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When learning a new language, greeting expressions, such as “Guten Tag” in German “annyeonghaseyo” in Korean are usually the first subject matter. However, biblical Hebrew teachers rarely follow this typical process since biblical Hebrew is almost always for reading the Scripture, not for conversation. It is not necessary to learn such expressions as they probably won’t be in use. But knowing greeting words may increase your interest in the language as it often is in learning other languages.
As well-known, “shalom” is the word used to greet others, asking whether the conversation partner is well. I don’t know the etymology of the word “hello” or “hi.” These English words are semantically ambiguous though their functions are not. The Hebrew word “shalom,” however, has clear meanings, though they cover a wide range of definitions, such as completeness, safety, welfare (health and prosperity), peace, tranquility, etc. When I learned biblical Hebrew as a Korean, it was very interesting to know that “shalom” is incredibly similar to the Korean greeting word “annyeong” in “annyeonghaseyo.”
As “annyeonghaseyo” in Korean is a question, “shalom” in Hebrew is often used as a question in greeting. An example is found in Genesis 29:6. When Jacob arrived at a well near Laban’s house in Haran, he had a small conversation with the shepherds nearby the well.
Jacob: “Do you know Laban?”
Shepherds: “We do”
Jacob: “Is it well with him?”
Shepherds: “Yes, and here is his daughter Rachel, coming with the sheep.”
In this conversation, “shalom” appears in Jacob’s second question and the shepherds’ answer to it. Though the actual concern of the conversation points to Laban, it is, nonetheless, a greeting. See below (Gen 29:6):
(and) he[Jacob] asked them[the shepherds], “hashalom lo?“
(and) they said, “shalom.”
Here, the question “hashalom” and the answer “shalom” is a typical greeting conversation. The particle “ha” in “hashalom” makes the sentence an interrogative sentence. The word “lo” in Jacob’s question is a combination of a preposition (“l“) and a pronominal suffix (“o,” 3rd person masculine singular) meaning “for/to/with him.”
So, to ask “are you well?” or “is it well with you?” you can replace “lo” with something else such as “ʾatta” (second person masculine singular pronoun) or just a person’s name. Note that the preposition “l” is not used when a second person pronoun is employed. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
2 Sam 20:9 Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you (hashalom ʾatta) my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him.
2 Kg 9:22 When Joram saw Jehu, he said, “Is it peace, Jehu?” (hashalom Jehu) He answered, “What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?”NRSV
Sometimes, you can just say, “hashalom” without anything after it. This expression best matches with an English expression, “is everything alright?” For example, the passage in 2 Kg 5:21 says,
So Gehazi went after Naaman. When Naaman saw someone running after him, he jumped down from the chariot to meet him and said, “Is everything all right?” (hashalom)NRSV
As we already saw, you can simply say “shalom” to answer the question “hashalom” as it is merely a rhetorical question. After you answer, you and your conversation partners get down to the actual business or go back to what you have been doing and carry on.
But occasionally, you may take the question not rhetorically but literally and answer that you are actually not well. Here is an example in the Hebrew Bible.
After Elijah showed God’s greatness and punished Baal and Asherah’s prophets at Mount Carmel, whom king Ahab and queen Jezebel appointed, God appeared to Elijah and told him to anoint Jehu to replace Ahab with Jehu (1 Kg 19). But it did not happen for time as he disappears from the earth. The task was transferred to Elisha, and fulfilled in 2 Kg 9. Elisha sent his pupil to anoint Jehu. At that time, Ahab was already dead, and his son Joram ruled the Northern kingdom of Israel after Ahaziah, also a son of Ahab. Elisha’s pupil told Jehu to punish the house of Ahab, that is, to kill Joram. So Jehu, after the anointment, headed to Jezreel, where Joram was rehabilitating from his war wounds. Joram heard the news that Jehu was coming, so he sent a messenger to Jehu asking “hashalom.” Jehu threatens the messenger and makes him not return to the king. So Joram sends another messenger asking his shalom, but the same thing happened. Joram finally rose from his bed and marched against Jehu. And here are the words they traded when they met:
Joram: “hashalom Jehu” (is it well with you?)
Jehu:”mah shalom” (literally “what shalom” meaning how can I be well?)
Like “ha” in “hashalom,” “mah” also is a word that turns an indicative sentence into an interrogative sentence. Jehu’s answer (or question) indicates that there cannot be any shalom until the many whoredoms and sorceries of Jezebel end. Joram already asked him his shalom twice, and this was the third time asking. Joram knew Jehu was not ok with him. So his final “hashalom” was no longer a rhetorical question expecting a typical conversation. His greeting was more like “I know you are not well” kind of greeting. And Jehu responded accordingly: “mah shalom,” that is “what shalom.”
Jehu killed Joram as the prophecy commanded him and removed Baal religion from Israel. He also executed Jezebel and rose to the throne of Israel in the north.
So, this is it for today. I hope you enjoy learning Hebrew!