by Lois Tverberg
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. – Matthew 5:44-45
The word for son in Hebrew, ben, is used for a wide variety of purposes in the Bible, and it carries some assumptions and cultural understandings. Along with its literal use to mean the son of a father or mother, it is commonly used for later descendants as well. Often this helps us understand that in genealogies, generations can be left out and only significant ancestors reported. This isn’t because of error, it is because it was acceptable to speak of a descendant as a “son.”
An assumption behind the word “son” is that descendants share the characteristics of their forefathers. Usually, the children took on their family’s profession and worshipped the family’s gods. They assumed that children would take on their father’s personality — if your father was wise, you would be wise, if he was warlike, you were warlike. For instance, Ishmael was a “wild donkey of a man” and it was assumed that his descendants, the Ishmaelites, will be like that too. Or, when Jesus is described as the “Son of David,” it tells that he is a descendant in the line of David, and like David he is a powerful king. So, to explain who was part of each family is very important to understanding the society. This is why there are so many stories in Genesis about the ancestors of tribes of Israel and other nations.
Another use of the word son is to describe a disciple. The rabbi-disciple relationship was understood to be like that between a father and a son, and indeed, the disciple was supposed to have as much love for his rabbi as for his own father. Just like son emulated his fathers ways, a disciple was to emulate his rabbi’s ways and become like him in character.
We can see now how Jesus uses the term “son” in today’s Bible passage. Just as a son wants to grow up to be like his father, we should aim to be like our Father in heaven. Because he is loving toward people who hate him, and merciful to those who don’t deserve it, we should be so too.
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).