Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter Seven

by G.T. Stevenson


At the outset of this chapter it will be wise to recall the definition of 'eternal' as 'duration' without beginning or end'. The writer confesses that when he set out to examine the four hundred plus occurrences of 'olam' and its plural the held the view that a number of these, especially those relating to the Deity, would at least support the view that some, if not all, O.T. writers had a concept of eternity for which the term 'olam' was used. That view has been severely shaken, as upon critical examination, passage after passage initially listed as possible examples of 'olam' signifying infinite duration were found in contexts that required the meaning of indefiniteness or obscurity in reference to time.

Some folks may say that since God is eternal, whenever 'olam' or any other time term, is applied to the Deity, it must mean eternal. Such specious argument can never lead to valid results. This point may need some clarification.

Let is be agreed that God is eternal. To then say that he is God of time, God of this age, God of the days of old, or even God of this moment, does not in any way conflict with his eternal being. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not by that title limited to the patriarchs, nor does the 'Lord of the whole earth', (Joshua 3:11,13) confine him to the terrestrial sphere. By association finite concepts of time or space with the name of God, we do not in any sense question or impugn His infinite transcendence.

If then a study of the context or grammar of a passage where 'olam' is linked with the divine name points to some meaning other than 'eternal' our course is clear. In cases where it is not possible to determine the meaning precisely, honesty of purpose and of method demands that we admit our ignorance and refuse to equate 'obscurity' with 'eternity'.

Looseness of expression should be rigidly avoided. In English 'eternal' is often used ambiguously. In the aphorism, 'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance', the meaning is 'constant', 'unremitting, perhaps 'perpetual', whereas to infer that such vigilance was, is, and will be needed through the duration of the being of God, without beginning or end, must be rejected as having no relevance to the matter at all. Such loose use of 'eternal' is eschewed throughout these studies.

Further it must be remembered that whatever may possibly have been the effect of Greek concepts upon N.T. writers, an open question still,any process by which unconsciously, such ideas may be applied to O.T. statements must be guarded against. Then too, liturgical ascriptions are seldom critically examined. How many millions of times has 'Glory to the Father...world without end' been recited, the participants giving no consideration to the meaning of the last phrase which presumably signifies simply 'always' or 'perpetually'. Constant vigilance then is necessary lest we read into biblical passages extra- biblical concepts, modern views, theological indoctrination, or our private ideas. to avoid all such influences many be a counsel of perfection, but it should engage our utmost endeavors.

The following passages have been chosen for examination in this chapter because at first glance it may appear that in them 'olam' could represent a concept of eternity in the mind of the biblical author. The question to be asked is, 'Do these verses demonstrate that their writers had that concept, and expressed it by 'olam'?

In Genesis 21:33 the statement appears, 'Abraham called there (at Beersheba) on the name of Yahweh , God olam'.

Here we have the only instance of 'el' (God) and 'olam' conjoined.

Various renderings have been advanced:-

God, the Hidden One, the Unseen God, the Obscure Deity (i.e. unknown, unless self revealed). Luther suggested, 'God of the Ages', Rotherham, 'age abiding God'. Some scholars have linked Abraham's planting of the tamarisk tree in Beersheba with the tree cult of pre-Israelite Canaanitish religion and have regarded the name 'el olam' as a titled borrowed from that source. If this should be the case we can see why the term is never repeated in O.T. writings since its use would tend to favor the syncretism of monotheistic Yahwahism with pagan cults against which the Hebrew prophets unanimously campaigned. The only conclusion we may draw from the expression is a negative one. Genesis 21:33 does not disclose the meaning of 'olam'.

Now Ex.3:13-15 uses 'olam' in a different grammatical sense. Verse 15 reads 'Yahweh, the God of Abraham hath sent me unto you. This is my name le olam'. In Gen.21:33 'olam' appears to be used adjectively, in Ex.3:15, adverbially, with a time reference to the name not to the duration of God himself. Several reasons may be given for rejecting eternity here.

(a) As Yahweh was a new name for the Deity, it could not have been His eternal name.

(b) All names couched in human language must of necessity be limited in relation to the time period during which humanity has lived (or lives) and thought (or thinks) on such matters.

(c) This name, in fact every name for God, represents a concept; hence it must follow, not precede the emergence of the idea, and so cannot be eternal.

(d) The name 'Yahweh' is recorded as emerging in Hebrew history as a point in time. it will be used for an indefinite period, 'olam', by humans on earth. For how long? No one knows; hence 'olam' with its basic sense of obscurity is an appropriate expression. Let it be clearly recognized her that this discussion is not about what may possibly be the name to be used by humans or any other creatures in some envisaged further life in 'eternity'. The Hebrew O.T. has nothing to say about that , and this enquiry concerns the thought in the Hebrew writers mind, not that is some modern theological system. Therefore the question is, 'What did this verse mean to the Israelite of pre- kingdom days?'

The parallel is very suggestive: 'This is my name le olam. And this my memorial to generation (after) generation.'

Though preserved in most versions, the parallel is lost in the R.S.V. which translates the second line 'and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations' which suggests and imperative rather than indicative mood.

