Understanding ‘olām for Christian theology, after Auschwitz

I’m on a long and slow trip up the Mount of Olives, by which I mean Matthew 24–25: the Mount Olivet Discourse in its most expanded form. You can find the first half, more or less, in Luke 21 and in Mark 13. The trip is recorded here in a series of articles, all freely available, with the central hub for our explorations here.

The trip is one that I’ve been getting ready to do since childhood, ever since I encountered its fearsome conclusion, and thought it sounded like the most evil thing I’d ever heard:

Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal (aionion) punishment, but the righteous into eternal (aionion) life.”

Yes, punishing people forever sounds like the farthest possible thing from love, or even decency. In comparison to this idea, even the most obscene stories of serial killers grow infinitely insignificant, like all infinitesimals against an infinite scale.

It is strange to be presented with something evil as a child, and told that it is the highest possible good. But I was raised Catholic and still am being raised Catholic, as a Vineyard pastor. While I was never sexually molested by a priest myself, as an adult I have learned that I was dodging pedophile priests throughout my life. I’ve heard a priest who was close to me complain that the problem with the whole pedophilia scandal was that the media was acting as if 12-year-olds are children, but they aren’t, they’ve reached the age of reason. The pattern of attacking vociferously instead of repenting has become increasingly constant in our public life since then, and the flailing overreach of the attacks has reached a fever pitch since the days of 1/6/2021.

It still makes me sick to think about that priest’s response, when he should have been weeping and gnashing his teeth. And I’ve seen still more of the soul rot in the institution that gave rise to so much systematic abuse in so many forms. If my parents had been more religious, and less suspicious of priests, there’s a good chance I would have been raped by the Order of the Sacred Heart as a child. They did a great deal of that out in South Dakota, especially in the boarding schools for the First Nations. And my confirmation sponsor identified with the First Nations, and was the custodian of St. Michael’s Church in Canton, Ohio. I’m not sure of what connection he really had to any First Nation, and the question of whether he really was a child of this continent is a fraught one. After a cultural and physical genocide, where does appropriation end, and where do the shattered remnants of the old nations begin? I’ll leave it to you to try to figure out where blood ends and stories begin after a genocide, and whether there were any golems there to protect the First Nations. I mention it all because that is precisely our problem here, on our journey up the Mount of Olives. What happens to the cultural traces that persist through the attempts of empires to physically and spiritually annihilate a people? The question is unavoidable for anyone hoping to approach the Hebrew slopes of the Mount of Olives, because that’s just what the text is about. We can’t talk about what we’ve lost and what we still have of the world before 70 AD, when the Temple was desolated, unless we understand that the New Testament sprang from the kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Roman genocide, caesarian, like a child from a dying womb.

So no one should be surprised that I live out my Catholicism at a safe remove as a Vineyard pastor: not renouncing my faith, but also not subjecting my family to the shattered remnants of abusive religious authority claims.

My personal experience, then, has shaped me into the kind of person I am. It has forced me to learn to set my feet like rock on rock, and to have a spine of irony when facing the bluster of religious slander and defensiveness. The experience of becoming like this is agony, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s like having your lips burned with coal. But the result is this: in my body, I’m not afraid of even the grandest and oldest of religious authorities slandering me for speaking the truth. And I’m even less afraid of all the little fractious splinters of the church coming at me, armed with their comical attempts to imitate the vastly more sophisticated spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse structure I grew up around. Sorry, little self-appointed anti-popes, the big Popes got here first. (I really do think the Popes are getting better, verrrrryy slowly, by the way.) So when we talk about people being endlessly punished, I don’t hesitate to clearly say that this is literally the most evil concept the human mind has ever conceived. Seriously, can you think of anything more evil? For example: even the catastrophe of priestly pedophilia, systematically covered up and facilitated by the world’s largest and oldest organization, is only a flickering instant of torment next to this. And with those torments, at least, you can find someone to say they are unjust, even if some priests feel the injustice is entirely on the other end. But endless punishment without even the hope of someone acknowledging that the abuse is wrong? Have we really thought, for even a moment, about what it is that so many self-proclaimed traditionalists have been trying to defend? (I don’t think the self-proclaimed traditionalists have taken the tradition seriously enough, by the way: I will gladly out-tradition them any day.)

So that’s part of why I’m climbing the Mount of Olives with you here. But it isn’t the whole story, and it doesn’t explain why I need to start talking about this in order to talk about ‘olām, the Hebrew fragment behind the close to Matthew 25. Addressing how priestly pedophilia has shaped me was the mild on-ramp into the much more searing discussion we need to have, if we would dare to be Christians talking about the Hebrew language today. And, fool that I am, I do intend to be a Christian talking about Hebrew today. I am, of course, talking about what it means to do Biblical studies after the Shoah, sometimes called the Holocaust. The problem is that our Christian lips are filthy with the ashes of the Shoah, and we need to undergo a searing purification of our ears and our typing fingers and our mouths if we hope to approach these topics with the utmost seriousness that they absolutely require. The question is precisely this: do you think that the Shoah was just a warm-up round? Do you believe that after Hitler was done with his Jewish victims and they escaped his grasp in the form of ashes … stop. Breathe. You’re still breathing. Do you believe that they then fell into the arms of some infernal god who will then torment them forever for rejecting Jesus? Do you really think that the Shoah was just a warm-up round? Even as it will surely raise an army of slanderers against me, I need to state this with utmost clarity. No. I absolutely do not believe that the Shoah was just a warm-up round, and anyone who thinks that must be completely anathema to me. I simply can’t imagine a more wicked thought.

How about you? How are you doing?

Are you feeling challenged?

Hopeful? Excited? Afraid?

Angry? Annoyed? Bored?

Defensive?

Accused and slandered yourself?

Take a note of it, and I want you to know that I’m okay with whatever you might be feeling. This isn’t some breezy little conversation, I know.

I just want to clarify that I’ve done all of this because I think it is all truly necessary. I don’t think we can face our own misappropriation of both the Greek and Hebrew behind the Olivet Discourse, today, unless we’re willing to face a long history of error on our part as Christians. There’s a whole lot of Empire in our churches and in us, and I think that God wants to uproot it and burn it away. But it can’t happen without our cooperation. It can’t happen unless we receive it as grace. I also want to say that I respect disagreement and I certainly make mistakes, just like anyone. I truly appreciate pushback and efforts to correct me with sound reasoning, and I try to find out that I was wrong about something every day. Still, I hope we see eye to eye on at least one thing: this is serious business. And like a tree that’s planted by the water I’m ready to stand here patiently, providing shelter for people who have experienced spiritual abuse. And sure, I’ll throw the shade that’s needed for that for as long as it takes.

Feel free to take a break if you like, for as long as you like.

My basic concern is this. Insofar as we read the conclusion of Matthew 25 in the widespread and evil way that it is often read, this reflects our own willingness to accommodate evil and project it onto God. We should be completely unsurprised if the people who champion it end up doing all kinds of evil, over and over and over and over again. If you can rationalize endless torment as the highest possible expression of the highest possible good, you’ve passed the ultimate spiritual abuse loyalty test. From there, it is extremely easy to rationalize covering up some priestly pedophilia here and there, because surely that is nothing compared to the endless torment the priests are supposedly stopping. Seriously, consider the moral calculus: if you truly felt that disclosing priestly pedophilia would compromise a priest who could be someone’s gateway out of endless torment, wouldn’t you enable a ‘sacred’ rapist, too? And if you truly felt that the ‘lies’ of the Jews were leading them and others into endless torment, wouldn’t you, like Martin Luther, embrace their physical and spiritual eradication? You don’t have to answer, because history already has. It has told us that for most of us in that sort of situation, the answer is “Yes.” Maybe you are one of the very rare few who would face the self-righteous rage of civilization in all of its barbarity, and you would even go to your death to defy these sorts of things. But most of us, frankly, are not. You have to be truly willing to give up everything for that, and that is not at all the same as just posturing and preening, as if you are the sort of people who would give up everything to follow the next movement of God. This is why I say that endless punishment is the Urform, the prototype, of spiritual abuse in general.

Now you understand my interests in this project, but this tells you nothing about the rigor of my argumentation. It will, of course, be tempting to avoid an analysis of my arguments and instead accuse me of arriving at my conclusions because of my interests. It happens constantly in Biblical studies and theology, and it is an impediment to serious analysis of arguments. That’s why I need to pause and include this note as well. I’ve shown you my interests and I know them. Do you know your own? Who do you want to impress? Who do you think you can’t afford to upset? And more importantly, I’m going to offer some very powerful and concrete arguments. If you want to challenge them, you’ll have to challenge the arguments instead of hypocritically accusing me of having interests, as if you don’t.

So to catch you up briefly on this project, we’ve already scaled the Greek side of this aionion mountain here. And I’ve applied these insights directly to the question of hell, universal salvation, and what the Bible has to say about both here. The point is that the Bible teaches universal salvation far more clearly than it teaches the endless torment of some.

