What I Learned from a Laotian Elephant

Elephant Victory, Elephant, river, hebrew, word, ancient, greek, names, language, yehovah, hovah, disaster, root, pilegesh, concubine, indo, yhvh, Mishnah, Dead Sea ScrollsA few weeks ago I was bathing an elephant in northern Laos, when she suddenly decided to toss me headlong into the murky waters of the Mekong River. My encounter with Ms. Snuffleupagus got me thinking about the Hebrew word for elephant, which is PIL פיל. This word does not appear in the Tanakh, simply because the Hebrew Bible had no occasion to speak about elephants. However, the word did exist in ancient Hebrew and later appears in the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Hebrew word PIL is probably the source (via Phoenician) behind the Greek word ELEPHAS, from which the English word "elephant" is itself derived (via French).

The switching of the letters PH פ and L ל is called "metathesis." PIL became LIPH in Greek and eventually elephas. [Greek adds the -as ending to many words; the "e" at the beginning could have been added in certain Hebrew or Phoenician dialects through what linguists call "prosthetic aleph."] What all this means is that when you say "elephant" in English you are actually speaking Hebrew! This shouldn't be such a surprise. Many animals unknown in ancient Europe have exotic names, such as Camel from the Hebrew Gamal גמל or Giraffe from some African language.

Believe it or not, the noble elephant can teach us something important about the name of Yehovah! Specifically, the rather silly claim that Yehovah יהוה comes from the Hebrew word HOVAH הוה meaning "disaster." As I have explained in the past, this would be like saying that the word "assume" comes from the English words "ass," "you," and "me." I call this "Hovah-logic," which is defined as "knowing just enough Hebrew to be a disaster to yourself and others."

In reality, Yehovah comes from the root HYH היה, meaning "to be," whereas the word HOVAH (disaster) comes from the root HVH הוה. The two words only sound similar to someone blissfully ignorant of Hebrew grammar. For those who actually know Hebrew, Hoveh is a perfectly normal word meaning "he is" and Hovah is the feminine form meaning "she is" (both from HYH). Yehovah comes from Hoveh/ Hovah ("he/ she that is"). Neither has anything to do with the word "HOVAH" meaning "disaster" (from HVH).

My Laotian friend provides another example from Hebrew of how disastrous Hovah-logic can be. The Hebrew word for elephant, "PIL" פיל, sounds similar to "PILegesh" פילגש, meaning "concubine." Using Hovah-logic, you could come up with some bizarre explanations. You might break down the word PILegesh into two words: PIL "elephant" and the verb GESH meaning "approach!" You could then say that ancient concubines were immensely fat and their paramours would shout at them, "Pil, Gesh!" "Approach, elephant!" As silly as this sounds, it's actually more plausible than the name Yehovah having anything to do with the word for "disaster!"

So what is the source of the word PILegesh (concubine)? Anyone who knows Hebrew grammar immediately identifies PILegesh as a foreign loan-word. The dead giveaway is the fact that it has four (or possibly five) root-letters, rather than three. In reality, the Hebrew word PILegesh is most likely derived from the Greek word pallakis, meaning "young girl" (so according to Brown-Driver-Briggs).

Technically, the source of the word PILegesh might not be Greek, but some other related Indo-European language that no longer exists. Either way, it's part of a handful of foreign loan-words in Hebrew that terminate with Indo-European "case-endings." [Other examples include the names of the two Gittites Achish אכיש and Goliath גלית. Both of these names terminate with SH/ TH reflecting Indo-European case-endings. Another famous example is the word Apiryon אפריון ("chariot" in the KJV) in Song of Songs 3:9 containing the Indo-European case-ending "-on."]

If you don't know what a case-ending is, don't worry about it. It just means that there was trade, travel, and invasions across the eastern Mediterranean and as a result Hebrew and Greek swapped a few words with each other. The concept of a "concubine," what we might call in English a "mistress," was alien to the original Hebrew language. From the Garden of Eden, Hebrew had the concept of a "wife" ISHAH אשה, but it had to look to Greek to express the perverse idea of a "mistress." That's how the word PILegesh (concubine) came into the Hebrew language. On the other hand, the Greeks were unaware of camels and elephants and had to borrow words for these creatures from Hebrew. To translate all this into modern terms, the Greeks gave us Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky, whereas the Hebrews gave us Dumbo and Babar. It was worth getting thrown into a polluted river by a cantankerous pachyderm just to learn all this.

Elephant, river, hebrew, word, ancient, greek, names, language, yehovah, hovah, disaster, root, pilegesh, concubine, indo, yhvh, Mishnah, Dead Sea Scrolls

Moments before the beast cast me into the river, she started doing that weird thing with her trunk. I knew it wasn't going to end well!

