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 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

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

Who Are You Going to Work For?

by Lois Tverberg

Freedom is the theme of God’s greatest miracles in history. Jews look back on the freeing of Israel from bondage in Egypt as their foundation as a people. They still celebrate this yearly at Passover, when they commemorate the night they were liberated. Christians recall Jesus’ death and resurrection as an act that brought far greater freedom for all people who believe in him, from bondage to sin and death itself.

In light of these two great acts of liberation from bondage, we may be uncomfortable with the fact that instead of speaking only of freedom, Jesus and Paul often speak about being “slaves” to God or Christ. Jesus says that “You cannot serve two masters, God and money” (Matt 6:24), and Paul says, “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19 & 7:23). Paul and other New Testament authors also introduce themselves at the beginning of each book as being “slaves of Christ.”1

It seems paradoxical to speak about slavery and being set free simultaneously, but if we look back and understand God’s first redemption of Israel, we will see how this really is a theme from the beginning of the scriptures to the end. God set his people free from cruel masters to become his own, as their rightful Lord. Both at the first exodus and in Christ’s fulfillment, this picture teaches us much about what our relationship to God really is.

Set Free from Cruel Masters

The common belief of people in the ancient near east was that the world is filled with many spiritual beings that control nature and prosperity. These “gods” were unpredictable and cruel, and used humans as playthings and slaves to serve their own desires.2 Ancient people understood that all people were the slaves of the gods, and each tribe had its own gods that ruled over them, so that to survive, they had to appease the gods through religious ceremonies and magical incantations.

Because of these beliefs, many ancient writings reflect a perpetual sense of hopelessness, anxiety and fear of the spirit world that was hostile to humanity. Interestingly, this pessimistic worldview of polytheism is widespread, from ancient times even up to today.3

Knowing this helps us read the story of the redemption of Egypt as an ancient person would have understood it. They saw this story as a true spiritual battle between the God of Israel and the gods of the Egyptians. Not only were the Israelites in bondage to physical slavery, they were in bondage to these evil gods, including Pharaoh, who considered himself a god.

Each plague was directed at a specific god of the Egyptians: Hekt, the frog god; Hapi, the Nile god; Ra, the sun god, etc., and the final plague was against Pharaoh himself (Ex. 12:12). The imagery here is that as God fought and defeated each one, God was winning a battle to take his own people out of the hands of other “gods” so that he would be their God, and they would become his people — his “slaves” as it were (Ex. 6:7, 2 Sam. 7:23).

A key to understanding this is to look at the Hebrew word for “worship,” avad, which has parallels in other languages of the near east. Along with meaning “worship,” it also means “serve” or “work,” and the related noun, eved, means “servant” or “slave.” So, the “worshippers,” avadim, of a god could also be seen as the god’s servants or slaves.

When God challenged Pharaoh, “Let my people go so that they may avad me” (Ex. 8:1), this didn’t just mean so that they could worship him, but that they were to be freed from slavery to the false god Pharaoh, so that they could avad, serve and worship their rightful God.

God later commanded that his people should “worship,” avad, no other gods, which can also be translated to mean they should “serve” no other gods. They were set free from them to serve and worship the true God alone. Serving and worshipping may not seem related to us, but really, service is the truest expression of worship of a god.4

God’s Compassion on Mount Sinai

After Israel was freed from bondage, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where God gave him his laws that showed how he wanted them to avad, worship and serve him as his people. We hardly think to compare the laws of the Torah to other law codes of the time, but it is interesting to see how God’s rules show that their new “master” was vastly different from their old masters — he governed with great compassion, and cared about the needs of his people.

We modern-day readers hardly appreciate the profound ethical change that the laws of the Torah made relative to other codes of its time, and how fundamental its precepts are to our own laws.5

Other codes had no ethic of equal treatment in regard to rich and poor, so a crime against a person of a high class carried a much greater punishment than one against a low class person. Cheating in a business transaction with a high class person carried the death penalty. In contrast, murder of a lower class person was punishable by a fine based on his social status. In Israel, all were alike under the law, and poor and rich treated equally.

