Understanding the Name Jesus “Christ”

by Lois Tverberg

It is always fascinating and enriching to bring the Hebraic cultural context into understanding the most important, basic words that Christians use. One of the most important is the word “Christ.” What does it mean to call Jesus, “Jesus Christ”? Or, what implications does it have for us to say that Jesus is the “Christ”?

First of all, the word “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the word moshiach, or “Messiah,” in Hebrew. So, to be the Christ, or Messiah, is to be “the anointed one of God.”

To be anointed is literally to have sacred anointing oil poured on one’s head because God has chosen the person for a special task. Priests and kings were anointed, and occasionally prophets. Kings were anointed during their coronation rather than receiving a crown.

Even though prophets and priests were anointed, the phrase “anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” was most often used to refer to a king. For instance, David used it many times to refer to King Saul, even when Saul was trying to murder David and David was on the verge of killing Saul to defend himself:

Far be it from me because of the LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed (moshiach), to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed (moshiach). (1 Sam. 24:6)

So, the main picture of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” as the “anointed one” was of a king chosen by God. While Jesus also has a priestly and a prophetic role, the main picture that word “Messiah” is used for is a king.

Through the Old Testament, we see little hints that God would send a great king to Israel who would someday rule the world. In Genesis, Jacob gives blessings to all of his sons, and of Judah he says,

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (Gen. 49:10)

This is the first hint that they were expecting a great king to arise out of Israel who would be king over the whole earth. The clearest prophecy about this messianic king who was coming is from King David’s time. David told God that he wanted to build God a “house,” meaning a temple.

God said to him that instead his son Solomon would do that, and then promised that he will build a “house” for him, meaning that God will establish his family line after him. God further promises David that from his family will come a king whose kingdom will have no end:

“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron. 17:11-14)

This prophecy has been understood as having a double fulfillment — it is first fulfilled in Solomon, who built the temple, but did what God forbade — amassed a great fortune and married foreign wives. His kingdom broke apart a few years after his death.

It also spoke about a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. This prophecy is the seedbed of all of the messianic prophecies that talk about the “son of David” and the coming messianic king.

Jesus as the Christ

Even though we tend to not pick up on the cultural pictures, the gospels tell us many times that Jesus is this great King who has come. In Matthew 2, the wise men come to bring presents to this king whose star they have seen in the east. This was a fulfillment of Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72.

The latter two passages both describe the coming of a great king and describe how representatives from nations everywhere would come to give him tribute:

He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. (Ps. 72:5, 8-11)

Soon after Jesus begins his ministry he proclaims himself as the anointed one (the Christ) in Luke 4 when he says that passage from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)

This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year, a tradition observed when a new king came into power in some middle eastern countries.1 Jesus applied it to himself, arousing a very strong reaction from his audience to his bold claims.

We see yet another picture of Jesus as King when he rode on the donkey into Jerusalem. This was very much a kingly image, often part of the annunciation of a new king, as it was for Solomon in 1 Kings 1:38-39. It is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, the triumphal entry of the messianic king.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

During Jesus’ trial, the main question he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?” and he answers affirmatively:

And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And he answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:2-3)

What are the implications of Jesus as King?

When we think about Jesus’ time on earth, the last thing we think of is of a king who is reigning, but Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:37). Rather, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, the major focus of his preaching.

The kingdom of God is made up of those who submit their lives to God to reign over them. As the King that God has sent, and of course because he is God, the kingdom of God is Jesus’ kingdom. He speaks about how it is expanding like yeast or mustard seed, as the gospel that he has arrived goes forth and many more accept him as their King. When he returns in glory, all the earth at that time will see that he is King.

Did the people around him see him as a king? The fact that Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord” suggests that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he is the Messianic King.

Throughout the gospels Jesus is addressed with respect by strangers as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Only a few times is he actually addressed using his common name, Jesus, and only by demons (Mark 1:24) as well as a few who didn’t know him. To call Jesus “Lord” is using a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and has a hint of worshipping Jesus as God.

To use the word “Lord” displays an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. Jesus seems even to expect that those who call him Lord obey him — he said to his listeners, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).

To call him “Lord” or to call him Jesus “Christ” is to say that he is the King that God has sent, who has a right to reign over us. It is interesting that even though the demons know that he is the Son of God, they refuse to use the word Lord to address him (Luke 4:34, 40)!

This has implications about the basic understanding of what a Christian is. We tend to define ourselves by our creeds and statements of belief, but the very word Christ calls us to more than that. If Christ means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign. Those who are saved have two things: both a belief in the atoning work of Jesus, and a commitment to honor him as their personal Lord and King. As Paul says,

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:9)


1 See the En-Gedi article, “The Gospel as the Year of Jubilee.” 

Photos: François-Léon Benouville [CC BY-SA 4.0], John Stephen Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], Ikiwaner [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Eating at the Lord’s Table

by Lois Tverberg

As part of an insatiable curiosity to understand the Bible’s message in the cultural “language” that it was originally given, I’ve been looking at original cultural message behind our celebration of Communion. Why? Because the ideas behind this practice are found from Genesis to Revelation, and can give us a deeper appreciation of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Eastern cultures throughout Asia and Africa, from the distant past up to the present, have understood that sharing a meal together was a sign of true fellowship. For thousands of years, groups have shared a ceremonial meal together as a symbol of peace and mutual acceptance after making a covenant.

Covenants, in the Eastern mind, are not just business agreements, they are the making of a new relationship between two parties. Often they involve reconciliation after a grievance has been committed. After making a covenant to not take vengeance on each other, the parties sit down to a ceremonial meal. As they eat together, they celebrate their reconciliation with each other, and after that meal, neither party may bring up the grievance ever again.

A fascinating example of this is the account of the sulha, the Arabic word for “table,” or reconciliation meal, between Ilan Zamir, an Israeli Christian, and an Arab family. Zamir had killed the family’s deaf 13 year-old son in a car accident and wanted to seek forgiveness from the family.

He was warned against it, because the cultural traditions would have allowed the family to kill him as vengeance for their son’s death. But an Arab pastor helped him arrange a sulha, a covenant of reconciliation. The ceremony involved Zamir apologizing and offering gifts, the family refusing the gifts, and finally, their sitting down together for a ceremonial meal.

When the father took the first drink of the coffee at the meal, it was a demonstration of his forgiveness. The family then said to him, “Know, O my brother, that you are in place of this son who has died. You have a family and a home somewhere else, but know that here is your second home.” What a picture of reconciliation! (The full story can be found at this link.)

The Covenantal Meal In the Old Testament

We see this ancient tradition in many covenantal ceremonies in the Old Testament. Remember the story of Jacob in which he flees from his father-in-law, Laban, with his wives. Laban pursues him, and in their meeting they enact a covenant between each other that that neither will harm the other as they part ways. After they made the covenant, it says:

Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain. Early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place. (Gen. 31:54 – 55)

We also see the meal as part of one of the most important covenants in the Old Testament: the covenant between God and the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai. After enacting this covenant on Mt. Sinai, there is a scene that we can hardly appreciate:

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. (Ex. 24:9-11)

To a Middle Easterner, the implications of this scene would have been profound. God had made a covenant of peace with this nation, and before anything had been done to break it, they had perfect fellowship with God — they could eat and drink in his presence. Because of the covenantal bond made through the blood of the sacrifices, God had accepted them into his presence.

Not only could they be there, but they even could eat a meal, demonstrating their peaceful relationship with him. This was the beginning of God’s answer to the break in fellowship that occurred in the garden of Eden, when humanity was cast out of God’s presence because of sin.

