by Lois Tverberg
“For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
When English speakers use the verb “to know,” we think of knowing in terms of the mental grasp of facts. In Hebrew, the word for “to know,” yadah, is much broader and will enrich our understanding of the scriptures. Many languages have two different verbs to express the idea of knowing a fact (information) as opposed to knowing a person (relationship). Hebrew tends toward the second idea: having a relationship with a person, and even extending it to mean to care about someone, even to be intimate sexually. For instance, the very literal King James version reads,
And Adam knew (yadah) Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.
This idea is especially important when we learn about the biblical concept called the “knowledge of God,” da’at elohim. A Westerner opens the Bible and wants to prove God’s existence and develop a theology about God’s nature, and would call that “knowledge of God.” But the Hebraic view is that “knowledge of God” is having a life in relationship with him. This is true spiritual wisdom: to know the Lord’s will and live it out. We can see this thinking when we compare Christian Bibles to a Jewish translation. In the NIV we read,
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. (Isaiah 11:2)
but in the Jewish Tanakh it reads,
The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD. (Isaiah 11:2)
In this verse, da’at is translated as devotion. They see knowledge of God as intimacy with God, knowing him as a son does his father, and a wife her husband. We should think of that when we evangelize – are we trying to fill peoples’ heads with facts, or bringing people to know him personally?
Our ministry has always struggled with how to explain that we are educational, but devotional in nature, that we want to bring people closer to the Lord by understanding the Bible in its context. A verse we felt the Lord had given us was, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9, also Habakkuk 2:14). When we read it in the Jewish translation, we finally understood why. It says that the earth “shall be filled with devotion to the LORD as water covers the sea.”
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).