Nazarene Space

The Hebrew Bible holds many gems that cannot be discerned by simple English translations. Psalm 144 is a great example to illustrate this point. What follows is an image of Ps 144:3-4 with outlined items of interest and it's corresponding translation:

what is humanity that you know him,
the son of man that you consider him? (v.3)
Man is like a meaningless breath,
His days are as a passing shadow. (v.4)

This pericope is peculiar because, though not obvious in English, it alludes to three antediluvian patriarchs of the human race. The color-coded items of interest follow.

  • Red outlines the term אָדָם ’adam meaning "humanity" - this is name of the first man "Adam" (Gn 5:1).

  • Green outlines the term אֱנוֹשׁ enosh meaning "man" - this is the name of Adam's grandson who is Seth's son (Gn 5:3-6).

  • Indigo outlines the term הֶבֶל hevel meaning "breath", "mist", or "vanity" - this is the name of Adam's son (commonly called "Abel") who was killed by his twin brother Cain (Gn 4:1-2, 8).

Though these are all common nouns, they can also be proper nouns depending on how they are used and in what context. And their usage in Ps 144:3-4 does allow for an alternative reading in which the Psalmist discusses our first fathers:

what is Adam that you know him,
the son of Enosh that you consider him? {v.3}
Adam is like unto Abel,
His days are as a passing shadow. {v.4}

When the Psalmist alluded to these progenitors of the Human race, their descendants were most certainly in mind as well. Note the literary doublet that is employed in verse 3:

a1 ) Adam
b1 ) that you know him,
a2 ) the son of Enosh
b2 ) that you consider him?

As delineated above, this couplet is comprised of the equating components:

"Adam" (a1) = "the son of Enosh" (a2)
"that you know him" (b1) = "that you consider him" (b2)

Obviously Adam isn't synonymous with Enosh's son; they were two different people. But they and their descendants all share the same fate as Abel -- death. The Hebrew Bible frequently uses progenitors and patriarchs as corporate representations of all that proceeds from their loins: biblically, a progeny no matter how many generations removed can be represented by it's progenitor and his actions. The NT book of Hebrews 7 vv. 5-6 & 9-10 illustrates this concept in the form of an argument:

And those indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priest's office have commandment in the Law to collect a tenth from the people, that is, from their brethren, although these are descended from Abraham But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed the one who had the promises... And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him.

The author deduces that if Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, and had Levi who is less than Abraham existing in his loins when he tithed, then it follows that Levi also tithed to Melchizedek by Abraham's actions. Therefore, Melchizedek is greater than Levi. As one last example from the NT, Paul finds in this concept a beautiful expression of grace for Israel even though they reject Yeshua as the messiah. To the chagrin of replacement theologians, he writes,

From the standpoint of the gospel they are adversaries for your sake, but from the standpoint of election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rm 11:28-29)

In both the NT and the Tanach, this concept is critical and axiomatic. It is alluded to in cases where, for example, scripture calls the nation of Israel "Jacob" (i.e. Is 41:8-9 & Jer 46:28) or the term "Adam" is used to denote all of Adam's descendants (cp. Gn 6:3 & Dt 8:3). The issuance of tribal blessings in Gn 49:1-28 is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. Not only are the tribal destinies contingent upon the oracle spoken to each tribal patriarch, but they are also contingent upon the actions of each tribal patriarch; thus, because Reuben defiled his father's bed and lost his preeminence as the first born, so did all that proceeded from him. The same goes for the descendants of Simeon and Levi and so on.

The principle of a patriarchal corporate representative seems to be what Ps 144:3-4 draws upon. The psalmist likens Adam (= "humanity") and the son of Enosh (= "son of man") to Abel (= "vanity" or "breath") who died an untimely death when Cain slew him. Just as Abel's days on the earth were in vain and vanished as a "breath", so were Adam's days. He was intended to live forever but ended up returning to the אֲדָמָה adamah (= "ground") from where he was taken (cf. Gn 3:19). Therefore, so do all of us as his descendants. The psalmist in his inquiries of God, appeals to our first fathers who were of the prototypical human blueprint and as close to the original divine image as possible. From this appeal emerges the truth that even our first fathers were so diminished, yet known of God. And how much worse are we today? Nonetheless, God still considers us and knows us, humanity, the descendants of Enosh and Adam. Baruch Adonai!

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