Throughout the Old Testament, this ceremony of eating and drinking in God’s presence is reenacted through the fellowship offering, literally a “shalom” offering. A family would bring an animal to sacrifice to the tabernacle or temple, and the meat would be eaten by the family and the priest, with the best portions burned as an offering to the Lord.

They saw this as true covenantal communion with God — that they could sit down at a meal with him. It was as if he was truly present at the table with them as they ate. In Deuteronomy 14:22-26, God even tells them to save up a tenth of their money each year and bring it to the temple to have a great fellowship meal with him. They could buy anything they wanted, but they had to invite him to the party!

You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deut 14:26)

We also see this fellowship meal in the great celebrations that occur at important redemptive events in the history of Israel. At the exodus from Egypt they celebrated the Passover, and they still eat this meal to celebrate his faithfulness to them. They celebrated either Passover or a great fellowship offering after they entered the promised land (Josh. 5:10), when they renewed the covenant on Mt. Ebal (Josh. 8:31), when Solomon built the temple (1 Kings 8:33), and later when Hezekiah rededicated it (2 Chron 30:21). The meal was a way to renew their covenant with God and rededicate themselves to fulfilling their part of the covenant.

The Meal in the New Testament

This picture of eating a meal together as a sign of reconciliation and peace also runs throughout the New Testament. In Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son, when the son comes home, his father arranges a feast to celebrate that he is now part of the family again. The meal is a celebration of the renewed harmonious relationship between the son and his family.

After Jesus’ resurrection, we read the odd story of Jesus cooking fish and serving breakfast to the disciples (John 21:9-19). The topic of conversation was a break in their relationship. Jesus says to Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, reminding him of his earlier denials at Jesus’ trial, and then Jesus reinstates him as his disciple. The meal is a demonstration of the reconciliation going on between Jesus and Peter.

We even hear this idea of a meal of reconciliation in the familiar words of Revelation 3:20:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.

Now we know why it says that Jesus would come in and dine with us: to show us his acceptance of us, and to celebrate the relationship that we have together! It also explains why the predominant picture of heaven is that of a wedding feast, the celebration of the covenantal union of the Lamb and his people. There, we will always have this unbroken fellowship with him.

Communion as Covenantal Meal

From all of this imagery in scripture, we can have a beautiful new picture of what Jesus intended when, at the Last Supper, he broke the bread, then held up the wine and said, “This is the blood of the new covenant – do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus chooses the fellowship meal that had been used many times to celebrate God’s redemption of his people, the Passover meal.

Now, through the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, he is saying that we can enter into the new covenant of forgiveness and have a new, unbroken relationship with him. Like the Arab father, God puts aside all grievances he has with us, and tells us that we are now members of his family! This ceremony assures us of God’s redemption, that we are acceptable in his sight.

We are also reminded that salvation is not just a future event, not just being saved from our sins when we die. Salvation is our coming into fellowship with God, like the prodigal returning to his family. This supper shows that we can enter into God’s presence and have communion with him even in this life, as the seventy elders did on Mt. Sinai. The beauty of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper lies both in the present enjoyment of fellowship with the Lord, as well as the anticipation of unending fellowship with him at the banquet in heaven.


Photos: Eczebulun [CC BY-SA 3.0], Berthold Werner [CC BY-SA 3.0], Da Vinci [Public Domain] 

Listening Through Jesus’ Ears

by Lois Tverberg

Anyone who does much study of the Bible will notice that often it speaks in odd-sounding, poetic phrases. Some translations of the Bible interpret these for readers, but others leave them quite literal and hard to understand.

Why does the Bible have such an odd “accent”? Because it comes to us from languages and cultures different from ours. If we want to hear the Bible for what it really is saying, we need to get a sense for its idioms and thought patterns.

This is especially true as we read the Old Testament, which reflects an ancient culture very different from our modern, Western mindset. We can avoid misunderstanding when we realize that even words that have been translated literally may have originally carried a different connotation than they do in English.

Besides making the Bible clearer, hearing its words as they were originally meant is a tremendously enriching experience, giving us wonderful new insights into God’s word.

Rich Hebrew Words

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and even though the New Testament was written in Greek, it was written almost entirely by Jews growing up in a Hebrew-speaking, Semitic-thinking culture. Because of this, its ideas come out of a Hebraic world-view. Having a sense for the style of the Hebrew language is therefore very important for understanding the Bible and gives us clues on the thinking patterns of its writers.

Hebrew has a small vocabulary, and each word often has a greater depth of meaning than our corresponding word, to describe many related things. For example, the Hebrew word for house, beit, can mean house, temple, family or lineage. Also, the Hebrew language lacks abstractions, and uses physical pictures to express abstract ideas, like being “stiff-necked” (stubborn) or “heart was lifted up” (was prideful), which sound poetic to us.

Hebrew also often uses the identical word to describe a mental activity as the physical result of the activity. For example, to listen can mean just to listen, but it usually means to obey the words you hear, which is the result of listening. I have found it amazingly useful in my study of the Bible to get a sense of these wider meanings, so that I can get a fuller understanding of what this odd poetry really means.


Here are a few examples of the idiomatic meanings words can have in Hebrew, in addition to their literal meaning in English.


NameAuthority, reputation, essence, identity

“In the name of Jesus” means, “by the authority of Jesus,” or “for the sake of Jesus.” Often it speaks about the temple as where “God’s Name dwells,” which really means his authority and presence. See the examples below:

He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. (Meaning, because they know the person’s identity as a prophet or righteous man) (Matt. 10:41)

But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name. (Meaning, those who believe in Jesus’ identity as the Son of God) (John 1:12)


SonDescendant, including grandsons and later descendants, disciples

The Israelites, both male and female were called “sons of Israel,” and the Messiah was supposed to be a “son of David.” It was assumed that descendants would share the character of their forefathers too, so a “son of David” would be expected to be kingly and powerful. Jesus says peacemakers will be called “sons of God,” because they are like God in character (Matt 5:9)


HouseFamily, descendants, disciples, possessions, the temple

God plays on the multiple meanings of the word when King David asks if he can build a “house” for God (a temple) and God answers that he would build a “house” for David, meaning a kingly lineage that will never end (see 1 Chron. 17:4, 10). We are God’s house: his temple, but also his family.


Law (Torah)Instruction, guidance, teaching – comes from the word for “to point, aim, or guide

In Jewish translations it is usually rendered as “instruction” or “teaching.” It has a very positive understanding in terms of being God’s word that contains his guidance for living. This is one of the most misunderstood of words in church tradition, where the “Law” has taken on a negative idea of a legalistic body of oppressive rules.


VisitPay attention to, come to the rescue of, bring to judgement (a very wide range of meaning indeed!)

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely visit you (come to your aid) and take you to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Gen. 50:24)

What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you visit (take notice of) him (Ps. 8:5)

Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them. (Meaning, I will pay attention to their sin and punish them.) (Ex. 32:34)

Interestingly, Jesus seems to be playing on this when, at the cleansing of the temple, he says,

“For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:43-44)

The “time of their visitation” could mean the time God has come to their rescue in the person of Christ, but for those who ignore him, it will be the source of their punishment, when God “visits” their sins on them through the destruction of the temple.


Listen, hearTake heed, be obedient, do what is asked

The Shema is the first word of the Jewish “Pledge of Allegiance,” and it means “Hear.” But really, it means “take heed” or “obey.” In fact, almost every place we see the word “obey” in the Bible, it is translated from the word shema, to hear. When Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” he is calling us to put his words into action, not just listen.


RememberDo a favor for, come to the aid of

After the flood, God “remembered” Noah and dried up the waters, meaning that he rescued him, and Hannah says God “remembered” her when she conceived — he did her a favor. The Psalms often plead with God to “remember his people” in the sense of coming to their rescue.


