Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The ubiquitous particle את ('et), also spelled אות — which is, possibly not incidentally, identical to the word meaning mark or sign, from the root אוה, 'wh III — has two distinct nuances, or else there are two different particles with different functions. A third word of the same form comes from a root אתה, which is similar to a verb אתה:
The particle את ('et I) is a bit of a UFO in the Hebrew Bible. Its origin is unknown and its function is multifarious but not quite consistently applied. Its nearly eleven-thousand occurrences in the Bible most often serve to mark the accusative, as in the first line of the Bible:
|the earth||x||and||the heavens||x||Elohim||created||In the beginning|
It's not clear why the Hebrew language would need a particle like that, but its persistent presence opens the door to the suggestion that the Hebrew texts we call the Old Testament are not primarily representations of a spoken human language but rather a kind of literary code from which spoken language ultimately derived. Some theorists have suggested that spoken language developed with the help of pictures, and folks trying to discuss these pictures and needing new words and inflections to do so (like stone-age Bible studies). On the evolutionary scale, classical Hebrew obviously sits between pictorial texts (pictures and hieroglyphs) that have nothing to do with spoken language, and the kind of text you are reading now (modern English), which tries to closely resemble speech.
There is some indication that the stories everybody knows from the Bible are really only the visible container of something even greater, something that is represented by the verbal patterns of the Bible rather than the stories, like the ethereal memories carried by associations between the material parts of a brain. These patterns obviously cannot be transposed in translations, but they exist and appear to mimic natural patterns and processes — see our riveting Introduction to Scripture Theory. Up until very recently, Hebrew sages have stated that the Hebrew Bible contains the whole universe, and this seems to be on a comfortable par with some sayings from the New Testament (Matthew 23:16-19, John 21:25, Colossians 1:15-17). Another question surrounding our particle is why it isn't more consistently deployed. Far from all accusatives are marked with our particle, and sometimes our particle isn't even pointing towards an accusative; in Genesis 17:5 it occurs attached to the word for "name" (and 'et-name of you will...). In 2 Kings 6:5 it's tied to the word for the iron [ax-head], which fell into the water. Both these 'ets are obviously tied to nominatives.
Scholars assume that in these cases (and perhaps some others as well) our particle marks its partner-word for emphasis (like what our modern italics would do). And while assuming that, scholars generally continue to assume that our particle wasn't always a marking particle but was once a proper noun that described substance or essence (says HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).
Here at Abarim Publications we'd like to add to this the observation that the production of a noun like 'et may actually be quite a natural quality of a spoken language, as we do the same today with expletives like, well, yoohoo or flippin' (for lack of a positive or even neutral equivalent). The Hebrew texts that form the Bible are much more exuberant than we usually give them credit for, and Genesis 1:1 may very well have originally read something like: In the beginning, Elohim created the yoohoo heavens and the yoohoo earth, y'all!
The particle את or אות ('et II) may be a whole other word which accidentally evolved to assume the exact same spelling as the previous one (the Masoretes even pointed it identically), but it may also be the same word. Our particle may essentially have expressed an emphasis out of a kind of heartfelt intimacy (of the reader or listener with the word it was attached to).
Our particle את ('et II) may have evolved from the first one to indicate a close relationship between two clauses or terms it's placed between ("his sons with him" - Genesis 7:7; "the people who are with you" - Judges 9:32; the oak near Kedesh - Judges 4:11). As such it serves in the Biblical texts in exactly the same way as the particle עם ('im), meaning 'with' (as in the name Immanuel).
In the appropriate article of the phenomenal 11 volume Botterweck Theological Dictionary, H. D. Preuss marvels, "In the history of languages, it's extraordinary when two different words belonging to the same chronological period of a language have the same meaning," but in this case there appears to be no demonstrable difference between the two particles את ('et) and עם ('im).
Still, these two particles may express one of the key qualities of Yahwism and one of the main differences between Yahwism and pagan religions, namely God's desire to fellowship with man (see our elaborate article on the Greek word πιστις, pistis, meaning "faith"). As Preuss notes, "the formula of the presence of a deity with man is very rare in the ancient Near East, while it appears frequently in the OT, where it expresses a basic element in the Yahweh faith" (Genesis 26:24, Jeremiah 1:8, Isaiah 43:5).
The segment את ('t) is also the base of the four second person pronouns (in English all translatable with "you"). It may be a coincidence that this segment looks like it has to do with את ('et) meaning with, but if it is, it's a fitting one. The difference between you and me is not innate in newborn babies. In fact, it takes toddlers several years of growing and learning to recognize an autonomous self versus an autonomous other (and finally to develop a theory of mind, that is the insight that someone else might know different things). This segment is the base of the following pronouns:
- אתה ('atta); the masculine second person singular; you are a man. Note that this pronoun is spelled the same as the verb אתה ('ata); see below.
- את ('at); the feminine second person singular; you are a woman. Note that this pronoun is spelled the same as the previous two words את ('et). The difference in pronunciation wasn't formalized until the Masoretes did so in the Middle Ages. In Ezekiel 28:14, this feminine pronoun applies to the king of Tyre annex the magnificent cherub-gone-bad of Eden, which commonly prompts exegetes into page long explanations.
- אתם ('attem); the masculine second person plural; you are men.
- אתן ('atten); the feminine second person plural; you are women.
Note that the actual root of these pronouns is אנת ('nt), but that the letter נ (nun) gets assimilated in the second person; the first person singular is אני ('ani, which is also spelled the same as the noun אני, 'oni, meaning fleet, from the verb אנה, 'ana, see below) or אנכי ('anoki) and plural is אנחנו ('anahnu).
The verb אתה ('ata) is spelled the same as, and according to the Masoretes, pronounced slightly different from the masculine second person singular. Were we to stubbornly maintain that the two are connected, this verb would literally mean "to you". In reality it's commonly translated with to come; it's a rate poetic equivalent of the much more common verb בוא (bo'). But still, in order to express a coming, one would first require an awareness of you and me, so this verb is still not far removed from the above.
Our verb occurs about twenty times in the Old Testament, half of which in the Book of Isaiah. It describes bringing water to the thirsty (Isaiah 21:14), the coming of the morning (Isaiah 21:12), the getting together of humanity (Isaiah 41:5), the coming of the future in general (Isaiah 41:23), or a specific person and his policies (Isaiah 41:25), or wild beasts on the prowl (Isaiah 56:9). Scary things may come (Job 3:25), or years (Job 16:22), or the brood of fools (Job 30:14), or the golden splendor around God (Job 37:22). It may describe the coming of God (Deuteronomy 33:2) or a coming to God (Jeremiah 3:22).
A fourth instance of the form את is the masculine noun את ('et III), which denotes an iron cutting instrument like a ploughshare, mattock or axe head (1 Samuel 13:20, Isaiah 2:4). Technically it's likely that this word comes from a root אתת ('tt), but no trace of that root remains, and some scholars propose that this word comes in fact from the second of three roots אנה ('nh), which is cognate with an Assyrian root that has to do with utensils and vessels.
Note that, as the final letters ת and ה tend to alternate, this form אנה ('nh) is closely adjacent to אנת ('nt), the root of the pronouns. And the third of the roots אנה ('nh) is the verb אנה ('ana), meaning to meet, or the coming of an opportune time, which obviously falls in sync with the verb אתה ('ata), meaning to come, and the particle את ('et II), meaning with.