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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The word 'Man' in Hebrew - An Examination of the Hebrew Words 'Ish', 'Adám', 'Enósh' and 'Geber'

"HOW does God view man? His Word tells us: “Look! The nations are as a drop from a bucket; and as the film of dust on the scales they have been accounted. . . . There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth, the dwellers in which are as grasshoppers.”—Isa. 40:15, 22.

Truly, when we consider the matchless Personality, the glorious Person, the exalted position, the eternal existence and the sovereign authority of Jehovah God, the Creator, we must marvel as did the psalmist that He takes note of us.—Ps. 144:3.

Scriptural expressions such as these, showing how God views man, might be multiplied, but our interest at this time is in a certain unique way by which he also reveals this truth to us. And how is that? By the different words used in the Hebrew Scriptures in referring to man.

In the English language “man” simply means man. But in Hebrew a number of different words are used, each viewing man from a certain standpoint. Of these, the four main ones are ish, meaning simply man; adám, meaning human or earthling; enósh, meaning weak or mortal; and geber, meaning a physically strong or able-bodied man.

Many translators ignore the different shades of meaning that these words have, but when we once become aware of them we are struck with the care that the Hebrew Scripture writers time and again exercised in choosing just the right word when they wanted to make a point. For example, most translations render Psalm 8:4 quite like the Revised Standard Version does: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” Now the Hebrew word most logically translated “man” is ish, but in writing this psalm David did not use ish in either instance. He was making a contrast between Jehovah God the Creator and his creature, mere man, and so he wrote: “What is enósh . . . and adám?” Or, as rendered by the New World Translation, one of the few English translations doing justice to these fine shades of meaning: “What is mortal man that you keep him in mind, and the son of earthling man that you take care of him?” Yes, compared with the almighty, immortal, divine Spirit, what is this weak mortal creature made of earth, that He should take account of him?


Ish, together with its plural form anashím (which at times also serves as the plural of enósh), has primarily the thought of “man,” or a person, an individual. It has no such overtones as human, mortal or able-bodied, although inherent in it is the thought of strength as of a male. The word ish does not appear in the Scriptures until after the word for woman, ishsháh—a man with a womb—appears, for in the strictest sense of the word only then did an ish become apparent; before that he was called the human, adám. When in the Hebrew Scriptures man is mentioned in relation to woman or sexual intercourse, invariably ish is used, some seventy times in all, although the word for “male” is zakhár and occurs seventy-nine times from Genesis 1:27 onward. Typical is Leviticus, chapter 20, dealing with God’s law regarding sex relations.

Ish, with its emphasis on the person, the individual, is the choice of Bible writers when writing about a “man of God,” and a “man of discernment.” When Nathan confronted King David with his sin, Nathan used this word. Did he say, “You yourself are the”—mortal? human? able-bodied man? No, but, “You yourself are [the one] the man!”—Josh. 14:6; Prov. 10:23; 2 Sam. 12:7.

There are times when the other words for “man” simply would not be appropriate. Thus when the psalmist foretold that the names of those of the body of Christ who gain heavenly glory would be known he could use only ish. “‘Each and every one was born in her.’ . . . Jehovah himself will declare, when recording the peoples: ‘This is one who was born there.’” Also Moses, when exulting over Jehovah’s victory at the Red Sea, could not have referred to Jehovah as a weak mortal or a human earthling, and so had to use ish to convey his thought, even as rendered in the New World Translation: “Jehovah is a manly person of war.”—Ps. 87:5, 6; Ex. 15:3.


Adám, the human, the earthling, is the choice whenever Hebrew Scripture writers make reference to the creation of man: “I myself have made the earth and have created even man [the human] upon it.” Adám does not denote maleness any more than human does, and so we read that Adam, that is, the human, earthling man, called the first human pair, the ish and ishsháh, the man and the woman.—Isa. 45:12; Gen. 5:1, 2; 6:7; Deut. 4:32; Eccl. 7:29.

Adám, the human, is almost without exception also the word preferred when man is mentioned in the same breath with the lower animals or beasts. This coupling appears in the accounts of creation, the Deluge, the plagues of Egypt and the seventy-year desolation. The psalmist praises Jehovah God for preserving both adám (human) and beast. And it is the human that is shown to be like the beast by the Congregator: “For there is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind [adám] and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit, so that there is no superiority of the man [human, adám] over the beast, for everything is vanity.”—Gen. 1:26; 6:7; Ex. 8:17; Jer. 33:10; Ps. 36:6; Eccl. 3:19-21.

Fittingly, adám, the earthling, human, is also the choice when speaking of the general characteristics of humankind: “The inclination of the heart of man is bad from his youth up.” “There is no man that does not sin.” “Man, born of woman, is short-lived and glutted with agitation.” “Surely every earthling man . . . is nothing but an exhalation,” a breath. “There is no man having power over the spirit to restrain the spirit,” that is, to keep from dying. “I well know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man [ish, to one] who is walking even to direct his step.”—Gen. 8:21; 1 Ki. 8:46; Job 14:1; Ps. 39:5; Eccl. 8:8; Jer. 10:23.

Even as adám sets man apart from the lower animals, so it also calls attention to man’s inferiority to the Creator, Jehovah God. Thus Moses was told that no human could see God and live. Samuel was reminded that a human can see only the outside, but God can see the heart. David prayed that he might not fall into human hands but into God’s hands, for having numbered the fighting men of his nation presumptuously. The temple of Solomon, David said, was to be built, not for humans, but for God. Jehoshaphat counseled the judges to remember that they were judging, not for humans, but for God. Elihu refused to give flattering titles to mere humans.—Ex. 33:20; 1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Chron. 21:13; 29:1; 2 Chron. 19:6; Job 32:21.

