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Several passages refer to keeping a feast as a statute forever. For instance, Exodus 12:14 reads:

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. (ESV)

Also, Leviticus 23:41:

You shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. (ESV)

What does “forever” (olam) mean in Leviticus 23:41? In Strong’s I see this:

olam: long duration, antiquity, futurity
Original Word: עוֹלָם
Part of Speech: Noun Masculine
Transliteration: olam
Phonetic Spelling: (o-lawm’)
Short Definition: forever

Does the word indicate an infinitely long time period?

  • 1
    The wording of this question is ambiguous, because every word has a range of meaning. In short, 'Yes' the word does frequently indicate an infinite period, but 'No' it does not always mean this. It might also mean 'ancient' (Ge 6:4, Ps 24:9); or for the fullness of a life/period (Ex 21:6, Lv 25:32). The Hebrew idea of 'olam' is different from these English words. In Lev 23:41 it could be strictly 'eternal', which might be strange for a Christian for whom the Law is fulfilled by Jesus and is told not to worry about days and feasts (Col 2:16), or it could be to the fullness of the 'generations'. – Steve Taylor Mar 1 '16 at 12:47
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The Simple Answer

The simple answer is yes, in the context of these verses (חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם), "olam" means an eternal law, forever, exactly as the ESV translation implies. There is no wiggle room.

Trust the Mainstream Translations

As a general rule, you can trust the ESV and the other commonly accepted translations. They were written by trustworthy scholars who are aware of the pitfalls of reading later doctrinal issues of whatever faith back into the text. Their differences are mostly in English style and where each translation stands on the spectrum between word-to-word literal translation and interpretive translation.

The Cambridge uses "for all time", the NLT "permanent", the NASB "perpetual", the KJ "for ever", the ISV "eternal", New Heart "forever", Darby "everlasting", the NIV uses "lasting". All of the others use one of these translations (except for the NIV's "lasting"). With the exception of the NIV, none of these translations use a word that indicates that "olam" could in any way be limited in time. Quite the opposite.

Use Dictionaries Correctly

The shorter format dictionaries such as Genesius, BDB, and Jastrow collect a range of meanings for a given word from different contexts and periods, and from Aramaic texts outside the OT. Their format does not bring to your attention that the differences in the various meanings for a word stem from particular contexts and historical periods. You need to pay attention to the citations to see that. In some instances the meaning of a word becomes inverted with the passage of time or when used as a loan word.

It is incorrect take a meaning from one context or period from one of these dictionaries and attempt to read it back into different context or period, as if the dictionary were a Websters Collegiate dictionary that provides alternative meanings for words.

Use a Concordance

There are many words in the OT that appear only once or twice and whose meaning is unclear or debated. "Olam" is not one of these words. Abraham Even-Shoshan[1] lists 437 occurances for "olam" in thirteen different grammatical constructs in all major books[2] of the OT:

  1. עולם
  2. העולם
  3. מהעולם
  4. לעולם
  5. ולעולם
  6. הלעולם
  7. מעולם
  8. ומעולם
  9. עולמו
  10. עולמים
  11. לעולמים
  12. הלעולמים
  13. עולמי

This give us a rich source of in-text cognates to clarify the meaning.

In come contexts the meaning is "from the beginning of time", Deut 33:15, Psalms 10:16.

In some contexts the meaning is "the world, universe", Prov 10:25.

In some contexts the meaning could be either "eternal" or "universe", Genesis 21:33.

In some contexts the meaning is "forever" as in Lev 24:8 and several dozen others.

Olam in Context

In Exodus 12:14 and Leviticus 23:41, "olam" appears in the phrase חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם ("hukat olam"). This appears to be a technical term that indicates conditions under which the law applies. The main classes of laws by conditions are:

  1. One-time commandments such as the first passover commandments in Egypt
  2. Commandments that apply only to a period such as the manna commandments of the wilderness period
  3. Commandments that apply only in the Land of Israel such as the tithes
  4. Commandments that apply only on condition that there is a temple in Jerusalem, such as the sacrifices and priestly purity commandments
  5. Commandments that apply for all time, all places, under any condition, such as the holidays

A "hukat olam" is a law of the fifth (5) category. There is no wiggle room in the manuscript texts[1] of Exodus 12:14 or Leviticus 23:41 for any translation that would limit the time extent of "olam".

Summary

I don't know whether to vote the OP up or down or both or neither.

The argument for an up vote is that it is important to answer this type of question, especially when there is a risk of back-reading doctrinal considerations into a text.

The argument for a down vote is that a simple concordance lookup should have obviated the question.


