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Language Studies

Hebrew Thoughts


bâ‘al - בָּעַל (Strong's #1166)
Owner, master, leader

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bâ‘al 'to rule, own, marry' בָּעַל (Strong's #1166)

"You are a dead man because the woman you have taken she is owner-married" (Genesis 20:3, JPS)

The word בַּעַל ba‘al (Strong's #1167, x82) often translated as simply "man" x25, "husband" x15, but more accurately and simply as "lord, master or owner" x26 appears in Genesis 20:3 together with its root verb בָּעַל bâ‘al (Strong's #1166, x16). Whilst the verb occurs just 16x, 8x are translated as "marry", 3x as "husband" and 2x as "wife". It seems strange that Hebrew would use a word that is so strong and dominant of marriage and one whose derivatives in other contexts is related to the Canaanite god Ba’al.

The verb's base meaning seems to be that of "ownership, possession, ruling over". Only by association, given the then ancient world's view of women as property, does marriage enter into it.

The Hebrew of Genesis 20:3 is awkwardly simple: בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל be‘ulath bâ‘al, a feminine singular construct for those that want the grammar, essentially meaning "she-is-owned - of-owner", and for "owner" substitute your choice of "lorded/ruled over", "possessed", or "married".

The same construction occurs in Deuteronomy 22:22 "If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they shall both of them die". A "married woman" would do, but the Hebrew has "woman-married-of-husband".

Deuteronomy 21:10-13 describes taking captive women from battle and after a month of allowing a woman to grieve her loss of people and family, instructing a man on when he can have her based upon desire rather than consent. English versions render "after that thou mayest go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife" but again the Hebrew is quite basic: "possess/marry her and she will be to you as a woman/wife". Possession is of course 9/10 of the law, or 10/10 in ancient Judaism, and thus marriage was possession (not a wedding ceremony) and adultery was theft.

Indeed, a marriage so easily made (as all were then) could be "divorced" for finding some lack of "elegance, favour, grace" חֵן chên (Strong's #2580, x69) or "shame" אֶרְוָה ’er'vâh (Strong's #6172, x54) in a woman, but not the other way around. (Deuteronomy 24:1)

The use of בָּעַל bâ‘al for possession is more clearly seen in verses such as 1 Chronicles 4:22 "Saraph, who had dominion/ruled/possessed in Moab". Also, of God and other lords who’ve "had dominion over us" (Isaiah 26:13). Compare with Isaiah 54:5 where it crosses over into the territory of God as Ba’al in the sense of owner, usually translated as husband but by κυριος - lord, in the older Greek Septuagint. Again in Jeremiah 3:14 God is "married" to Israel in the KJV but in the JPS he is their "lord", where the Greek has "rule over" and the NAS "master". Similar variation in translation between lord and husband, ruler and married, can be seen in Jeremiah 31:32.

Even the use of Beulah as a term for the salvation of Israel is described in Isaiah 62:4-5 by בָּעַל bâ‘al in opposition to being forsaken and desolate, and in terms of the land itself being "possessed" as a young man "possesses" a virgin. Some versions render this as "married" but again the Hebrew and ancient Greek versions suggest possession and inhabitation. The implication is marriage, but the language is possession and ownership, however distasteful to modern ears.

The word for woman is אִשָּׁה ’ishshâh (Strong's #802, x780) which despite meaning simply "woman" as the feminine of "man", is translated by "wife" some 425x. Linguistically, culturally and contextually, it seems, a woman is rarely an independent entity and more often an object of and adjunct to her Ba’al.

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Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 26th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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