The psalmist twice asked why the great Creator should take note of mere humans; also, he said that, though certain ones were “gods,” they would die like earthling man. The fear of humans brings a snare, but he that trusts in Jehovah will be safe. Why go down to Egypt for help? The Egyptians are not spirits but mere humans, earthlings. And to highlight the seriousness of the selfishness of the priests in Malachi’s day, God asked: “Will earthling man rob God?”—Ps. 8:4; 144:3; 82:7; Prov. 29:25; Isa. 31:3; Mal. 3:8.


The thought behind enósh, weak or mortal, shows, for one thing, that the Hebrew Scripture writers had no illusions about man’s being immortal. How could they, since they received their “theology,” not from pagan sources, but from God himself, who made plain man’s mortal nature both by warning him of death in the event he sinned and by sentencing him, after he had sinned, to return to the dust from which man had been taken.—Gen. 2:17; 3:19.

Enósh always has an unfavorable connotation and, therefore, is never used in a complimentary sense. Fittingly, it is frequently coupled with adám, human, when man is contrasted with his immortal Maker, Jehovah God. Psalms 8:4 and Ps 144:3 are typical of this coupling of enósh with adám when contrasting man with God. Thus also Moses wrote: “You make mortal man [enósh] go back to crushed matter, and you say: ‘Go back, you sons of men [adám].’” Because of the wickedness of man God warned that he would make ‘enósh scarcer than refined gold and adám scarcer than the gold of Ophir.’ Putting both enósh and adám in their places are the words of Jehovah to Isaiah: “I myself am the One that is comforting you people. Who are you that you should be afraid of a mortal man [enósh] that will die, and of a son of mankind [adám] that will be rendered as mere green grass? And that you should forget Jehovah your Maker, the One stretching out the heavens and laying the foundation of the earth.”—Ps. 90:3; Isa. 13:12; 51:12, 13.

Particularly in the book of Job, which features God’s sovereignty in contrast to man’s puniness, is enósh a favorite term when making this point: “How can mortal man be in the right in a case with God?” “What is mortal man that you should rear him, and that you should set your heart upon him?” “Do you [Jehovah] have eyes of flesh, or is it as a mortal man sees that you see? Are your days like the days of mortal man, or your years just like the days of an able-bodied man?” “As one trifles with mortal man will you trifle with [God]? “ “God is much more than mortal man.”—Job 9:2; 7:17; 10:4, 5; 13:9; 33:12.

From his prayers we can see that David had a like keen appreciation: “Do arise, O Jehovah! Let not mortal man prove superior in strength.” “Judge the fatherless boy and the crushed one, that mortal man who is of the earth may no more cause trembling.” “As for mortal man, his days are like those of green grass.”—Ps. 9:19; 10:18; 103:15.


The term geber means one able-bodied, well-developed, physically strong, that is, a mighty one in the case of a man. While it has complimentary implications, the way it is used by the Hebrew Scripture writers keeps man cognizant of his inferior relationship to his Maker, Jehovah God. Thus we find that, when at last Jehovah God called patient Job to account because of his mistaken view of things, God twice addressed Job, not as a mere ish, a mere adám or a mere enósh, but he used the term geber: “Gird up your loins, please, like an able-bodied man, and let me question you, and you inform me,” since you were so sure of yourself as not to justify me! How fitting!—Job 38:3; 40:7.

Pharaoh, when beginning to yield under the impact of the plagues, at first only granted permission for the able-bodied men to go into the wilderness to worship. And when the Israelites finally left Egypt we read that 600,000 able-bodied men, above twenty years old and able to fight, left Egypt together with their little ones.—Ex. 10:11; 12:37.

Because an able-bodied man is inclined to be “self-assuming,” trusting in his own strength, he is repeatedly singled out for reminders of the folly of such a mental attitude: “Here is the able-bodied man that does not put God as his fortress.” “What able-bodied man is there alive who will not see death?” “An able-bodied man dies and lies vanquished.” Yes, “cursed is the able-bodied man who puts his trust,” not in Jehovah, but in what is, after all, a mere “earthling man [adám].”—Hab. 2:5; Ps. 52:7; 89:48; Job 14:10; Jer. 17:5.

Geber is frequently used to drive home a point by way of contrast. Thus the psalmist complains: “I have become like an able-bodied man without strength.” It would not have made much of a point had he said he became like a weak mortal, an enósh, because such a one does not have strength to begin with! Making the same point, Solomon observed that it is not good that “an able-bodied man should transgress over a mere piece of bread.” There might be an excuse for an enósh to do so, but certainly not a geber. The bad news he received caused Jeremiah’s bones to shake like “an able-bodied man whom wine has overcome,” hence a violent shaking. He also stressed the wretchedness of the men of Israel by employing this term: “Why is it that I have seen every able-bodied man with his hands upon his loins like a female that is giving birth, and all faces have turned pale?” Yes, this was serious when even able-bodied men, not mere enósh or weak mortals, were affected in this way!—Ps. 88:4; Prov. 28:21; Jer. 23:9; 30:6.

Logically we are told that “one wise in strength is,” not an adám, ish or enósh, but a geber, “an able-bodied man.” A wise geber trusts not in his own strength but in Jehovah: “Blessed is the able-bodied man who puts his trust in Jehovah, and whose confidence Jehovah has become.”—Prov. 24:5; Jer. 17:7.

Truly, to note the way “man” is used in the Hebrew Scriptures strengthens our faith and helps us to get God’s view on man. It is wholesomely instructive to our maintaining our proper relationship with our Creator and gaining his approval and blessing." - The Watchtower, 1962, January 15th, pages 56-59