Hebrew Words: Seed, Son, Remember, and Covenant

Posted by on Apr 27, 2024

In this Hebrew study we will learn four Hebrew words for “seed”, “son”, “to remember”, and “covenant” and how they relate to each other. In the following, we would like to posit another way to look at these Hebrew words, specifically in reference to the Covenant the Eternal made with the patriarch Avraham. We will begin with the Hebrew word for “seed”: Zera.

Zera: Seed

The Hebrew word זֶרַע zera, literally means seed and is first used in Genesis 1 for the creation of the vegetation. Figuratively, it is used for fruit, plant, son (Gen 48:19), sowing time, or posterity, but also for male semen. It comes from the root verb זָרַע zara, which means to sow, figuratively to become pregnant, to propagate, as a male sows his seed, literally, “lying down seed”, i.e., semen (see Lev 19:20, Num 5:13 for this application). As a noun zera means also “child”, because as a seed is the continuation of a plant, so is a child the continuation, the posterity, of the family. The most pronounced examples of zera being a seed of the family can be found in the following two verses:

But when a priest’s daughter is a widow or put away, and has no child (zera), and has returned to her father’s house as in her youth, she does eat her father’s food, but no stranger eats of it. (Lev 22:13)

Here zera (“seed”) should not been interpreted to mean a woman’s seed (“ovule” or “ovum”) but the seed that continues the family, the offspring. The second example of zera (“seed”) as a child, and more particularly a male child, is found in the conception of the prophet Shemuel, when his mother made a vow before the Eternal saying,

O the Eternal of hosts, if You would indeed look on the affliction of your female servant and remember me, and not forget your female servant, but shall give your female servant a male child (zera), then I shall give him to the Eternal all the days of his life, and let no razor come upon his head. (1Sa 1:11)

Grammar notes: The promises to Avraham made in Gen 12:7 and Gen 13:16 regarding giving the Land refer to his seed: “to your seed I give this land”. This Hebrew word here and everywhere in the Tanach always appear in singular. The author of Galatians, however, says that the promise was not made to “seeds” (plural) but to “His seed” (singular): “But the promises were spoken to Avraham, and to his Seed. He does not say, “And to seeds”, as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed”, who is Messiah” (Gal 3:16). The Hebrew זֶרַע zera, does not have plural but always appears in singular. How did he overlook such a grammar rule? We have no explanation for this, but it does not appear to us to be correct. We now return to the text.

But the first use of zera as a child, and more particularly a male child is found in Gen 3:15: the verse which is the first promise of the Messiah,

And I put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall crush your head, and you shall crush His heel. (Gen 3:15)

Bein: Son

A synonym of זֶרַע zera, “seed”, “offspring” is the Hebrew word בֵּן bein. Bein means a son, and unlike in other languages in a broader sense it includes grandson and great grandson. בֵּן bein comes from the root verb בָּנָה banah, which means to build (literally and figuratively): to obtain children. Hence, a son is seen in the Hebraic mind and culture as a continuation of the family and on whom the next generation is built. It is remarkable that the ancient Hebrew pictograph of the letter bet in the word bein resembles a house, and letter nun resembles a germinated seed or sperm; together they both convey the idea of a continuation of a new life in the family. When this word is read in a sentence, it is inevitable for a Hebrew reader to associate it with another Hebrew word which sounds identically and is spelt almost identically, yet it is a different word: בֵּין bein, which means “distinction”, but when used only as a preposition, it means “between”.

