Any student of language knows that each one frames the world in different ways. Often the same word is used for more than one thing that the culture considers equivalent, but distinguishes when differentiation seems important.
For instance, in Thai, the same word for cheese is used for butter, since they don’t eat much of either. In contrast, in Danish there are many different words to describe types of licorice, because it is a favorite in Denmark. Chiam Potok said that if you want to understand a culture, it is essential to understand the language, because that describes the very heart of the culture.
The heart of biblical culture is Hebrew. The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, with a little bit of Aramaic. Even though the New Testament was written entirely in Greek, it was written almost entirely by Jews who knew much of the Old Testament by memory. It is filled with quotes from the Old Testament, and its commentary is full of Hebraic thinking. It is tremendously enriching to get into their minds by seeing how they framed their world in language. Let’s look at one more in more detail: wisdom.
Hokmah, Wisdom in Hebrew
We as Westerners think of wisdom as to have cognitive ability, to be able to think great thoughts. We think of the wise philosopher as being the opposite of the manual laborer who pounds nails, or paints walls, or lays tile.
In Hebrew, however, the word hokmah is used to describe both. It speaks of people who are skilled laborers as those who have “wise hearts.” We read this term applied to the skilled laborers who built the tabernacle:
Every skilled woman (literally, with a wise heart) spun with her hands and brought what she had spun – blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen. (Ex. 35:25)
And the Bible says that the craftsman who designed the high priest’s robes were given the “spirit of wisdom”:
Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom (literally, the spirit of wisdom) in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. (Ex. 28:3)
The word hokmah describes the ability to function successfully in life, whether it is by having the right approach to a difficult situation, or the ability to weave cloth. It is practical and applicable to this world, not just otherworldly.
Judaism has historically held manual labor in high regard, rather than disdaining it as unspiritual. When a great rabbi entered a room, people were to stop what they were doing and honor him. However, carpenters and other craftsman did not need to stop, because their work was considered just as honorable. This is part of the Hebraic affirmation of day-to-day life in this world. We can learn a lot of wisdom from the Hebrew word for wisdom!
As Westerners, we tend to believe God is only involved in giving us the ability to do what we call “spiritual,” like Bible study or prayer. We imagine that God’s input into our lives ends when we leave church on Sunday, and the rest is “secular.” Here, we learn that biblically, it is considered “wisdom” to do our jobs well: to be able to use a photocopier, or program a computer, or run a lawn mower. A janitor can be using his spiritual gifts as much as a pastor.
We can see from the word hokmah, as well as the rest of Proverbs, that all of our day-to-day lives are of concern to the Lord. God cares about whether we are a good 2nd grade teacher, or systems analyst, or check-out clerk. God is practical and down-to-earth. He cares about our credit card debt, whether our house is a mess, how much we watch TV. His desire is that we have wisdom in all things in order to live the life he gave us to the very best.
Let’s not make the mistake of believing that “eternal” life comes later. We are already in it: this is just the first part. The “wisdom” God has given us is meant to be used skillfully in this kingdom, prudently and for his glory.
Often in the Bible we encounter phrases like “in the name of the Lord” or “in my name,” being used in puzzling way. The phrase “in the name of” is one of those Hebraic figures of speech that Christians frequently misunderstand. What does it mean?
Remember that in Eastern, oral cultures a person’s name was connected with the person’s identity, authority and status. When God caused a major change in a person’s life, he often changed his or her name, to show a change in their identity in society. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, and Jacob becomes Israel. Likewise, when the Bible speaks of God’s “name,” it often refers to God’s authority, power and identity.
The meaning of the Hebraism “in the Name of”
For the sake of. We see this meaning in Matt. 10:41: “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.” A prophets is given a message by God that he is to relay to the world. Some listeners reject him and some accept his message. A very few will encourage and support the prophet because they realize God has sent him — because of his identity as a prophet of God. Jesus was encouraging his disciples by saying that God would provide for them, and even provide for those who support their difficult work. Of course this line doesn’t mean that somehow by saying the prophet’s name, a person will be rewarded. The word “name” refers to the prophet’s identity and authority as a man sent by God.
We also hear this in John 14:13 – 14: “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” When we end a prayer “in the name of Jesus” we are really saying, please listen to my prayer for the sake of Jesus, who died for my sins. Because of his sacrifice, we can come before the Lord with our petitions and God will listen. Or, you could say that we are praying with his authority when we pray in his name.
The reputation of. To speak of someone’s “name” can also refer to his or her reputation, as it is used today. We hear it used this way in the following passages:
But I withdrew My hand and acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. (Ezek. 20:22)
You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the Name of your God; I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:12)
To swear falsely is to break an oath made before God, which shows lack of respect for God, and causes others to scoff at the God who has such followers. When God’s followers act sinfully, they bring shame on reputation of God.
