On the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament
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Many English bible-versions contain such expressions as “for ever” and “everlasting”. One popularly used translation has those words in around 400 places in the Old Testament. The way it renders some of those passages, might cause casual bible-readers to think that the Old Covenant with its rules and rituals was to last “for ever”. But, it is not so. This article clarifies that matter.
This has to do with the word olam (owlam) in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Below, it will be shown that it simply meant “a long time”, either past or future, but not “for ever”. As the NAS Hebrew dictionary defines it, “long duration, antiquity, futurity”. That is not the same as “for ever”.
Those who have studied the Old Testament in more depth, may have noticed that many or perhaps most of the things which are mentioned in passages where the Hebrew text has the word olam, have come to their end, a long time ago.
It is said that the word olam was related to the verb alam which meant “to conceal”, “to hide” (such as, “to hide from sight”). So, it could be that the idiomatic meaning of olam 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 translation.
First, here are some Old Testament passages where the word olam refers to past time:
Deuteronomy 32:7 “Remember the days of old [Hebrew 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)
Those were examples of how the word olam was used of things of the past. As you can see, the matters and periods in question were for a limited time.
Then, let us take a look at some passages where olam pointed to the future, and where it at the same time is clear that the thing, event or period in question was limited in time and has now 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 [Hebrew olam]. (VW06, comment added)
The context was slavery of the kind that was allowed by the Old Covenant. What the VW06 here renders as “always” and some other translations as “for ever”, is in the Hebrew text olam. As you can see, the thing in question was not “everlasting”. Those people did not live for ever.
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 by the name 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, which the here quoted VW06 translates as “always”. Many bible-versions render that as “for ever”, but in due time, Samuel died, and even the sanctuary where he had been taken (in those days, it was a portable construction, like a large tent) was put out of service; today, no trace of it remains. In other words: The word olam referred to a long time (in this case, Samuel’s lifetime), but it did not mean “everlasting” or “for ever”. It is similar with 1 Kings 8:13 which refers to the temple which was built in the days of king Solomon. We read:
1 Kings 8:13 I have built to establish for You an exalted house, a fixed place for You to abide continually [olam]. (VW06, comment added).
As we all know, that temple was destroyed, and so was even the next one. So, olam did not mean “for ever”, not in that case either.
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 we all know, those rituals came to their end almost 2000 years ago.
Again, olam was an expression which referred to something of long duration, but it did not mean “for ever” or “everlasting”. It is the same in regard to such passages as Leviticus 7:34, 16:33–34 and 24:7–8 and Deuteronomy 12:27–28 which talk about the Old Covenant and its rituals and where the Hebrew text contains the word olam 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.)
Joshua 4:7 contains another example of the use of the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.
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)
The point here is that those stones remained in that river as a memorial, for a long time, but not “for all time” or “for ever”. Today, they are most probably eroded, without a trace of them remaining.
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 that passage mean that the Lord meant that descendants of David would continue to be killed by a sword, forever? Of course not. That word referred to a long but not unlimited time.
It is unfortunate that many English bible-versions translate olam with such phrases as “for ever” or “everlasting”. This has led to many misunderstandings. Even the words “permanent”, “perpetual” and “age-enduring” that some translators have used, are misleading. It is clear that olam merely meant “long-lasting” or “for a long time”. And, when it was used of past events or past time, the meaning was something like “since the days of old”.
Consider this: Many or perhaps most of the things which are mentioned in Old Testament passages where the Hebrew text has the word olam, have come to their end, a long time ago.
A note: This is an important matter, and not mere semantics. 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 custom to always translate 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 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 “for ever” the way we today understand that expression. Again, most of the Old Testament passages where the word olam appears, have had their fulfilment. When those passages were written, they pointed to the future, perhaps even a long time into the future. But, from our viewpoint they refer to things that took place in the ancient past.
A note: Here, one must keep in mind that there are several still unfulfilled prophecies, in both the Old and New Testaments.
The article nga020.htm provides easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures.
For more on the matter of the two covenants, old and new, look under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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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. → nsa090.htm
Easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. → nga020.htm
The New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. → nca090.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 the meaning of the phrases “the Spirit” and “the letter” in 2 Corinthians 3:6–8 and Romans 7:6. → nca110.htm
On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → nca080.htm
On 1 John 3:4 and its translation and meaning. → nca120.htm
Acts 15 and the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → noa040.htm
The New Covenant versus the Old Covenant. Also, some notes on Matthew 5:17–18 and 19–20. → nca010.htm
Other articles on the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → Look under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.
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