A different kind of glory – 1

Posted in character of God, specific Hebrew words on July 8th, 2010 by yf

The word glory conjures up pictures of magnificence, pomp and acclaim. The Hebrew word chabed which is used to refer to the glory of God, has different and deeper connotations.

Its root meaning is ‘heaviness’. This can be applied in a bad sense to indicate a burden, infirmity, or a severe event. Or it can be applied in a good sense to indicate wealth or splendour, and thus high honour. The two applications combine together: those in high positions or of great wealth also have responsibilities – burdens. The priests and the wealthy are often rebuked in the Tanach for their failures in this respect. Each of us are to honour – chabed – our father and our mother (Exodus 20:12). We are to give them weight, suggesting both esteem and a burden.

So what of the glory – chabed – of the Lord? His glory fills the tabernacle and the temple and eventually the “earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). His glory can be so heavy that the priests or prophets cannot stand (as in 1 Kings 8:11). His glory can fill a place, even the whole earth, and it is heavy. But there is something more.

In the Torah, when the people rebel or murmer, that is when His glory shows up (Exodus 16:7, Numbers 14:10, 16:19, 16:42, 20:6). In Isaiah, it is after darkness covers the earth, after the nations are destroyed, after the warfare ceases, after the judgement of Judah and Jerusalem, then the glory of the Lord is revealed (Isaiah 60:5, 35:2, 40:5, 4:2).

Such glory is indeed a heavy weight. We would do well to fear it (Deuteronomy 28:58) if our rebellion may trigger it. But there is still something more. When there is darkness, then the light comes: “Arise, shine for your light has come … darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples … but His glory will appear upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2). His glory is a response to the darkness – acting to reveal His power, but also to banish the darkness.

Chabed takes us a long way from the idea of glory as pomp and plaudits. But there is yet something more….

Sing a new song

Posted in messiah, specific Hebrew words on June 20th, 2010 by yf

Domestic matters have drawn me from this blog for the last couple of weeks, for which my apologies.

Seven times the Hebrew Bible speaks of a “new song”* . It is always sung to the Lord. In modern times, new tunes and, in some branches of Christianity, new religious lyrics, pour out to reflect changes in fashion. That is not what the Bible means.

There, song is not merely a ditty, a tune strung together with some nice words. A song is the deepest expression – the heart cry – of our spiritual being, of our experience of our walk on this earth with God and of who He is. Thus, a new song is a major change to a new experience of the Lord.

This new song is understood in Hebraic thinking as the song that will be sung when Messiah comes. When we find the expression, “sing to the Lord a new song” in the Bible, it refers to the time when King Messiah will come, and when consequently we will be able to sing the praises of the Lord in a whole new way.

The lute or harp of Messianic times will be ten-stringed**, and some Jewish sages teach that there will be a new ten note scale rather than the present widely used eight note scale and that this will release beautiful new music. The Rosh HaShanah Machzor (prayerbook) calls this music “a celebration of the World to Come”.

Thus the new song of the Bible is prophetic and joyous – both momentous and drawing on the deepest wells of spiritual experience. In Exodus 15, Moses and the people sing to the Lord after their passage through the Red Sea.

The two references in the New Testament to a “new song” reflect this Hebrew understanding.** In Revelations 14:3, the 144,000 who stand on Mount Zion sing a new song before the throne. No one but they can learn it – that is, only they have the spritual experience to sing this new song.

So, what will be your new song?

*(Psalm 33:3, Psalm 40:3, Psalm 96:12, Psalm 98:1, Psalm 144:9, Psalm 149:1, Isaiah 42:10)

**Psalm 33:2 and 144:9 refer to the ten stringed lute, as do Psalm 81:2 and 92:3. Ten stringed instruments have been used historically and today, with various possible tunings. In the 1990s there was a ten-string klezmer group.

***Revelations 5:9 and 14:3.

Sci-fi and the Bible

Posted in character of God, creation, science on June 3rd, 2010 by yf

Before time began there was no before: language cannot encompass that first beginning. It is beyond human conception. The awkward opening of Genesis – as we have seen – points to the difficulty of beginning at the very beginning. Elohim becomes knowable only through His action in time to create the universe. The word order of Genesis 1:1 shows this.