ForgetIgnore, not act on

 The cupbearer “forgot” Joseph — actually meaning he ignored his request. God “forgets” our sins — meaning he will never hold them against us, not that his omniscient mind actually loses the memory of them.


KnowHave a relationship with another person, even intimately, to care for another

Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived, and bore Cain. (Gen. 4:1)

The righteous man knows (cares for) his animals… (Prov. 12:10)

I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will be their God… (Jer. 24:7)

Having a sense for this way of speaking will be a lot of help to those who want to explore their meaning in passages. Newer translations (ESV, NIV, etc.) tend to explain these words, while older translations (King James) will use a direct, literal meaning.

While it is nice to not struggle to understand, often the poetry and wordplays and parallels between passages are obscured in less literal translations. My recommendation is to have more than one translation available, and compare to see the range of interpretations for passages.

One thing we should notice about Hebrew verbs is that they tend to stress action and effect, rather than just mental activity. Our own Western frame of reference stresses that our intellectual life is most important, while the Hebrew assumes that actions will result from it. In the Hebrew sense, if you “remember” someone, you will act on their behalf. If you “hear” someone, you will obey their words. If you “know” someone, you will have a close relationship with them.

When you read a word that sounds like it is talking about mental activity, stop and think in terms of the action that is expected to result. If you are reading the scripture to apply to your own life, make sure that it goes beyond thought to concrete action: that you are a doer of the word, and not a hearer only.


Photos: Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash,  Scott Webb on UnsplashAcabashi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Letting our Tassels Show

by Lois Tverberg

To modern Christians, many Old Testament laws seem arbitrary. One in particular may strike us as pointless — the commandment to wear tassels. In Numbers it says,

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD your God.'” (Num. 15:37-41)

Many orthodox Jewish men today observe this commandment by wearing tassels (tzitzit,  ZEET-zeet; plural tzitziot – zee-zee-OTE, ) affixed to a garment under their shirts, with the tassels deliberately showing so that they are obvious both to himself and those around him.

Others don’t wear them all the time, but in worship they wear a prayer shawl, a tallit, to which tzitzit are attached. Among those that do wear them, it is required that they hang outside and are not tucked in, because the scripture says that you have them “to look at.”

Not only is this odd commandment taken seriously by Jews, the text of the command is repeated at least twice daily as part of their most important prayer, the Shema. Although it may appear to us to be an act of legalism, when we dig deeper we find it has tremendous significance and a lesson for our lives today.

The Picture in the Tassels

In order to make sense of this regulation, we need to see the cultural picture behind putting tzitzit on the corners of the garment. In ancient times, garments were woven and decorated to show the person’s identity and status in society. The hem and tassels of the outer robe were particularly important, with the hem being symbolic of the owner’s identity and authority.

In the story of Saul, the cutting of the hem is a prophetic picture of God’s removing him from his reign (1 Sam 15:27, 1 Sam 24:4). In legal contracts written in clay, instead of a signature, the corner of the hem would be pressed into the clay to leave an impression.

On the hem were attached the tzitzit, which were a visual reminder of one of the most important promises that God made at Mt. Sinai:

Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:6)

The tzitzit communicated that idea using several cultural pictures:

  • Tassels in general were a sign of nobility — in ancient times kings and princes decorated their hems with tassels. Merely by wearing tassels, the Israelites were wearing a “royal robe,” marked as God’s chosen people. In ancient times this would have been quite a statement to the nations around them who saw the regal nature of their clothing.
  • The presence of a blue thread in the tassel was a reminder of the blue robes of the priests, being dyed with the same expensive dye (tekhelet) only made from one rare type of snail. It was as if each Israelite wore a little piece of the high priest’s blue robe at all times to remind them that like the priests, they were set apart for serving God. The blue dye eventually became so expensive that it was no longer required.
  • The tassels were wound and knotted in a specific pattern to remind the wearer of the commandments of God. This may not have been done in the time of Jesus, but it was certainly understood in his time that the tassels were to remind a person to be continually obedient to God.

By wearing tzitzit, every Jew was reminded of his unique relationship with God and obligation to serve him. According to the Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom,

“The tzitzit is the epitome of the democratic thrust within Judaism, which equalizes not by leveling but by elevating: all of Israel is enjoined to become a nation of priests. In antiquity, the tzitzit (and the hem) was the insignia of authority, high breeding and nobility. By adding the blue woolen cord to the tzitzit, the Torah combined nobility with priesthood: Israel is not to rule man but to serve God. Furthermore, tzitzit is not restricted to Israel’s leaders, be they kings, rabbis or scholars. It is the uniform of all Israel.”1

The Importance of the Uniform

God was giving his people a uniform to wear to show their special status as a nation of priests. God was also forcing them to be obvious about their commitment to him, because everyone around them could see their tassels too.

God chose to make the people of Israel his representatives on earth — a kingdom of priests to the rest of the world. He wanted them to be continually reminded that he had put them on display as a light to the nations, witnesses to him to serve others.

In a world where other nations prostituted themselves to idols and sacrificed their children to demons, they were to show how the true God wanted them to live. They could not blend in to the world around them, and whatever they did, good or evil, was a witness to the God they served. If they were true to their calling by being obedient to God, they would be a holy nation that the whole world would recognize.

Jesus, like other Jews of the day, wore the uniform of the tzitzit. The gospels report that more than once people grasped them to be healed (Mt. 14:6, Lk 8:44). This may have come from the idea that the messiah would come with “healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2), with “wings,” kanafim, also meaning “corners,” where the tzitzit were placed.

When Jesus criticized the religious leaders for making their tassels large (Mt 23:5), he wasn’t protesting against their wearing them. Because social status was shown through the hem and tassels, by enlarging them they were claiming honor and prestige from their piety. While they were supposed to be clear in their commitment by wearing their tassels, they weren’t supposed to use them to their own social gain.

The Challenge to Us

What importance does this have to us as Gentiles, who weren’t given this command? While the Israelites were specifically told to wear this uniform and we were not, we do share the same call as they received on Mt. Sinai. Peter says,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Peter is adapting God’s promise from his first covenant with the Jews and applying to it to all believers who have come into God’s new covenant, that we too are part of his holy nation and royal priesthood. By accepting this covenant, we also become God’s representatives, witnesses to the world by our actions.

Like the priests of Israel, we need to be mindful of being obedient so that we reflect God’s holiness, while serving others and bringing them closer to God. What if Christians were required to wear tzitzit? Western Christians have an extremely privatized faith, living lives like everyone around us, being glad that we don’t need to “do anything to get to heaven.”

So we are just like our neighbors, not being a judge, but also not being a light or a witness. We are hidden lamps, covered under our own bushel baskets. We focus on the minimum needed for salvation, but don’t realize that God’s goal is far beyond that.

The lesson of the tzitzit is that God’s goal for us as a kingdom of priests is to become more obvious about living our faith, enough so that others see our “tassels.” This can easily bring on accusations of being judgmental and hypocritical, so we need to rise to the challenge to go even more out of our way to be humble and kind as we live in front of others. We need to wear a little piece of the robe of our high priest, Jesus Christ. God’s goal for us is not just to “get us into heaven,” but to transform us into his representatives who reflect the love of God, and cause others to love him too.


1 Jacob Milgrom, “The Tassel and the Tallit,” The Fourth Annual Rabbi Louis Fineberg Memorial Lecture (University of Cincinnati, 1981). (Quoted in the online article The Meaning of Tekhelet by Baruch Sterman.)

Much information on the significance of tassels for this article comes from the Jewish Publication Society Commentary on Numbers, by Jacob Milgrom, 1990. (ISBN 0-8276-0329-0), Excursus 38, p. 410 – 414. This set of Torah commentaries is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to dig deeper.

