What Is Man? Ancient Hebrew Gives Us Four Answers

In Psalm 8, David wonders what man is that God would be mindful of him.

While English has just one word, ancient Hebrew employed four words to refer to man, each highlighting a different essential aspect of his character and being. Long before the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, and modern novels plumbed the depths of human nature, the ancient Israelites understood that man was a marvel of creation too wondrous to submit to easy explanation.

The Hebrews had an edge: they knew where man came from. They knew who had created him and continued to sustain him.

Adam

In the beginning, man was adam. This is also the formal name of the first man, Adam, but it continued to be used throughout the Old Testament after Adam’s death as a term for mankind in general. The word commonly appears in wisdom literature describing the condition of man. For example, Proverbs speaks about man’s existential reliance on God:

 

The heart of man [adam] disposeth his way: but the Lord must direct his steps.

Proverbs 16:9

Likewise, Ecclesiastes alludes to man’s mortality:

If a man [adam] live many years, and have rejoiced in them all, he must remember the darksome time, and the many days: which when they shall come, the things past shall be accused of vanity.

Ecclesiastes 11:8

Ish

Soon after adam came ish, or iysh. This is a name applied to man in the sense of males, understood in relationship to woman, who was called ishshah. We can see all three terms at work early in the Genesis account of Eve’s creation:

Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it. And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman: and brought her to Adam. And Adam said: This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman [ishshah], because she was taken out of man [ish]. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh.

Genesis 2:21-24

Throughout Genesis, ish is often used to denote men, especially in family contexts. Adam was not destined to be adam. Man was not meant to ‘be an island’ as Thomas Merton put it. He was meant to be in relationship to another, in communion with another person—a reality which is captures so well in the names ishishshah.

According to one analysis, adam and ish parallel the Latin words homo, which refers to universal man, and vir, which is the individual man. In the Old Testament, ish likewise carries that connotation of individuality. This is clearly evident in a text like 2 Samuel 12:7,

And Nathan said to David: Thou art the man [ish]. Thus saith the Lord the God of Israel: I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee from the hand of Saul.

Enosh

The third Hebrew word for man was enosh, or enowsh, which denoted man in both his physical weakness as well as his moral weakness (sources here and here). This understanding helps us to read Psalm 8 in a new light. Here is the text alluded to above:

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
What is man [adam] that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man [enosh] that you care for him?

Psalm 8:4-5

David first uses the term for universal man, adam, which is fitting since he is talking about man in the context of creation. But that context is both grand and giant—the heavens, the moon, and the stars. It makes us think of man in his smallness, his weakness, so it makes sense that David would then switch to enosh. Remembering that enosh can also refer to our moral failings adds a redemptive twist to this verse: not only is that it amazing that God considers us despite our smallness, but it’s all that much more incredible that He does so given our sinfulness.

Geber

The fourth Hebrew word for man, geber, is something of an antonym for enosh. “The term geber means one able-bodied, well-developed, physically strong, that is, a mighty one in the case of a man,” says one writer. The meaning of able-bodied men makes the word geber suitable for uses in censuses of men earlier in the Old Testament. Also, geber can refer to a mighty man who has lost his strength, as in Jeremiah 23:9,

To the prophets: My heart is broken within me, all my bones tremble: I am become as a drunken man [ish], and as a man [geber] full of wine, at the presence of the Lord, and at the presence of his holy words.

Here, we see both words for man in use, with geber qualifying ish. Jeremiah is speaking of himself as an individual man and calling attention to his lost strength with the use of the word geber. This is a similar textual tactic to the one employed by David in Psalm 8, where enosh clarified what aspect of adam, or universal man, that he had in mind. 

Geber also makes already-familiar texts come alive to us in new ways. Consider this one from Job:

Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind, and said: Who is this that wrappeth up sentences in unskillful words? Gird up thy loins like a man [geber]: I will ask thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? Tell me if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it?

Job 38:1-5

In a way, it sounds like God is telling Job to ‘be a man.’ But the context is crucial here. Job’s manliness is seen in relation to God—his strength doesn’t come from within, but from God. In a way, the use of geber is a bit comical here. For God, in His whirlwind, to address Job as geber is really to call attention to the fact that what strength he has in the face of God doesn’t amount to much. Job really is more of an enosh than a geber.

Conclusion

Ancient Hebrew presents man in four major senses that are recognizable to us today: man as universal, or adam; man in his particularity, or ish; man in his moral and mortal weakness, or enosh, and man in his strength, or geber. One consistent thread is how man, however we look at him, must be understood in relationship to another—to woman, and ultimately, to God. In Psalm 8, David marvels that man in his weakness is remembered by God. In turn, in Job, God tells man that true strength comes from recognizing his own weakness and utter reliance on the mightiness of God.

image: Creation of Adam from BL Harley 4381, f. 7 (circa 1405) / The British Library / Public Domain

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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