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The Hebrew Word for 'One' (`echadh - אחד) and the Uniqueness of God

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Question:  I have a question for you about the Hebrew word "echad." Now, I know it means numerically "one" and "each" and so on, but can't it also mean "united, composite one"? Strong's has it as one of its meanings. Somebody once told me that that is its main meaning, but it seems to me, that simply "one" is its main meaning, but "united one" is certainly within its semantic realm, as in "the man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall be echad flesh.". Could you please elucidate? Thanks, and God bless you.

Response: Indeed, `echadh (אחד) is the Hebrew word for "one", that is, the cardinal numeral "1". That is its main meaning. The semantic field is often expanded (as is the case in the English word "one"); you use the example "one flesh" in Genesis 2:24, and I think its clear that this meaning of unity (i.e., no more separate parts) is inherent in both English and Hebrew to a virtually equivalent degree. Having said this, there are a few places where we get an indication that in Hebrew the unity, or rather the uniqueness aspect of the unity of "one", is more pronounced and more significant than in English. For example, in Genesis 1:5 the "first" day is, literally from the Hebrew, "day one" (i.e., a really special day as the first one in the sequence), although the remaining days do have the ordinal numerals (second, third, fourth, etc.; this happens frequently in the O.T. with the number "one"). While this is not generally recognized today, this deference to "one" over "first" in such cases was clearly understood throughout scripture, for we find John in Revelation's account of the seven seals speaking of "seal one" instead of "the first seal" (whereas the remainder are again ordinals: second, third, fourth, etc.). And both Greek and Hebrew do have heavily used ordinals for "first" (protos [πρῶτος] and rishon [ראשון] respectively), so that there is a clear choice being made here, undoubtedly for emphasis.

The best parallels I can offer for this aspect of "one" in the sense of uniqueness are Job 23:13: "but He [the Lord] is unique [be-`echadh, באחד], and who can turn Him? NASB; Ezek.7:5 "a unique disaster" [ra'ah 'achath, רעה אחת]; and also 2Sam.7:23 (cf. 1Chron.17:21): "and who is like Your people, a unique [`echadh, אחד] nation on the earth".  None of the versions do this special use of `echadh justice as far as I know, but this really is the correct way to translate the passage as the context shows. Even the BDB Hebrew lexicon, a superb instrument of scholarship which has yet to be equaled let alone replaced, does not quite "get" `echadh in this sense. There are many places in the scripture where "special/unique" is, in fact, the best translation for `echadh (like the "shema" for instance): "Hear O Israel, the Lord [is] our God; the Lord [is] unique" (Deut.6:4; cf. also Zech.14:7). That is to say, it is not just that there is only one God (which is not what the verse says at all, in any language).  Our God is an absolutely unique God beyond comparison with anyone or anything (as only God in three Persons with absolute unity of purpose can be).

Since this idea of an undivided [special] unity is pretty much inherent in the whole notion of a single, uncorrupted integer ("one"), we don't need to push it, but I think this is where the translation you suggest of "united/composite one" in Genesis 2:24 may come from.

For more on God's uniqueness and unity, see the following links:

Definition of the Trinity: God is One in Essence, Three in Person (in BB 1)

The Oneness of God

For more on what the Bible has to say about marriage, you might have a look at the following:

Is "helpmeet" a wrong translation in Genesis 2:20?

The Creation of Eve (in BB 3A)

What constitutes marriage, biblically speaking?

Hope this helps,

Yours in our Savior Jesus Christ,

Bob L.

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