Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Hebrew noun עם (ʿam, pronounced AHM) is another Hebrew word that means "people," "kin," or "nation." However, עם (ʿam) is distinct in its referential meaning from the Hebrew word גוי (goy), which is also used to describe "people," in that עם (ʿam) is typically used to describe a related people. The noun עם (ʿam) is used as a descriptor of kinship when Jacob describes his upcoming death in Genesis 49:29: "I am about to be gathered to my people (עםי). Bury me with my ancestors."

While an individual can use עם (ʿam) to self-identify with a related group of persons, a speaker can also use it to distinguish between different groups of people. For example, in Exodus 5:4–5, Pharaoh uses עם (ʿam) twice when speaking to Moses in order to distinguish between the Israelites (referred to as "the people") and the Egyptians (described as "the people of the land"): "But the king of Egypt said to them, 'Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the peopleעם) away from their work? Get to your labors!' Pharaoh continued, 'Now they are more numerous than the people (עם) of the land and yet you want them to stop working!'" The use of עם (ʿam) enables Pharaoh to create a sense of distinction between the different peoples according to their understood group identities.

One of the most important uses of עם (ʿam) in the Hebrew Bible is Israel's classification as "my people." It is to this effect that עם (ʿam) appears in Exodus 3:7: "Then the LORD said, 'I have observed the misery of my people (עמי) who are in Egypt'," and in Exodus 6:7: "I will take you as my peopleעם), and I will be your God." It is the negation of this common identifier that becomes the name of one of Hosea's sons in Hosea 1:9 as the prophet decries the behavior of the northern kingdom of Israel: "Then the LORD said, 'Name him Lo-ammi (עמי), for you are not my people (עמי) and I am not your God'."