The description of creation in that first verse, separates time – the “In the beginning” – from the physical creation of the heavens and the earth. Time is not just another dimension, it provides the grounds for creation.

time and spaceSurprisingly, for those who regard Genesis as necessarily unscientific, this approach is in advance of 20th C scientific thinking. Science in the 21st C is only now arriving at the understanding of the beginning that is set out for the simplest peasant in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1.

Even the most sophisticated 20thC approaches to cosmology have usually worked on the basis of what is called Euclidean space. In Euclidean space, time is one of a number of dimensions. There are so many physical dimensions (whether 3 or 4 or 10 or n) plus one further dimension, which is time. The underlying assumption here is that fundamentally all the dimensions can be modeled together; theoretically one can move about in the time dimension as in the other dimensions. This is the idea of space-time and of lots of science-fiction

The hidden consequence is that causality – that a causes b and so forth – is lost as a fundamental precondition of the universe. Time’s arrow is lost. As scientists construct their models of the universe, they can reintroduce causality. But it is not part of the warp and whoof, the foundations, of the universe. Time’s arrow is fired late, so to speak. If time is another dimension of space-time, then causality is no longer fundamental, but a secondary phenomenon. If so, what causes it? Stephen Hawking’s famous Brief History of Time is, in part, a struggle with that conundrum.

Recently,* there has been a move away from thinking in terms of Euclidean space to what is called Lorentzian space. Here time is distinguished from the other dimensions of space-time. In Lorentzian space, time cannot be moved about within, in the same way as the other dimensions. It is fundamentally different. Time’s arrow is restored and causality is an initial condition of the universe. This approach seems to be yielding more elegant formulae and solutions than hitherto achieved in tackling the big issues of cosmology.

But, once time is distinguished from space and time’s arrow is restored, one arrives inevitably back at the question of who fired that arrow; what is the first cause or prime mover? This is exactly the discussion that Genesis 1:1 provides.

* See, notably, various articles by J. Ambjørn, J. Jurkiewicz and R. Loll in Physics Review, Nuclear Physics etc.


Posted in feasts, israel, specific Hebrew words on May 26th, 2010 by yf

After the feast of Shavuot follow the summer months. It is a long haul through the summer heat from the spring festivals – concluded by Shavuot – to the autumn festivals. The Hebrew tells us of the nature of this time and our task.

In Israel, the main fig harvest is in summerIn Israel, the two main harvests are in spring and autumn. Summer is the time of ripening fruit: the main harvest of grapes, figs, peaches, apples and pears are gathered in late summer.* Summer is also the time of waiting for the autumn rains. If they fail, then starvation threatens by spring.

The Hebrew for summer qayits can also mean ‘summer fruits’. It derives from the word quwts meaning ‘to clip’ or ‘to awake’ or (by extension) ‘to watch’. A similar sounding word quts means ‘to end’.

In Israel, the grape harvest is in summerThese meanings are brought together in the Hebrew Bible.

The gap between the spring and autumn feasts corresponds to the gap between Moses bringing down the commandments from the mountain top the first time and the second time. In between, is the discovery of Israel worshipping the golden calf, the consequences (Moses breaking the tablets, the death of 3,000 in Israel and reorganisation in the camp) and the return by Moses to the mountain top to receive the commandments again.

So, it is no surprise that summer – the period of this long interlude – is a time of judgment in the Bible (Isaiah 16:9, 18:6; Jeremiah 48:32; Amos 8:1-2). In Amos 8:1-2, the Lord shows the prophet a basket of summer fruit (qayits) and then says that the end (quts) has come for “My people Israel” – a play on words. Ezekiel 7 speaks of the end (qayits) of Israel being awakened (quwts) against her.

Therefore, we need to make good use of the summer – to be ourselves awake and to gather food (Proverbs 6:8, 10:5, 30:25), the summer fruits, so that the wine and dried figs may be prepared. The summer tests us. Are we fruitful? As we shall see, the autumn brings the results.