In those essays, I’ve shown how aion generally means lifetime in Greek, and that this even makes for much better reading of Plato’s Timaeus, which is usually cited as the source for the meaning of “eternity”. But Plato didn’t suddenly redefine a common Greek word in the Timaeus. Instead, he used the normal word for “lifetime” to talk about the “lifetime of the whole universe.” And then he invented a fascinating new word: “aionios.” Its first readers would have probably experienced the word as something like “lifetimeish.” I would suggest that like them, we should begin again and hear it that way as well. It was a strange and apparently novel term. In the context of the Timaeus, “lifetimeish” serves to bridge between the lifetime of the whole universe, which is the original, as well as our own lifetimes and all the other lifetimes, which are seen as lifetimeish copies of its lifetimeish character. In short, the adjective serves as a mediating term between the Platonic form and the many lives that are cast from it, a bit like bronzes. Plato invents the funny adjective because all of the lifetimes, the big one and our little lives that copy it, can all be described as lifetimeish. What is happening in the Greek is just far more beautiful and interesting and sophisticated than we grasp, when we fail to read “aion” as it would have read in Greek. My other articles on this explain how it makes a great deal of sense to see the author of Matthew 24–25 engaging deeply with this tradition in a way that we have often missed: it makes enormous sense to read Matthew’s author as identifying the death of his own nation, Judah, as the original which is then copied in a judgment of all the nations. Read in this way, the parts of the Mount Olivet Discourse suddenly snap together into a coherent and highly intelligible whole that integrates the Hebrew prophetic tradition as well as the Greek thought of the time.

How have we missed the skill and nuance and brilliance sleeping there in the language? I think that accepting evil doesn’t just make us more evil. It makes us more blind as well. Countless people have persisted in misreading this passage, and it is an indictment of our willingness to praise and glorify the highest possible evil that the human mind can conceive: endless punishment. We should also note that this position usually goes alongside the highest possible narcissism that the human mind can conceive. Those who embrace it almost always believe in endless torment for thee, but not for me. Interestingly, in Romans 11 Paul teaches that all of Israel will also be saved, and he does it so that the church won’t become conceited. He was right. To teach otherwise does make us conceited. As Christians, we’ve been telling on ourselves and flaunting our conceitedness for an awfully long time. Biblical studies is helpful here, in part, because it tells us that we’ve told on ourselves, and that we’ve been blinded to our own Scripture by our wicked hearts. Living here and now, after Auschwitz, I firmly believe that we need to repent of blasphemy against God and against God’s image-bearers for how we have abused our sacred texts.

I’ve been clearing a lot of air here. Still, this trip up Mount Olivet isn’t just an air-clearing exercise. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to glean what can be gleaned from this revelatory text, in a time when we sure could use a lot more revelation and a lot less concealment. Among the many things I’m contemplating here, I’m also thinking about Putin and his many Trumpist supporters. They, too, have been telling on themselves an awful lot lately, and today they literally threaten the survival of life on Earth thanks to the possibility of nuclear war.

In my own Vineyard context I’m thinking about our own culpability in the false prophetic movement that contributed so extensively to the attack on the US Capitol on 1/6/2021, in the Year of our Lord. My informed suspicion is that the same spiritual sickness that fed that attack is also playing a role in the loss of our mother church in Anaheim this week, much as so many of us have lost our parents to QAnon and anti-vax hysteria and then COVID over the last several years. Some of them have died. Some of them have simply become impossible to reach, lost in webs of delusion and deception that have trapped them in a seemingly endless loop of slander. It is heartbreaking. Hopefully these loops only last indefinitely and not forever. Over in Anaheim, authoritarian teachings on things like a “culture of honor” (for the leaders, that is) and other epistemic capture systems threaten to bring us to a future that is much worse than our present.

Authoritarianism is on the march in Russia and in our churches. We are far past the time when we need to clarify that every single human being is an image-bearer of God, and that this requires a deep and abiding egalitarianism in how we structure everything in our lives and society. Leaders don’t get special deference because of their power, but must instead be faced with special courage and must be held to higher levels of accountability because of their power.

Okay. I hope that my mouth is seared enough to talk about Hebrew now, even now, after Auschwitz. Hopefully your ears have, likewise, bled enough to hear me.

Approaching ‘Olām and the company it keeps

This brings us to the Hebrew language behind that “eternal” punishment: ‘olām and l’olām and ad’olām. The terms have come to seem aionion because of Alexander’s Empire, which forged the context where the various scriptures canonized as New Testaments emerged from a profound Greco-Hebrew synthesis, drawing deeply on the Septuagint that worked to bridge between Hebrew and Greek.

As elsewhere on this journey, we will continue to draw from Heleen Keizer’s deep study of the key terms, especially in light of how they were translated in that context. It is the best work on the subject currently available, in my view. With the loss of only a little precision, I think it is fair to say that ‘olām phrases can speak beautifully about the same sorts of things as our aionic language when it comes to life. But ‘olamic language speaks to whole periods of time, often including lifetimes, in a distinct way. The primary difference lies in the perspective that the language encourages us to take: the ‘olamic perspective is internal, while the aionic is more external. Let me explain.

When we hear the word “lifetime,” which is what aion means, we start thinking about a whole life as a completed thing. The word “lifetime” makes us feel almost like we could hold a lifetime in our arms, because it is a smaller thing that we’re looking at from the outside. In contrast, ‘olām phrases focus our attention on the edges of some period of time. So olām does not mean “lifetime” in the basic way that aion does. Precisely for that reason, it can beautifully and achingly describe how we see the limits of our lifetimes from a personal, lived vantage point. We live and we see all that we can see in life, and then our lifetime vanishes from our view precisely where we might behold it from outside, because death marks its end. As Andy Warhol described this standpoint on death in the midst of the AIDS crisis, so flat and so deep: “I don’t believe in [death], because you’re not around to know that it’s happened.” Phrases associated with ‘olām speak precisely to that edge, the boundary at which we might behold our lifetime, or some other completed time, but can’t. It is important to note that Hebrew language and thought could, of course, describe a lifetime as a whole from outside. It’s just that the common term translated as aion in Greek was distinct in how it could describe a lifetime, or some other whole period of time. ‘Olām phrases put us in the position of one looking toward the edges of some time from within, while “lifetime” causes us to imagine a whole life from without.

In a sense, this could be enough for us to begin to explore Matthew 25 from the standpoint of the background concept work of ‘olām, considering what it would mean for a life or a punishment/correction to be olamic. However, internalizing language isn’t just about reading a definition. A definition is just a first rough sketch. The real point of semantic study is to catch language like we’d pick up a habit, letting meanings seep into us, lead our attention to new places, and illuminate dark passages with blazing light. That’s why this series is a slow and meandering walk.

The trouble today is that so many of us have read and heard the Bible so much that we can’t hear it at all anymore. And there’s so much defensiveness around bad old interpretations, however devastatingly bad they might be, because we’ve been trained in the bad habits they produce. Even those of us who are open to the idea that aion and ‘olām phrases have been badly misconstrued can’t easily shake the uneasy feeling that the familiar is just right and the unfamiliar is just wrong, even though we’ve been familiarized with the wrong. The same problem arises for victims of abuse in all kinds of situations: we have been formed to think that abuse is normal, and so health feels abnormal and strange at first. So the goal here is first to show the scholarly basis for questioning those impulses. But much more importantly, it is to meander and tarry and waste time with the other meanings, to explore them and use them over and over until we live inside of the truer language. Language is acquired by holding it and being in it, like a child is held and nursed by a mother, like a child plays with toys. We don’t truly get it by seizing it from outside as if to possess it. Definitions are just a hasty first sketch of the work we need to do. So we’re going to waste a bunch of time on ‘olām as we get ready to head up the Hebrew side of the Mount of Olives. Because wasting time playing around with language is precisely the way to truly grasp it.

To get us started, we’ll take a quick look at Keizer’s long conclusion on ‘olām and its main associated phrases, from pages 147–150 of Life, Time, Entirety. First, though, I’ll share the texts she is referring to as [1], [2] and [3], and draw out my own points about the texts in ways that are salient for our discussion. Her other citations have been removed to help you focus on the flow of the argument itself. If you want to examine her extensive analysis of many relevant texts as well as her highly informative citations and footnotes, that can be found in the study itself, which is freely available online and is linked above. I’ve found that a lot of people try to cite this work, but they simply cherry pick it or fail to understand it. Here, I’ll try to fill the gap between what she is saying and the inability of a lot of people, including people who read a lot of Biblical Studies scholarship, to internalize its significance.

Origin and Method

[1] Genesis 3:22

And the Lord God said:
The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.

He must not be allowed to reach out his hand,

and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live lᵉ ‘olām.

Here as elsewhere, it is easy to take our assumptions into our reading and see lᵉ ‘olām as meaning “endless.” However, notice that it can just as easily mean “indefinitely” here, and there’s reason to see it meaning that in this context as well. The overall conclusion of Keizer’s study provides us with strong grounds for seeing an indefinite, rather than endless, span of time in view, but at this point in the study we should only note that it is an option. The difference between “endless” and “indefinite” is massive … potentially infinite, in fact. That line can be drawn sharply if we focus on the distinction. However, if we aren’t actively working to draw out the difference, the two tend to blend together in normal thinking and in normal communication.

Consider that unlike a human, a nation doesn’t have a known maximum life span. It goes as long as its institutions and traditions and practices and holidays and symbols happen to persist, but it doesn’t have an expiration date. In principle, maybe a nation could go without end. Whether we’re talking about the ‘eternal flame’ at the tomb of the forgotten soldier, or the Fourth of July celebrations in the United States, or the United States itself, these kinds of things have an indefinite life that can seem as good as endless at a glance, or from the standpoint of our own brief lifetimes. We are ants in a world of giants, and the most apparent of those giants are the nations.

