Hebrew has lots of words and expressions that have meaning beyond the literal meaning. Some words have a duality relationship e.g the two words for darkness: Choshek (חֹשֶׁךְ) and Araphel (עֲרָפֶל). Granted, both of these terms indicate a state of darkness. However, they both carry different nuances and connotations.
What Do Araphel and Chosek Mean?
Even though both of these words are used to indicate a state of no light, they both have distinctive interpretations and applications. Chosek is mostly used to denote the common veil of darkness while Araphel is used to denote thick darkness especially the kind that is associated with clouds or smoke.
Let us take a closer look at each of these in more detail below:
Choshek (חֹשֶׁךְ): The Common Veil of Darkness
Chosek is the more commonly used word for darkness, mostly because it refers to the actual darkness (absence of light). The root word of choshek literally means “to withhold light” or “to be dark.” From this, we can infer that Chosek is the literal and straightforward interpretation of the word darkness.
Due to its literal meaning, the word Chosek is the more prevalently used in the scripture. For instance, it is used in the creation story to illustrate a lack of illumination:
“And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” (Genesis 1:2).
In this scripture, Choshek is used to introduce the primeval state of the earth which was enveloped in darkness – until God introduced light in the next verse when he said, “Let there be light.”
Even though Choshek is used in scripture in the literal sense of darkness, it is also used figuratively. Several metaphors are drawn from the word to illustrate sorrow, evil, despair, and ignorance. For instance, in Psalms 88:6 the Psalmist laments, “You have laid me in the lowest pit, in the dark places of the deep.” In this scripture, the word Choshek has been used as a metaphor for the deep despair and affliction that the Psalmist was in. The following are some more examples of the metaphorical use of Choshek to denote various things in scripture:
- Evil – Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness (Isaiah 5:20)
- Ignorance – But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble (Proverbs 4:19)
- Sorrow – before I go to the place of no return, to the land of gloom and utter darkness, to the land of deepest night, of utter darkness and disorder, where even the light is like darkness (Job 10:21-22)
Araphel (עֲרָפֶל): Thick Darkness or Gloom
In contrast to Choshek’s ubiquity, Araphel takes on a more specific and intense character. Araphel is used to refer to a darker and denser cloud that is often associated with thick clouds or smoke. Araphel literally means “gloom” or “thick darkness” and this informs its usage in several places in the scriptures.
Araphel emphasizes intensity. As such, the word is often used to denote the mysterious presence of God that comes with judgment. The word is used as a metaphor for darkness which is not just the absence of light but a divine presence in the darkness.
Araphel is used both literally and figuratively in the Bible. An example of a literal use can be found in the book of Deuteronomy which says;
You drew near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens, veiled in darkness, cloud, and thick gloom (Deuteronomy 4:11).
In this scripture, God’s divine presence was on the mountain as a smoke and cloud that “veiled the mountain in darkness” which resulted in a “thick gloom.”
Araphel is also used figuratively to denote the mysterious. For instance, the Psalmist uses darkness as a metaphor for the divine and judgmental aspect of God.
Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne Psalm 97:2
The following are more examples of the image Araphel paints in the scriptures:
- Divine presence and awe – You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness (Deuteronomy 4:11).
- Mystery – The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:21).
- Divine Judgement – That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. (Zeph. 1:15).
- God’s mysterious presence – Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. (Psalm 97:2).
Choshek vs. Araphel
The following are the main distinguishing features of Choshek and Araphel.
Intensity is arguably the most important difference between Choshek and Araphel. Choshek talks about a general darkness or a state of no light. Araphel on the other hand refers to a more intense form of darkness.
- Figurative Usage
Both Choshek and Araphel have figurative applications in the bible. However, Choshek’s figurative application is broader as it encompasses a wide spectrum of negative experiences. On the contrary, Araphel is primarily used to denote mystery, divine presence, and judgment (or negative experiences).
Even though English only uses the word dark in different forms, The Hebrew language uses two words for darkness in different contexts and with different meanings. While Choshek paints a canvas of general darkness, often used to depict the darker aspects of human experience, Araphel adds depth and intensity to the portrayal of darkness, symbolizing divine mysteries and judgments. Together, these two words offer a nuanced exploration of darkness in its various dimensions, inviting readers to delve into the intricate layers of meaning embedded in the Hebrew scriptures.