First we should inquire as to the antecedent of 'this'. Is it (a) Yahweh or (b) the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Issac, of Jacob or (c) the whole formula?

That (c) should be chosen seems to be indicated by the repetition of the whole formula in verse 16. This repeated reference to the patriarchal generations, 'your fathers' emphasizes the 'generation (after) generation' and directs the thought backwards, as well as forwards in time. So the idiomatic 'le dor dor" almost certainly takes in some generations past and possibly all future activities on earth.

the memorial name must be limited in time as to its inception, and indefinite as to the period of its future usage, the only indication at all being the parallel, which certainly should not be equated with infinite duration or even everlasting futurity. Since the period for which the memorial name was predicted would be as obscure to the Hebrews as it is to us, 'le olam' may have meant throughout Israel's history. about the absolute duration of which, the Exodus writer appears not to have had nay views, or if he possessed some, wisely refrained from committing them to writing.

Regarding the oath attributed to Yahweh in Deuteronomy 32:40 , similar remarks apply. The passage is intensely anthropomorphic. To interpret it literally would be naive in the extreme. The Deity is represented as taking an oath respecting the vengeance He proposes to take upon 'the long-haired head of the enemy' and he begins with hand raised to heaven.

If we were writing in similar context today we would use the words, 'As I live eternally', employing a Latin term, but no evidence can be gained by anachronistically applying our concepts to writings about 3000 years old. It is possible that the writer of Deuteronomy may have had limitless being in mind here, but the use of 'olam' for time periods limited at least as to their beginnings, in more than four hundred other cases, must be little short of proof that eternity was not here envisaged, but just some indefinite period stretching into the unknown past and future.

Deut.33:27 forms part of a highly poetic, metaphoric, anthropomorphic passage.

'The ancient God is a dwelling place and beneath are the olam arms'.

The interpretation one arrives at is simply that the Lord is a constant comfort to those in need at any time, always. When today a person quotes this verse, he is not thinking of endless eternity spent upheld in God's arms; but that God is always a support in time of need; and that thought, along with the associated parallelism appears to be the idea intended in Deut. 33:27.

An uncritical reading of Psalms 45:6, "Thy throne O God olam wa ad', suggests that here eternity is in view, and that 'olam' had been used to convey that concept, but a little analysis throws grave doubt on this conclusion; for, if 'olam' itself meant eternal, then 'ad' becomes redundant. A suggested analogy with the English idiomatic 'for ever and ever' cannot be entertained, since in that phrase we have repeated the same word 'ever', while in the Hebrew phrase being examined 'olam' and 'ad' are two different terms. Also 'ever' has a nebulous adverbial nuance, and as soon as it is replaced by some noun or phrase, either the idea of endlessness disappears (long time and long time) or incongruity emerges (endless time and endless time), or eternity and eternity), and so it would be if both Hebrew terms meant the same. Even if it could be proved that the phrase 'olam wa ad' formed an idiomatic expression meaning infinite duration, that would still not show that 'olam' itself meant eternal. A more likely explanation seems to be that the author wished to express his concept of the inexhaustible unlimited power of Yahweh and knowing that 'olam' did not signify infinity, added 'wa ad' 'and beyond', or 'further still', so that his readers might de directed to think of duration beyond that usually covered by 'olam'.

The dozen or so litugic repetitions of 'His mercy endureth le olam'. (I Chron.16:34,36.41; II Chron. 5:13, 7:3,6; 20:21) and in the psalms provide little support for using 'eternal' to translate olam. Mercy relates to sinful humans. No one supposes such folk to have existed eternally. God's mercy operates in human need. The liturgy would recognize its availability at all times - perhaps conditioned by repentance and faith.

Some special attention should be given to the use of 'olam' in Deutero-Isaiah (the present writer is using the term Deutero-Isaiah to mean the second section of the book from chapter 40 onwards). Some writers have claimed that because of the development of new concepts regarding the 'eternity of God', 'olam' is here used to denote temporal infinity. A careful systematic objective study of the usage of this word and other expressions in theological contexts in Deutero-Isaiah tends rather to a different view. Only once (Isa.40:27,28) is 'olam' linked with the divine name and then in the context of past history 'Hat thou not known. Hast thou not heard that the God olam, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth fainteth not?' If olam elsewhere signified eternity we might well accept that meaning here, but when Isaiah wishes to express a concept of the being of Yahweh as transcending that of creation he resorts to circumlocutionary phrases such as 'I am the First and I am the last' (Isa.41:4; 48:12).

Perhaps Isaiah was struggling to express some idea of infinite duration but it must be doubtful whether 'first' and 'last' and 'from the beginning' indicate that concept. Rather do these terms suggest Yahweh's casual creative activity as Originator and Controller of cosmic forces, dynamic rather than temporal references.

It would appear that if Isaiah wished to express the eternity of God all that would have been needed would have been to say that Yahweh had no beginning and would have no ending. At the same time we must recognize that the human mind cannot compass the infinite and this present study leads to the view that the O.T. biblical writers wisely refrained from attempting the impossible. Nor does there seem to be any passage in the O.T. where olam is employed to convey an idea of absolute eternity infinite in duration without beginning or end, a concept that has probably been anachronistically associated with the word by writers influenced by later philosophy.

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