In cases of crime, the Torah was far more humane. In other countries, punishments for even minor crimes were often brutal and mutilating, and often including floggings, amputation and torture. In the Torah, fines were common but physical punishments were rare, and only for severe offenses against the nation or God.

The law that sounds most shocking, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is actually misunderstood. The expression was actually an idiom that wasn’t taken literally, but actually meant equitable punishment that fits the crime. (An eye for an eye — not a scolding for an eye, or a life for an eye.) It was an ancient expression from laws originally meant to limit punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself, because without it, the victim’s clan would want greater vengeance, escalating into feuds. Scholars believe that it was not followed literally in Israel, but monetary fines were given for injuries instead.

In other codes, very little protection was given to those who were vulnerable to exploitation. The main goal of other law codes was to protect the assets of the wealthy from the lower class by threatening them with punishment for theft or destruction of property. Israel’s laws were instead very concerned for the protection of the poor, the alien, the widows and orphans.

People were to tithe their money to give to the poor, and let them glean from their crops (Deut. 18:29, Lev. 23:22). They were not to mistreat an alien, but to “love them as themselves” (Lev. 19:34). Much of the code of Israel is specifically written to protect the weakest members of the society, unlike any other nation of the time.6

With these differences in mind, the laws of the Torah show great fairness toward all levels of society, compassion for the vulnerable, and amazing concern for the sanctity of human life. Our own culture has been so transformed by these basic principles that we can hardly imagine the world without them.

The more we see the contrast between God’s ways and the rest of the ancient world, the more we see that the love of Christ in the gospels was fully present in the God who revealed himself on Sinai. In essence, we see the Father and Son as one and the same. The God who Israel was to avad, worship, cared deeply for humanity, and his servants were to mirror his concern as well.

Being God’s Slave to be Free

The most striking difference between God’s ethics compared to other nations was the laws regulating slavery, which teach us a lot about how God viewed his people as his own avadim. In the ancient world, slavery was a given. Knowing that humanity can only change so much, God did not outlaw it, but he gave laws that made it far more humane.

Many of the Torah’s regulations were unheard of in any other culture, and ultimately aimed to undermine the practice altogether. Only six days a week could a master demand a slave to serve him — all slaves had a day of rest every week, and celebrated holy days, too. If a master permanently injured a slave in any way, even causing him to lose a tooth, the slave was given his freedom. Women slaves were to have equal rights as other daughters and wives.

If the slave was a Hebrew who had sold himself because of debt, he had to be freed in six years and given a substantial gift of crops and supplies when he left (Deut. 15:14). If he loved his master he could pledge himself in permanent servitude, and his ear would be pierced to show his commitment. But the most amazing law was that if a slave ran away from his master, he was not to be returned, but allowed to live free anywhere in Israel!

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose… you must not mistreat him. (Deut. 23:15)

In every other law code, the penalty for not returning a slave was death. This radical reversal of ethics shows God’s great desire for freedom for his people. In fact, most of the time when God speaks of his people as his slaves, it is to protect their freedom and keep them from being enslaved to anyone else! For instance:

If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. For they are My avadim (servants/slaves), whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. (Lev. 25:42)

The year of Jubilee was also for that purpose — to redeem all of God’s people from bondage to anyone else, because they were his alone. If a person sold himself to a foreigner because of debt, the reason they were set free at the jubilee was because, “the sons of Israel are my avadim, they are my avadim whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God!” (Lev. 25:54-55). God set his people free to be his own, and for this reason they shall remain free.

Slaves of Christ

Many places in the New Testament use the image that just as God “purchased” or “redeemed” his people from slavery in Egypt, all who believe in Christ have also been “purchased”:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19)

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Cor 7:22-23)

In this second verse, the ideas of being slaves but being free are once again interwoven. We have been redeemed from the evil masters of sin and death to become slaves of Christ, who actually won our freedom. When we are his, he will not let us be slaves to anything else.

Who will we serve?

