In “Enosh – a mortal” Jefferson Vann shares how a Hebrew word indicates that human beings are mortal by nature.
The Coronavirus pandemic is giving us daily reminders that we are all mortal, or are we? What does the Bible actually teach on the subject?
There are several words in Hebrew which can be translated ‘man’ — meaning a human being, and Job 4:17 uses two of them:
- “Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker?” (KJV)
- “Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker?” (NKJV)
- “Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (ESV).
- “Is a mortal man righteous before God? Or a man pure before his Creator?” (NET)
The two words translated “man” in Job 4:17 are “enosh” and “gever”, and oddly, neither of these is a common word for “man” in Hebrew. Usually the Hebrew writers used “adam” for humanity as a whole, and “ish” for a man compared to “ishah” for a woman.
But the two words that Eliphaz used in Job 4 were quite appropriate for his purposes. They represented two opposite ends of a spectrum: humanity in all it diversity. Gever (גֶּבֶר ) emphasizes man in his youth and strength, and enosh (אֱנוֹשׁ ) the opposite, man as a dying creature.
In Job 4:17, enosh is used as an substantival adjective, so all the translations above are appropriate. I suppose the closest to a literal rendering of the word is the New King James Version, which translates enosh as “a mortal.”
The NET compares the two words in its notes on the verse:
“The word for man here is first enosh (stressing man in all his frailty, his mortality. This is paralleled with gever (a word that would stress more of the strength or might of man. The verse is not making a great contrast between the two, but it is rhetorical question merely stating that no human being of any kind is righteous or pure before God the Creator.”
The Hebrew word for warrior — gibbor (גִּבּוֹר ) is related to geber. Warriors were to be the young, strong skilled men who were capable of surviving battles, and being victorious.
Both words are appropriate terms for humanity in general. As I get older, I must confess to feeling a bit more feeble and frail, but I resist being put out to pasture, or (for you Monty Python fans) I find myself arguing with those who want to bring me out for dead. “I’m not dead yet!” I say.
The truth is, all of us who are still alive fit somewhere on the scale, but even the youngest, strongest gibbor is still an enosh, — a mortal.
Elsewhere in Job, enosh conveys the same idea and can be translated similarly:
- Job 5:17 (JDV) See how happy is the mortal whom God corrects; so do not reject the discipline of the Almighty.
- Job 7:1 (JDV) Isn’t each mortal consigned to forced labor in the land? Are not his days like those of a hired worker?
- Job 7:17 (JDV) What is a mere mortal, that you think so highly of him and pay so much attention to him?
- Job 9:2 (JDV) Yes, I know what you’ve said is true, but how can a mortal be justified before God?
- Job 10:4 (JDV) Do you have eyes of flesh, or do you see as a mortal sees?
- Job 10:5 (JDV) Are your days like those of a mortal, or your years like those of a man (gever),
Here the two terms are listed again, but in parallel fashion, so the idea is that both terms describe the same human condition. Even strong young warriors are not immortal like God is.
- Job 13:9 (JDV) Would it go well if he examined you? Could you deceive him as you would deceive a mortal?
- Job 14:18-20 (JDV) But as a mountain collapses and crumbles and a rock is dislodged from its place, as water wears away stones and torrents wash away the soil from the land, so you destroy a mortal’s hope. You completely overpower him, and he passes on; you change his appearance and send him away.
Time is on God’s side. Eventually, time wears us all out, and we pass on in death.
- Job 15:14 (JDV) What is a mere mortal, that he should be pure, or one born of a woman, that he should be righteous?
- Job 25:4-6 (JDV) How can a mortal be justified before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon does not shine and the stars are not pure in his sight, how much less a mortal, who is a maggot, a son of man (adam), who is a worm!
- Job 28:4 (JDV) Far from where people live he sinks a shaft, in places travelers have long forgotten, far from other mortals he dangles and sways.
- Job 28:12-13 (JDV) But where can wisdom be found, and where is understanding located? No mortal can know its value, since it cannot be found in the land of the living.
- Job 32:7-8 (JDV) I thought that age should speak and maturity should teach wisdom. But it is the breath in a mortal — the breathing from the Almighty — that gives anyone understanding.
Elihu’s point is that both wisdom and life (represented by the terms breath (רוּחַ ruach) and breathing (נְשָׁמָה neshamah) come from the same source: God himself. That is why he dares debate wisdom with an old man, although he, himself is a young man.
- Job 33:12 (JDV) But I tell you that you are wrong in this matter, since God is greater than a mortal.
- Job 33:26 (JDV) He will pray to God, and God will delight in him. He will see his face with a shout of joy, and God will restore to that mortal his righteousness.
The point of this study is that mortality is such an essential element in being human that the the basic term for mortality was used as a synonym for humanity. The pagan concept of the immortality of the soul, along with its accompanying doctrines of conscious survival at death and disembodied punishment in the intermediate state would have been unheard of.
We conditionalists ask our fellow believers to consider abandoning these false doctrines. They are not essential to the biblical message. They have nothing to do with the gospel. They lead many to trust in themselves and their supposed innate immortality rather than trust the coming Saviour, who will actually raise the dead.
For more on human mortality, see: