, “posterity” (ho mellôn aiôn), “a long space of time”, “of old”, “for ages” (ap’ aiônos), “a definite space of time”, “an era”, “epoch”, “age”, “period”, and so on.

As was noted above, the old Hebrew word olam could even refer to past time. Here are some Old Testament passages where it is used that way.

Genesis 6:4 There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old [olam], men of renown. (NKJV, highlighting and comment added)

Deuteronomy 32:7 “Remember the days of old [olam], Consider the years of many generations. Ask your father, and he will show you; Your elders, and they will tell you (NKJV, highlighting and comment added)

Joshua 24:2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times [olam]; and they served other gods. (NKJV, highlighting and comment added)

1 Samuel 27:8 And David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. For those nations were the inhabitants of the land from of old [olam], as you go to Shur, even as far as the land of Egypt. (NKJV, highlighting and comment added)

Job 22:15 Will you keep to the old [olam] way which wicked men have trod (NKJV, highlighting and comment added)

Isaiah 42:14 “I have held My peace a long time, [olam] I have been still and restrained Myself. Now I will cry like a woman in labor, I will pant and gasp at once. (NKJV, highlighting and comment added)

These passages show that the Hebrew word olam could refer to things of the past, and not only to things of the future. More: They show that the matters and periods in question were for a limited time.

Then, let us take a look at some passages where olam pointed to times that were to come, and where it at the same time is clear that the thing, event or period in question was limited (and has come to its end).

Exodus 21:6 then his master shall bring him to God. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him always [olam]. (VW06, comment added)

Here, the context was slavery of the kind that was allowed by the Old Covenant. Many bible-versions render olam as “for ever”, in this verse as well as elsewhere, but that is misleading. Those people were mortals; they did not live for ever. Point: Even this shows that olam did not mean “everlasting”. Similar examples with olam are found in Leviticus 25:45-46 and Deuteronomy 15:17.

Then we have 1 Samuel 1:22.

1 Samuel 1:20 So it came to pass in the process of time that Hannah conceived and bore a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked for him from Jehovah. 21 Now the man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to Jehovah the yearly sacrifice and his vow. 22 But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, Not until the child is weaned; then I will bring him, that he may appear before Jehovah and remain there always [olam]. (VW06, comment added)

The context was that a woman named Hannah had prayed for a son, and when she gave birth to a boy (Samuel), she weaned him and then gave him to the priests in the sanctuary, to serve the Lord there olam (“always”). Many bible-versions render that as “for ever”, but Samuel was a mortal and did not live for ever, and even the sanctuary where Samuel was taken (in those days, it was portable, like a large tent) was put out of service; today, no trace of it remains. In other words: The word olam did not mean “everlasting” or “for ever”. It is similar with 1 Kings 8:13 which refers to the temple, which was built under Solomon’s time. We read:

1 Kings 8:13 I have surely built thee a house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for ever [olam]. (WBS, comment added)

Here, the WBS version was quoted. It says “for ever” – but again, as we all know, that temple was destroyed, and so was even the next one. In other words: Olam did not mean “for ever”.

Next example-passage, Exodus 27:21:

Exodus 27:20 And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, to cause the flame of the lamp to ascend continually. 21 In the tent of meeting, outside the veil which is before the Testimony, Aaron and his sons shall arrange it from evening until morning before Jehovah. It shall be a perpetual [olam] statute to their generations on behalf of the children of Israel. (VW06, comment added)

Even here, many bible-versions render olam as “for ever”, “permanent”, “everlasting” or similar, and the above-quoted VW06 version as “perpetual”. But as anyone can see, those translations are misleading. After all, we all know that those rituals came to their end almost 2000 years ago.

Again, olam was an expression that referred to something of long duration, but it did not mean “for ever” or “everlasting”. It is the same with Leviticus 7:34, 16:33-34 and 24:7-8 and Deuteronomy 12:27-28 which talk about the Old Covenant and its rituals, with the word olam mentioned in the context. Those things came to their end a long time ago. (And no, they were not “spiritualised” into something else, but indeed came to their end. They were only symbols, types and shadows, and when the Real Thing came, those symbols and shadows had served their purpose and were set aside.) Even those passages make it clear that olam did not mean “everlasting”.

Joshua 4:7 contains another example of the use of the word olam in ancient Hebrew.

Joshua 4:5 and Joshua said to them: Cross over before the ark of Jehovah your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, What are these stones to you? 7 Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of Jehovah; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel for all time. [olam]. (VW06, comment added)

Point: Those stones did not remain as a memorial “for ever”. They remained there as a memorial for a long but nevertheless limited time. Today, they are most probably eroded, without a trace of them remaining.

