Importance of Hebrew Context displayed in the names of the books of Torah

torah

Often times, things get lost in translation. Translation in language, translation in culture and translation over time can all affect the message we receive when communicate, regardless of the media. We often see this when we read and interpret the Bible. The Bible was written thousands of years ago. A cohesive series of messages communicated by God through Hebrew people, directed to Hebrew people in a Hebrew culture whohave a Hebrew midset mostly in the Hebrew language and also in Greek, this is what we call Hebrew context. Today we have a habit of reading and interpreting ancient Hebrew scripture from a modern western Americanized mainstream Christian context. In doing so, some of the original messages of the Bible get faded, lost and even changed in translation.

An example of this can be found in the very names of the books of Torah itself, the first five books of the Bible. In English the names of the Books of Moses are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. What is in a name? Quite a lot. In English the names of the books are basically a summary of the contents of the books.

Genesis means beginning or the origin or coming into being of something. As it applies to the first book it refers to the creation of all things.

Exodus means a mass departure, referring to Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Leviticus originates from the Latin for “of the Levites” referring to the Levitcal law given at Sinai.

Numbers refers to the census taken at the beginning of fourth book.

Deuteronomy comes from the Greek meaning “second law”, referring to retelling/reiteration of the law given to Moses at Sinai.

While these names serve the purpose describing the contents of the books individually, they do little to give any meaning to collection of Torah itself.

In Hebrew the five books are named in a different way. Rather than summarizing the contents of the books they are named in the same way as the weekly reading Parshas. In the original Hebrew text there are no chapter and verse numbers so the portions are delineated by and named after a distinct Hebrew word typically in the first verse.

Genesis 1:1
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ
1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In Hebrew the name of the first book is B’re-sheet, meaning “the beginning”.

Exodus 1:1
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ
1Now these are the names of Bnei-Yisrael who came into Egypt with Jacob, each man with his family:

In Hebrew the name of the second book is Sh’mot, meaning “names”.

Leviticus 1:1
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל משֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר
1Now Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying:

In Hebrew the name of the second book is Vayikra, meaning “called” or “called close”.

Numbers 1:1
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־משֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר
1In the wilderness of Sinai, on the first day of the second month in the second year from the Exodus from the land of Egypt, Adonai spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting saying,

In Hebrew the name of the second book is B’mid’bar, meaning “wilderness”.

Deuteronomy 1:1
אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר משֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַֽחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב
1These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan—in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Di-Zahab.

In Hebrew the name of the second book is D’varim, meaning “words” or “teachings”.

The Torah is a work unto itself, the Five books of Moses. If I look at these books on my bookshelf in English I see:

Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy

Which roughly means:

The beginning the journey of the Levites counted the second law.

This is somewhat of a nonsensical sentence without a cohesive thought. When I look at these books on my bookshelf in English I see:

בְּרֵאשִׁית  שְׁמוֹת  וַיִּקְרָא  בְּמִדְבַּר דְּבָרִים

Which roughly means:

From the beginning, by your name I have called you to draw close to me from the wilderness and given you my words/teachings.

This, on the other hand, is a cohesive thought. It reinforces God’s faithfulness from the beginning. It speaks of the personal nature of relationship He desires with us and emphasizes that God Himself takes us from the wilderness and guides us with His teachings.