A Hebrew Homonym

11 The word of the LORD came to me: What do you see, Jeremiah? I replied: I see a branch of an almond tree.
12 The LORD said to me: You have seen right, For I am watchful to bring My word to pass.

Jeremiah 1:11-12 (JPS)

Almond tree / I am watchful – We lose so much when we read the text in a translated language. Below, the two Hebrew words look identical, but are expressed with very different meanings. In one case, the word שקד is an almond tree, but the second occurrence of שקד means to “watch.” What is going on?

As many of you already understand, Hebrew words, especially ancient Hebrew, was written without vowels. So without the jots and tittles, we only see the consonants. When reading out loud, we can inflect different vowel sounds between the consonants which ultimately dictate different words. This is why the two seemingly exact same words are actually quite different.

The first is pronounced “shaqed” while the second is pronounced “shaqad.” But as any good scholar testifies, whenever the same word is used for different purposes in the text, there is a relationship that can be derived.

Here, God shows Jeremiah an almond tree and suggests that this means God is watching to ensure his word will come to pass. It is an early example of a homonym. Almost like showing you the bark of a tree because your dog likes to bark at passing vehicles.

Without this understanding, we are left to wonder why God would show Jeremiah an almond tree. What was the point of that? In addition, we might begin a whole doctrine to enforce the concept of an almond tree as the symbol of God’s watchfulness. Eventually, we might come across religious campaigns or churches called “God’s Almond Tree.”

Simply put, God showed Jeremiah an almond tree because the word is the same word that God uses to express his watchfulness. It all comes back to language and God’s creative energy exemplified therein. Hebrew is a very concrete language and uses tangible items to express intangible concepts. This is one of those moments.

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