The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew. Though a Bible student doesn’t need to learn Hebrew, there are certain Hebrew words that are helpful to know.
The Bibles we read today are all translations of the original languages in which God’s Word was written thousands of years ago. The Old Testament writers primarily wrote in ancient Hebrew, with a few portions in Aramaic.
Thankfully, many modern translations do effectively convey the inspired words in English. One does not need to be literate in ancient Hebrew to read and comprehend God’s inspired words in the Old Testament Scriptures.
However, studying the meaning and usage of the original Hebrew words can be beneficial and deepen our understanding of God’s Word.
In this post, we’ll look at 10 significant Hebrew words from the Old Testament and see how knowing their meanings can help us better understand the Bible’s many truths.
1. Adonai: “Lord, Master”
Adonai is one of the Hebrew words for God in the Old Testament. Its root is adon, which can describe either a human master or God.
This name emphasizes God’s absolute authority. When used by a human being toward God, it denotes utter submission to and recognition of God’s supreme authority. For instance, when Moses addressed God at the burning bush, he referred to God as “my Lord” (Exodus 4:10). By using this word, Moses recognized God’s absolute sovereignty and holiness.
Readers can usually determine when Adonai is used because it’s generally the Hebrew word behind the English word Lord (with only one capital letter). When you see “LORD” (all capital letters), it is typically the tetragrammaton (YHWH).
Number of times used: over 430.
First usage: Genesis 15:2.
Other examples: Deuteronomy 10:17; Job 28:28; Psalm 71:16; Isaiah 30:20; Daniel 9:7, 9.
Strong’s Number: H136.
To learn more about the names used for God in the Bible, read “Names of God.”
2. Berith: “covenant”
Berith is used throughout the Old Testament to describe a formal agreement between two parties. It can be translated as a covenant, alliance, treaty or pledge. Though the word can describe agreements between two human parties (Joshua 9:15), it’s primarily used to describe the covenants God made with human beings. That includes:
- The covenant with Noah. “Thus I establish My covenant [berith] with you [Noah]: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11, emphasis added throughout).
- The covenant with Abraham. “Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant [berith] is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations” (Genesis 17:3-4).
- The Old Covenant with Israel. “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant [berith], then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5).
Number of times used: 284.
First usage: Genesis 6:18.
Other examples: Deuteronomy 4:13, 23, 31; 1 Samuel 18:3; 2 Chronicles 34:30-32; Jeremiah 31:31.
Strong’s Number: H1285.
3. Barak: “to bless”
Barak is primarily used in the Old Testament to describe the giving of a blessing (one individual bestowing a good thing or favor to another). However, it can, in some contexts, mean “to kneel down” (2 Chronicles 6:13) or even “to curse” (Job 2:9). This illustrates an important point to understand about the Hebrew language—words can often have a wide range of meanings. Context is key to understanding the correct meaning of a given scripture.
Barak is primarily used to describe blessings God gives to man or what He does to make something holy. For instance, in the beginning God blessed both the seventh day as holy time (the Sabbath) and the marriage relationship (Genesis 1:28; 2:3; 5:2).
Specific blessings were also associated with God’s various covenants (Genesis 18:18; 22:17-18). The word was also used to describe people praising God (Judges 5:2). God promises to bless those who strive to obey Him (Psalm 5:12).
Number of times used: 330.
First usage: Genesis 1:22.
Other examples: Genesis 14:18-20; Numbers 6:27; Ruth 4:14; Psalm 67:6; Jeremiah 17:7.
Strong’s Number: H1288.
4. Elohim: “God”
Elohim is one of the other common names for God in the Old Testament. When you see the word God in your Bible, it’s likely Elohim. In fact, it shows up in the Bible’s very first verse: “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Interestingly, Elohim is the plural form of Eloah (“Mighty One”). This plural form is used in Genesis 1:26: “Then God [Elohim] said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image.’” Using the plural Elohim is the Bible’s first clue that God is composed of more than one being. The truth that God is a family of divine beings, currently composed of the Father and Son, is developed throughout the rest of the Bible.
Like other Hebrew words, Elohim can have a wide range of meanings. Though it’s primarily translated as God in the Old Testament (2,346 times in the King James Version), it is sometimes translated as god or gods (as in false gods), judges, mighty and angels. Its correct usage is determined by the context.
Number of times used: 2,606.