However, the apparent (and only merely apparent) endlessness of the indefinite has more than normal imprecision and human limitation going for it. Will the Fourth of July be celebrated without end, or will it just recur for some indefinite period of time? In the throes of patriotic passion, it feels like blasphemy to suggest that it’s just an indefinitely repeated event. But in truth, how can it be truly endless? Or consider the various eternal flames that some countries (including the US) keep at the tombs of unknown soldiers. Even here where the word is in fact “eternal,” what we must mean, on reflection, is almost always “indefinite.” In English today, it turns out that it is easy to truly mean “indefinite” on reflection, but to seem to mean “endless” at a glance.

To this, I’d add that on Keizer’s account, lᵉ‘olām doesn’t exactly mean indefinite. The feel of it, although lacking a precise translation in English, is the sense of looking at something that goes as far as we can see, but the language is compacted more densely than “as far as can be seen.” So “indefinite” lacks the kind of poetic beauty we would expect in a passage like this, and doesn’t feel great as a translation. However, if we internalize Keizer’s sense of lᵉ ‘olām and allow it to define this distinct sense of a perspectival limit concept, I think the poetry of the passage comes through even more clearly. Humanity is given a definitive end, rather than the capacity to persist as far as we can see, and there may be a hard mercy of sorts in this. After all, when an impressive but vicious Empire falls, we can be glad that its days were numbered. And we can be still more grateful that the days of a tyrant are even more limited. The fall of vicious, though impressive, Empires happens to be just what the Torah is constantly fascinated by.

So I’d encourage you to consider the possibility that Keizer very carefully argues to: that “indefinite length” works as well as “endless” here, and so the passage doesn’t resolve that for us. What it does help us do is establish some connection between lᵉ ‘olām and life, even as it doesn’t simply mean lifetime. And now we need to take a step back and notice what we are doing here, methodically and carefully, with our minds. We are (1) acknowledging multiple theories that can hold the particular data of this text well (endless/indefinite), and then we are (2) acknowledging that both theories can work, and then we are (3) drawing what we can more definitively draw from this particular text. Even if it seems like a small thing, it is useful to nail down the small gains we get from a text without settling on a concrete resolution. This kind of thing is challenging to do, because our minds crave clarity. People often fail to do it in Biblical studies in any kind of rigorous way, precisely because we have very powerful psychological drives toward reducing the problem as quickly as possible.

To learn this sort of mental discipline, I think it is helpful to train yourself with mathematical approaches. I’m going to discuss a recent problem I did with my daughter from the fantastic Beast Academy curriculum, because the kind of problem-solving involved here is closely related to the kind of problem-solving we need for ancient semantics. I think people in Biblical Studies need to be trained on this sort of math curriculum, because so much of their work is a more semantically rich and complicated variant of this sort of problem.

The basic idea behind these puzzles is that you need to move the knight through all of the positions on the board in order. So 1 indicates the first move, and so on. Take a look:

The trouble here, just as with ‘endless’ and ‘indefinite’, is that sometimes multiple moves can work. Problem 54 introduces the student to a single ambiguity, which they need to resolve by looking at the problem as a whole. Sure, an initial move to spot 5 (let’s call it ‘endless’) or to spot 1 (let’s call it ‘indefinite’) is possible, if the puzzle isn’t considered as a whole. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that only spot 1 allows you to solve the whole puzzle. The beauty of Keizer’s approach is that she notices (with text [1]) that you might move to either spot 1 or spot 5.

But to solve the puzzle as elegantly as possible, we need to look further. What tends to happen a lot in the field is this: people think that spot 5 (‘endless’) is the place to go and so they never bother to see if it is the most elegant total analysis. This introduces the principle, but the complexity of Biblical studies overall is probably a bit closer to problem 56. Now of course, semantics is squishier than this, less strictly determined. The main adjustment that needs to be made is still fairly simple: instead of talking as definitely as we must about these puzzles, we need to compare the relative plausibility of various readings, and we need to be more abidingly humble and self-aware. Still, when the whole body of texts is considered together, just as the puzzle is considered as a whole, clearer pronouncements can be made. We can become increasingly confident, if never certain. When we use the Bible to teach this sort of rigor, patience and humility, it becomes useful for instruction in righteousness.

Becoming more definite

[2] Genesis 6:3

And the Lord said:

My Spirit will not remain in / contend with man lᵉ ‘olām, for he is flesh;

his days will be a hundred and twenty years.

(LXX: eis ton aiona — NIV: for ever)

[3] Genesis 6:4

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterwards — when the sonds of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.

They were the heros of mē‘olam, men of renown.

From here, we have a pair ‘olāms that also deal with the limitation of life. Texts [2] and [3] address the Nephilim, and they represent a Jewish critique of Babylonian hero-gods like Marduk. (The Assyrian Pentapolis of Goliath was also an outpost of Babylonian culture, which is why you find things like a twelve-fingered giant there.) However, the text pointedly does not view the human-gods identified with Babylonian rulers as immortal beings of respect and wonder. Just the opposite, they are seen as the result of divine transgression and failure. This theme carries through in Hebrew literature through the Second Temple period, when Jesus lives. Amy Richter’s Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew shows how these motifs continued to be used to critique Empire, with its wars and use of sex (including prostitutes) to control both men and women. To put it in its historical context, then, Genesis 6 is cutting Babylon down to size and suggesting that it (and its big men) are worthy of horror more than honor.

We can also find something suggestive of indefiniteness here. The opposite of contending with man lᵉ ‘olām is the creation of a definite limit on the human lifespan: 120 years. The contrast suggests (but does not require) that indefiniteness is what is in view here. Here the definiteness of 12*10 years (itself an interesting play on Babylonian base-60 math) pairs especially beautifully with a lᵉ ‘olām that suggests the indefinite lifespan of Empires and nations. The higher a view we have of text [2], I think the more likely we are to see lᵉ ‘olām integrating and playing off of the theme of “definite vs indefinite” here, because it illustrates a tighter level of conceptual and linguistic integration than “endless”.

This brings us to text [3], which continues to play with ‘olām. According to Keizer mē‘olam here refers to the distant past. We see how the phrase now looks back to an indefinite vanishing point before, while [2] was looking forward to an indefinite vanishing point in the future. And with that, I think we can start the process of nailing down how the language is working in Hebrew. Keizer’s approach takes its lead from the earliest attested uses, which help us whittle things down to simple and elegant approach, an approach that maximizes consilience with the least possible effort. “Indefiniteness” can work in all three instances, while “endless” cannot.

Of course, Keizer doesn’t stop there. She goes on to conduct a thorough study of usage, which continues to illustrate the elegant power of her solution while it also illustrates the inelegance and weakness of “endless.” Nonetheless, as with aion, ‘olām might sometimes be stretched to suggest endlessness. But it needs to be stretched to fit that purpose.

We’ll close with Keizer’s conclusion to the section on ‘olam. You might enjoy listening to this instrumental piece while you read it, in stereo if possible. I think they also quote it very briefly in the video about Andy Warhol above. In English, we might translate the title as “Mirror in(to) mirror.” When we set the mirror of ‘olam before the mirror of aion, we might begin to see the form of the indefinite.

We will need it if we are to confront the plague of spiritual abuse that has arisen out of our loss of this past.

For establishing the meaning of ‘olām, the first three instances of the word in the Torah already offer us a lot. From text [1] we learn that ‘olām bears relation to life, from text [2] that it has to do with time, from [1], [2] and [3] that it is projected both forwards into the future and backwards into the past.

Text [1] teaches us that ‘olām in principle is inherent to “life” — life in its truest sense, i.e., free from death. However, in the condition of man and the world as we know them, there is no deathless life but only life passed on from generation to generation that may amount to ‘olām. Many texts therefore have ‘olām in parallelism alongside “generation and generation” (dor wādor).

Along the same lines can be interpreted the name of the LORD “God of ‘olām” in Genesis 21:33: God for all time, i.e., of generation after generation. Analogously in Exodus 3:15 God reveals himself with his name LORD (YHWH) as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (generations), saying that this is his name “le’‘olām — from generation to generation”.

Behind us is ‘olām (past) and ahead of us is ‘olām (future). This future in some cases may not reach further than the lifetime of a person.

While the use and meaning of ‘olām as it is found in the Torah is continued in the Prophets and the Writings, these latter parts of the Hebrew Bible also show new usages. First there is the usage of ‘olām in the plural. God is called the rock of ‘olāmim (plural) — but also god of ‘olām. His kingdom is a kingdom of all ‘olāmim. The plural, ‘olāmim, has a dividing-and-multiplying, that is, intensifying import. We do not have any indication (should should have been found in the contexts) that the plural implies a restricted meaning of the singular, i.e., that ‘olāmim would denote a plurality of distinct ‘ages’. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is any (distinct) ‘olām set against another (distinct) one — as will happen later, notably in the New Testament.

In the Prophets and Writings the noun ‘ad turns up, stretching, even transgressing, the limits of ‘olām.

That olam may refer to limited time is evident when a verdict “until ‘olām” is qualified by an “until …”.

A signal that ‘olām admits of determination may be its use with the definite article.

