“Man” in the Hebrew Scriptures
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” AND “ISHSHÁH”
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.
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.