Think of the TV evangelist sex scandals and how they harden non-Christians from believing in Christ. That is what it means to “profane the Lord’s name.” In contrast, “to hallow God’s name” is to cause God to be honored because of your actions. Jews still use the phrase “to sanctify God’s name” as meaning to give your life for your beliefs.
The authority and power of. A name can signify a person’s authority and power as well:
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. (1 Samuel 17:45)
David came against Goliath, who mocked God, in God’s authority and power, acting as his representative, and God gave him the victory.
Even today in Hebrew “in the name of” can mean “by the authority of.” As I got off the plane on my last trip to Israel, I heard them say over the speakers “B’shem El Al, shalom,” literally “In the name of El Al, peace (greetings).” meaning, “We represent El Al airlines in greeting you.”
Misunderstanding “the Name of the Lord”
Bible readers sometimes so misinterpret this phrase that they violate biblical intent. People think it means that by literally speaking the name of God, they can use it to cause God to answer prayers or confer salvation.
One Christian movement believes that if the phrase “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is not used in baptism, then that person is not actually saved. By leaving out any of the three names, it renders baptism ineffective. Some Jewish Roots ministries place a great amount of stress on pronouncing Jesus’ name a certain way. They feel that saying “Yeshua” or “Yahshua” is critical if we want to have power to answer prayers.
This misunderstanding invokes an ancient belief about names that the Bible refuted. In pagan cultures, the way humans interacted with gods was by manipulating them through magical rituals. Pronouncing secret names was used as a way to coerce the spirits to do one’s bidding. The implicit assumption is that gods were finite and can be forced into doing human bidding. By the power of uttering the correct words, people could cause their will to be done.
Unlike in the rest of the Ancient Near East, we find no instructions in the Torah for using sacred incantations or formulas in the Tabernacle. Just as no engraved image could be used to invoke God’s presence, no incantations could be used to manipulate him.
When we pray, we should always ask ourselves whether we are focusing on the Lord or on our words. If we use the name of God (or Jesus) to conjure him up like a genie, this implies that he is merely a spiritual force who responds to coercion. Instead we should realize that he is a gracious and compassionate God who listens to our sincere prayers, and whose heart is moved to respond because of his great love toward us.
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.
Name – Authority, 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)
Son – Descendant, 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)
House – Family, 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.
Visit – Pay 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, hear – Take 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.
Remember – Do 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.
Forget – Ignore, 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.
Know – Have 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.)
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)
Some kinds of news have the power to change our lives overnight — the birth of a baby, the diagnosis of cancer, the closing of a factory. The news of the end of a war or toppling of an evil government can mean new life for millions. We remember with great joy the end of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. People who had lived in fear of torture and murder for decades said that they felt like they had been “reborn.” It was as if a nightmare was suddenly over and a new day had come.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word besorah, which we translate to “good news,” has exactly that connotation. It is news of national importance: a victory in war, or the rise of a powerful new king. The word was used in relation to the end of the exile (Isaiah 52:7) and the coming of the messianic King (Isaiah 60:1). Often it is news that means enormous life change for the hearer.
In Greek, there is an equivalent word, euaggelion, which we also translate as “good news, glad tidings, or gospel.” It also describes historic news of national importance. One place where this term is used is in the story of the angels who bring the news about the birth of Christ:
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
This announcement has a fascinating context. In Jesus’ time, there was a yearly announcement of the birthday of Caesar as “the euaggelion to the whole world.” The Roman Empire considered it great news to remind people of the ascendancy of this king and his reign over the known world. In the light of this, we see that the angels were doing the same thing, but in a much greater way — making an official proclamation to the all the nations about the birth of the true King of Kings, and the arrival of a new kingdom on earth.
When we learn that the word “evangelize” comes from euaggelizo (related to euaggelion), we can see the true power of the “good news” of the coming of Christ. Victory has been won in the war against Satan; and Christ, the true King, has come into power. This new King has come to extend an invitation to enter his kingdom and live under his reign. Like any regime change, the word “good” is far too bland to express the impact of this news that brings eternal life to its hearers. May the news of this King spread everywhere on earth!
“The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” – Genesis 2:7
When we read Genesis in English, we don’t see several wonderfully profound ideas contained in the words it chooses to describe the relationship of man to the rest of creation and to God. The word for ground is adamah, and of course the first human is called “Adam.” It perfectly fits the scene of God forming Adam from the adamah, and the fact that Adam’s skin is red (adom, in Hebrew), like the ground. Adam is given the task of working the adamah, and when Adam dies, he will return to the adamah.