Photos: Blake Campbell on Unsplash, החבלן [CC0], Blambi at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Taming the Tongue

by Lois Tverberg

“No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)

Gossip is a sin of which we all are guilty, and yet it has probably caused us all suffering too. We all are wounded by this habit that seems so acceptable in our culture today. Careers are ended, marriages disrupted, friendships ruined.

How many of us wish we could erase the hard feelings we have caused, and heal our relationships from its affects? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel we could trust everyone when we left the room? The Bible has much to say about it, and rabbinic thinkers have some excellent wisdom about how to purify our speech. We can even find parallels in Jewish ideas to the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.

Shmirat HaLashon – Guarding the Tongue

We all know that by being kind in our speech we can have deeper friendships and closer families. The scriptures say that it is the key to a good, long life:

Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully. (Psalm 34:12-13 & 1 Peter 3:10)

In contrast, the potential for harm from our tongues is great:

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5-6)

Our speech has the potential of great good or great evil. This biblical idea of the need to “guard our tongues” has been a part of a movement among Orthodox Jews in the past century. They have a strong emphasis on observing the rules of Shmirat Halashon (SHMEER-aht hah-la-SHON) – guarding the tongue.

In the past few years in Jerusalem, conventions have been held with seminars on how to have kind speech. Over ten thousand people have attended each year, and many clubs have formed for those wanting to reinforce this habit among themselves. Imagine living in a place where there was no gossip, no backbiting and no slander! They fail too, of course, but it is not overlooked or encouraged, as in some of our circles. Imagine what would happen if the Christian community did that!

We can learn much from the ideas that have come from the Jewish community.

Lashon Hara – The Evil Tongue

The Hebrew term that is used for gossip is lashon hara (la-SHON hah-RAH). It means literally, “the evil tongue.” Jews define it as defaming a person in the eyes of others by revealing details about them that put them in a negative light. Lashon hara is different from slander, which is telling lies about others. While everyone recognizes that slander is wrong, fewer will say that it is also wrong to speak negative truth about others.

Lashon hara is telling your co-workers all about how the boss messed up his presentation, or pointing out to your husband how poorly the worship leader sings. This habit is what tears down friendships, demeans others, and undermines trust. There are, of course, a few times when a person needs to relay damaging information, but outside of that, this kind of negativity is frowned upon in the Jewish community.

Many rabbinic stories focus on the damage done through lashon hara. One story is told about a man who gossiped about a rabbi, causing much damage to his reputation. The man repented and came to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness. The rabbi told him to take a pillow and open it and cast it to the wind. When he had done this, he asked him to now go gather all the feathers back into the pillow again. The man said, “But that is impossible!” and the rabbi replied that, in the same way, it was impossible to repair all the damage that his words had done.

The rabbis point out that other actions close to Lashon Hara should be avoided as well. For instance, to read a newspaper editorial article that you don’t like and then show it to someone just so they will scoff at it is called the “Dust of Lashon Hara.”

It also includes sarcastic comments about another person, like, “She is such a genius, isn’t she?” or innuendos like, “Don’t mention so-and-so: I wouldn’t want to say what I know about her.” Even to laugh and sneer when someone else gossips qualifies, because it communicates your negative feelings. It truly is a difficult task to avoid damaging others through subtle comments and even body language. As James says,

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (James 3:2)

We do many other things with our speech that are hurtful, which are discussed biblically and rabbinically. 

Motze Shem Ra – “to spread a bad name” 

This means to slander another by spreading lies about them. Interestingly, this Hebraic idiom is behind the Greek text of Luke in chapter 6:22: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man.” Even Jesus used the idioms that are still used for evil speech. Jesus is saying that people will invent lies about his followers, but that he will bless them because of the hurt it causes them.

The rabbis considered slander on par with murder, because it destroys the victim’s reputation in the eyes of others. They point out that slander is more similar to murder than robbery, because while a robber can repent and give back all of what he has stolen, a murderer can never undo the damage he has done.

Note: This technique of comparing a lesser sin (slander) to a greater sin (murder) is reminiscent of Jesus’ rabbinic teaching style. Jesus says that anger is on par with murder, and that lusting in the heart is equivalent to adultery (Matt 5:22 & 28). It is a way to point out the serious potential of even small sins. We can see that Jesus is using a technique that was part of his Jewish culture.

Rechilut – tale-bearing

Rechilut is repeating rumors, especially to tell the object of a rumor what others have been saying about them. Leviticus 19:16 says that we should not go about as a “tale-bearer.” We are supposed to be peacemakers, and telling the object of a rumor what is being said is sure to cause anger and hatred between people. We may feel that a person has a right to know what others are saying, but telling them is usually going to cause more damage.

G’neivat da’at – “stealing another’s knowledge”

This means to deceive someone about your intentions. An example is to go out for supper with a friend and offer to pay, knowing that they won’t accept. Or to say you will come to a party knowing that you probably won’t go.

These are forms of deception and verbal manipulation, that are part of the commandment to not lie. How many times a day do our words not match our intentions? We may not give a second thought about all the little ways we are deceptive, that we should rethink if we want to be people of integrity.

Healing the Tongue

How do we heal our speech so that our relationships can be deeper and more fulfilling? Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). He diagnoses the problem as one of the heart.

One major culprit behind gossip is our desire to judge others negatively, to see their actions in the worst light possible. If a friend doesn’t invite you to a party, was it an oversight, or was there malicious intent? A person who assumes the worst will be angry and want to report the slight to everyone, but a person who assumes the best will not be bothered. Our whole attitude toward others will change when we try always to give others the benefit of the doubt.1

Another major reason for gossip and unkind speech is our desire to elevate ourselves by tearing others down. It may work temporarily, but over time it demeans us in the eyes of others.

Paul has a solution to this problem:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)

If we genuinely care as much about others as ourselves, we will try to protect their reputations as much as we do our own.


A major source for this essay is Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, an excellent book on the subject by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (c) 1996, William Morrow & Co, ISBN 0-688-16350-5.

See also “The Power of Positive Speaking,” an article by Rabbi Malka Drucker.

1 See the En-Gedi article, “Living out Jesus’ Words on Judging.”

Photos: NaveenNkadalaveni [CC BY-SA 4.0], Eugene de Blaas [Public domain], Bobbie Johnson [CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Powerful Imagery of Blood

by Lois Tverberg

Throughout the Bible there is a recurring image that is mysterious to modern, Western Christians: blood. We like abstract concepts like atonement and salvation, but if we really want to understand these ideas as the Bible explains them, we need to understand its cultural language, which includes the imagery of blood.

The ancient Hebrews thought in concrete ways, expressing abstract ideas in terms of things they could see, touch and smell. In Hebrew, a person is not stubborn, he is “stiff-necked”; God is not slow to anger, he has “long nostrils”; God is not jealous, he is “red-faced.”

When God was speaking to them about blood, he spoke to them in this image-based language. Rather than being woodenly literal about what God said about blood, our best way to understand it is to imagine how they saw it, and then translate it into our own language.

Life is in the Blood

The ancient Hebrews believed that the blood of a creature contained its life. They could observe that a person or animal bleeding from a wound will grow faint, and with enough blood loss will die. Because no other damage had to be done than to let the blood run out, it was logical to observers that the life of the animal or person was going out with the blood.1 This has been a common understanding throughout the history of the world, and the sacred awe associated with blood is still held by traditional African cultures even now.2 The Bible reinforces that belief by saying:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood… For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. (Lev. 17:11, 14)

Because of this belief, it was understood that imbibing the blood of a powerful animal would allow a person to acquire its “life,” to take on some of its power: this is still practiced in animistic cultures today. The Bible is unique among documents of its time for forbidding the consuming of blood.