*Figs also provide a smaller, early harvest in June as well as a pre-harvest of tiny immature figs in April/May that promise later fruitfulness.

The nature of waiting

Posted in feasts, specific Hebrew words on May 16th, 2010 by yf

The count down to Shavuot (Pentecost) is a time of waiting – just as a child counts the days hopefully to the day a parent will return or a present is due to be received.

counting the days to shavuotHebrew captures the nature of this waiting in the word qavah, often translated as ‘wait for’ or ‘hope for’. The root of the word comes from qav, meaning cord – as in a measuring cord. Time is measured out but qavah also means binding together. It shows the binding together that can occur through waiting. As the modern English phrase puts it, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

We have seen how Adam was impatient for a companion and other early speeches in the Bible show longing or impatience for another human being to solve things or meet our lack. There are, then, two questions – how we wait, and what or who we wait for.

The Bible tells us to “wait for the Lord, … yes, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14): “qavahqavah”. We are told both to wait and to bind together with the Lord. This is our preparation and our test. We can be measured by how we wait.

Heaps & heaps

Posted in covenant, feasts, israel, specific Hebrew words on May 8th, 2010 by yf

Following Passover is a time of preparation marked by counting: a count down. But preparing and counting down to what?

From the day after Passover, we are told to keep tally of seven sabbaths and to keep tally of fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath (Leviticus 23:15-16). This brings us to the feast of Shavuot (weeks), also known as Pentecost from the Latin for fifty. At Shavuot a new grain offering is made.

The double instruction to count shows that the Lord really wants us to number the days between the two feasts. Various traditions and methods for the days of ‘counting the omer’ have developed.* Device for counting the omer and showing the blessingsThe omer is the measure or heap of grain that is offered on the day after Passover. So, we are counting the heaps.

Passover marks Israel’s escape from Egypt. Shavuot, by rabbincial calculation, marks the day the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. In Hebraic understanding, this is the marriage covenant of God with Israel, with the sabbath as its symbol: the wedding ring to mark Israel’s commitment to the Creator and the Creator’s commitment to her.

The days of counting mark the period between the two: building on ‘freedom from’ in order to be ready for ‘commitment to’. In these days, we are counting our blessings – heaps and heaps – whilst waiting and preparing.

The agricultural year in Israel mirrors this. The barley harvest is at Passover, barley being an early crop. Shavuot is the feast of the general harvest and in particular the wheat harvest. Between is an anxious time of waiting, for the Spring weather is changeable and the crops vulnerable. The harvest could fail. The Hebrew for the hot dry wind, chamsin, that blows at this time derives from the Arabic word for fifty since the wind can last fifty days.

The fifty days of counting the omer and of the chamsin are to prepare and mature the freed Egyptian slave girl so that she is ready for her marriage covenant. Freedom in itself is only a first step and the trials that follow are a preparation for something greater. This time of excitement and thanksgiving can also be a time of failure if not used well. The seven sabbaths are seven reminders of what is at stake.

*In Jewish tradition, each day has a different blessing and significance. The illustration is of a device that counts the days and shows the blessing for each day.

What target?

Posted in character of God, covenant, specific Hebrew words, the law on May 6th, 2010 by yf

yarah - to shoot, to hit the target
Chattah is the main Hebrew word for sin used in the Bible. Like many Hebrew words, its root has a concrete meaning: chatta means to ‘miss the target or standard’ or to ‘miss the way’. The implications are great.

In Hebrew, sin is not a matter of intentions or somebody suffering hurt. Remarks such as “I meant well”, “I’m doing my best” or “nobody got hurt” do not address the issue. Instead, sin is a matter of failing to achieve a standard or follow a path. There is a legal tinge to chattah: of failure to meet an obligation.

Who then sets the standard or path or holds the other end of the legal deal?

In modern culture we are often told to “aim high”, and our institutions are replete with targets, goals and accountability measures. The approach in the Hebrew Bible is different. Standards are set externally. Sin is against the Lord, for it is the standard that He has set that we fail to attain; it is His covenant with us that we break. “Against you and you only have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4).

