Hebrew Conceptions of Truth

I quoted a bit earlier this week from Hazony’s excellent The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything he writes, from my limited perspective he does seem to get a lot of the epistemological issues right. At least it lines up with what I’ve read elsewhere. Since my interests are much more philosophical than historical I don’t get wrapped up too much in the details of the history. From a philosophical perspective and also hermeneutical perspective Hazony helps illuminate many issues in theology and LDS scripture. Consider for instance the issue of truth. Now people like Jim Faulconer have written on this in various papers but Hazony is a great resource that goes through it in a sustained fashion.

Hazony’s argument is that it is things not words or propositions that are true for the Hebrews. While our culture retains some elements of this such as a true friend or to true a wheel by and large we’ve adopted the Greek notions where true or false are properties of language or the meaning behind language. Something is true when it lines up with reality in some way. Further truth is conceived statically rather than as a process. To talk about truth is to talk in some way about something like correspondence now between proposition and reality. Later theories like coherence theory or the like still tie truth to language following this basic stance of Greek thought. In contrast to the Hebrews a thing is true when it shows over time that it is the thing is purports to be. 

Consider the following examples of the manner in which the Hebrew terms for truth (emet, תמא) and falsity (sheker, רקש) are used in the Bible. When Abraham’s servant reaches Mesopotamia after a long and treacherous journey, he describes the road that has brought him there as a “true road”:

And I bowed down my head, and worshipped the God of my master Abraham, who has led me on a true road [derech emet] to take my master’s brother’s daughter for his son. (Gen 24:48)

Similarly, when Yitro instructs Moses in how to appoint judges to rule over the people, he teaches that one should seek “true men”:

You shall provide out of all the people able men who fear God, true men [anshei emet] hating unjust gain. (Ex 18:21)

And Jeremiah says that God planted Israel as a “true seed”: 

And I had planted you a noble vine, an entirely true seed [zera emet]. How, then, are you turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine to me? (Jeb 2:21)

We see a parallel usage for the word false, as when the psalm says that a “horse is false”:

The horse is false [sheker] for safety, and with all his strength, he will not escape. (Ps 33:17)

Attractiveness is false [sheker], and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears God will be praised [by all]. (Prov 31:30)

In Hebrew, as in other Semitic languages, most words are derived from root-stems, usually three letters long, which can be transformed into all or most of the parts of speech according to a largely consistent morphology. Each root-stem thus holds together a family of words whose meanings tend to be closely related. In the case of the Hebrew word emet, the root is the three-letter sequence aleph-mem-nun (ןמא) whose cognates can assist us in understanding what the authors of the Bible meant when they spoke of truth. For example, the adjective derived from the passive verbal form of this root is the word ne’eman, frequently translated as “faithful.” When Isaiah foretells of a great future king of Judah, he speaks of him as a tent-peg fastened in a sure place:

I will fasten him as a tent-peg in sure [ne’eman] ground, and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father’s house. And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father’s house, the offspring and the issue. (Is 22:23-5)

Thus when the tent-peg has been driven into “sure ground,” it will be able reliably to withstand great storms without shifting. The ground is reliable, faithful, certain; and so, therefore, is the peg itself.

He continues to list quite a few examples.

From these and other examples, we see that in biblical Hebrew, that which is true is something that is reliable, steadfast, faithful; while that which is false is something that cannot be counted upon, or which appears reliable but is not. In these instances, truth and falsity are simply qualities of objects or persons, which parallel the English usage of terms such as reliable, steadfast, or faithful. There is no question, therefore, of truth and falsity referring to any kind of correspondence between speech and reality, for in these cases, there is no speech involved. There are only objects and persons.

The question is then what is meant by reliability. 

