Hebrew Word: Desolation

Posted by on Jun 5, 2024

Chapter 26 of Leviticus is summary of the statutes, ordinances, and laws which the Eternal gave the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, before they would start their journey to the Promised Land at the hand of Mosheh. It follows the laws in the preceding chapter that regulate how the Land to receive its due rest in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Verses 32 and 33 of Leviticus 26, to which we now turn in our Hebrew study, state that the land the Eternal would make desolate if the children of Israel would choose not to follow the laws and instructions in the Torah. And the result of this would be that their enemies who would occupy it and try to settle the land would be unable to make it fruitful as it was before. The focus word in our study is the Hebrew word שָׁמֵם shamem. We read verse 32 and 33 in the way indicated in JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation of the Hebrew text,

And I will bring the land into desolation (shemamah); and your enemies that dwell therein shall be astonished (shamem) at it. And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation (shemamah), and your cities shall be a waste. (Lev 26:32-33 JPS)

Although this is the common translation of the verse, we can offer an alternative to it. A careful reading of the Hebrew text of these verses brings the attention upon our word שָׁמֵם shamem, and more particularly of the two different ways this word has been rendered by the JPS translators: once as “desolation” and again as “astonished”. Such a rendering appears to express two seemingly contradictory views on the use of שָׁמֵם shamem, namely, to destroy and on the other hand to astonish. For since Scripture found it necessary to say the land would be destroyed and the people taken in exile, what was the necessity for the choice of word “astonished”? But there is no contradiction here unless we suppose that the only reason for the appearance of “astonished” is to introduce “amusement”. This does not appear to us to be correct. Therefore, we must try and understand why in connection with שְׁמָמָה shemamah, “desolation”, it is said שָׁמֵם shamem. When does such a repetition apply, and how does it affect the text? When the Author wants to convey a certain message, as it will be further explained in the interpretation of the verses. Referring to KJV (King James’ Version of the Bible) of Leviticus 26:32-33 does not do any better since it reads the same.

The noun שְׁמָמָה shemamah, as it appears above, means devastation, desolation, waste that remains as a result of war. This meaning שְׁמָמָה shemamah is best seen in verses like Isa 61:4, Dan 9:18, Ecc 7:16, and Dan 8:13. But perhaps the most pronounced example wherein this word is used is in the prophecy concerning the 70 weeks in Daniel, as we read,

And after the threescore and two weeks shall an anointed one be cut off and be no more; and the people of a prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; but his end shall be with a flood; and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. (Dan 9:26 JPS)

The noun שְׁמָמָה shemamah is in feminine and is derived from the verb שָׁמֵם shamem with the meaning of to stun, to destroy, to lay waste, that is, to devastate. Figuratively, it means to stupefy, to leave one confused at a loss because of something complex or difficult to understand, hence “astonished” in the English translations. But since the English word “to astonish” bears the notion of being filled with the emotional impact of overwhelming surprise (very often in a positive way), our verses in Leviticus seem easy to read but nevertheless inaccurate. In addition, if thus translated and read, the careful reader would be left in confusion as to why the new occupiers of the land, after causing its total desolation, would be “astonished” at what they had done. Can we rethink this translation?

The Hebrew language allows an alternative translation, which may make more sense to the critical reader, as we will see in the explanation below. In our opinion, since a verse never leaves its plain meaning and grammar, translating the verses into plain terms, reads,

I will make the land desolate, and your enemies who settle in it shall be desolated by it. And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. (Lev 26:32-33)

The choice of the words שְׁמָמָה shemamah, “desolation” and שָׁמֵם shamem, to stun, to destroy, to lay waste by the Torah helps determine the plain meaning of the text and teaches that the reason why this line “and your enemies who settle in it shall be desolated by it” is necessary, although the passage would have been understood without it, is because the intent of the Eternal is to communicate something else. And the passage may be understood without difficulty as meaning, that the enemies of the children of Israel will make the land desolate, they themselves will be desolate by it. This is stated simply to be understood simply. But what does it mean?

If the children of Israel do not give the Land its rightful rest and walk contrary to the laws in the Torah, despite all the punishments with which they have been warned, the Eternal will still have mercy on them. Although the land will be made desolate of its inhabitants, it will be deserted also by their enemies who made it desolate. They will try unsuccessfully to settle the land and live in it and cultivate it, but after the rightful residents are gone, they will be unable to make it blossom. The leading Torah scholar of the Middle Ages Mosheh ben Nachman, also known as Ramban, wrote that the Land of Israel is good and bountiful when settled by its people but desolate when occupied by foreigners. Mark Twain, when he visited the land and found no people there, stated that even though the land is rich and seemed to have the potential to yield fruits, it yielded only thorns.

So thus translated, “I will make the land desolate, and your enemies who settle in it shall be desolated by it” states and guarantees that the Land of Israel will be barren for its conquerors but will prosper only for its people when they return. Indeed, when Israel returned, and the land began to blossom again, it became like a garden. When the enemies saw this, they coveted it and waged wars against its people in 1948, 1967, 1973, and in 2023 for it to possess it. But blinded by hatred they failed to see that the Land would turn back to a desolate place without its people, as it is the case with Gaza, when in 2005 the Bush administration forced Israel to leave the land King David conquered and gave it to the Palestinians. The Gaza strip became desolate again as it was before. All fulfilled, as it has been said: “I will make the land desolate, and your enemies who settle in it shall be desolated by it”.

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