Then we have 2 Samuel 12:10:

2 Samuel 12:9 Why have you despised the Word of Jehovah, to do evil in His eyes? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. 10 Now therefore, the sword shall never [ad + olam] depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. (VW06, comment added)

Does the use of the word olam in this passage mean that the Lord meant that descendants of David would continue to be killed, by a sword, forever? No, of course not. That word referred to a long but not unlimited time.

Yet another example, 2 Kings 5:27:

2 Kings 5:25 And he went in and stood before his master; and Elisha said to him, Where have you been, Gehazi? And he said, Your servant did not go anywhere. 26 Then he said to him, Did not my heart go with you when the man turned back from his chariot to meet you? Is it a time to receive money and to receive clothing, olive groves and vineyards, sheep and oxen, male and female servants? 27 Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your seed always [olam]. And he went out from his presence leprous as snow. (VW06, comment added)

In verse 27, many translations have “forever” where the Hebrew text has olam. But, let us realise that that did not mean “forever” (time without end).

The above-quoted example-passages make it clear that the word olam did not mean “for ever”. It simply referred to a long time, a period of time of the past or of the future, where the beginning or end of that period could not readily be seen (was “hid from sight”; alam).

It is unfortunate that many English bible-versions translate olam with the misleading phrase “for ever” (or something similar). Even the words “permanent”, “perpetual” and “age-enduring” that some bible-translators have used, are misleading. It is clear that olam merely meant “long-lasting” or “for a long time”. (Again, not ever-lasting but simply long-lasting.) And, when olam was used of past events or past time, the meaning was something like “since the days of old”.

It is likewise clear, from both historical and “theological” points of view, that many of the things where the Old Testament Hebrew text has the word olam, indeed have come to their end – that’s right, a long time ago.

Again, this is not a matter of mere semantics or striving about words. Instead, this is an important matter. The point here is that when one reads the Bible, one must be aware of, and then always keep in mind, that bible-translations contain many errors and misleading wordings. The practice of always translating the word olam as “forever” or similar, is one example of that.

What does this mean, on the practical level?

Well, for instance the matter of the two covenants, old and new, is much easier to understand, if one knows that when a bible-translation says “forever” or similar, then it is likely that the original meaning was not “everlasting”. Most of the Old Testament passages where the word olam appears, have had their fulfilment. In times past, those passages pointed to the future, perhaps even a long time into the future, but from our viewpoint they refer to things of the past – things that took place and had their fulfilment in the ancient past.

A note: This matter must not be misunderstood. There are many still unfulfilled prophecies, in both the Old and New Testaments.

The article ig02.htm provides easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. The pages hs01.htm and hs02.htm have some notes on tools and helps for bible-study. The articles gn09.htm, gn11.htm and gn08.htm provide some food for thought, in regard to the matter of the two covenants, old and new.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/flist.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → gs09.htm

On the King James translation, the “authorised version”. The story behind king James’ bible, including the men who were involved in producing it. → hs03.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority on the human level? Who can speak for God? → gs06.htm

How to understand the Bible. Easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. → ig02.htm

Check your bible knowledge. A self-test with 15 questions (with answers and commentary). → gs04.htm

How to study the Bible in a deeper way. Some notes and guidelines on study methods. → hs01.htm

Bible software, computer bibles – facts and recommendations. → hs02.htm

Is the New Covenant something new, or is it merely a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant, as some say? → gn09.htm

Many talk about “the spirit of the law” versus “the letter of the law” – but those expressions are not found in the Bible. On 2 Corinthians 3:6-8 and Romans 7:6 and what the apostle Paul actually meant and referred to when he wrote about the Spirit as opposed to the letter. → gn11.htm

On 1 John 3:4 and the translation “whoever commits sin transgresses also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law”. Was the apostle John talking about the Old Covenant and its rules? How should one interpret the word anomia in the Greek text of 1 John 3:4? → hn12.htm

Galatians 3:17-19 – what did the apostle Paul mean by “added law”? → gn08.htm

Acts 15 and the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → go04.htm

What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → ng08.htm

What does the word “faith” mean? What is true faith? On the words and concepts “faith”, “faithfulness”, “believe” and “believing”, in the Bible. → gh09.htm

The meaning of the words Christ, Christian, Messiah and Messias. Also: Did the saints call themselves “Christians” – christianos or christianoi?gg07.htm

Did the apostle Paul really uphold slavery, as some bible-translations make it seem? → io16.htm

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