Hebrew "ben" (בּן)


The Hebrew word "ben" is found thousands of times in the Old Testament Bible, and is most often translated in English Bibles as "son".  Perhaps the most well known verse using this word is Isaiah 9:14,
 
Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
 
This verse is one of many prophecies of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, found in the Old Testament Bible.  Here we are told a virgin shall have a son.  Of course it is well known that Jesus was born to the virgin Mary, and was her firstborn son (Matthew 1:25). 
 
The Hebrew word "ben" (which is identified by Strong's # 1121) comes from a root word "benah" (Strong's # 1129) which means "to build", and is most often translated as some form of the word "build".  This word "benah" is used for building many kinds of things, particularly cities, houses, altars, and even the tower of Babel.  But it is used a few times to describe the building of a family.  For example in Genesis 16:2, 

Genesis 16:2 And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children [#1129] by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

Here we find the account of Abraham's wife Sarai desiring that her husband take her handmaid Hagar, in order to obtain children by her.  The word "may obtain children" is "benah", and literally means "may build".  Thus, it was Sarai's desire to build up a family (have children) using her handmaid Hagar. 
 
As in the example above, the Hebrew "ben" most often refers to a direct son, since it is through them that a man builds his family.  However the word "ben" does not always refer to an immediate son of a father, but can instead refer to a later descendant.  For example:
 
1 Chronicles 4:1 The sons of Judah; Pharez, Hezron, and Carmi, and Hur, and Shobal.
 
In this verse the "sons" (Hebrew "ben") of Judah are Pharez, Hezron, Carmi, Hur and Shobal.  However we know from Genesis 46:12 that Hezron was the son of Pharez, so that Hezron was actually the grandson of Judah, not his direct son:
 
Genesis 46:12 And the sons of Judah; Er, and Onan, and Shelah, and Pharez, and Zerah: but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan. And the sons of Pharez were Hezron and Hamul.

In addition, Carmi, who is also called one of Judah's sons, is actually Judah's great grandson, being the son of Zabdi, who is the son of Judah's son Zerah:

Joshua 7:1 But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel.

Another example showing that "ben" can encompass more than direct sons is found in Genesis 36,

Genesis 36:10 These are the names of Esau's sons; Eliphaz the son of Adah the wife of Esau, Reuel the son of Bashemath the wife of Esau.
Genesis 36:11 And the sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, and Gatam, and Kenaz.
Genesis 36:12 And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz Esau's son; and she bare to Eliphaz Amalek: these were the sons of Adah Esau's wife.
Genesis 36:13 And these are the sons of Reuel; Nahath, and Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah: these were the sons of Bashemath Esau's wife.

Here we find that Esau had two sons, Eliphaz by Esau's wife Adah, and Reuel by Esau's wife Bashemath.  In verse 11 we find that Esau and Adah's son Eliphaz had five children.  In addition, Eliphaz had another child by his concubine.  Then at the end of verse 12 the statement is made "these the sons of Adah, Esau's wife".  Notice that "sons" is plural, yet in verse 10 we found that Adah only had one son, Eliphaz.  Thus, Adah's "sons" cannot refer only to Eliphaz, but must include also his six children, her grandsons.  This is another instance of "sons" being applied to not only immediate sons, but to future descendants, which in this case were grandsons.  The same is done for Esau's other wife Bashemath, who only had one son Reuel.  In verse 13 we are told "these are the sons of Bashemath, Esau's wife".  Here again the sons of Bashemath's son Reuel (her grandsons) are being included as her "sons".  This all makes sense when we recall that "ben" comes from a root word meaning to build up, and in this case the idea is that Adah's family was being built up not only by her immediate son Eliphaz, but by the sons he had in turn. 

As a final example consider,

Genesis 46:15 These be the sons of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob in Padanaram, with his daughter Dinah: all the souls of his sons and his daughters were thirty and three.

The last part of this verse says "all the souls of his [Jacob's] sons and his daughters: thirty three".  In the prior verses (9-14) a list is given of Jacob's six sons by his wife Leah, as well as the sons (and grandsons in the case of Judah) of these six sons.  In verse 15 the summary states that all these sons, Jacob's six sons, plus his son's sons (grandsons) and his two great grandsons (Hezron and Hamul), along with his daughters, totaled to 33 souls.  Now since only seven of the souls mentioned were directly sons and daughters of Jacob, it is obvious that "sons and daughters" is being used in the wider sense of descendants.  Similar statements are made for Jacob's children by Rachel (verse 22), Zilpah (verse 18) and Bilhah (verse 25). 

One reason why this is important is because a failure to properly understand the implications of the Hebrew word "ben" can lead to incorrect conclusions in the study of Biblical chronology.  For example:

Genesis 46:11 And the sons of Levi; Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

It is often taught that the above verse is proof that Gershon, Kohath and Merari were immediate sons of Levi, and that they could not possibly be future descendants.  But as has been shown above, one cannot simply assume that the Hebrew word "ben" (i.e., sons) guarantees such a direct relationship.  So it is quite possible that Gershon, Kohath and Merari were actually Levi's grandsons, great grandsons, etc.

 

Appendix - New Testament "son" 

The fact that the Hebrew word "ben" (son) can refer to distant descendants and offspring is no big surprise when one considers the equivalent Greek word for "son" (υιος) is also used in the same way:

Matthew 1:1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

In the beginning of the book of Matthew we find that Christ is called the "son" of David and the "son" of Abraham.  Yet it is universally accepted that Jesus was not the direct son of David or Abraham.  Instead these verses are commonly seen as proof that Jesus was descended from both David and Abraham.  They are proofs of Jesus' lineage.  It is this same idea that is conveyed by the Hebrew word "ben" (son), that of identifying an offspring or a descendants lineage, and not necessarily identifying an immediate son of a father.

 

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