Although they could kill and eat animals, God himself owned the “life” of the creature, and the blood had to be given back to him by being poured on an altar, or on the ground.3 We read this as an outmoded regulation from ancient times. We should instead look at it as if God was speaking their language in order to teach them a profound idea — that God alone is the creator and possessor of the life of every creature. He says:

But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Gen 9:4-6)

This helps us to understand the odd regulation about not eating the meat of strangled animals in Acts 15:20. The early church had made a decision that the Gentiles entering the church did not need to take on the full requirements of Torah observance, but they needed to observe the basic laws that God had given even the Gentiles.

They noted that the prohibition of eating animals with the blood still in them came from Genesis, not from the laws of Moses that were given specifically to the Israelites. They wanted them to abandon this practice used in idolatrous ceremonies to show that they had abandoned idol worship, and out of respect for God’s ownership of every life.

The Preciousness of Human Life

An important moral law God was teaching through the prohibition of bloodshed in Genesis 9:6 is that human lives are precious to God — he made us in his image, so by taking a human life, we are destroying the one thing in creation that uniquely bears God’s likeness. The sanctity of life may seem second nature to us, but the idea was unprecedented in ancient, pagan cultures.4

We don’t often contemplate how this singular idea has transformed our entire civilization to the point that it is what makes us “civilized.” Hospitals, orphanages and charities of all types have arisen our of the belief that human life must be preserved at any cost.

Jews have a profound way of expressing this idea that comes from the first case of shedding of innocent blood, Cain’s murder of Abel. God says to Cain,

“The voice of your brother’s blood (bloods, literally) is crying to Me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10)

The Hebrew word for blood is dam, and the plural is damim. When the Bible talks about murder, or “bloodguilt,” it usually uses the plural form, damim. Using the logic that the blood contains the life of a person, to speak of blood in the plural implies that a murder doesn’t just take the life of one person, it takes the lives of many.

Jews therefore have a tradition that the voice of the “bloods” crying out from the ground was actually the voices of all of the future descendants of Abel that would have ever lived. From this they have a saying, “To take the life of one person is like taking the life of a whole world, and to save the life of one person is like saving a whole world!”5

Innocent Blood

Related to this understanding that the blood contained the life of a person was the idea that the blood of an innocent victim of murder would curse the ground. (Of course, blood didn’t literally have to be shed — the phrase “to shed innocent blood” meant the murder of innocent people, in whatever manner.) In many cultures in Africa today, the land must be abandoned, and never farmed again until atonement is made for the bloodshed.6

The ancient person would understand that this was why Cain could never farm again, because the land was cursed by his murder. They would also see it as the reason for the flood — to both destroy the wicked people of the earth, and purify the earth itself from the blood that had been shed.

The “shedding of innocent blood” was such a great crime that the only way to get rid of it was to take the life of the murderer. If the murderer was unknown, an animal had to be sacrificed to atone for the murder. Otherwise, if not atoned for, it eventually would bring terrible judgment.

The sin that finally caused God to let kingdom of Judah be destroyed was the shedding of innocent blood. This was because of the murder of the prophets and faithful Jews, and the abhorrent practice of infant sacrifice:

The LORD sent Babylonian, Aramean, Moabite and Ammonite raiders to destroy Judah… Surely these things happened to Judah according to the LORD’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD was not willing to forgive. (II Kings 24:2-4, edited)

Jesus also said that this was would bring judgment on His generation as well, when Jerusalem would be besieged and the temple burned. He said that God would punish the corrupt temple leaders because of the righteous blood that they shed:

And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. (Matt 23:35)

Covenants Sealed with Blood

Another place blood is always seen is in the formation of covenants. In Genesis 16, when God makes a covenant with Abraham to give him the land, he tells him to sacrifice five animals and make a blood path, an ancient method of covenant-making. God later asks Abraham to take on the covenant of circumcision, where his own blood is shed, as is that of all his male descendants (Genesis 17:10).

When God makes the covenant with Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, they are sprinkled with blood to seal the covenant (Ex. 24:8). In other ancient cultures, two men making a covenant would cut their arms and mingle the blood, saying by that act that they were now bound to each other by the covenant, as their lives were intertwined by their blood. A covenant was a way to form a new peaceful relationship between two parties, and the blood of the covenant signified that their very lives were devoted to it.7

Blood Used for Atonement

 In the Levitical laws, God explains that he will allow His people to atone for their sins through the blood of animals. It is a substitution of their blood for that of the guilty person, the animal’s life for the person’s life. Leviticus 17 explains that because the blood represents the life of the animal, the blood makes atonement for the life of the person:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making atonement for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects atonement. (Lev. 17:11)

Once again God is using a cultural language that they would understand: by allowing them to use animal blood for atonement, he is beginning to teach them that although sin demands punishment, he will provide a way for them to find forgiveness for their sins by means of a substitution. He is pointing ahead to the ultimate substitutionary death of Christ.

The Blood of Christ

Now we can see some of the logic behind Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, when he brings new significance to the third cup of the Passover meal, the Cup of Redemption:

Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt. 26:27-28)

Here we see Jesus using the image of blood in two ways: he is explaining that the shedding of his blood on the cross is the substitution of his life for ours, granting us eternal redemption from our sins. He is also saying that his blood ratifies a new covenant between God and man, whereby we now have a new relationship with God if we personally partake of Christ’s atonement.

The blood of Christ is both an atonement for sin and the seal of a new covenant, and every time we take communion, we remind ourselves of our forgiveness. We remind ourselves of our new loving fellowship with God, because of the covenant sealed by the blood of Christ.


1Blood,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, available online at studylight.org.

2 Milly Erema, “Teaching the Bible Using Ugandan Cultural Resources with Specific Reference to the Old Testament,” Western Theological Seminary Master’s Thesis, 2001.

3 Deuteronomy 16:23.

4 Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, p 177 Schocken Books, 1996.

5 Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 34, Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

6 See reference 2.

7 Article, “Covenants,” Jewish Encyclopedia, p 318-322, Funk and Wagnalls, c.1906-1910. Available online at jewishencyclopedia.com.

Photos: Official Navy Page from United States of AmericaMass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Sunderman/Mass Communication Specialist 3r [Public domain], William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], Branislav Belko on Unsplash, Eczebulun [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Thoughts for Yom Kippur

by Lois Tverberg

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest and most important day of the year for Jews. It begins before sunset the night fore, and includes a 25 hour fast from both food and water, and ceasing of all work. It is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to ask for atonement for the sins of the past year. Even Jews who otherwise are not observant will observe this day.

Yom Kippur comes after the ten “Days of Awe” when people are to examine themselves and repent of their sins. They also go to each other to confess and be forgiven, because they believe God calls us first to make things right with each other before being right with him. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried. That is a reminder that our lives are finite here, and we should be prepared to stand before the Lord the day we die.

The holiday was instituted in Leviticus 16, where it says:

“This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD. “It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. (Lev. 16:29-31)

The traditions of the day are rich and moving. When the temple was standing, special sacrifices were offered, and the high priest laid the sins of the nation on a scapegoat that was driven into the wilderness and killed there.

Among the ultra-orthodox, some still lay their sins on the head of a chicken that is then sacrificed, and the meat given to the poor. Throughout the ages, there has been a clear understanding of the need for a means of atonement, even after the Temple was destroyed and the decision was made that prayers alone were sufficient.

To Christians, we see the obvious need for the atonement that comes from the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, it is appropriate to remember God’s answer for our sins as the Jewish people celebrate Yom Kippur.

In our personal Bible study group in years past, we have observed this day with the liturgy below. It was written for Christian believers, but with many traditional elements of the services in the synagogue. It reminds us of our need for our atoning Messiah, and our forgiveness in Him. We have found it very meaningful to say it together, and thought you would be blessed through it too.