Olam can be the past or the future or both together; while it thus comprises all of time, it does not go above or outside time. God, however, is above ‘olām while at the same time being present in it: he is God of ‘olām, God from ‘olām until ‘olām, his kingdom a kingdom of all ‘olāmim. “From/since ‘olām and until/so long as ‘olām”: thus is described the temporal range of the created world. This description implies a view from a position ‘inside’, in the center.

‘ālam, the Aramaic version of ‘olām, builds the cumulative and superlative expression “to the ālam of ālams”, describing the boundless horizon of the future Kingdom of the Most High. This future indeed is the most definite and the most unfathomable.

The word ‘olām (or ‘ālam) is used either adverbially or adnominally, but not as a subject or object all by itself. The single, and notable, exception is Qoh.3:11, where ‘olām is the direct object in a sentence which comes closest to an explicit reflection about olām: God has given the ‘olām to the hearts of men. The context brings out that the olām is the maximum of what is given to the human view. Man is aware that there is also a ‘beyond’, but this indeed his beyond his view: it is God’s domain (“the work of God from beginning to end”).

We now come to the following definition: olām is time constituting the (temporal) horizon of created life (men) in the created world. Saying that ‘olām is something of a ‘horizon’, we do justice to the fact that the word is always used in an adverbial or adnominal way, and that the Hebrew Bible never says that we are at the ‘olām. The Hebrew Bible does not use the preposition bᵉ, “at, in” (rest), in combination with ‘olām — accordingly it does not speak in terms of (present) ‘olām in which we are now. The term horizon (Greek horizon [kuklos], “delimiting [circle]” denotes the outermost limit of our view: as viewers we are always inside but never at this limit. By saying “time constituting the horizon” the definition is meant to imply that ‘olām refers to the temporal horizon including all time enclosed by, or extending up to it: ‘olām includes what is inside the (always receding) borderline. Jenni calls ‘olām an Extremebegriff [extreme concept, my note] or Grenzbegriff [border concept, my note].

Expressed in more practical terms, ‘olām designates time of which the limit is not known, in the sense either that the limit, though sure, cannot be fixed, or that a limit is not envisaged. In practice, we may render ‘olām most often by “all time”, “always”, “ever”.

Comparing the meaning of ‘olām in the Hebrew Bible with the meaning of aiōn in Greek literature, we observe that aion has several connotations without parallel in the meaning of ‘olām. The usage of aion in Greek literature showed us that the meaning of aion is constituted by the notions of ‘life’, ‘time’, and ‘whole’, among which the notion of ‘life’ appeared to be the earliest one. An ensuing connotation was that of a defined ‘lot’ (moira). The word ‘olām as such does not convey a notion of ‘life’. Although both ‘olām and aion denote time which bears relation to life, the implied ‘views’ of time (and life) are different. When ‘olām is a Grenzbegriff [border concept], aion might rather be called a Totalbegriff. In aion, life and time is seen as a whole (total, complete), which implies a view ‘from outside’. ‘Olām too refers to all of time, this in a view from inside the temporal, and human, horizon. Thus, while aion can stand for a determined life-lot, ‘olām makes the ‘scope’ for life to be full.

In short, ‘olām denotes time constituting a (temporal) horizon which can be far (e.g. the remote past) and rather near (e.g. the end of one’s life), purposed-but-postponed (life for-‘olām) as well as decided-but-diminished (until- ‘olām until…). In its widest sense, ‘olām in the Hebrew Bible describes all time, i.e., time as given with creation.

If you’re still here, I wanted to offer a helpful resource for anyone wanting access to yet another review of usages of ‘olamic phrases that is comprehensive, authoritative and succinct. Below you’ll find the current entry from the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament on this topic. The discussion here is broadly and deeply compatible with Keizer’s work, even as Keizer advances a theory that has adds some interesting and significant nuances within this broad domain. Resources like this shouldn’t be taken as a definitive final word, but they do provide valuable insight into the scope of available evidence and the range of expert interpretation.

Here is the citation, with all of its longing for the text that it signifies:

Horst Dietrich Preuss, “עוֹלָה and עוֹלָם,” ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, trans. Douglas W. Stott, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 530–545.

And this is the hook:

עוֹלָם ʿôlām;* עָלַם ʿālam

Contents: I. General Considerations. II. (Long Ago) Bygone Times. III. The (Distant) Future. IV. Theological Usage. V. Apocrypha, Early Judaism, Qumran.

I. General Considerations. The Hebrew word עולם ʿôlām (22 times as עֹלָם ʿōlām in BHK3/BHS;1 cf., e.g., Ps. 45:7, 18[Eng. vv. 6, 17]) occurs almost 440 times in the OT, plus 20 times in the Aramaic parts of the OT (as ʿālam or ʿālmāʾ, more often pl. there than in the Hebrew parts). Its etymology has been and remains disputed or at best uncertain, and the various studies suggest that no real progress has been made. On the one hand, most scholars adduce the root ʿlm I, understanding ʿôlām as similar to an adverb ending in -ām. On the other hand, the debate between C. F. Whitley and S. C. Reif left its findings open, while G. Gerleman made an unpersuasive attempt to deduce a basic meaning of “horizon, boundary” (metaphorically as “exclusivity” in combinations such as those with berîṯ) on the basis of a rather narrowly conceived translation as “extremely old, ancient,” and taking 1 S. 27:8 as his point of departure (where the text probably must undergo some emendation).

Following E. Jenni, most scholars translate ʿôlām as “long time” or “farthest, remotest time.” The various nuances of this translation must then also be distinguished contextually.5

Although the number of occurrences is often given as precisely 440 (plus 20 times in Aramaic), textual problems prevent a whole series of (Hebrew) occurrences from being adduced with absolute certainty. These include 1 S. 27:8; 2 S. 13:18; 2 Ch. 33:7; Ps. 73:12; 87:5; Prov. 23:10 (cf. 22:28); Isa. 44:7; 57:11; 64:4(5); Jer. 49:36; Ezk. 32:27. The Aramaic occurrences are in Ezra (4:15, 19) and Daniel (18 in Aramaic in addition to 5 in Hebrew). Only beginning with Jeremiah is ʿôlām used with the article (13 times), though no semantic shift seems discernible; it is used with a suffix only in Eccl. 12:5. The plural occurs by percentage more frequently in the Aramaic texts than in the Hebrew texts (Aramaic in Dnl. 2:4, 44; 3:9; 5:10; 6:7, 22, 27[6, 21, 26]; 7:18; cf. Hebrew in 9:24); the Hebrew plural occurs only in Isa. 45:17b in the absolute state, otherwise only in construct (Ps. 77:6[5]; 145:13; Isa. 26:4; 45:17a; 51:9; Dnl. 9:24; with le in Ps. 77:8[7]; as an adv. acc. in 1 K. 8:13 par. 2 Ch. 6:2; Ps. 61:5[4]). That ʿôlām can have a plural at all might indicate that it can also refer to a “period of time,” with the plural then referring to “periods of time, ages,” or something similar. This situation, however, applies only to its later use in early Judaism and in the following period. A genuinely numeric plural occurs in the Hebrew OT at most only in Eccl. 1:10; otherwise the reference is usually to the iterative, extensive, amplifying plural.

What the few plural occurrences of ʿôlām already show becomes quite evident in the numerous occurrences of the singular. In the OT (as also in Ugaritic texts), ʿôlām is used not as an independent subject or object but rather largely within construct combinations or as an adverbial accusative. Hence ʿôlām occurs in connection with terms for love (Jer. 31:3), signs (Isa. 55:13), joy (Isa. 35:10, etc.), shame and disgrace (Ps. 78:66; Jer. 23:40), a heap of ruins (Dt. 13:17[16]; Josh. 8:28), appointments (Ex. 29:28; 30:21; Lev. 6:11, 15[18, 22] etc.), possessions (Gen. 17:8; 48:4, etc.), berîṯ (16 times), etc. Similarly frequent combinations with other future-oriented lexemes underscore that ʿôlām functions to express the highest possible intensification (“perpetual holding,” “unending joy,” etc.); in such combinations with ʿôlām, these lexemes are themselves intensified (cf., e.g., the combination with → עד ʿaḏ, with → חיים ḥayyîm, or with → דור dôr, including examples in the pl.).13

Although ʿôlām is not yet attested in extrabiblical Hebrew witnesses (ostraca, inscriptions), its corresponding equivalents occur relatively frequently in texts within the OT environs.14 Reference can be made first to Ugaritic witnesses, particularly since combinations with the preps. le and ʿaḏ are also already attested here. Within Old Aramaic, texts from Sefire and Ahiqar are joined by one witness from Deir ʿAlla.16 Occurrences in Phoenician are frequent, while the orthography אולם is found in Punic. The findings in Old South Arabic are disputed.18 The Moabite of the Mesha inscription attests both meanings for ʿlm: “for always, perpetual” and “since time immemorial.”

Following Biblical Aramaic, ʿlm (or similar forms) occurs in numerous more recent Semitic languages (Nabatean, Jewish Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Samaritan, Syriac, Mandaic, Ethiopic, Palmyrene, Egyptian Arabic, Arabic). Beginning approximately in the 1st century A.D., several of these languages start using ʿlm in a meaning different from that of the OT, namely, as “world” or “aeon.”21 Akkadian attests only the substantively parallel lexeme dārû(m).