The Hebrew also shows us how we can follow the path that He has set. The word yarah means to shoot or point or teach. From it comes the word torah meaning teacher, or teaching or the Law (the Torah). The target is set by the Lord and He teaches us how to hit it. Thus: “…your eyes will behold your teacher. And your ears will hear a word behind you, saying “This is the path, walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:20-21). Through His word, God points us to the path and shows us how to keep to it.

When we fail, the sin offering required under the Law is itself called chattah: the remedy is identified with the fault, the sacrifice takes on the sin (Exodus 29:14 etc.). Sin – our failure to follow the path God has shown – is not lightly set aside or dealt with. Covenant has been broken; the stakes are high.

Avoiding sin is not a matter of nominal compliance with Torah or of relying on sacrifices. It is a matter of the heart. Thus: “The Lord weighs the hearts. To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord, rather than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:2-3); and “Bring your worthless offerings no longer… I cannot endure iniquity… Learn to do good; seek justice… ” (Isaiah 1:13, 17). The heart itself must learn and seek.

Engaging with – practising – the word of God becomes central. In Judaism, the wisdom of the sages or of a tzadik (holy man) founded in Torah can provide a pattern to be followed. For believers in Yeshua as Messiah, he is the word of God become flesh and provides both the pattern and the sacrifice: “love one another just as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

yarah - to shoot, to hit the target

Beneath the chatter

Posted in creation, messiah, specific Hebrew words on April 30th, 2010 by yf

What underlies our conversation? From so many words, what is essential? Before Noah’s flood, the Bible records only nine ‘speeches’ by human beings. The Hebrew sages regard first or early occurrences in the Bible as critical to understanding what follows. So, what do these early speeches tell us?

A clear, and discomforting, pattern emerges. Taking the nine speeches in order :

  • Adam is impatient with God to find his companion (Genesis 2:23). Obscured by most translations but see here.
  • Eve corrects the serpent about what God said but gets it wrong (Genesis 3:2). See here.
  • Adam explains to God why he is hiding: he is afraid of God (Genesis 3:11).
  • When asked to explain, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-14).
  • In the first human to human speech recorded, Cain says to his brother …. nothing, and then murders him (Genesis 4:8). Obscured by most translations but see here.
  • Cain denies knowledge of Abel to God Word map of Obama speech (ex NYT)and then complains of his punishment for murder (Genesis 4:9 and 13-14).
  • Lamech bemoans, boasts or threatens (opinions differ) to having killed or being prepared to kill people, and compares himself to Cain (Genesis 4:23-24).
  • Eve names her new son – replacement for Abel – Seth (Genesis 4:25). Seth means ‘appointed’ in Hebrew.
  • Lamech calls his son Noah, saying “This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed. ” (Genesis 5:29). Noah means ‘rest’ in Hebrew.
  • We begin with Adam’s impatience for a human companion. The next six speeches reveal a growing mess. Then, in the last two – the naming of Seth and Noah – we find hope for a human figure to put matters right.

    In naming Seth, Eve is reflecting God’s remark in Genesis 3:15 that Eve’s seed will crush the serpent’s head. Both Judaic and Christian literature see this passage as Messianic. Eve is placing her hopes on Seth. Similarly, Lamech places his hopes of rest from toil – also a consequence of the interaction with the serpent – on Noah.

    In sum, this record shows humanity as either: (i) longing for another human to fulfill them or to put matters right; or (ii) making a mess. Based on the first nine speeches, this is the Biblical view of what lies beneath our chatter.

    A stark view of humanity! It shows the problem – us – and where we look for the answer: somebody else. This perspective gives the foundation to understand what happens after the flood.

    Can God measure?

    Posted in science, specific Hebrew words on April 27th, 2010 by yf

    God measures pi perhaps Atheists claim that a figure in the Bible shows the Bible to be inaccurate. Closer examination of the Hebrew shows the text to be extraordinarily accurate.