  • Jean Gordon says:

    I asked myself, does he just know this stuff, or did he have to look it up to write it. I think, upon reflection, that you just know it. Of course, many years of study brought the knowledge to you. I must read this again and again to try and glean one thing that I can remember. Your mind boggles me. I’m glad you have it, and share what’s in it with the rest of us. Thank you Nehemiah. Shalom.

  • Mark Blue says:

    I see he isn’t conversing here so I think I will mention, I think I heard Nehemia mentioning “his” copy if the NKJ New King James version, during one of the Light of the Southwest shows on Youtube. I certainly hope he will correct this here if I misheard. Also he speaks about Shem Tov’s Hebrew Matthew.

  • Wictor says:

    Please Nehemia, tell me what new testament version you use that i can reda in English. I love your work

  • Mark Blue says:

    Who has the authority to change a word’s meaning?

    Perhaps you will find an interest in this and blog on it someday.

    I have older dictionaries and prayer books back to the 1920’s and the word ‘qadosh’ means holy – pure and clean – in all of them. So it seems like someone is trying to change a Hebrew word’s meaning in the last few years since now all jewish and christian teachers say ‘set-apart’ instead of ‘holy’ for qadosh. The only place I could find any remote reference to qadosh as aloof or set-apart or any such thing, before 1990, was in writings from the 11th century – none since then till just a few years ago.
    refs.:David Kimhi – lived 1160-1235
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?sits=1&req=44107&st=%u05e7%u05d3%u05e9 – pp. 327-329
    Also R’ Yona Ibn Janah – lived 995-1050
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?sits=1&req=36864&st=%u05e7%u05d3%u05e9 – pp. 484-485

    Now, I understand why neither religion WANTS to think about being as pure and clean as Yehova. Christians don’t even forsake sin upon conversion anymore, to stake the old claim that the blood of Christ can make them wholly pure, and the jews like to weigh actions on their scales – they have NO concept like King David’s of Yehova effecting lev hator in them.

    But who can actually change a word’s meaning so that people utterly use it differently after millenia of original usage? If there is no authority – like a Halachic council – for word changes, then how in practical terms can this have happened?

    • Karla says:

      I am always happy to hear from you! Seems all is changing and by who’s authority? Well I shake my head and sing, “there will be a day!” Someone says “when the smoke clears” Shalom

      • Mark Blue says:

        Hi, Sorry! This was the first time I posted. You must be thinking I am someone else.

        • Karla says:

          No, if your Mr Nehemiah Gorden currently in China teaching, then you are the man who teaches awesome things, mostly biblical, but also just plain fun, good information! Like the Elephant, or as above who changes meanings in the dictionary!

        • Karla says:

          I am new to internet and how all it works. I hope I did not offend you and I hope you are Nehemiah Gorden, I have learned so much from him, he makes me laugh and he has a tender heart! But if not, tell me how this site works! I can unsubscribe if you are not him. Thank you Karla

          • Mark Blue says:

            Hi Karla, I am not Nehemiah, but am deeply honored that you might think so. I would have expected that my minimal knowledge of Hebrew would show painfully in my original post about word meanings changing. Thank you! for the compliment. I hope he replies to what I was asking.

          • Mark Blue says:

            Karla, I know how you got mixed up. Instead of clicking Reply to post, find the place at the bottom for posting an original comment. (you ‘replied’ to me, not Nehemia)

    • The objective is always to recover the meaning of a word as used in its original history, language, and context. If the meaning has changed over time, we must attempt to understand the word as it would have been first understood in its day.

      • Mark Blue says:

        Haleluiah! A voice in the wilderness….. I am informed and encouraged now, to continue in my study of the word ‘rib’, and how Gen. 2 seems to be the first place and almost the only place that the word ‘side’ is used to name that structural bone. God Bless You.

  • mark says:

    Hey; Some Great Elefun! Todah….!

    On another elefront…. Struggling with the beard, trimming, etc issue(s)…seems Torah is clear on the point…but you’ve obviously found a loophole in this commandment… mind sharing? TY !!!

  • Andy © says:

    Thanks Nehemia for an interesting and valuable read!

    I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed this, but, re “HYH היה.. [vs] HVH הוה…,” well, while doing a whole lot of Hebrew word studies, God opened my eyes to an interesting little pearl pertaining to how Hebrew words are designed. You see, if you take most any Hebrew word that does not contain the letter ‘vav,’ for instance ‘ היה ‘ and the you add the letter ‘vav’ into it, or else you may exchange a letter such as ‘yod’ with a ‘vav,’ well, when you do that the meaning of the word will typically change from a perfect, or godly, thing into something not perfect, something wicked or ungodly. That is, over and above the well known grammar terms ‘present tense’ and ‘past tense.’