How do we live this out? In Exodus, after God redeemed his people, he gave them his Torah so that they could know how to serve him. God didn’t give them the law before he redeemed them and then expect them to earn their freedom — he redeemed them entirely out of grace.

Afterward, he gave them his law so that as his avadim, worshippers and servants, they would live in a way that would show the world his justice and love. In the same way, Jesus spent most of his earthly ministry giving us his Torah, his teaching, to show us how to serve him. Jesus’ laws didn’t negate the Torah, but rather he made it more encompassing and brought it to a higher level. If we say we worship Jesus, we must also serve him by doing his will.

It may come to us as news that every human is the servant of a greater master — whether an idolatrous god or our own appetites. We really don’t have a choice to be utterly free of any master, any more than we have a choice to quit a bad job in order to do absolutely nothing, because we need to support ourselves to live.

In the working world, we are “redeemed” from a bad employer when we find an employer who gives us fulfilling work and cares for our personal welfare. We move from one kind of serving to another kind of serving, not to be free from serving anything at all.

In the same way, we all need to choose our master, and in doing so, we should look at a potential master’s character to see whom we should choose. Will we serve pagan gods whose people lived in terror of them? Or will we serve a God who has great compassion for even the weakest of his people? Will we serve the demanding idols of success and money, who destroy our families and lives? Or will we serve our Master who sacrificed himself for our sins, and came not to be served, but to serve instead?


1See the beginning verses of the books of Romans, Colossians, Titus, 2 Peter, Jude, and others. The writer of each book refers to himself as a doulos (“slave”) of Christ. Even though English translations often soften the word to “servant,” it really refers to a slave, not a servant.

2Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), p. 16-18.

3See Christ’s Witchdoctor, by Homer Dowdy (Gresham, OR: Vision House, 1994) p. 7, 23, 46. This is the fascinating autobiography of a witchdoctor in a South American native tribe who came to Christ in the 1950s. He said that even though his tribe was prosperous and safe, they lived with constant fear of the spiritual world around them that they saw as mostly evil, and aimed to destroy them.

4Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg & Bruce Okkema, (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004) p. 21-22.

5See Exploring Exodus, by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1986), p. 171-189. This is a fascinating comparison of the ancient near eastern laws to the Torah that shows the enormous ethical difference between the laws of Israel and other lands.

6Ibid, p. 179

7JPS Commentary on Exodus, by N. Sarna (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 125

Photos: Kyle Frederick on UnsplashColor Crescent on Unsplash, Location of Mt. Sinai from bibleplaces.comJames Barr on Unsplash

The Universal Language of Sacrifice

There is probably nothing in the Bible so incomprehensible to modern Christians as the use of sacrifice in the Old Testament for the worship of God. We struggle with its bloody imagery. Why did God require it? How could people find it meaningful?

Surprisingly, even the New Testament views sacrifice in a positive light. Even after Jesus’ death, Paul and the early church continued to take part in the sacrifices at the Temple. Paul often spoke of them as a beautiful thing, expecting us to understand when he speaks about us as being “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). Paul also writes,

Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Ephesians 5:2

What does all of this strange imagery mean? Continue reading

To Be the Image of God

by Lois Tverberg

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

In examining the creation account, we see that many of its profound ideas are only clear when read within its Eastern cultural way of communicating truth through images and relationships.1 A main point of the epic is to describe the creation of mankind, and to describe man’s unique relationship to God and to his world. Understanding this idea, as well as the revolutionary concept that we are made “in the image of God” is foundational to many later teachings in the Scriptures, including those of Jesus.

The Significance of Man

Reading Genesis in Hebrew reveals many wonderful wordplays that show the relationship of man to the rest of creation. The word for ground is adamah, and of course the first human is called Adam.

The name perfectly fits the scene because God formed Adam from the adamah, and 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. God declared that because he sinned, “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).

What does the idea mean that we were made “in the image of God,” b’tzelem elohim? To an ancient person, a god’s “image” was its physical representation on earth. Idols were the images of the gods, as well as physical objects of worship like the sun and moon.

