DERIVATION OF OLAM
In academic circles a century ago a popular exercise consisted of research into the origins of important words. It was thought that this would shed much light upon the meaning attached to such terms by writers who later used them. It is now realized that such research, though useful, is of minor importance since words take on new meanings, and old connotations are modified so that ancient origins cease to have much significance respecting usage and meaning. This semantic process is well known. The term 'hell' provide a good example. In Chaucer's day 'hele' meant 'to hide or cover over'and 'hell' formed a fitting rendering for 'sheol' and 'hades', the unseen realm into which the soul entered at death. But under the dogmatic theology of the Middle Ages, it came to be used for other more sinister concepts, till in 1611 A.V. it was applied not only to 'sheol' and 'hades' but also to 'Gehenna' and 'Tartarus'; and then came to imply the doctrine of unending torment. In modern times the most common usage surely must be in a rather vulgar phrase, 'hell of a mess', of extremely versatile application far removed from Chaucer's usage.
However a few remarks respecting the derivation of the Hebrew word 'olam' are included here. This noun is derived from the verb 'alam', universally accepted as meaning 'to hide', 'keep secret', or 'obscure'. Included in each occurrence of the verb is the idea of hidden-ness of inability or unwillingness to perceive or disclose something. This underlying idea is probably best expressed in English by the term 'obscurity'.
In keeping with this basic concept there occurs in Hebrew the noun 'almah', (derived from alam) a young woman or virgin (Gen.24:43, Ex:2:8, Psa.68:25, Pro.30:19, Song.1:3, 6:8, Isa. 7:14) for whom Jewish modesty enjoined concealment of her feminine charms.
Bearing these facts in mind, we may readily anticipate that when olam is applied to time, some element of concealment, obscurity, or indefiniteness will be present. One need read only a few of the four hundred plus occurrences to realize that this is so.
The first time we meet the term is in Genesis 3:22 'Lest they take of thee the tree of life and live le-olam'.
Commonly, uncritical thinking employs the English phrase 'for ever', but this cannot mean 'eternal life', since (a) it had (or would have had) a beginning in time, either at the creation, or hypothetically at the eating of the fruit (whatever we may take that to mean); and (b) its duration is unspecified. The most one can assuredly draw from the text is that the life would last for some indefinite period, no specific end being stated. Both its nature and duration are hidden in obscurity, hence 'olam' seems as appropriate word to use in such a context.
Jonah's case is important. In Jonah 2:6 olam is used to denote the time of his sojourn in the interior of the great fish. Shut away in complete darkness, he would have no means of judging the passing of time, which along with most other percepts, would be quite 'obscure'. In his case olam represents but thee days, but the idea of obscurity is obvious.
Or, taking another case at random, in I Kings 1:31, Bathsheba is reported to have greeted David upon his death-bed thus, 'Let my Lord the King live le-olam'. Neither she nor David could have expected this period to be more than a few days, but its indefiniteness, its obscurity, correspond with the basic meaning of olam, so the term was fitting.
Quite often the sense of indefiniteness may be expressed in English by 'again' or 'anymore', e.g.Exodus 14:13. 'Ye shall see these Egyptians...no more olam', where one might translate 'no more at all', or 'not any more', or 'not again' without any thought of eternity.
The foregoing discussion suggests that we may examine references to olam and olamim without any preconceived notions about the duration of time indicated by these words.
Usage, context, and common sense must determine any conclusions that may emerge.