Consider the tent-peg again. When one takes it in one’s hand before driving it into the ground, there is no way to know whether it can be relied upon or not. All one has is an expectation, or better yet, a hope of what this object will be able to do. One hopes that it will hold firm in the face of the stresses of the coming storm. Only after the fact, once the storm has passed, can one really say that the tent-peg was reliable, that it was true. The same can be said of Abraham’s servant setting out on the road to Mesopotamia. When he first sets foot upon this road, there is no way for him to know that the road is true. All he has is a hope as to what this road can do: He hopes that it will bear him safely through the wilderness, and that it will bring him to the successful completion of his mission. But it is only after these things have come to pass that he actually comes to know that the road was true. In the same way, we know the seed is true only after it has grown into the vine we had hoped it would become; that a man is true only after he has withstood the temptation to corrupt judgment; and so forth. In every case, we find that the truth or falsity of the object is something that cannot be determined when first one comes across it, but only once it has “stood the test of time.”35 To say of an object that it is reliable, or that it is true, then, is to say that the object in question has done what we had hoped it would do despite the hardships thrown up by changing circumstance.

But this is not quite right. For what does the tent-peg really do? To speak of what the tent-peg does is an anthropomorphism, a metaphor. In fact, a tent-peg is completely inert. It doesn’t do anything. It just is what it is – whether at the height of the storm, or when one holds it in one’s hand. What we really expect of the tent-peg, our highest hope for it, is not that it will do anything, but that it will be something. One is tempted to say that what we hope it will simply remain what it is – a whole tent-peg, unbroken – in the face of great stress. But this isn’t right either. We actually have no interest in the tent-peg remaining what it is, for what it is may be a peg that will break under pressure because it contains an invisible crack in it, which is presently obscured from our view. What we really hope for when we drive this peg into the ground is something normative: We want it to be what a tent-peg ought to be (in our estimation) in the face of the stresses and strains of the storm.

And the same can be said for all other objects. Jeremiah does not present God as hoping the seed will remain what it is in the face of time and circumstance. He hopes that it will be what he thinks a seed ought to be, which is to say, something that grows into a desirable vine and not into a noxious weed. Similarly, Abraham’s servant hopes that the road will be what he thinks a road ought to be, which is to say, one that will bear him safely through the wilderness, and that will bring him to the successful completion of his mission. And Yitro hopes Moses can appoint as judges over Israel men who will be what he thinks a man ought to be, namely, someone capable of withstanding the temptation to corrupt judgment. In these and all other cases, an object is found to be reliable when it proves,

There are cases where true and false are used in reference to speech. For example whether a report is true. 

On the biblical understanding, on the other hand, to say It is a bird is not to say words that are true or false at the moment they are spoken. This is because the truth or falsity of the words is nothing other than the reliability of the words. But this reliability cannot yet be known at the moment these words are spoken since – as in the case of the report of idolatry or the rumor of Solomon’s greatness – it depends on whether, upon investigation, the object in question in fact proves to be a bird. On the biblical conception, then, it would seem that the truth or falsity of the spoken word cannot be known until it has proved itself reliable in the course of investigation, which is to say, in the course of time.

He then brings up the notion of davao which is the term both for words but also for thing in Hebrew. It thus covers both spoken words but also is considerably broader than the English term of “word.” It includes thoughts and indefinite objects up through the more general sense. It is anything in the world. This implies in Hebrew language no clear distinction between word and object as in English. This in turn entails there’s no opposition between word and object such as we find in Greek thought and that leads to various sorts of dualisms in philosophy. In Hebrew it is sometimes very difficult to tell whether a the word or its object is being referred to.

I spoke to you at that time, saying … “How can I myself alone bear your care, and your burden, and your strife? Take wise men … and I will make them rulers over you.” And you answered me and said, “The thing [davar] which you have spoken is good for us to do.” (Debt 1:9,12-14)

Here, too, there is no way to tell whether the davar the people find good to do is the words Moses has spoken, offering for them to select their own judges; or whether it is the thing itself (i.e., the selection of their own judges) they find to be good. 