J. Assmann has shown anew that the Egyptians did not distinguish clearly between “time” and “eternity.” They used both the term nḥḥ (the fullness of time, referring more to what is coming and the change it will bring) and the term ḏ.t (as consummation, referring more to what endures, abides; the two words often occur together), referring to a long but finite period of time as something “unending,” so that here, too, context must determine whether the translation “time” or “eternity” is more appropriate.

The LXX generally renders ʿôlām (236 times) as aiṓn or aiṓnios (95 times), less frequently as aeí or archḗ, and 4 times as chrónos.

The previously mentioned occurrence of ʿôlām in various word and phrase combinations also suggests that the word field associated with ʿôlām is considerable. Terms include → בוא, bāʾôṯ, → דור dôr, → יום yôm, hakkōl, → נצח nēṣaḥ, → עד ʿaḏ, → עת ʿêṯ, → קדם qeḏem, and → תמיד tāmîḏ.

II. (Long Ago) Bygone Times. About 60 occurrences of ʿôlām (over 20 with the prep. min) refer to a time long past, or to something extraordinarily old, albeit with different qualities of remoteness from the speaker/writer on the one hand, and the observer on the other.

The expression mēʿôlām can mean “from time immemorial” (Ps. 25:6; Jer. 2:20; 31:3; Ezk. 35:5; then Isa. 64:4[5] (here an isolated ʿôlām? probably also Josh. 24:2 and the Mesha inscription; cf. Joel 2:2, NRSV “from antiquity”; also Job 22:15: the way of the wicked “from of old”; and the Aramaic occurrences in Ezr. 4:14, 19).

Mountains and hills are “ancient” (Gen. 49:26; Hab. 3:6), as are gates (Ps. 24:7, 9; cf. also Jer. 5:15; Ezk. 36:2). Just how old or past the reference is usually remains open. The point is merely to direct one’s attention as far back as possible. The most distant time (Ps. 93:2) can then also refer to an otherwise indeterminate “distant past” (Gen. 6:4) or even to those who died long ago (Lam. 3:6; Ps. 143:3; cf. Ezk. 26:20), or simply an “earlier” time (Josh. 24:2; cf. the expression “as earlier” in Mic. 7:14; Mal. 3:4).

Among the remaining occurrences (including Dt. 33:15; 1 S. 27:8; Isa. 44:7; 51:9; 63:9, 11; Jer. 5:15; 6:16; 18:18; 28:8; Ezk. 25:15; 26:20; cf. Sir. 16:7; 44 superscription, 2; 48:25; cf. also 42:21 with the article, “one is from all eternity[?]”; then also 51:8, or “already from an earlier time”? also Ps. 41:14[13]), Mic. 5:1(2) and Am. 9:11 are noteworthy inasmuch as they refer this past time to the time of David as the idealized past. Given Prov. 22:28, one might inquire whether 23:10 should not read → אלמנה ʾalmānâ instead of ʿôlām. In Prov. 8:23 (within the context vv. 22–31) Wisdom remarks in first-person discourse that she was created by Yahweh even before the creation of the world, and indeed was herself present at the creation of the world.

This intensifying inclination is also attested in the combination min- (mē) (hā)ʿôlām (we)ʿaḏ-ʿôlām, which usually in later texts (cf. combinations with mēʿattâ in Ps. 113:2; 115:18; 121:8; 125:2; 131:3; Isa. 9:6[7]; 59:21; Mic. 4:7) and in the solemn, liturgically elevated language of prayers and doxologies celebrates hymnically God’s “eternity” or qualifies such praise as having already been sung much earlier and, indeed, will be sung much later as well and ultimately even “for all time”33 (with the article in 1 Ch. 16:36; Neh. 9:5; Ps. 41:14[13]; 106:48; without the article in 1 Ch. 29:10; Ps. 90:2; 103:17; Aramaic in Dnl. 2:10; then also in Sir. 39:20, already as “ages of the world”? further also in the Qumran texts).

When ʿôlām (with min) is negated with reference to the past (Isa. 63:19a; 64:3[4]; Joel 2:2), it expresses the notion “never.”

III. The (Distant) Future. In over 260 instances ʿôlām is used in reference to the future. In many cases (about 160 times), the substantive is preceded by le (more common when the reference is to something static or unchangeable) or (about 80 times) an ʿaḏ (focusing more dynamically on the temporal progression). The actual “duration” is often specified as “for always,” “perpetual” (esp. with le) in many combinations and as an adverbial accusative with largely concrete and often plural referential words (something also attested by the parallel expressions; cf. 1 S. 1:11, 22, 28; Ps. 34:1[superscription]; 71:15; 89:2[1]; 104:33). Such duration does not, however, necessarily mean “perpetually, for always,” something attested by 1 S. 2:30f., where the time in question must at some point come to an end.

This particular usage, occurring also in texts from the OT environs,38 is attested in the most varied textual types and periods of OT literature (Gen. 3:22; 6:3; 13:15; Ex. 3:15; 14:13; 15:18; 19:9; 40:15; Dt. 5:29; 23:4, 7[3, 6]; 28:46: like here and in Gen. 13:15 also in 1 S. 20:42; 2 S. 22:51 par., etc., together with → זרע zeraʿ or → דור dôr or with the latter in the pl.; then 1 S. 1:22; 20:15; 20:23, 42; Ezr. 9:12; 2 S. 23:5; Ps. 30:13[12]; 49:9[8]; 61:8[7]; 66:7; 73:12; 89:2, 3, 38[1, 2, 37]; 90:2; 106:31; Prov. 27:24, “forever”; Isa. 30:8; 35:10; 55:3; 60:19f.; Jer. 20:7; 23:40; Ezk. 25:15; Jon. 2:7[6]). Job will not live “forever” (7:16), and the same is asked analogously with regard to the prophets (Zec. 1:5). The stones in the Jordan will be an “abiding” memorial (Josh. 4:7). Ps. 77:8(7); 1 K. 8:13; and 2 Ch. 6:2 all speak of coming times (pl.!).

With future reference, negated ʿôlām can mean both “no longer” (Ex. 14:13) and “never” (1 S. 20:15; Neh. 13:1; Isa. 25:2; Jer. 35:6; Ezk. 26:21; 27:36; 28:19; cf. Dt. 23:4–7[3–6]).

The obvious use of ʿôlām in Ex. 21:6; Dt. 15:17; 1 S. 27:12 (cf. Lev. 25:46; 1 S. 1:22; Job 40:28[41:4]) to mean “as long as one lives” (e.g., a slave for life) does not necessarily contradict its other meanings, for even when the king is greeted with “may the king live forever,” this does not, despite the obvious presence of “courtly style,” imply the wish that the king be granted eternal life, but rather that he live “as long as possible” (contrast Job 7:16).

When referring thus to a time enduring long into the future, ʿôlām is quite naturally and often combined with and intensified or strengthened by other lexemes. These include dôr (or its pl. or dual; usually with le) (Gen. 16:7; Ex. 3:15; 31:16; Dt. 32:7; Ps. 33:11; 45:18[17]; 49:12[11]; 61:7f.[6f.]; 77:8f.[7f.]; 79:13; 85:6[5]; 100:5; 102:13[12]; 106:31; 119:89f.; 135:13; 146:10; Prov. 27:24; Eccl. 1:4; Isa. 34:10, 17; 51:8; Dnl. 3:33[4:3]; 4:31[34]; Sir. 45:26). An analogous situation already obtained in Ugarit.

One additional intensifying combination is the expression (le) ʿôlām wāʿeḏ (Ex. 15:18; Ps. 9:6[5]; 10:16; 21:5[4]; 37:27 [following LXX]; 45:7, 18[6, 17]; 52:10[8]; 104:5; 119:44; 145:1, 2, 21; Dnl. 12:3; Mic. 4:5; Sir. 40:17), which Jenni calls a “solemn formula of conclusion and reinforcement” (cf. also the noun → עד ʿaḏ together with ʿôlām in Ps. 111:8; 148:6; Isa. 45:17). The formula mēʿattâ (we) ʿaḏ-ʿôlām is similarly “solemn” (Ps. 113:2; 115:18; 121:8; 125:2; 131:3; Isa. 9:6[7]; 59:21; Mic. 4:7; cf. Sir. 51:30 [all these are probably later texts]).

Finally, the formula “for his steadfast love endures forever” ([kî] leʿôlām ḥasdô) should be mentioned. Apart from Ps. 136, where it is a refrain in every verse, it occurs 16 times in the OT (1 Ch. 16:34, 41; 2 Ch. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezr. 3:11; Ps. 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1–4, 29; 136 [26 times]; Jer. 33:11; also Sir. 51:12).

This context of reinforcement and intensification also includes the use of ʿôlām in oaths (Dt. 32:40, divine discourse; cf. Josh. 14:9; Jer. 49:13; Dnl. 12:7; Zeph. 2:9) or in asseveration (2 S. 3:28; 7:26, 29).

The term ʿôlām then also occurs over 120 times in construct combinations, especially with a future orientation within theologically significant contexts.

IV. Theological Usage

1. Within the narrative pentateuchal texts, Ex. 19:9 can hardly be viewed as preexilic. The dating of Gen. 6:3f. depends on the one hand on the age of the material used here, and on the other on the question whether one ascribes it to the Yahwist and when one dates the Yahwist. This also applies to Gen. 3:22; 21:33(?); and Ex. 14:13. With regard to the land promise ʿaḏ-ʿôlām in Gen. 13:15, one must note that this text, if it is indeed old, is thematically isolated, or that similar statements (Ex. 32:13; Josh. 14:9; Ezr. 9:12; 2 Ch. 28:8; Ps. 37:27–29) derive from a later period (cf. also the discussion below of the significance of ʿôlām in P). Jer. 25:5f. is of interest by way of contrast.