Yom Kippur Liturgy

Almighty King, seated upon Your throne of compassion,
You are gracious to Your people,
Pardoning sinners and forgiving transgressors,
And You deal generously with all human beings
Not treating them according to their wickedness.
Oh God, You who revealed Your character to Moses on Mount Sinai,
Remember in our favor Your thirteen attributes of mercy, as it is written:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with Moses,
And proclaimed the name, “The Lord.”
The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,

The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for thousands of generations,
forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin,
and clearing those who repent.

Adonai, Adonai, El rachun v’chanun,
Erech a-pa-yim, ve rav chesed ve-emet
No-tsayr chesed la-alafim
No-say avon va-fesha, va-cha-ta-ah, ve-na-kay.

Our God and God of our fathers! Let our prayers come before You, and do not hide Yourself from our supplication. What shall we say to You who dwell on high? You know all things, both hidden and revealed. You search our hearts and thoughts. Nothing is hidden from Your sight. We are not so arrogant nor hardened to say, “We are righteous and have not sinned.”

For truly we have sinned. We have turned away from the good commandments You have given us. You are righteous and true in all Your ways, but we have done evil in Your sight. Thank You our God and God of our fathers, that You forgive all our sins, pardon all our iniquities, and grant atonement for all our transgressions through Yeshua the Messiah.

For it is written: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Return, O Israel to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously, that we may present the fruit of our lips.”

(It is traditional to gently thump your closed fist against your chest in remorse as you recite the following liturgy:)

For the sin we committed in Your sight by sinning willfully,
and for the sin we committed in ignorance.

For the sin we committed in Your sight rebelliously,
and for the sin we committed through weakness.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by slander,
and for the sin we committed through gossip.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by lustful thoughts,
and for the sin we committed by impure actions.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by speaking idly,
and for the sin we committed by speaking cruelly.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by not being merciful,
and for the sin we committed by withholding when we could have given.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by not loving our neighbors,
and for the sin we committed by not praying for our enemies.

For the sin we committed in Your sight knowingly,
and for the sin we committed unknowingly.

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us,
and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by loving the things in the world,
and for the sin we committed by worshipping idols.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by dishonoring parents,
and for the sin we committed by disregarding children.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by preoccupation with wealth,
and for the sin we committed by coveting possessions.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by unbelief,
and for the sin we committed by disregarding your word.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by failing to pray,
and for the sin we committed by failing to love.

For the sin we committed in your sight by neglecting the poor,
and for the sin we committed by lack of generosity.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by failing to forgive,
and for the sin we committed of hardness of heart.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by not seeking first your kingdom,
and for the sin we committed through pleasing ourselves first.

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us,
and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

Our God and God of our fathers,
forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.

For we are your people, and you are our God.
We are your children, and you are our Father.
We are your servants, and you are our Lord.
We are your community, and you are our Portion.
We are your heritage, and you are our Lot.
We are your flock, and you are our Shepherd.
We are your vineyard, and you are our Keeper.
We are your work, and you are our Maker.
We are your companions, and you are our Beloved.
We are your treasure, and you are our Friend.
We are your people, and you are our King.

Forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

Se-lach la-nu, me-chal la-nu, ka-per la-nu

May Your great Name be magnified and sanctified throughout the world
Which You created according to Your will.
May You establish Your kingdom in our lifetime and during our days,
and within the life of the entire house of Israel.



For the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish liturgy that is used on Yom Kippur, see this link.

Photos: Maurycy Gottlieb [Public domain], Dušan Smetana on Unsplash

Does God Forget Sins?

by Lois Tverberg

The Bible has many difficult ideas for us to grasp, and some seem quite impossible. We know that God is infinite and created all things, and knows the future and the ancient past. Often, however, we read that God “remembered” something or “forgot” something, which implies that he has limits to his mental capacity. In particular, we read that if we repent, God will not remember our sins:

I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins. (Is. 43:25)

In moments of anger God says that he will forget his people, as if an infinite God can forget anything:

Therefore behold, I will surely forget you and cast you away from My presence, along with the city which I gave you and your fathers. (Jer. 23:39)

Another related question to this one about God “forgetting” is what God expects of us, since when God forgives, it says he does not remember our sins. Does God expect us to actually forget the sins committed against us as part of our forgiveness of them? Does he feel that we haven’t truly forgiven unless we have forgotten the sin as well? Who really can do that?

Hebraic Insights on This Dilemma

We can get some help with this difficulty when we look at the concepts contained in the Hebrew words. Often our difficulties in reading the Bible come from a lack of understanding of this. Because Hebrew is a word-poor language, most words have a wider scope of meaning than in English.

Usually the usage overlaps our English words, and if we know that there is an extended meaning, it enriches the passage for us. Sometimes, however, our English usage doesn’t really fit a passage well at all, and we need to learn the Hebraic definition in order to understand the original intent of the passage.1

Understanding the Hebrew words that we translate into “remember” and “forget” can give us several important insights. In English, our definition of the word “remember” focuses entirely on the idea of recalling memories and bringing ideas into our thoughts. To forget is the exact opposite: to fail to bring a certain memory to mind. Our concept is concerned entirely with mental activity and whether or not information is present or not. So for us, remembering and forgetting is entirely a mental activity.

In contrast, in Hebrew, the word zakor, “remember,” has a much wider definition.2 It includes both remembering as well as the actions taken because of remembering. It can often imply that a person did a favor for someone, helped them, or was faithful to a promise or covenant. This helps us to understand verses like the following:

But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided. (Gen. 8:1)

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. (Gen. 30:22)

The passage about Noah doesn’t mean that God suddenly recalled that a boat was floating out on the flood, and then realized that he should do something about it. When God remembered Noah, he acted upon his promise that Noah’s family and the animals would be rescued from the flood.

In the other passage, God did a favor for Rachel by answering her prayer for a son. The verb is focused on the action, not the mental activity on God’s part. God paid attention to her needs, listened to her prayer, and answered it. Here, “remember” means “to intervene,” focusing on God’s action.

The Idea of Forgetting

Interestingly, the Hebrew words for forget, shakach and nashah are not the exact opposites of zakor, “remember.” To “forget” in Hebrew also means to ignore, neglect, forsake, or willfully act in disregard to a person or covenant. It is to act as if you have forgotten. Frequently the Bible says, “Do not forget the Lord your God” meaning, do not forsake him, be loyal to him.

To “forget” usually has a negative connotation close to what the American slang term “to blow off” means today. For instance,

So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the LORD your God which he made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the LORD your God has commanded you. (Deut. 4:23)

The idea is that they would willfully ignore their covenant, not necessarily forget that they made it. In the passage discussed earlier (Jer. 23:39), when God says he will “forget” his people, it means that he will spurn them as his people, not lose their memory from his mind.

When we read with an emphasis on action, rather than mental activity, it clarifies that God is not necessarily losing information from his mind. For instance:

How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? (Psa. 13:1)

The psalmist is saying “why do you ignore my prayers and not intervene in my crisis?” God doesn’t forget, but sometimes it seems as if he does.

Remembering Sins

The key to understanding is in the phrase “remembering sins.” The idea of “remembering sins” takes the idea of action and puts it into a negative framework. It really contains the idea that God give the person what he deserves for the sin — he will punish sin, not just keep it on his mind. We find it in this poetic parallelism, where one phrase is synonymous with the other:

They have gone deep in depravity as in the days of Gibeah;
He will remember their iniquity, he will punish their sins. (Hosea 9:9)

To “remember iniquity” is the same as to “punish their sin.” It is automatically negative, implying that God will intervene to bring justice. So to not remember sins is to decide to not punish them:

If a wicked man restores a pledge, pays back what he has taken by robbery, … he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his sins that he has committed will be remembered against him. (Ezekiel 33:15-16)

The man who has been forgiven in the passage above will not have his sins “remembered against” him: implying that he will not be punished for them. Because Hebrew focuses on the action rather than the thought, it doesn’t imply that God somehow has no memory of them in his infinite mind. It means that he has decided not to act upon them.