    The ‘sea of metal’ to be placed in Solomon’s temple is described in 1 Kings 7:23. Its diameter is given as 10 cubits and it is stated to be 30 cubits in terms of a line around it: a ratio of 3 to 1 between the circumference (the line around) and the diameter. However, the ratio between the two is always given mathematically by the constant pi which is 3.1415926535897…… (its sequence of numbers is never ending).

    So, if the diameter of the metal sea was 10 cubits, the figure of 30 cubits for its circumference is very approximate only. Maybe there is nothing wrong with that, but critics argue that the Bible normally gives quite detailed figures. In this case, they say, the Bible implies that pi is 3, rather than 3.14159…. and this is wrong

    However, the Hebrew text yields a remarkably exact figure for the period it was written.

    Hebrew uses the letters of the alphabet as its numbers, so aleph is 1, beth is 2 and so on. It follows that every word has a numerical value given by its letters. This has led to some fascination with numbers in Scripture. Whatever the merits and problems with that, in the case of the measurement of Solomon’s metal sea, it is reasonable to look to the numerical value of letters to discover if they can help.

    In Hebrew, the word used for the line around the metal sea which gives its circumference is qav made up of the letters kof-vav. In 1 Kings the word is spelled with an extra letter: kof-vav-hey. Such variances in spelling are not unusual in Biblical Hebrew, and the rabbis maintain that each one give us a hint to look deeper.

    The numerical value of kof-vav is 106 and that of kof-vav-hey is 111. Following the hint to go deeper, if we adjust the stated circumference of 30 cubits by 111 / 106 we arrive at the figure 31.415094336962 cubits.* This is very close to the figure given by applying pi to the diameter of 10 cubits: 31.415926535897……

    In fact this Bible figure is much closer to the true value of pi than the calculations used by the ancient Bablyonians or Egyptians or Aristotle. Only the Greek Ptolemy (2nd C CE) got closer in the ancient world.

    OK – but couldn’t God have got it even closer? No, not by using a two letter Hebrew word with an added letter. The fraction 111 / 106 is the closest to pi possible by this approach.

    This result shows that we do well to question what Scripture seems to say, but if we do, then we must be prepared to do our homework. As we test Scripture, it tests us.

    *The Vilna Gaon (18thC) may have been the first to have applied this approach.

    Silence and the root of anger

    Posted in character of God on April 21st, 2010 by yf

    The first attempt at speech between humans recorded in the Bible tells us much about anger and sin.

    We have seen that the Hebrew Bible begins awkwardly here, that the serpent stumbles in his opening remark to Eve here and that Adam’s first recorded word to the Creator is one of impatience here. Three surprising beginnings. What then of the first human to human interaction?

    It’s hard to spot in translation. Adam’s son Abel makes a blood sacrifice to God – which is accepted – whilst his brother Cain makes a fruit sacrifice – which is not. Genesis 4 tells us that Cain blazed (with anger) and God warns him that sin crouches at his door (verses 5-7).

    from William Blake's "Cain and Abel"This is the first mention of sin (chattah) in the Bible and sets the scene for the next verse. Verse 8 is typically translated something like “And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. ”

    But a literal translation of the opening of verse 8 is “And said Cain to Abel his brother”. What did he say? The Hebrew leads us to expect a report of what is said. But nothing is said. Instead, Cain murders Abel. The first mention of sin in the Bible lead to the terrible silence when words fail Cain before he kills his brother.

    Verse 8 is constructed to draw attention to this. But why didn’t Cain speak? Whatever words one might put in Cain’s mouth, the core of his problem is not a failure of dialogue with Abel, but a problem with God who has not acted as he hoped. Cain had expected a different kind of God, but he can’t change God.

    The root of Cain’s sin and anger lies not against Abel but against God. He discovers that God wants a blood sacrifice and Cain – did he intend it so? – provides a terrible one in the blood of Abel.

    Like Cain, many are angry against the God of the Bible or reject Him, because He does not suit their world-view.* Yet, as we shall see in later blogs, He expects us to struggle with Him and His disconcerting nature. Silence is not golden.

