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Can you spot the difference? God can!


Explore two pairs of Hebrew words, unpacking Biblical word play and a well-known parable while doing so, in this fascinating feature by Hebrew scholar Dr Marie-Louise Craig

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Dr Marie-Louise, Hebrew fanatic, here. Let’s have fun with some Hebrew words. As I say to my students, “Don’t panic!” This will be easy. We are going to play ‘spot the difference’ with two pairs of Hebrew words found in Isaiah 5.7. See how you go with these two pairs of words:

You are correct if you found two differences in the first set of two words above and one difference in the second set of two words. In the first set, the dots on the letter ש are on different sides and the last letter of each word – the letter on the left-hand side of the word – is different. One is ט and the other is ח. In the second set the only difference is the second consonant – second from the right, that is. In one it is ד and the other it is ע. This is fascinating when you know how these particular words are used in the Hebrew text. Before I explain these words, let’s have a look at the story in Isaiah 5 in which they are found.

Isaiah 5 begins with a prophetic parable about a man who went to great lengths to plant a vineyard. Unfortunately, the long-awaited grapes were very disappointing, so disappointing, in fact, that the noun, בְּאֻשִׁים (pronounced, be’ushim), used to describe them comes from the verb בָּאַשׁ (ba’ash) that means ‘to stink’. This verb is used metaphorically to describe someone who has offended by their behaviour. Here are some examples:

“Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, ‘You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.’” (Genesis 34.30)

“They said to them, ‘The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’” (Exodus 5.21)

“Ahithophel said to Absalom, ‘Go in to your father’s concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.’” (2 Samuel 16.21)

Keep this metaphorical use in mind as you read ‘wild grapes’ below.

Because of these stinky grapes, the owner asks the people of Jerusalem and Judah to judge between him and his vineyard:

“He expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?”

(Isaiah 5.2b-4 NRSV)

The owner then immediately says he will destroy his vineyard. And so the parable ends and the explanation begins.

“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!”

(Isaiah 5.7 NRSV)

We have now reached the point in the story where our two pairs of words are used. He expected מִשְׁפָּט (pronounced, mishpat) but saw מִשְׂפָּח (mispach), expected  צְדָקָה (tzedakah) but heard צְעָקָה (tse’akah). These two pairs of very similar-looking and similar-sounding words are being used as a play-on words to help make the prophetic point of the parable.

God expected justice among his people, but instead he saw bloodshed. He expected righteousness, but instead heard a cry. This last word, translated as ‘a cry’ in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, is always used of suffering people crying for divine help or crying out against evil. We can comprehend the difference when the words are translated into English, but when this passage is read in Hebrew, the similarity between the two words in each pair makes it easy to miss the difference, and this is the point Isaiah is making.

Unlike God, God’s people were unable to tell the difference between justice and bloodshed, or righteousness and a cry of suffering people, because they had convinced themselves they were doing what God wanted. The parable of the vineyard was told to pronounce God’s judgement against his people because of their inability to distinguish between justice and injustice. Because they couldn’t, they offended and were like stinky grapes. Remember that earlier word play with the verb ‘to stink’?

Humans have not changed much. Can we easily spot the difference between justice and injustice today? God can.

For more fun with Hebrew words, consider joining the ‘Biblical Hebrew 1’ class with Dr Marie-Louise Craig at St Francis College. For more information about this subject, visit the St Francis College website or email    

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