The significance of this possession of the land “forever” is also addressed thematically in the similarly non(!)-preexilic texts 2 Ch. 20:7; Isa. 34:17; 61:7; Jer. 7:7; 25:5; Ezk. 37:25; Joel 4:20(3:20).

2. Older texts among the historical books probably include 1 S. 1:21; 20:15, 23; 2 S. 3:28; 2 K. 5:27. Later texts, i.e., largely Deuteronomistic redactional strata, include Josh. 4:7; 14:9; Jgs. 2:1; 2 S. 2:30; 3:13f.; 7:13, 16, 24, 25, 26, 29; 1 K. 1:31; 2:33, 45; 9:3, 5; 10:9; 21:7; also Josh. 24:2(?); the use of ʿôlām clearly increases within these late texts. Even a cursory glance at these later texts shows that they refer largely to the “eternal” duration of the Davidic dynasty, an OT theme quite frequently addressed through use of ʿôlām (+ le or ʿaḏ).

One might mention first the greeting to the king, usually a variation of “May my lord King David live forever!” (1 K. 1:31; Neh. 2:3; Dnl. 2:4; 3:9; 5:10; 6:7, 22[6, 21]; cf. Ps. 21:5[4]; 61:7f.[6f.]; 110:4; cf. also 1 K. 3:11, 14; Ps. 72:5; 18:51[50] par.; 45:3, 7, 18[2, 6, 17]; 72:17; 89:5, 37f.[4, 36f.]). One should not make too much of this greeting, however. Rather than a deification of the king, this is much more likely merely the wish that he might live as long as possible and “well.” This greeting/wish is part of courtly style (esp. at the Persian court? cf. the accumulation of occurrences in Daniel).

In the promises to David and to the Davidic dynasty, ʿôlām is again used in its typical role as amplification and intensification (cf. already to Saul, 1 S. 13:13). This is itself then theologically developed into the → berîṯ ʿôlām applying to the Davidic dynasty (1 S. 20:42; 2 S. 7:13, 16; cf. vv. 24f., 29; then 23:5, berîṯ; cf. also 1 K. 2:33, 45; 2 S. 22:51 par. Ps. 18:51[50]; 1 K. 8:25; 9:4f.; 10:9; Isa. 9:6[7]; 55:3 [cf. in this regard 2 Ch. 9:8 expanded to include Israel itself]; also 1 Ch. 17:12, 14, 22–24, 27; 2 Ch. 22:10; 28:4; Ps. 89:3–5, 29, 37f.[2–4, 28, 36f.]; 45:3, 7, 18[2, 6, 17]; 132:11f.; Ezk. 37:25f.). This obviously involves a typical Deuteronomistic theologoumenon and its subsequent influence.

The Priestly document speaks analogously about a berîṯ ʿôlām, but refers it to the patriarchal berîṯ (cf. Ps. 105:8, 10 par. 1 Ch. 16:15, 17; in a more general sense probably in Ps. 11:5, 9). Concerning the berîṯ ʿôlām, cf. also the early witness from Arslan Tash, expanded in Isa. 24:5.

One additional, small, and probably also more recent textual group qualifies the time of David as an ideal age and then speaks of it as the yemê ʿôlām (Neh. 12:46; Am. 9:11; Mic. 5:1[2]; cf. also Isa. 45:21; 46:10; 63:9, 11; Mic. 7:14; Mal. 3:4).

3. Gen. 21:33 mentions an ʾēl ʿôlām whose veneration is tied to Beer-sheba. Here ʿôlām is to be translated as “mighty in perpetuity,” leading to the divine title “eternal one,” which especially in extrabiblical witnesses is often intimately connected with this deity’s “kingship.” Divine names (e.g., šmš or šḥr) are often used together with ʿôlām.

Regarding the OT in general, the following texts are also of interest: Dt. 32:40; 33:27; Ps. 9:6, 8[5, 7]; 10:16; 66:7; 145:13; 146:10; Isa. 26:4; 33:14; 63:16; Lam. 5:19; Dnl. 2:44; 3:33[4:3]; 4:31[34], here, too, liturgical courtly style; also Ex. 15:18; Ps. 29:10; 66:7; Jer. 10:10; Mic. 4:7b. In connection with the special meaning of ʿôlām ascertained in Deutero-Isaiah, one should also mention Isa. 40:28, which refers to Yahweh as ʾelōhê ʿôlām; this is not, however, really identical with Gen. 21:33 (or with Dt. 33:7), nor should it be interpreted from that perspective. Context suggests rather that Yahweh is conceived here as the God and Lord of creation, i.e., perhaps already of the “world.”

This thematic group (“eternal God”; ʿôlām as divine title) also includes Ps. 90:2; 92:8f.(7f.); 102:12f.(11f.), perhaps also 75:10(9), and, if 31:2(1); 71:1; 86:12 (and elsewhere as well?) do indeed contain vocative lamed, these texts as well (as references to ʿôlām as divine title).

4. In Deuteronomy leʿôlām or ʿaḏ ʿôlām is used within Deuteronomic/Deuteronomistic parenesis again as an amplifying motivation (5:29 and 12:28; cf. also 23:4, 7[3, 6]). Concerning tēl ʿôlām in 13:17, cf. Josh. 8:28 (both of which are Deuteronomistic); concerning 15:17 (slave for life), cf. III above. That which is revealed in Deuteronomy applies to Israel ʿaḏ ʿôlām (29:28[29]).

Dt. 28:46 uses ʿôlām to strengthen an imprecation; in this regard see also 2 S. 12:10; 1 K. 2:33a, as well as the prophetic oracles of judgment, often with content similar to that of imprecations (cf. also Jer. 7:20; 17:27; 25:12).

5. Prophetic oracles of judgment and salvation are also enhanced by ʿôlām. This prevents the predicted judgment or good fortune from being associated with only short duration, and gives it instead a more abiding or enduring character. Oracles of judgment of this sort include (in addition to 2 S. 12:10; 2 K. 5:27) Isa. 14:20; 25:2; 32:14; 34:10; cf. 30:8; then Mic. 2:9; Ob. 10, though probably only Mic. 2:9 and Ob. 10 are authentic.

Especially in the judgment oracles of Jeremiah (17:4; 18:16; 20:11; cf. 3:5; 25:9; Ps. 78:66), though also in those of later (Deuteronomistic) redactors of this book (Jer. 10:10; 23:40; 33:11; 49:13, 33; 50:5; 51:26, 39, 57, 62), ʿôlām underscores a certain element of finality attaching to such judgment. If this aspect of finality is indeed viewed as being constitutive for the disputed “eschatology” of the OT, one can say that ʿôlām acquires new content here insofar as it increasingly comes to characterize Yahweh’s own eschatological acts. Other texts include Ezk. 27:36; 28:19; 35:9; 36:2; Zeph. 2:9.

Prophetic oracles of salvation (whose authenticity will not be discussed here) use ʿôlām analogously (Isa. 9:6[7]; 32:17; 34:17; 35:10; Jer. 3:12; 17:25; 25:12; Hos. 2:21[19]; Am. 9:11f.; Mic. 4:5, 7; 5:1[2]). Isa. 58:12 and 61:4 (cf. by contrast Jer. 18:16; 25:9,[12]; 49:13, 33; 51:26) show that the “everlasting desolations/ruins” threatened in the book of Jeremiah are sufficiently equivocal that they can be offset by a renewed promise of reestablishment.

6. It is questionable whether the history of the word reaches a genuinely new stage in the 15 occurrences in Deutero-Isaiah. Isa. 40:8; 45:17; 51:6, 8; 54:8 (cf. also 47:7; 55:13) all use ʿôlām to express the element of “forever” already expressed earlier and elsewhere as well. The plural in 51:9 (as often the case in Deutero-Isaiah, the pl. signals no conceptual change) refers to the distant past and yet at the same time demythologizes that past through a parallel use of the struggle with the → rahaḇ and the crossing of the sea during the liberation from Egypt; the reference is no longer to a mythical primal age (cf. 42:14, “for a long time”; 46:9; 44:7 corr. “from the beginning”).61 An analysis of Deutero-Isaiah’s use of ʿôlām alone, however, cannot demonstrate that this writer is now concerned with eschatological, inbreaking, and goal-oriented salvation rather than only with continuing desolation.

When Isa. 40:28 refers to Yahweh as ʾelōhê ʿôlām, one might ask whether this title is not really already referring to Yahweh as “king of the world” (cf. Jer. 10:10), and whether the meaning of the lexeme ʿôlām does not seem to be changing here into what clearly becomes its meaning in postexilic texts, especially in apocalyptic writing (“world”: cf. also Ps. 104:5; 148:6).