  1. "A New Concordance of the Bible", edited by Abraham Even-Shoshan, "Kiryat Sefer" publishing, Jerusalem, 1988, ISBN-965-17-0098-X.
  2. "olam" does not appear in Song of Songs, Ruth, Ezra, Ester, Lamentations, Obadiah, Jonah Nahum or Zephaniah
  3. I use the term "manuscript text" rather than "original Hebrew text" because I have never seen any historical or archaeological evidence to indicate that there ever was a single original Hebrew text.
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  • 1
    To Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim: It seems to me that 'OLAM' does appear in some of the books you claim it is absent. For example, Ezra (3:11, 9:12); Obadiah (10), Jonah (2:7), and Zephaniah (2:9). – Saro Fedele Mar 6 '18 at 17:53
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Does the Hebrew word “olam“ mean “forever”?

Exodus 12:14 And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.

"for ever" = ‛ôlâm = aiōnios

The Septuagint translates "olam" into "ainoios". This is not as helpful as one might think. Young's literal translation uses the phrase "age during" (or lasting) to translate aion.

There is dispute as to the meaning of "eternal" as to a long time or real unending eternity.

This subject particularly heats up in regard to the duration of hell.

Strong's definition of olam

properly concealed, that is, the vanishing point; generally time out of mind (past or future), that is, (practically) eternity; frequentative adverbially (especially with prepositional prefix) always

Brown-Driver-Briggs - olam

  1. long duration, antiquity, futurity, for ever, ever, everlasting, evermore, perpetual, old, ancient, world a. ancient time, long time (of past) b. (of future)
  2. for ever, always
  3. continuous existence, perpetual
  4. everlasting, indefinite or unending future, eternity

Thayer's Greek Lexicon - aion

  1. age (Latinaevum, which is aion with the Aeolic digamma), a human lifetime (in Homer, Herodotus, Pindar, Tragic poets), life itself (Homer Iliad 5, 685).

  2. an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity. With this signification the Hebrew and rabbinical idea of the word עולָם (of which in the Sept. aion is the equivalent) combines in the Biblical and ecclesiastical writings.

Here is a definition of the Hebrew Olam that gives a good understanding;

http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/27_eternity.html

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  • I think you have confused the noun αἰών “time, long time, eternity” with the adjective αἰώνιος “lasting a long time, eternal”. – fdb Apr 12 '15 at 16:12
  • It is a bit confusing in his answer. Can you clarify which word the LXX used? However, @fdb do a study of the use of aion in the NT and you'll find your simplistic definition doesn't always fit. – Joshua Apr 12 '15 at 19:36
  • @fdb I apologize, that didn't come off right. A reminder that I shouldn't comment if I don't have the time to do it properly. That's why I don't do twitter! Your concise definition of "time, long time, eternity" does in fact cover most if not all uses, or at least get you close to the meaning. All I meant was it's not that simple. Many verses wouldn't make sense if you simply inserted one of those terms. Anyway, the real point here is I'm not sure the LXX has much to contribute here as it is really a Hebrew issue. – Joshua Apr 13 '15 at 4:10
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The wording of Ani Powell's question ("Does the Hebrew word “olam“ mean “forever” in Leviticus 23:41?" [bold is mine]) limit us in our answers, pointlessly.

Think about this. When a single Hebrew term was used throughout the TaNaKh, we cannot conclude that the ancient reader grounded his understanding of that text only through the context power. He did know that every Hebrew term was derived by a specific root (3-consonant-composed) [I avoid here the discussion about nomina primitiva]. So, even though, inside each micro-context that term may dress itself with different nuance (which triggered - in ancient - the mintage of specific nouns/adjective/etc.) all the terms maintained a semantic link among them.

To respond the question about the term עולם (and its variants) we have to ask ourselves, what is the basic concept that connected all the mentions of that word?

In short, collating all the mentions (included the terms derived from the variant roots עםם [e.g. Lam 4:1], and ענן [e. g. Gen 9:13]) we are able to arrive to the following basic concept: "to be undistinguishable, not clear, covered, concealed". So עולם indicates a "time hidden or concealed from man" (Parkhurst). This not means - necessarily - a time with no end, but a time which its duration is unknown by man, with or without an end. Also the Latin language, maybe, has preserved this meaning inside the term olim, that refers "to time as well as future as past" (Parkhurst).

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Many passages of scripture use it in a non-eternal sense.

Deuteronomy 23:3 "An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter the assembly of Yahweh ; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of Yahweh olam."

Joshua 4:7 Jeremiah 18:15-16 Joshua 24:2 Deut. 32:7 1 Samuel 1:20

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