Even though we are fundamentally made from the earth, the Scripture says that we are unique in our connectedness to God himself, when he created us in his image and breathed the ruach (breath) of life into us. We are not mini-gods, we are created things just like everything around us. But, we are different from the rest of creation because of the unique kind of life we were given by God himself.
There is a wise rabbinic saying about this. It is said,
A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and the other, ‘All of creation was made for my sake.'(Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)
That is, we should all humbly realize our own frailness and short life on this earth, and our “feet of clay” – our tendency to sin. But yet we should also continually be reminded we are all created in the image of God, each one very precious in his sight.
(Adam) said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (ishah), Because she was taken out of Man (ish).” For this reason a man (ish) shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife (ishah); and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:23-24
The creation story has many profound things to say about God’s intention for our lives. We can be enriched just by looking closely at the Hebrew words that are used to describe the first human Adam, and then the creation of man and woman.
It may surprise English readers that the word adam is a neutral term meaning “human,” not specifically a man. In the original Hebrew text, all references to Adam are neutral until God takes some of Adam’s flesh and makes a woman – ishah, in Hebrew. Only at that point is Adam called ish, a man. The Hebrew word ishah hints at her origins from within the ish, something that we can mimic in English, with the words “man” and “woman.” But interestingly, Adam is never called an ish until the ishah has been separated from him. It is as if the text is implying that male and female cannot define themselves fully as human without the other.
We may not realize that this logic is part of the next verse that says that for this reason, when a man and woman marry, they become “one.” They are returning to God’s first design before the ish and ishah were separated. The complementarity between man and woman is inherent in the way they were taken apart from each other, as the first ishah provides what the ish lacks. In God’s design, it is the the two together who ultimately reflect the image of God.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. – Psalm 122:6-7 KJV
Often in the past several thousand years, Israel has been in the center of international controversy. It’s as if the powerful spiritual battles that have happened in that land are ongoing, and still trigger events in world politics today. With this in mind, it is good to be reminded that God tells us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” in Psalm 122:6, above.
Older translations often complete that verse by saying that God would prosper those who do so. The idea that God would make us wealthy for caring for his people is actually a mistranslation of the word shalvah, which doesn’t mean prosperity, but actually ease, security and freedom from worry. The NIV now translates this verse in the following way:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.”
In Hebrew, we can also hear how the verse is composed to gently roll off the tongue as well:
Shalu shalom Yerushalaim, yishla’u ohavaikh.
The overall effect in reading the verse is to hear both poetic parallelism and alliteration, as the soft sound of the “sh” is used in the words shalu (ask, pray), shalom (peace), Yerushalaim (Jerusalem), and yishla’u (security, tranquility). We also hear the closeness of ideas of shalom (peace, well-being) and shalvah (tranquility, security, ease). We see that those who care about God’s children in that troubled land will find tranquility themselves.
Why? God has chosen Israel for a purpose that will not be fulfilled until the end of the age. The people there show the ongoing struggle within all of humanity, spiritually. They are no better and no worse there than the rest of the world, and when we pray for God’s shalom to be established there, we are praying for ourselves as well.
The land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. – Deuteronomy 11:11-12
During our five weeks in Israel in late June and July, not once did it rain. In fact, almost 6 months go by each year without any rain, between May and October. In all of the Middle East, water is precious, like oil is nowadays. In ancient times, countries that had water in abundance became superpowers, and the countries with little barely survived. Egypt received almost no rain at all, but had abundant water from the flooding of the Nile. That was why when regional famine came, people went there to purchase food, like Abraham and later Joseph’s family. The water available from the Nile each year was 30,000 times more plentiful than the yearly rainful to Israel – an enormous difference indeed! It is therefore interesting that God saw the water of Israel as superior to that of Egypt. In Deuteronomy 11:10 – 12 it says,
The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.
The difference between Egypt and Canaan was that in Egypt the crops were irrigated by the labor of hand-watering, while in Canaan the land was entirely watered by rain, geshem in Hebrew. In the ancient Middle East, that had profound spiritual implications, because rain was understood to be a gift straight from God, whereas water drawn by hand was a seen to be human self-reliance without regard to God. Egypt and Canaan, therefore, were a contrast of security of human effort compared to dependence on God.
This was a spiritual lesson for the Israelites when they left the land of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan — that when God chose a land for his people, he didn’t choose a place where they could have security because of their own efforts, he chose a land where they would be far more dependent on him and would need his presence watching over them to send them the living water of rain, geshem.
Many of us have seen God do the same thing in our own lives, when we step out to follow him and he takes us from security in our own efforts and brings us to a point of dependence on him, which doesn’t always include prosperity as the world sees it. God often desires dependence for his people rather than abundance, contrary to what “prosperity gospel” teachers may tell us. While we may not have the material wealth as if we lived in “Egypt”, we know that God’s eyes are on us from the beginning of the year to the end.