7. P tends to use ʿôlām frequently and in theologically significant combinations. With reference to the land itself, it speaks of “perpetual holding” (ʾaḥuzzaṯ ʿôlām, Gen. 17:8; 48:4; Lev. 25:34; one Ugaritic witness already attests a gift “in perpetuity/eternally”); then also of geʾullaṯ ʿôlām (Lev. 25:32), dôrôṯ ʿôlām (Gen. 9:12), kehunnaṯ ʿôlām (Ex. 40:15; Nu. 25:13; cf. also 1 Ch. 15:2; 2 Ch. 23:13; Ps. 110:4; according to 1 S. 2:30 and 3:13f., however, this priesthood “forever” may well come to an end), and ʾôṯ leʿôlām (Ex. 31:17; cf. Isa. 55:13; Gen. 9:12; only in Ex. 31:17 and Lev. 25:46 does P use ʿôlām with le within construct combinations; P never uses ʿaḏ ʿôlām). It is also important for P that Yahweh’s statutes and ordinances (ḥōq or ḥuqqâ, → חקק ḥqq) are everlasting (Ex. 29:9, 28; 30:21; Lev. 3:17; 6:11, 15[18, 23]; 7:34, 36; 10:9, 15; 16:29, 31, 34; 17:3; 23:14, 21, 31, 41; 24:3, 9; Nu. 10:8; 18:8, 11, 19, 23; 19:10, 21; cf. Ex. 12:14, 17, 24; Ezk. 46:14; 2 Ch. 2:3[4]).

It is of particular significance that P transfers the berîṯ ʿôlām to the Noachic berîṯ (Gen. 9:16; cf. v. 12) and especially to the patriarchal berîṯ (Gen. 17:7, 13, 19; Ex. 31:16; Lev. 24:8; also Nu. 18:19, “berîṯ of salt” with ʿôlām). In Deuteronomistic literature and in writers influenced by it, this covenant was reserved for David and for the Davidic dynasty. Similarly, the special theological interest in the longevity of this berîṯ, one interpreted largely as a gift and promise, is underscored by P’s inclination to amplify these construct combinations by adding words that in their own turn underscore this longevity yet again, e.g., → זרע zeraʿ, → דור dôr (or its pl.), or bānîm. These are then explicated by the expression “after you” (cf., e.g., Gen. 17:7–9) precisely because P has a special theological interest in underscoring the validity of these divine salvific promises for Abraham’s “descendants.”

With regard to the use of berîṯ ʿôlām in P, one might also compare the following (in addition to those mentioned in IV.2): Ps. 105:10 (cf. v. 8); Isa. 24:5; 61:8; Jer. 32:40; 50:5; Ezk. 16:60, then also Jgs. 2:1, though the “breaking” of the berîṯ ʿôlām (!) in Deuteronomistic theology and terminology refers to the Sinaitic berîṯ.

In these examples P is concerned not only with that which remains perpetually the same68 but even more with what continues to remain valid, i.e., with that which will also apply to the “descendants.”

8. Postexilic texts inquire whether Yahweh’s wrath, now manifest in the punishment of the exile, will continue or even go on “forever” (Ps. 77:8[7]; 85:6[5]; 103:9; Isa. 57:16; cf. already Lam. 3:31). They ask about the future (Isa. 56:5; 58:12; 59:21; 61:4) and try to promise new, enduring salvation (60:15–22; 61:7f.; also 35:10; 51:11; 32:17; see in this regard Joel 2:26f.). The threats of perdition for other nations ultimately also involve the resultant salvation for Israel “forever” (Isa. 14:20; 25:2; 34:10; Ob. 10; Mal. 1:4; cf. Ps. 9:8[7]).

9. In the Psalms the expressions leʿôlām or ʿaḏ ʿôlām (and the combination with mēʿôlām) appear first of all in the doxologies that organize the book of Psalms itself (Ps. 41:14[13]; 72:19; 89:53[52]; 106:48). These expressions could be appropriated into these doxologies precisely because they were already being used particularly in doxological or hymnic language or in strongly assertoric discourse in any case (5:12[11]; 9:8[7]; 30:13[12]; 33:11; 44:9[8]; 52:10f.[8f.]; 75:10[9]; 79:13; 81:16[15]; 89:2, 3[1, 2]; 90:2; 92:9[8]; 93:2; 102:13[12]; 104:31; 106:48; 111:8; 113:2; 115:18; 119:44, 93, 98, 111f.; 125:2; 131:3; 135:13; 145:1f., 13, 21). Concerning this “everlasting praise,” cf. also Dt. 33:27; Neh. 9:5; 1 Ch. 16:36; 29:10; Isa. 26:4; Dnl. 2:20; 3:33 [4:3]; 4:31[34]; 6:7, etc.

It is particularly Yahweh’s → חסד ḥeseḏ and his ʾemeṯ that have been in effect “from of old” and are thus praised, or that at least are enduringly hoped for and thus praised in the confidence that they will indeed be granted (Ps. 25:6; 33:11; 89:3[2]; 100:5; 103:17; 105:8, 10; 111:5, 8f.; 117:2; 119:89, 142, 144, 152, 160; 125:2; 135:13; 138:8; 146:6; 148:6; 136; then 1 Ch. 16:34, 36, 41; 2 Ch. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ps. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 2–4, 29; Jer. 33:11).

Then it is Zion, which has existed “since of old” and will continue to do so forever, that is praised for its longevity; after all, Yahweh has indeed taken up residence there “forever” or has set his name on Zion and made it its resting place (1 Ch. 23:25; 2 Ch. 30:8; 33:4, 7; Ps. 48:9, 15[8, 14]; 78:69; 125:1; 133:3; cf. 1 K. 8:13; 9:3; then also Ps. 31:4[3]; 42:10[9]; Isa. 26:2–4; Jer. 31:40; Ezk. 37:26, 28; 43:7, 9; cf. 2 Ch. 6:2; 7:16; Jer. 7:7).

Ps. 119 demonstrates anew that the use of ʿôlām (with le, ʿaḏ, and min) in many texts functions (merely) as an amplification. The psalmist intends “forever” to follow and reflect on Yahweh’s → תורה tôrâ, his → דבר dāḇār (or pl.), and his → משפט mišpāṭ (pl.; also miṣwâ and ʿēḏûṯ), since all these things are themselves established “in perpetuity”; they will always be valid ordinances (cf. vv. 44, 52, 89, 93, 98, 111, 112, 142, 144, 152, 160).

Finally, numerous petitioners confess confidently that they (as righteous, faithful, etc.) will be guided “forever,” will neither vacillate nor come to shame (cf. 15:5; 30:7[6]; 31:2[1]; 37:18, 27; 41:13[12]; 55:23[22]; 61:5, 8[4, 7]; 71:1; 73:26; 112:6; 121:8; 125:1; 139:24); or they express similar petitions (1 Ch. 29:18; Ps. 12:8[7]; 28:9; 61:5[4]; 75:10[9]; 77:8[7]; 85:6[5]) with regard either to themselves or to adversaries who are to perish “forever” (9:6[5]; 37:28; 81:16[15][?]; cf. 73:12).

According to the act-consequence schema, the good and the righteous should “always” experience good fortune. This is confirmed by wisdom aphorisms (Prov. 10:25, 30) and by the wisdom poem Ps. 37 (vv. 18, 27–29), as well as by 41:13(12); 55:23(22); 112:6, whereas the “psalm of Job” (Ps. 73) brings the opposite experience to expression (v. 12).

10. The unique use of ʿôlām in Ecclesiastes also belongs in the critical discussion of the wisdom tradition (also as an experienced tradition) as expressed in Prov. 10:25, 30, etc. Although Eccl. 1:4 does indeed already use leʿôlām in the customary sense of “forever” (cf. 2:16; 9:6, though both times negated), the context clearly shows the critical intention of this statement; i.e., life goes on “perpetually” in the same way (cf. 1:5ff.), which is why there is really nothing new under the sun, no possibility for change, no chance to escape the present course of events. Eccl. 1:10 says precisely the same thing; here the expression leʿôlāmîm is accordingly to be viewed as an intensive plural rather than as a succession of ages. That is, everything has already been this way once, and this is why the present offers little of particular interest. In the future both the wise and the foolish will be forgotten (2:16; cf. 9:6 after 9:5).

Within the occurrences of ʿôlām in Ecclesiastes, 12:5 is of special significance. This is the only time in the OT that ʿôlām is used with a suffix, and only here does ʿôlām clearly mean “grave” (NRSV “eternal home”), though cf. Ps. 29:11(11). Jenni, however, has shown that this particular meaning was common in texts from the OT environs (cf., e.g., the Ahiram inscription).

One must interpret hāʿōlām in Eccl. 3:11 within the context of the other occurrences in Ecclesiastes. Accordingly, one should guard against an overly hasty comparison with Gen. 1:26ff. Similarly, Eccl. 3:14 can merely underscore that v. 11 in its own turn is saying that the “duration” of which God has made human beings aware is not nor can it be a consciousness of human existence as such, but rather again the experience of the torment of existence as a burden through the passing of time and through the experience of the burdensome, inaccessible, and incessant nature of existence. This means that 3:11 also involves a critical (!) response to the customary view of human beings, but with no positive counterview.

11. The book of Daniel contains 5 occurrences in Hebrew (9:24; 12:2[bis], 3, 7), 18 in Aramaic (2:4, 20[bis], 44[bis]; 3:9, 33[4:3]; 4:31[34][bis]; 5:10; 6:7, 22, 27[6, 21, 26]; 7:14, 18[ter], 27), of which 9:24 (Hebrew) and 2:4, 44; 3:9; 5:10; 6:7, 22, 27[6, 21, 26] (Aramaic) as well as one of the occurrences in 7:18 are plural. Dnl. 2:4; 3:9; 5:10; 6:22(21) belong to the royal greetings (cf. also 6:7[6]). Dnl. 2:44; 3:33(4:3); 4:31(34), and 6:27(26) also make clear that the concern here (as in the book of Daniel in the larger sense) is not only with the coming divine rule “forever,” but also with extolling the present and future rule as being perpetual.