Interestingly, “forget” is almost never used in combination with sins! The Bible does say often that God does “not remember” our sins, meaning that when he forgives, he chooses to never act on them.

Implications From These Meanings

By understanding that Hebrew focuses on action rather than on mental recall, we can now get some insight on how God can “forget” people, but yet not forget. Or how he can choose not to “remember” our sins, and yet not lose them from his memory. God chooses to put them aside, to ignore them and not bring them up after we have repented.

Any married person knows what this is like — to be hurt by a spouse yet “decide to forget” — to put it out of your mind even though the memory doesn’t goes away. A person who loves another who has hurt him or her simply chooses not to act in revenge for the sin. Once you have done this, the memory itself tends to decline.

The Hebraic idea of “remembering sins” really encompasses the idea of vengeance and punishment for them, not just knowing about them. When God says he will not remember our sins, he is deciding to forgo prosecuting us for them. This can be very freeing in terms of understanding God’s expectations for us.

When a person has hurt us repeatedly, we often wonder whether forgiveness means to pretend that the person won’t act the same way again. Are we allowed to protect ourselves, even if we hope they’ll change? The idea that we can decide not to “remember” someone’s sins in terms of seeking revenge is very freeing, because it allows us to discern the difference between remembering with a heart of revenge, versus remembering in order to make a situation better.

In some ways, if God could simply delete things from his memory banks, he would have a much easier job than humans who can’t erase their memories. When we forgive a person, we need to choose to put aside our grievances, and often we need to do that over and over again as the memory returns to our minds.

It shows more love to be hurt and choose to not remember many times than to simply be able to forget about an incident. The more we love one another, the easier it become to remove the memory of the past from our minds. In this sense, perhaps God’s infinite love really does entirely remove our sins from his infinite mind.


1 See En-Gedi’s article “Listening Through Jesus’ Ears
2 Another good article on this subject is “The Biblical Concept of Remembrance,” by Doug Ward.

Photos: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash,  Peter Pryharski on UnsplashTruthout (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Does God Want Us To Fear Him?

by Lois Tverberg

Understanding the extended meanings of Hebrew words often corrects our misunderstandings of the Bible and explains things that seem to not make sense. Sometimes they can even change our attitude toward God! This is what happens when we understand the broader meaning of the word “fear,” yirah, in Hebrew, and especially in the context of the “Fear of God,” a common expression throughout the Bible.

The idea that we should “fear the Lord” is found hundreds of times in the Old Testament. To many people this is a source of anxiety, and may make us not want to read about the God who appeared to require fright and dread among his people.

It may surprise people to know that even in the New Testament, the “fear of God” is often found. The Gentiles who worship the God of the Jews are called “God-fearers” and the early church was said to be built up in the “fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). Paul even speaks of the “fear of Christ” in Ephesians 5:21.

This is because the “fear of the LORD” was an extremely rich idea that goes far beyond our literal understanding, and is wonderfully positive in application. By understanding the Hebrew meaning of “fear,” and the rich Jewish thinking about the “Fear of the Lord,” we can shed great new light on this issue.

The key to understanding the Hebraic idea of “fear” is to know that like many Hebrew words, it has a much broader sense of meaning than we have in English. To us, “fear” is always negative: it is the opposite of trust, with synonyms of fright, dread and terror.

In Hebrew, it encompasses a wide range of meanings from negative (dread, terror) to positive (worship, reverence) and from mild (respect) to strong (awe). In fact, every time we read “revere” or “reverence,” it comes from the Hebrew word yirah, literally, to fear. When fear is in reference to God, it can be either negative or positive. The enemies of God are terrified by him, but those who know him revere and worship Him, all meanings of the word yirah.

How Should We “Fear the Lord”?

Many Christians understand “the Fear of the LORD” as the fear of the punishment that God could give us for our deeds. It is true that everyone should realize that they will stand at the judgment after they die, but a Christian who knows his sins have been forgiven should not have this kind of fear of God anymore: although many still do.

People who have been steeped in this kind of “punishment mindset” have a very hard time loving God. This is what John speaks against when he says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18).

Interestingly, in rabbinic thought, fearing God’s punishment is also understood to be an incomplete and inferior understanding of the term Yirat Adonai, “Fear of the Lord.”1 At its core is self-centeredness: what will happen to me because of God’s knowledge of my deeds?

Knowing the broader implications of the word “fear” in Hebrew, the rabbis came to a different conclusion, that the best understanding of the term Yirat Adonai is of having awe and reverence for God that motivates us to do His will.

This helps many passages make sense and show why the “Fear of the Lord” is so highly praised in the Bible:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)

In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, and his children will have refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may avoid the snares of death. (Prov. 14:26-27)

The “fear of the Lord” in these passages is a reverence for God that allows us to grow in intimate knowledge of Him. It teaches us how to live, and reassures us of God’s power and guidance. It gives us a reverence of God’s will that keeps us from getting caught in sins that will destroy our relationships and lives.

A Sense of God’s Presence

One aspect of Yirat Adonai that the Jewish people have focused on is the idea that we should be constantly aware of the presence of God. Over the top of Torah closets in many synagogues is the phrase “Know Before Whom You Stand,” reminding the congregation that an infinitely powerful God is close at hand.

People sometimes tell stories of how on the death bed of a family member, they had a strong sense of the presence of God, and have felt great reassurance from it, bringing a sense of awe for him at that time. Or in worship, there is no greater thrill than to feel spine-tingling awe at the grandeur of God.

In this sense, to “fear” God is to be filled with awe, and it is one of the most profound experiences of our lives, spiritually. We can see why the “fear of the LORD” as an awesome sense of his presence around us is really the essence of our life of faith.2

In some areas of Christianity, there is a lack of thinking of God as present with us now. God is spoken of in abstract terms, as if he is a theory rather than a being, and we sound live like we don’t expect to have any interaction with him until we die.

This is partly because of our Greek heritage, which focused on the spiritual world as being utterly apart from the material world. While our culture may have taught us that, the biblical witness is that God’s Spirit is very much present in the world with us now.

There is an enormous difference between study of the Bible that has Yirat Adonai, reverence for God, and a purely intellectual approach. The emphasis on reverence for God in Judaism is illustrated by a famous quote from Abraham Heschel that says that while Greeks (Europeans and Americans) study to comprehend, Jews study to revere. Higher education in biblical studies in Western countries tends to be entirely intellectual, and Christians who take academic Bible classes often find them dry.

What they are looking for is God’s voice speaking through the scriptures, and to find it they need Yirat Adonai. The rabbis had an excellent saying: that a scholar who does not have Yirat Adonai is like a man who owns a treasure chest and has the inner keys but not the outer keys.3 He has a treasure but can’t get at it. To study the Bible without reverence is a dry enterprise that will never unlock its true meaning.

Our Moral Foundation

Another thing Yirat Adonai gives us is an inner moral foundation. When we know God knows our thoughts, we are compelled to act not just for what other people think, but for what God thinks. This is what Paul refers to in Col. 3:22 when he says “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” Reverence of God gives us an inward sincerity, because we don’t do things just for external appearances, but to please God who knows our heart.