First usage: Genesis 1:1.
Other examples: Genesis 2:7; Exodus 4:5; Deuteronomy 16:18; 1 Kings 8:60; Psalm 68:5.
Strong’s Number: H430.
5. Emunah: “faithfulness, firmness”
Emunah is a Hebrew word often used to describe one of God’s primary characteristics—His rock-solid stability and reliability. It shows that God never fails us, unlike human beings who will often let us down. We read, “Your faithfulness [emunah] endures to all generations; You established the earth, and it abides” (Psalm 119:90).
We can put our absolute trust in Him.
This word is mainly translated as faithfulness, but it can also be translated as truth, stability and steady. It can also apply to human beings demonstrating faithfulness to God and others (2 Chronicles 19:9). The first time the word appears, it is used to describe the steadiness of Moses’ hands during a key battle (Exodus 17:12).
Interestingly, emunah is derived from the Hebrew word aman (meaning to make firm or confirm something). It is from this word that we get the word amen. When we say amen after a prayer, we ask God to confirm or establish the requests made in the prayer.
Number of times used: 49.
First usage: Exodus 17:12.
Other examples: Deuteronomy 32:4; 2 Chronicles 19:9; Psalm 89:8; 100:5; Isaiah 25:1.
Strong’s Number: H530.
For more insight on this aspect of God’s character, read “Faith and Faithfulness in the Bible” and “How Could Jeremiah Declare, ‘Great Is Your Faithfulness’?”
6. Halak: “to walk, to go, behave”
This Hebrew word can describe both the physical act of walking (Genesis 3:8) or the spiritual act of living and walking in God’s ways (Genesis 5:22). It can also be translated as went or go. So the word denotes movement, be it physical or spiritual.
God promised Israel, “I will walk [halak] among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Leviticus 26:12). We’re told that God “goes [halak] with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deuteronomy 20:4). But this all depended on Israel also committing to “walk [halak] in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9).
Number of times used: 500.
First usage: Genesis 2:14.
Other examples: Genesis 48:15; Exodus 14:29; Psalm 119:1; Jeremiah 23:17; Zechariah 10:12.
Strong’s Number: H1980.
7. Hesed: “favor, goodness, kindness”
Hesed is another broad word with a wide range of meanings. There isn’t a single English word that fully encapsulates the aspect of God’s nature this word describes. This is shown by the variety of English words it’s translated into in the Old Testament: mercy, kindness, lovingkindness, goodness, kindly, merciful, favor and good.
Ralph Levy, an instructor in Old Testament studies at Foundation Institute, describes the meaning of hesed this way: “God’s love and loyalty based on His covenants.”
Hesed describes not just God’s love, but the actions that flow from that love. Because of His love for His people, He shows unfailing and enduring kindness, mercy and loyalty to them. It can also be described as steadfast love. The word can also describe the kindness and loyalty between two close friends (1 Samuel 20:8).
God actually says that His hesed is one of the traits He desires His servants to emulate and practice themselves: “And what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, see also Hosea 6:6).
Number of times used: 248.
First usage: Genesis 19:19.
Other examples: Genesis 39:21; Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 63:3; 136:1-26; Isaiah 63:7; Lamentations 3:22.
Strong’s Number: H2617.
8. Moed: “appointed time”
Moed is used throughout the Old Testament to describe a specific appointed time when something is to occur. For instance, in Genesis 17:21, God used it to denote the “set time” (moed) when Abraham’s wife Sarah would conceive. It’s also often translated as congregation or meeting.
But, even more notably, it’s also used to designate when God’s appointed holy times occur. For instance, in Exodus 34:18: “The Feast of Unleavened Bread you shall keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, in the appointed time [moed] of the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.”
The word is found throughout Leviticus 23, where it is translated as feasts five times. Notice how it shows up in verse 4: “These are the feasts [moed] of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times [moed].”
But what is fascinating is how this word is first used in the Bible: “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons [moed], and for days and years’” (Genesis 1:14).
In this verse, “appointed times” would have been a legitimate translation. This verse shows that one of the reasons God created the heavenly bodies was to determine the timing of His holy appointed times.
Number of times used: 223.
First usage: Genesis 1:14.
Other examples: Exodus 13:10; Numbers 9:2; 15:3; Deuteronomy 31:10; 1 Samuel 13:8; 2 Chronicles 8:13; Psalm 104:19.