Zachar: Male, Memory, Remembrance

On the same day the Eternal made a covenant with Avram, saying, “I have given this land to your seed (zera), from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Gen 15:18)

Note: According to Ibn Ezra, the phrase “from the river of Egypt” refers not to the Great River of Egypt, the Nile, but to the Shihor, as it is seen in Jer 2:18. In fact, Jos 13:3 testifies that the Shihor lies before Egypt, while the Nile is in Egypt. Hence, the land promised to the seed of Avraham expands from the river Shichor to the river Euphrates, not from the Nile to the Euphrates. We now return to the text.
Giving the Land as a gift is a voluntary act of generosity on the part of the Sovereign of the universe. In contrast, the inheritance of the Land always belongs to the recipient, namely, Avraham’s descendants by promise, as an irrevocable birthright. The Covenant (Hebrew, בְּרִית beriyt) between the Eternal and Avraham and his seed is then repeatedly recalled in the Torah and in the Prophets calling on Israel to remember the Covenant. It is worth noticing that the term בְּרִית beriyt is mentioned in the Bible no fewer than 285 times. The Hebrew word for “to remember” is זָכַר zachar, but also for “male” (of man or animals). The association is made on the premises that a man’s children are his memory, as his name continues in his children. Both “to remember” and “male” derive from the common root זָכַר zachar. This provides an explanation as to how the Bible sees the purpose of the Covenant: namely, to secure the inheritance but also the growth of the seed of the family (Gen 17:1-15).

And I give My covenant between Me and you and shall greatly increase you(Gen 17:2) … As for Me, look, My covenant is with you, and you shall become a father of many nations. (Gen 17:4)

The word zachar, “to remember”, should not be understood in any passive sense of remembering. The verb zachar is a very active verb. In Hebrew mind, remembering something is not only recalling the past but its reliving in the present. In fact, we may argue that the real meaning of zachar is mentioning and not simply recalling something. The most prominent verse wherein we find this meaning is the commandment not to mention the names of deities of the heathens, as we read,

And do not mention the name of deities of the others, let it not be heard from your mouth. (Exo 23:13)

The parallelism here between “do not mention” and “let it not be heard” helps determine the plain meaning of zachar. Hence, in keeping with the rules of parallelism, zachar means mentioning. Therefore, when we read that the Eternal Elohim “remembered” His covenant with Avraham, with Yitschak, and with Ya’akov (Exo 2:24), He did not recall it, as if the Omniscient could forget something, but He relived it in the present and delivered their descendants from bondage. And this is the Covenant the Eternal made with Avraham. On the day He made the Covenant with Avraham, He passed through the cutting of the sacrifice Avraham offered. Later, Abraham was instructed by the Creator to circumcise himself and all the males of his household, as a sign of the Covenant.

Beriyt: Covenant

The Hebrew word בְּרִית beriyt, literally means “cutting”. It comes from the primitive root verb בָּרָה barah, which means to select, to feed or eat. Perhaps the idea of beriyt is that Avraham was selected from all the nations to become a father of a new nation, or because of the cutting of pieces of animal flesh. Beriyt is used in the Hebrew Scripture for covenant, alliance, and pledge, both between men and between Elohim and man. There are two types of a covenant in the ancient world, and they are:

Royal Grant Treaty:

  • To protect the rights of the Vassal.
  • The Suzerain takes the oath.
  • The curses are against those who may deprive the Vassal of the Suzerain’s gift (Gen 12:2-3).
  • The Grant (gift) is promised to all future offspring of the Vassal.
  • The Grant is a reward for faithful service.
  • Unconditional promise.

Suzerain-Vassal Treaty:

  • To protect the right of the Suzerain.
  • The Vassal takes the oath.
  • The curses are against the Vassal.
  • No guarantee for future generations.
  • Primarily political in nature.
  • Conditional promise.

The Covenant the Eternal made with Avraham was the type of a grant: Royal Grant Treaty. In this treaty, the Suzerain, the Sovereign of the universe, took the oath which extended to all future descendants of the patriarch. According to which treaty or covenant, the Eternal took the oath to protect the rights of Avraham’s descendants on the Land unconditionally. On the other hand, the treaty He made with the children of Israel, the grandson of Avraham, is of a type of Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. According to which treaty, the vassal, all the nation of Israel, took the oath (at Mount Sinai) saying, “All that the Eternal has spoken we shall do” (Exo 19:8).

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