    Thus, I do see a relationship between those two Hebrew words “HYH היה.. [and] HVH הוה…,” albeit a relationship of opposites.

    I certainly don’t know if you will buy this right off the bat, but maybe it’ll grow on you with time? For me this discovery has turned out to be quite valuable over the years! It has certainly helped me make sense out of many passages that are commonly considered difficult or unclear…

    May our God of Truth, our Creator and Redeemer, be forever our teacher and guide!

    Shabbat Shalom!

  • Marta says:

    Enjoyed this teaching and thank you for sharing. Gave such a better insight to the name YHVH. Shalom and mnay blessings.

  • ksl4israel says:

    I am moved by your intelligence! I’ve been following your teachings for many years now. I thank you for teaching me so much, sharing your tears and laughter along the way. Please excuse that my English in writing and speak is so poor. Yes, I was born and educated in Michigan which might explain some on my slowness in learning, or forgetfulness in years. Your friends and you have opened a world of knowledge and joy (via internet, books and dvds’) which I would have never dreamed possible 20 years ago. When I was given our first Apple computer and told of the internet, I replied “why would we want to do that” I was thinking of it like a typewriter, which the kids could do Mickey learning games, do school papers, my budget, all the simple pleasures. When Trey was 13, he came home from school telling me with great excitement about going on-line and all the things that old computer could do. Now 14 years later, I finally have my turn on-line! Sometimes I end up places not sure how I got there, or like now I write long chapters, where I see most people put a sentence, thinking oh I will just delete and start again only to hit the wrong key and OH MY Goodness its out there, I will never go on facebook again. I guess in closing Nehemia, Thank you for helping get more comfortable about being online, for being my friend and for sharing your love and wisdom of YHVH. Shalom Karla

  • Lars says:

    If I were an elephant, I would also get rid of your musculous body full of pounds and let the small guy behind you take your place :-), no offence!

  • Sheila Lemieux says:

    Wow…..it’s info like this that gives us tantalizing joy to become “seeker’s” of the “Word”!

  • Laura Compton says:

    Hey, “elephant man,” great story for my Hebrew students (class coming up in April). Love that first photo BTW. Hope all is well with you.

  • Desiree Rush says:

    Hi Nehemia,
    Wow! That Laotian elephant sure had a lot to say. I’m not sure why this made you think of concubines, but elephants are pretty special. You are very lucky and I am glad Yehovah blesses you.

  • Aron Brackeen says:

    Ah…”a cantankerous pachyderm”: This post was well worth reading. Thanks Nehemiah! It is good to see you continuing to accurately proclaim the Name. So, the Mekong River…your travels are interesting. Enjoy the moments.
    Shalom Aleichem!

  • art phillips says:

    Shalom Nehemiah….maybe the elephant wanted to bathe alone?

  • Linda Sprague says:

    This was such a good article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  • Kees Brakshoofden says:

    Hi Nehemia, Isaac Mozeson wrote a book called “The Origin of Speeches” on the Edenic origin of all speeches in the world. In fact, I’m his Dutch connection for the project he has undertaken since the late 80’s in reconnecting all known languages to the ancient Hebrew. In his book he explains all linguistic rules you have to use to find these connections (like Metathesis, lettershifts, nasalization, etc.). I am now convinced that G-d will one day restore a pure (Hebrew) lip to all the world, restoring the babbel that started in Babel (Zephaniah 3:9).

  • Deborah Venter says:

    Thank you Nehemia, this was a most enjoyable read!! You may make this kind of letter a weekly thing! I for one will never grow weary of such a conversation!

  • galatians416 says:

    Shalom Nehemia!

    You’re one funny guy.

    I’ve so enjoyed your teachings on Michael Rood’s dvds; you and Keith are a blessing to many. I’ve learned much from you both and I get really encouraged and excited by your testimonies. Each time I listen to your teachings and see you and Keith in action I think of Ephesians 2:14! Oh yeah, Yehovah has a sense of humor, eh?

    I so appreciate learning Hebrew words in the Tanakh as you teach so that the Torah becomes much clearer for me. Then I share with others how the passages are really structured for understanding.

    I love it when you make me laugh and even when you make me cry. Yehovah bless you and keep you safe and bring you back to us again in the USA.

    Say, do you have a license to ride that critter?

    Medford, OR