Kings were also often said to be the “images” of gods — they were the representative of a god on earth, with the belief that the gods reigned over their people through the king’s commands. This idea seems to be a part of the intent of Genesis, because right after humanity was said to be in the image of God, humanity was given the task of ruling over the earth (Gen. 1:28). We were given the job of being God’s caring presence, fulfilling his will toward the rest of creation.

From these two ideas, that Adam comes from the adamah, but is the representative of God on earth, one rabbi made a perceptive observation. He 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.'”2

We should see both our frailness and short life on this earth, and our “feet of clay” — our tendency to sin — but yet we should also remind ourselves that we have a unique relationship to God and authority over all the earth. Acknowledging both truths in balance will keep us from feeling either too arrogant or too insignificant.

All Humans Bear the Image of God

The implications of man as the “image of God” comes up repeatedly in the Bible. After the flood, God made new pronouncements about the penalty for violence and said, “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. 9:5-6). The idea here is that an assault on any human is an affront on God himself, and God will be sure to hold the perpetrator accountable.

All violence and even insults are ultimately against the God who made us. One amusing rabbinic parable points this out:

A famous rabbi was out riding and was feeling elated because he had studied much Torah. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.” He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Racca! (empty one or good for nothing) How ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?”

The man replied, “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel that you made.'” When the rabbi realized that he had sinned, he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”3

The point of the parable is that any time we insult someone, we are not just defaming that person, but the God who made him. After all, he is the one who fashioned him according to his specifications. Even more importantly, if our creator made each human to reflect his own image, when we call another “ugly,” we are insulting God as well. We actually are sinning twice, by calling God not only a poor artist, but ugly too!

James also uses the idea of the “image of God” to point out the incongruity of worshipping God while insulting others:

With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (Ja. 3:9-10)

Every human being should be treated as a special creation of God, because all are precious to him. This idea of the enormous value of human life also was part of the teaching of the rabbis:

Every individual is equally significant before God, since every man was created in his image. Therefore man was created on his own, to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves one soul, is regarded as if he had saved a whole world.4

Male and Female He Created Them

Another wonderful idea about humanity can be found in a Hebraic reading of the story of the creation of Eve from Adam. The word we have traditionally translated as “rib,” tzela, is never used this way in the rest of the Bible. Rather, it always means “side” and when the phrase “one side” of something is used, it means one half, or one face of a building or object. (See Ex. 25:12, Ex. 26:26 or Ex. 37:3.)

When God takes out of Adam echat mitzelotav — literally “one of his sides” — the picture is really that somehow God split Adam in half and formed one half into Eve. Adam then calls her “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone,” not just “one of my bones.” The image is that one human was separated into man and woman so that they could have companionship with each other. The complementarity between men and women is inherent in the way they were formed by being taken apart from each other, so that one supplies what the other one lacks.

This actually solves a mystery in the text. In Genesis 1:27, God created both male and female, but in Genesis 2:24, it appears that Eve is created after Adam. How could this be so? Because both were present in the first person, and the woman appears after being separated from the man.

Supporting this, throughout the entire story, the word “adam” is a generic term meaning “human,” not specifically male. In Genesis 5:2, it says so explicitly: “He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them adam.”

In the original Hebrew text, all references to the first human 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.” Interestingly, Adam is never called an ish until the ishah has been separated from him. The text seems to imply that male and female cannot define themselves fully as human without the other.5

God’s Intention for Marriage

The next verse about marriage deepens this metaphor even more. By saying, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and dabaq (be united, cleave) to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It is describing how in marriage, a man and a woman together become what God intended from the very beginning, when the separation of one half from the other half is reversed.

Even the word we translate as “cleave” or “hold fast” in this verse, dabaq, has a lovely picture behind it. The word dabaq also can mean “to fall in love with” as when Shechem “was deeply attracted to,” dabaq, Dinah in Genesis 34:3.

1 Kings 11:2 also says that “Solomon dabaq his foreign wives in love,” which one version renders, “Solomon was irresistibly attracted to them” (New English Translation). Putting all of this together, Genesis 2:24 is saying that the reason women and men fall in love and marry is from their desire to return to this first oneness, both physically and spiritually, that was in God’s design from the very beginning.

