HA OLAM, OLAMIM AND HA
The question of
whether 'olam' in O.T. times ever represented a concept of an age or period of
time possessing some distinctive characteristics and therefore recognizable as
separate in some sense from another age or ages, has some importance in this
attempt to discover the meaning of the above terms during the composition of
In modern times we
commonly speak of 'the stone age', 'the scientific age', 'the age of reason'
and so on without envisaging any exact limiting date lines. the beginning and
end are obscure, but nevertheless the use of the definite article and some
qualifying adjective or phrase indicates the existence of the idea of a
recognizable period in some way individualistic. Such periods often overlap,
and many complex factors are involved, so precise limits cannot be determined.
Also when we use the
term 'age' figuratively and hyperbolically, we omit the definite article e.g.
'She takes an age (or ages) to choose a frock'. the relatively long time, and
the uncertainty of the moment of conclusion of the project correspond, as we
have seen, with the majority of the O.T. cases of the use of 'olam'.
While it is common
knowledge that the Hebrew of O.T. times showed little regard for the sort of
logical systematic thought patterns for which Greek philosophers are noted, it
seems both rational and psychologically sound to expect that if the concept of
an age existed, and did not mean the whole time, there would also accompany
it, not only the plural form of the word but also the concept of a plurality
of ages. The two ideas are necessarily related and supplementary - the one
cannot exist without the other and the use of one presupposes the existence of
The argument might be
set out thus.
(a) Unless 'an age'
means all the time i.e. if it means a part of time, there must be another part
or parts. Hence the existence of 'one age' necessitates a plurality.
(b) Normally a plural
for which a singular exists presupposes the existence of single individual
entities. There cannot be more than 'one' of an entity of which there do not
exist separate 'ones'.
Therefore we present
in this chapter a list of the occurrences of the terms 'the olam', 'olam'
repeated and 'olamim' in the O.T., and the following questions should be kept
in mind as the passages are considered.
(a) Can we establish
the period in which 'the olam' appeared in writing?
(b) Does its usage
(the way it is used) indicate the nature of the concept it represented?
(c) Is the emergence
of "the olam' in any way contemporaneous with the earliest cases of the
plural and/or with 'olam' repeated?
Since dating of O.T.
books can be no more than approximation,
no precise conclusions
can be drawn from these lists. The following notes are suggestive only.
Chronicles is now
generally regarded as a late compilation.
It is placed first on
the list because in it all three terms appear.
From this we may infer
that by the time of its editing into the form we have, "the olam"
and the plural "olamim" were being used concurrently.
In I Ki.8:13 'olamim'
is used in Solomon's prayer at the temple dedication. If these words are those
actually used by him, that would show that the plural was then in use. It is
likely that many psalms should be dated earlier than this; Psalms 41 is
commonly attributed to David. Both 'the olam' and 'olam' repeated occur in
verse 13. the fact that all three expressions appear a number of times in the
Psalms suggests that in answer to question (a) (Can we establish the time when
'the olam' appeared in writing?) we may tentatively reply, 'Yes, broadly
speaking in the days of the Undivided Kingdom'. The fact that in Psa.41:13 we
have 'from the olam to the olam', which implies two periods and hence
plurality, supports the view that 'the olam' and 'olamim' if not contemporary
in emergence, at least were linked in usage.
Since the expression
here, as is common with most cases of 'the olam,' is liturgic, it probably
does not justify any specific statement respecting the idea behind the term.
For example it gives no indication of any idea of a beginning or an end, nor
any characteristic features. This obscurity or indefiniteness is not to be
equated with eternity; non-clarity is not equivalent to endlessness.
To our second question
(b) (Does the way 'the olam' is used indicate the nature of the concept it
represented?) the answer must be , 'No. It is not at all clear'.
To the third question
(c) (Is the emergence of 'the olam' in any way contemporaneous with the
earliest cases of the plural, or of 'olam' repeated?) the answer must be,
'Yes. These terms appear in the same books or those usually ascribed to the
In this regard, we
repeat, it is important to keep in mind that the element of obscurity
regarding a concept of time does not at all justify the introduction of
endlessness when time periods are indefinite. In such cases the imposing of
post biblical or philosophic concepts upon the text instead of admitting that
we do not know, is worse than useless; it impedes the progress of the search
for the truth.
The synoptic lists
above suggest that the development of the use of 'olam' in the sense of a
period of time similar to that covered by 'aion' and accompanied by the use of
the plural 'olamim' arose during the existence of Israel as a united nation
somewhere about 1000 B.C.