While Hazony surprisingly never brings up Heidegger he suggests that davar in Hebrew has a function much like truth as althea. For Heidegger objects unveil themselves to us. He pushes for a type of externalism where it is the objects in thought rather than a Cartesian dualism of correspondence between thing and thought. For Hazony davar functions in a somewhat similar fashion. He describes it as an intermediate between word and object: the understanding. I’m not sure that’s the best way of phrasing what Hazony ends up discussing. He wants davar to be object as understood. I think Heidegger’s terminology of the object as unveiled to us is a little better although I understand why Hazony still prefers to discuss understanding in more traditional (representational) terminology. What is key though for Hazony is that biblical writers simply don’t need to distinguish between thought, understanding and object. This in turn lets him relate truth in speech to truth of objects.

…how it is possible for the truth or falsity of words to be dependent on the truth or falsity of the objects to which these words refer, given that words and objects are supposed to be independent from one another. The answer to this question is obviously that in the  metaphysical scheme of the Bible, there is no independence of words and things from one another. Rather, the biblical davar, which is an understanding or an object as understood, is one and the same whether it is before the mind, or given expression in words. The truth or falsity of a davar is determined by whether it can be relied upon to be what it ought in the face of time and circumstance. It is not affected by whether it is merely before the mind in silence, or whether it is also given spoken expression in words. In either case, a reliable davar is true, and an unreliable davar is false.

…how, if the truth of an object is its being what it ought to be through time and circumstance, we can speak of the truth of words, which seem to have no significant duration through time, being uttered in a given moment with respect to a particular circumstance. This question is resolved when we recognize that the biblical davar is not really comparable to what in English is called a word at all. For when we speak of a word, we tend to think of something that is to a large extent defined by its vocalization: When one stops speaking, the word seems to come to an end. The Hebrew davar, on the other hand, is an understanding of things, of which the external vocalization that accompanies it is no more than a sign. And the understanding can endure long after the external sign is gone.

This lets us understand judicial statements such as “by the mouth of two or three witness shall the thing [davar] be established.” (Debt 19:15) Witnesses give testimony but their words (vocalization) are not the davar but are signs that lead to the davar or understanding. This reflects a much more Peircean conception of signs than say what we find in Saussure or amongst a lot of anglo-american philosophical understanding.

If this is correct, it means that the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures were not dualists. They were able to do with one realm alone, in which true understandings of things are distinguished from false ones by their ability to stand the test of time within the confines of this one realm. This means that in the Hebrew Bible, truth does not seem to exist in the given moment, but only in the course of subsequent events, which are what make an understood object, or davar, into something true or false. Indeed, in Deuteronomy, the test of whether the words of a prophet can be considered true is explicitly said to be their capacity to prove themselves in time.



3 thoughts on “Hebrew Conceptions of Truth”

  1. Good stuff.

    The way that I have always thought about the Hebraic notion of “truth” is like a path that we can follow (think the iron rod or liahona), thus including the value-orientation that I think Hazony somewhat sidelines in his insinuation that truth is simply being what one purports to be. I think his way of phrasing it brings it too close to an idea of value-neutral correspondence that makes very little sense within a non-dualistic mindset.

  2. I should note that in some ways he’s not being terribly fair to the Greeks. The notion of an object as true can be found in Greek thought within Aristotle. The notion of alethia or truth as unveiling in Heidegger, Heidegger sees as the originary Greek view. (And oddly Heidegger gets no mention in the entire book)

    My inclination is to cut him a bit of slack since strawmanning a philosophical position in order to clearly create an opposition for your argument has a long pedigree in philosophy. Certainly Heidegger did it. And heaven knows the poor positivists have been the boogeymen of philosophy for more than 50 years in order for people to push certain views.

    It’s what I’d call a first order approximation in physics.

    I’m not sure I’d call truth a path, although in a certain sense it is a set of choices. Although understanding this conception of truth does make certain Book of Mormon analogies make far more sense. As you say the iron rod allegory is really tied to being the being who fits their expectations as good. The mists of darkness work because mist is a great metaphor for not understanding or not seeing clearly. Even the Liahona, which is a real object, only functions when the people are true. This true/faith connection thus becomes important. I’d argue (and will argue in a forthcoming post) that it makes things like D&C 93 make more sense too. (Although I also find the neoplatonic readings interesting as well)

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