The assertion that “everlasting righteousness” (9:24) will be brought to the people and city (cf. 11QPsa 16) then focuses more unequivocally on the new future, and Dnl. 2:44; 7:14, 18; 12:2f. make clear that, and how, the present “age of the world” will end and the new age (this age, too, as a final one!) will commence. At that time “many” will be raised to “everlasting life” (12:2), others to everlasting shame and contempt. Resurrection thus functions here as a solution to the problem of theodicy and as an instrument for balancing things out between the good and the wicked, neither of whom will or may be permitted to end with death only. Here ʿôlām/ʿālam acquires the meaning of “world/age of the world” (cf. already Ps. 104:5; 148:6? Isa. 40:28?), something then developed further in early Jewish literature.

V. Apocrypha, Early Judaism, Qumran

1. Among the Apocrypha, the book of Sirach is of particular importance given its original Hebrew version. Although the text of Sir. 1:1, 4, which speaks of wisdom as having been “forever” or from God (cf. Prov. 8:22–30), is extant only in its Greek translation, the actual Hebrew corpus of Sirach contains 40 occurrences of ʿôlām, most of which can be classified under the meanings and uses already discussed above with regard to the OT.85

In Sirach ʿôlām first of all (and in various combinations, e.g., with ḥōq) has the meaning “enduring, everlasting” (11:33; 14:17; 15:6; 16:13; 30:17 [sleep]; 41:9 [ms. B]; 43:6 [ms. B]; 44:13; 45:13; 47:11; 49:12; 51:30c; concerning 44:7, cf. Ex. 28:43). It is uncertain whether occasionally or even in general this notion of “everlasting” already implies a genuinely eschatological “eternal.” In any event 37:26 (analogous to Dnl. 12:2) speaks about “living forever”; Sir. 43:6 also uses ʿôlām together with → קץ qēṣ, and 7:36 together with → אחרית ʾaḥarîṯ.

Referring back to Gen. 17, Sir. 44:18 mentions the ʾôṯ ʿôlām instead of the berîṯ, whereas 45:15 (cf. 45:24 and Nu. 25:12–13a) refers the berîṯ ʿôlām to the priestly covenant for Aaron and Phinehas.

In 4:23 ʿôlām refers in a general sense to “time,” in 42:18 [M]; 48:25; 51:30 to the “future” (= “eternity”?), which according to 48:25 was revealed to Isaiah, and in 39:20 probably to the “age of the world.” In 3:18 (ms. A) ʿôlām means something like “world,” and the ʾēl ʿôlām in 36:22 B (though this is textually uncertain) is more likely the “God of the Cosmos [NRSV ‘of the ages’]” (cf. 36:1) than the “eternal God.” Sir. 42:21 is probably comparable in this respect (“he is from all eternity”; cf. 51:8), though here, too, it is difficult to determine whether the reference is not (only) to the expression “since an earlier period” (cf. 16:7; 44 S; 44:2; 48:25). In all this, Sirach stands clearly in a transitional situation with regard to the development of the term ʿôlām, with traditional meanings continuing, new ones announcing themselves, and many texts clearly hovering between the old and the new and thus eluding unequivocal determination.

2. In early Jewish literature the use of ʿôlām (and its derivatives) tends increasingly to imply the opposition first attested in the book of Daniel (and prepared by several other OT texts that use ʿôlām to mean “world”?) between “this world” and the “coming world.” In Greek texts this development is found in Wis. 13:9; Tob. 3:2 S; 13:18 (LXXBA); cf. Sir. 3:18 (ms. A).

3. Finally, the Qumran writings show convincingly that and how the use of ʿôlām increases in postexilic and early Jewish literature. In addition to the almost 170 occurrences in the texts accessible earlier, one can now add almost 30 occurrences from the Temple Scroll. (Fragmentary witnesses with textual lacunae, etc. [e.g., 1QH 1:3, 7f.; cf. Prov. 8:23?; 1QH 3:4; 12:29] will not be considered here.) Citations are involved in 4QFlor (4Q174) 1:3 (Ex. 15:18) and 1:4 (Dt. 23:4ff.[3ff.]). Both 1QM (excepting col. 7) and 1QS 2–4 use ʿôlām in the plural much more frequently than does the OT and much more frequently even than do the other Qumran texts, though no semantic change seems discernible.

As in the OT, (le) ʿôlām oftens means “forever” (1QSb 5:21; 1QH 1:24; 9:29; 14:23; 1QM 11:14; 12:16; 4Q171 [4QpPs 37] 3:2; etc.), which when negated means “never” (4Q504 [4QDibHama] 4:4; 6:11). In 1QM 7:4 one can then translate ʿôlām as “perpetually.” As is the case in the OT, it also occurs together with dôr (4QDibHam 2:11) or with the subst. ʿaḏ (1QS 4:1; 1QSb 3:21; 1QH 13:6, 13; 17:28); the meaning “from everlasting to everlasting” also occurs here (4QDibHam 6:10; 1QS 2:1; etc.). Here, too, the combination with → קדם qeḏem refers to a distant, primal past (CD 2:7; 1QH 13:1, 10), then within the faith of the group itself refers to the divine counsel taken in this “primal period.”

In many instances ʿôlām in construct combinations again functions to add emphasis or amplification; these combinations remain largely within the broader confines of the linguistic models already attested in the OT itself (eternal covenant, possession, peace, joy, loyalty, glory, etc.; 1QS 2:3, 4, 8; 4:3, 7; 8:10; 9:4; 10:4; 11:7; 1QSb 1:3; 2:25, 28; 3:4, 5; 4:3; 1QH 1:18; 3:18, 20, 21; 6:11, 31 [cf. Ps. 24:7]; 9:25f.; 13:5f., 18; 14:6; 18:6, 15; CD 1:15 [cf. Hab. 3:6]; 3:4, 13; 15:5; etc.). Mention of the “everlasting priestly covenant” (1QM 17:3) similarly draws on the OT model.93

The construct combinations with ʿôlām that are new in comparison with those in the OT itself clearly show that these combinations have a stronger eschatological focus than in the OT, and that they are used far more frequently in precisely such contexts and for precisely this reason in the Qumran texts. Hence one reads not only about eternal rule for Israel (1QM 19:8) but also about eternal help, deliverance, or redemption (1QM 12:7; 15:1; 18:1, 11, 12) or eternal destruction of adversaries (1QM 1:5; 9:6; 18:1; 4Q171 3:13). Reference is made to everlasting destiny (1QH 3:22), fire (1QS 2:8), those who are cursed forever (2:17), everlasting ruin and destruction (4:12; 5:13), everlasting light (4:8; 1QH 7:25; 12:15; 1QM 13:6; etc.), an everlasting path (1QH 4:4); cf., e.g., the accumulation of occurrences in 1QS 4:7f.

Whereas the hymnic-doxological use again finds its precursor in the OT itself (1QS 10:12; 11:5; 1QH 1:31; 11:25, 27; 17:20; 1QM 13:7), one particular group of texts demonstrates an interest in the problems of “time” within the Qumran group itself (1QSb 4:26; 5:18; CD 13:8; 2:10; 1QM 12:3; 14:13; 1QS 4:16; cf. also the frequent “everlasting beings/happenings”: 1QS 11:4; cf. CD 2:10; 13:8; 1QH 18:27; 1QM 17:5). As the context shows, an ʾēl ʿôlām then also exhibits a different meaning (1QH 7:31).

The Qumran texts use ʿôlām as a linguistic means of expression in connection with both angelology (1QH 1:11) and anthropology (1QH 1:15) as well as with the dualism typical of Qumran (1QS 4:1, 17; 9:21).

Finally, the lexeme also occupies a unique place within the numerous self-designations and self-qualifications of the Qumran community itself (everlasting knowledge, counsel, order, assembly, community of the everlasting covenant, everlasting planting, everlasting building with everlasting foundations and at an everlasting spring, etc.; cf. 1QS 2:23, 25; 3:12; 4:16, 22; 5:5f.; 8:5; 11:8; 1QH 3:35; 6:15; 1QM 17:8; 1QS 2:3; 1QM 13:9; also 1QH 3:21; 8:6, 8, 12, 14, 20; 6:17f., 10, 31). Accordingly, ʿôlām serves in a larger sense both to express the generally intense eschatological faith of the Qumran community and to qualify this group itself as an eschatological entity.

The use of ʿôlām in the Temple Scroll adds nothing to these findings. Virtually all the occurrences here follow OT usage, and show only that this text was particularly interested in the “everlasting ordinances”97 and in confirming that especially the cultic regulations regarding, e.g., the altar or temple in the larger sense, as well as divine promises regarding it (45:14), are valid “forever” (8:13; 9:14; 17:3; 18:8; 19:9; 20:14; 21:04, 05? 23:01? 24:8; 25:8; 27:4; 29:7f.; 35:9; 45:14; 46:3? 47:3; 50:19; 53:7; 55:10; 59:15, 18).

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.