This clarifies Jesus’ words about God’s intentions for marriage:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mt. 19:3-6)

Jesus is describing God’s original desire for marriage, that it would be a permanent union, giving companionship and completion to both persons. When he says about divorce that “it was not this way from the beginning,” he is looking beyond the law of Moses and seeing God’s perfect plan in Genesis. He concludes that when God himself puts together what he separated at first, no one should try to tear it apart.6

Imitating the One Whose Image We Bear

If all of us have God’s image within us, how should it impact the way we live? One rabbinic commentary on Genesis answers this question with a delightful story:

When creation was all but ended, only humanity was left to be created. God began to say, ‘Let us make man in our likeness,’ but some protests arose in heaven! First Truth came and fell before God’s throne, and in humility exclaimed, “Please, O God, do not call into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!” Peace also agreed, and said, “Why, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”

While they were pleading against the creation of man, another voice was heard, the soft voice of Mercy. “King of the universe,” the voice exclaimed in all its mildness, “if you create a being in thy likeness, it will be a noble creature striving to imitate thy attributes by its actions. I see man now with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to his maker.’ The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.7

This story is saying that when humans show the kindness and compassion of our creator, then we reach our true potential as his creation by reflecting his image on earth. It points out man’s potential for good, even while acknowledging man’s potential for evil.

Of course the only person who truly lived up to this was Jesus: he completely reflected the image of God without succumbing to evil. Interestingly, Paul says that he was the “very image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Because he is the Son of God, he reflected the character and nature of God in a way unparalleled by any mere man.

Through his work on earth, God’s sacrificial love and desire to forgive was revealed like never before, when it was portrayed in human form. He is our model for life as it was meant to be lived. By becoming transformed into his image, we achieve our true potential for reflecting the glory of God.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom. 8:29)

[We] are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)


1 See the article “Thinking Hebraically About God’s Creation.”

2 Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who lived in the early 19th century, as quoted by J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p.185.

3 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’an. 20a-b1, quoted by Brad Young in The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998), p. 9.

4 Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5 The date of the saying would be between 200 BC – 200 AD, which could be either before or after Jesus’ time.

5 Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary on Genesis. (Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1989), p. 23.

6 David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998) p. 71-76. One saying went so far as to say that “A man without a wife is half a man” stressing the importance of marriage. Jesus, however, says that not all are called to it, and some put it aside out of dedication to God’s work (Matt. 19:11). See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005) for more.

7 Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD.

Photos: Laura Dewilde on Unsplash, Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], on Unsplash

Thy Kingdom Come

by Lois Tverberg

Pray, then, in this way: “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” Matthew 6:9-10

Even though Jesus often talks about the kingdom, many of us struggle to understand what Jesus meant by “thy kingdom come.” We read two different phrases in the gospels – “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.” In Matthew, “kingdom of heaven” is used, while in Mark and Luke, “kingdom of God” is used. This is because Jews show respect for God by not pronouncing his name. Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct quote “kingdom of heaven” while Mark and Luke are explaining to Gentile audiences that “heaven” is a reference to God.

The primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven was God’s reign over the lives of people who enthrone him as king. The rabbis knew that most of the world did not know God, but the scriptures said that one day, “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zechariah 14:9).

The question of Jesus’ time was when and how God would establish this kingdom. It was thought that when the Messiah came, the Kingdom of God would arrive all at once with great glory. But Jesus disagrees:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:20

Jesus meant that a person is brought into the kingdom of God when a person repents and decides to accept God as his King, and it is something that happens in a person’s heart, not a political movement or visible display of God’s power.

So what did Jesus mean by the phrase “your kingdom come”? He is talking about God’s reign over our lives, not about a future display of God’s power. He uses it in parallel with the next line in the text. The two phrases “your kingdom come” and “your will be done on earth” are synonymous. These phrases both mean, “May all nations of the earth enthrone you as king! May everyone on earth know you and do your will!”

Photo by Sandro Gonzalez on Unsplash