Strong’s Number: H4150.
To learn more about God’s appointed times, read “Biblical Festivals: Does God Want Us to Celebrate Them? Why?”
9. Kapar: “to atone, cover”
This Hebrew word is mostly known for the festival of Yom Kippur, which is the Hebrew transliteration for Day of Atonement. The word’s basic meaning is “to cover,” which means this festival could also be called the Day of Covering.
The first time this word is used shows the literal application of this word. When God gave Noah the instructions to make the ark, He told him, “Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it [kapar] inside and outside with pitch” (Genesis 6:14).
However, it’s mainly used in the spiritual sense of covering sin. The sacrificial system God gave to Israel was for the covering of the people’s sins. The word can also mean “forgiving, pacifying, being merciful, purging, and putting off” (Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Old Testament, pp. 2326-2327). It is most commonly translated into English as atonement or reconciliation. Both of these describe repairing or making something right that was broken by sin.
In Psalm 78:38, it is used to describe God’s merciful forgiveness: “But He, being full of compassion, forgave [kapar] their iniquity, and did not destroy them.”
Number of times used: 102.
First usage: Genesis 6:14.
Other examples: Exodus 29:36; 30:10; Leviticus 5:16; 16:30, 34; 23:28; Deuteronomy 21:8; 1 Samuel 3:14; Isaiah 6:7.
Strong’s Number: H3722.
10. Shuv: “to turn,” “to repent”
According to The Complete Word Study Old Testament, the basic meaning of the word is “movement back to the point of departure” (p. 2372).
It is often used to describe a return to a place of origin. In its first usage in the Bible, God tells Adam and Eve that they will “return” (shuv) to dust—what they originally came from (Genesis 3:19). Many years later, God used the word when He told Moses to “return [shuv] to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19). Later, when God was giving the Jubilee law, He commanded that property “return” (shuv) back to the family that originally owned it (Leviticus 25:13).
So, the word very literally means to reverse course—to turn around and go the opposite direction. Sometimes, it’s translated as restore, return or repent.
This literal meaning helps us graphically comprehend its spiritual meaning. Notice how God inspired the word to describe a spiritual turn back to Him and His ways:
- Deuteronomy 4:30: “When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, when you turn [shuv] to the LORD your God and obey His voice.”
- Deuteronomy 30:2: “And you return [shuv] to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul.”
- 2 Kings 17:13: “Yet the LORD testified against Israel and against Judah . . . ‘Turn [shuv] from your evil ways, and keep My commandments and My statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers.’”
- 2 Chronicles 15:4: “But when in their trouble they turned [shuv] to the LORD God of Israel, and sought Him, He was found by them.”
- Psalm 19:7: “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting [shuv] the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.”
- Psalm 51:12: “Restore [shuv] to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit.”
- Jeremiah 3:12: “‘Return [shuv], backsliding Israel,’ says the LORD; ‘I will not cause My anger to fall on you. For I am merciful,’ says the LORD; ‘I will not remain angry forever.’”
- Jeremiah 18:8: “If that nation against whom I have spoken turns [shuv] from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.”
- Ezekiel 14:6: “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Repent [shuv], turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations.’”
The Hebrew word shuv helps us better grasp the biblical doctrine of repentance. Repentance isn’t just feeling sorry or regret, but represents the act of turning to God and His ways. Repentance is a complete 180-degree turn from going the way of sin to going the way of God and His law.
The message of repentance is one of the Bible’s greatest themes, found consistently from Genesis to Revelation.
Number of times used: 1,066.
First usage: Genesis 3:19.
Other examples: 2 Chronicles 7:19; 30:9; Nehemiah 1:9; Psalm 14:7; 119:59; Proverbs 26:11; Isaiah 58:13; 59:20; Jeremiah 24:7; Lamentations 3:40; Ezekiel 18:21, 23-24.
Strong’s Number: H7725.
We hope this list will inspire you to study the words God inspired in His Bible. Many free online resources allow you to explore the original Hebrew words behind our English translations. Though we can understand the Bible’s fundamental truths by reading it in the modern vernacular, carefully studying the original words can add greater meaning and depth to those truths.
If you’d like to learn more strategies for studying your Bible, we recommend you read Lesson 2 of our Bible Study Course, “How to Study the Bible.” You can enroll in our free Bible Study Course at our Learning Center.