The Lord Alone

by Lois Tverberg

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” Mark 12:28-30

Jesus’ words that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart are very familiar to us. Many readers also know that Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 when he said this. By starting with the words “Hear O Israel…” he was beginning to say the Shema, a prayer of daily commitment to God that Jews have said since Jesus’ time up until today.

Hebrew Text

One thing that might strike us as odd is that Jesus quotes the first line of that prayer that reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” in the New International version and others. Why is that so important to declare that God is one?

In Hebrew, the word is echad, which can mean one. It can also mean together, alone, only or unified. Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity or the deity of Christ. Christian evangelists say in response that echad can mean a compound unity, as when Adam and Eve together were echad (Genesis 2:24). This discussion of the word echad hinges on the idea that Deuteronomy 6:4 is meant as a creedal statement about monotheism, and what kind of being God is.

Interestingly, the most authoritative Jewish text, the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society, says that the best reading of this phrase really is not “one,” but “alone.” So instead of reading this sentence as, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This changes the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship, him only shall we serve. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Western Christians are used to reciting statements of belief, so we can misunderstand this as saying that Jesus saw it as extremely critical that we believe in God’s “one-ness.” But when properly understood, it shows that the greatest commandment is not just the mental belief in monotheism, but is actually a call to entirely commit ourselves to the true God, him and him alone.


 

Photo: Yaniv Ben-Arie

A Bridegroom of Blood

by Lois Tverberg

But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and
touched [Moses’] feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom
of blood to me,” she said. So the LORD let him alone.
(At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to
circumcision.) – Exodus 4:25-26

One of the strangest stories in the Bible is when Moses and his wife and son return to Egypt after God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go. The original Hebrew text is difficult to interpret, and it is not clear whether Moses’ life or his son’s life was in danger, and who was touched with the blood. Commentators believe that this may have been part of a longer story handed down orally that the ancient audience was assumed to know.

A few keys can help us see the point of the story, though. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, the visible mark of the commitment between the people of Israel and God. God seems to require this sign before fulfilling covenantal promises. With Abraham, even though God appeared to him years before he was called to circumcise his family, it was only after he did so that Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, the promised son. Similarly, God had called Moses at the bush, but now before God can use him to fulfill his covenant, he must come under the covenant himself.

A new understanding of the word translated “bridegroom” also clarifies the passage. In Hebrew, the word hatan commonly means “bridegroom.” But in Akkadian and Arabic, two closely-related languages to Hebrew, the word means “protected” or “circumcised.” This passage may have been using a less common definition of hatan, so Zipporah would have said “You are protected by blood,” instead of “a bridegroom of blood.” (1)

The surrounding text also gives some insight. Immediately before this story are the words that God gave Moses for Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.” (Ex. 4:22-23) This is a prophecy of the coming of the plague of the death of the firstborn that will allow the Israelites to go free. The Israelites were protected from judgment by the blood of the lamb daubed on their doorposts. This story seems to be a foreshadowing of that event, showing that Moses’ own son was protected by blood as well. The word for “touched” is the same as that used for daubing the blood of the lambs on the doorposts, suggesting that this is the case.

All this points to the idea that in ancient ways of thinking, God was communicating that salvation from judgment only comes from being protected by blood. Through this strange story, we can see into the future, to the need for the shedding of the blood of Jesus as well.


 

(1) Sarna, N., The JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, Jewish Publication Society, 1991, p. 26.

Echad – Loving God Alone


by Lois Tverberg

Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, [one of the teachers] asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” – Mark 12:28-30

Jesus’ words that the most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart” are very familiar to us. Many readers also know that Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 when he said this. By starting with the words “Hear O Israel…” he was beginning to say the Shema, a prayer of daily commitment to God that Jews have said since Jesus’ time up until today. One thing that that may strike us as odd is that the first line reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” in many translations. Why is that so important to declare that God is one?

In Hebrew, the word is echad, which can mean one. It can also mean together, alone, only or unified. Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity or the deity of Christ. Christian evangelists say in response that echad can mean a compound unity, as when Adam and Eve together were echad (Gen. 2:24). This discussion of the word echad hinges on the idea that “the Lord is one” is a creedal statement about monotheism, and what kind of being God is.

Interestingly, the most authoritative Jewish text, the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society, says that the best reading of this phrase in this case really is not “one” but “alone.” So instead of reading this sentence as, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This changes the whole sentence so that instead of being a statement of monotheism, it is actually a command for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship, him only shall we serve. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells us to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Western Christians are very used to reciting statements of belief, so we might misunderstand this as saying that Jesus saw it as extremely critical that we believe in God’s “one-ness.” But when properly understood, it shows that the greatest commandment is not just the mental belief in monotheism, but is actually a call to entirely commit ourselves to the true God, him and him alone.

Faithful Wounds

 

by Lois Tverberg

Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive. – Proverbs 27:6  (New English Translation)

Understanding a little more about Hebrew words can help us see why one verse can be translated in different ways. More interestingly, having two different translation of a verse often gives us a new “depth-perception,” just as the combination of images in both of eyes shows us the three dimensions of the world around us.

One interesting way to see this is that in most Christian translations, Proverbs 27:6a reads, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” or “The wounds of a friend can be trusted.” But the version of the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society translates that verse differently, as “Wounds by a loved one are long-lasting.” One casts hurtful statements in a positive light, the other points out how painful they are. Why is that?

The answer is intriguing. The Hebrew word that has been translated “faithful” is ne’emanim (neh-eh-mah-NEEM), which is related to the word emunah, which means “faithful” or “reliable.” It is also related to the verb aman, meaning to believe or trust. But the same word can also mean “steadfast, long-lasting, enduring.” So the wounds of a friend can be trustworthy and reliable, or they can be long-lasting, in the sense of never going away.

Which is the correct translation? Ironically, I think it is both. When our loved ones tell us their greivances, often they are something we should seriously consider changing, because they know that telling us will hurt us. But on the other hand, the speaker should realize that no matter how carefully said, his or her words will tend to stay with the hearer forever, often causing a wound that will take a long time to heal.

Words are like knives that with the slightest mishandling can cause great pain. Any time we say something critical to a person, we should consider carefully that it will likely affect our relationship for a long time. Is it really that necessary to “get something off our chest”? Only when we choose our words with the realization that they will have a long-lasting impact on others will they be faithful in helping them as well.

Reckless words pierce like a sword,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18