One humorous old rabbinic story illustrates this point:

A great rabbi once caught a ride on a horse-drawn wagon, and as the wagon passed a field full of ripe produce, the driver stopped and said, “I’m going to get us some vegetables from that field. Call out if you see anyone coming.” As the driver was picking vegetables, the rabbi cried out, “We’re seen! We’re seen!” The frightened man ran back to the wagon, and looked and saw no one nearby. He said, “Why did you call out like that when there was nobody watching?” The rabbi pointed toward heaven and said, “God was watching. God is always watching.”4

An awareness of God’s presence will motivate us to obey him. We may still think of it as a fear of punishment, but it does not have to be this way in believers. When we have reverence for someone, we feel terrible to know we’ve disappointed them.

In times of my life when I’ve worked for someone whom I greatly respected, their praise for my work has been critical to me. Or, when we love someone, we earnestly want their approval on our lives. Indeed, the “fear of Christ” that Paul talks about should really be a sense of Christ’s majesty, and a longing to please him. When we know he is always with us, it causes us to try to live as the disciple he wants us to be.

Yirat Adonai – What God desires most

Amazingly, God says that what he truly desires is that we “fear Him”:

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut 10:12)

In this passage, the first words are to fear God, and they are equivalent with the rest of the passage — to fear God is to revere him, which will cause us to walk in his ways and serve him with all our being. Properly understood, there is no greater desire that we should have than to have a “fear of the LORD,” an awesome sense of God’s presence in our lives that will transform us into the people that he wants us to be.


1 From “Fear of YHWH and Hebrew Spirituality” a lecture by Dwight Pryor, president of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies. This was from the monthly Haverim audio tape series, October 2003. These tapes are a very rich resource — see jcstudies.com to sign up.

2 In an effort to constantly have a sense of God’s care for us, the Jews from Jesus’ day up until the present have had a wonderful tradition of uttering prayers to “bless the Lord” many times a day to remind themselves that He is the source of every good thing. When I’ve tried this in my own life, sensing God’s immediacy becomes unavoidable. For more, see “The Richness of Jewish Prayer.”

3 From the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31b. See the article “Fear of God” at jewishencyclopedia.com.

4 As quoted by Joseph Telushkin in The Book of Jewish Values, p 10. Copyright 2000, Bell Tower. ISBN 0-609-60330-2. (This is an outstanding book on practical ethics and how we should live: a favorite of mine.)

Photos: Sonya [CC BY-SA 2.0], Mélody P on UnsplashJoshua Earle on UnsplashZac Durant on Unsplash

Esther: The Rest of the Story

by Lois Tverberg

The feast of Purim is the annual celebration of the salvation of the Jews from destruction that is described in the book of Esther. It is the story of how Esther and her uncle Mordecai saved the Jewish people in about 500 BC in Persia.

In the story, an advisor to the king, Haman, was angered by the fact that Mordecai would not bow down to him, so he convinced the king to issue an edict calling for the destruction of the entire Jewish people. Esther saved the Jews by risking her life to plead to the king to annul the edict, and by exposing Haman’s plot against them.

Interestingly, the name of God is never mentioned in the story, although his hand is clearly present in every event. A tradition that celebrates this is to dress up in costumes and masks on Purim, to celebrate that sometimes even God wears a “mask” — that he is present even when he doesn’t seem to be. The feast is often celebrated with silly plays (shpiels) based on the story of Esther, and is lighthearted to celebrate God’s care for his people even when he doesn’t seem to be present.

The Longer Epic of this Story

The story of Esther is actually the culmination of a much longer saga that stretches over 1300 years in the life of Israel. A key to the story is the identity of Haman, who is described as an “Agagite.”

Agag was the king of the Amalekites in Saul’s time, so Haman is an Amalekite. While we hear about so many “ite” groups in the Old Testament that they all seem to be the same, the Amalekites have the distinction of being thought of by Jews as Israel’s worst enemy of all time.

The Amalekites were the first nation that ever attacked Israel, and they did this almost immediately after Israel had left Egypt, when they first entered the wilderness (Exodus 17). Being the first to attack, they became symbolic of all of the nations that want to destroy Israel.

The Amalekites also chose a particularly cowardly and brutal way to attack, by coming from the rear and killing the elderly and weaker Israelites that were straggling behind. As a result, God was furious with the Amalekites, and singled them out for divine judgment:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Moses built an altar and named it The LORD is My Banner; and he said, “The LORD has sworn; the LORD will have war against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Ex. 17:14-16)

The words seem contradictory — that God will be continually at war with Amalek, and yet he will blot them out. How can both be true? But oddly they are. The Amalekites continually plagued the Israelites throughout their history. When Israel first tried to enter the promised land but lost faith in God, the Amalekites were there to attack them.

Later, Saul was given the command to destroy them and leave nothing alive, even children or animals (1 Sam. 15:7-9). He instead disobeyed God and kept some of the best animals for himself, and let King Agag live.

According to Jewish thought, a demonic hatred of Israel was associated with that nation, and by taking any booty that was contaminated by that spirit, or letting anything of theirs escape, Saul allowed this spirit of destruction to come back to terrorize Israel again. King David and King Hezekiah also fought against them during their reigns, and they were back again during the time of Esther.

In the story of Esther there are several motifs hinting that the Amalekites are back to try once again to destroy Israel. Often when the text speaks of Haman as an enemy of the Jews, it specifically emphasizes his nationality as an “Agagite,” a descent of the Amalekite king:

Then the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews. (Esth. 3:10)

For Haman the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, the adversary of all the Jews, had schemed against the Jews to destroy them and had cast Pur, that is the lot, to disturb them and destroy them. (Esth. 9:24)

There are more parallels between this story and that of Saul that hint that this is the completion of Saul’s unfinished work. The narrator is explicit in showing that Mordecai and Esther are from the family of Saul, fellow Benjaminites and descendants of his line (Esth. 2:5-6).

While Saul kept some of the booty for himself, the story of Esther points out repeatedly that the Jews took none of the plunder after they were allowed to kill Haman and his descendants. By not committing Saul’s sin, they finally had victory.

Help for Hard Passages

This story has helped me understand some of the difficult commands of God. God had said to Saul,

Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Sam. 15:3)

After Saul disobeyed God, not through showing mercy to the people, but instead by keeping some of the best livestock for himself, God said that he had regretted making Saul king, and decided to remove him from the throne.

It shocks us that God could give such a horrible command and be so angry to see it not carried out. God’s harsh command to Saul to destroy every living thing of the Amalekites was because this was a nation bent on the destruction of Israel, without whom the world would have no Savior. Israel was nearly annihilated in Esther’s time because of Saul’s disobedience. Sometimes God’s commands are incomprehensible, but if we had his perspective, we would see his logic.

The Epic Goes On

Interestingly, in Jewish thought, even though the Amalekites are no more, the demonic spirit of Amalek has lived from ancient times even until today. The forefather of the nation, Amalek, was Esau’s grandson. According to legend, when Esau was old, he said to his grandson Amalek: “I tried to kill Jacob but was unable. Now I am entrusting you and your descendents with the mission of annihilating Jacob’s descendents — the Jewish people. Carry out this deed for me. Be relentless and do not show mercy.” (This isn’t biblical, but it shows their attitude toward the Amalekites.)

Throughout history, there has been relentless anti-Semitism, persecution and attempts by other nations to annihilate the Jewish people. Hitler was considered to be a spiritual “descendant” of Haman. God has been continually at war with the spirit of Amalek from generation to generation, and only in the final judgment will this spirit of hatred be blotted out.


(1) Alfred Edersheim, Bible History: Old Testament, 1890. Chapter 9, available at this link.
(2) JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, by Jeffrey Tigay. Jewish Publication Society, 1996, p 236.
(3) E. E. Halevy, Amalekites, Encyclopedia Judaica CD-ROM, Version 1.0, 1997

Photos: Otto Semler [Public Domain], Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld [Public domain], Ernest Normand [Public domain]