    *The atheist leader Richard Dawkins wants to put the Pope on trial for ‘crimes against humanity’. I suspect his fury is less against those who may have covered up child abuse and more against a God who he would like to see in the dock for ‘crimes against humanity’.

    Abraham’s call

    Posted in specific Hebrew words on April 15th, 2010 by yf

    We are all familiar with the story in the Hebrew Bible of the calling of Abraham. We are taught as children that he packed up his family, his extended household, his animals and went to the land that God had set aside for him.

    But what EXACTLY did God say to Abraham (called Abram at the time). In the Hebrew the command of Genesis 14:1 is very brief, “Lekh l’kha”. The two words, pronounced similarly, are written exactly the same in the Torah scroll:

    lech lecha

    The Hebrew phase can be interpreted as:
    (i) “Go, go”: giving urgency to the command.
    (ii) “Go for yourself”: showing that there are benefits to this, set out in the following verses: “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.
    (iii) “Go to yourself”: that is, dwell on this and its implications before acting.
    (iv) “Go by yourself”: Abram had to take his family with him, so this meaning can be discounted except in the sense of (iii).

    camels with loads Nothing is recorded of any further conversation about directions, grid references or maps given out to the crowd that were packing up the camels, just a command, “Go”. God would show Abraham where to go to, but not in advance; he had to begin the journey first.

    Abram went from Haran (in what is now Turkey) to Egypt and from Egypt to Bethel and Canaan. He was probably 75 years old when told “go”, told to leave his homeland and start his life again. Rabbinic tradition is that this was the first of ten tests he faced. Some he failed. It didn’t get easier – famine, threats, waiting for a child, the binding of Isaac, the command to circumcise himself when 99 years old.

    However, in Genesis 14:13, after his travels, Abram is referred to as “the Hebrew”: Ha-Ibri, the first use of this word in the Bible. Ibri derives from the word ibar, which means to ‘cross over’ or any form of transition.*

    Thus, the defining character of Abram and the Hebrew people is to be in transition as they obey the command to Lekh l’kha.

    Interestingly, the Greek Brit Hadashah (New Testament) contains an instruction by Jesus to his followers to go: “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This is evidently intended as a continuation of the command to Abram. Jesus wanted his Hebrew followers to be true Hebrews and, in this, to bless all the families of the earth.

    The first and key test for Jew and Christian alike is to Lekh l’kha. And without a retirement date.

    * Ibri, made up of the letters ayin-bet-reish-yod;
    ibar, made up of the letters ayin-bet-reish

    Surprising openings: 3

    Posted in creation, specific Hebrew words on April 8th, 2010 by yf

    We have commented on the seemingly stumbling opening words of the serpent here and of the beginning of the Bible here. Adam’s first quoted words are also surprising, though they do not stumble.

    After God has presented every beast and every bird to Adam, the Lord fashions Eve and brings her to Adam. Adam responds: “This time is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23). Though not captured in translation, the combination of the words zeh (‘this’) and paam (‘time’, in the sense of an event or occurrence) is strong.* In context, it has the sense of “at last” or “finally we have got there”.

    bone of my bones, flesh of my fleshAfter looking through and naming all the different classes of birds and beasts, Adam has become impatient with God (the first, but certainly not the last, person in the Bible to do so). The first words addressed to God in the Bible are ones of impatience, not worship, or praise or thanksgiving. What is Adam impatient about? He is impatient for a companion. Fellowship with other human beings as well as with God is vital to each of us. As God says in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good for man to be alone.”

    In verse 24, it says “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage is presented as the potential ideal realization of that closeness that each human being so desires. The following chapter of Genesis sees that closeness dented.

    The message is that our primary driver is the search for companionship and that in this we can become impatient with God. But note that this impatience arose after Adam did not find a suitable companion amongst the animals. God had endowed Adam with the breath of life (nishmat chaim) in Genesis 2:7. Consequently, Adam had – as we have – the potential to go beyond mere animal existence. Adam was not to be satisfied with less. This search for more is how humanity first speaks in the Bible.

    *The four other occasions in the Torah where this word combination occurs, each have a definite edge to them (Genesis 18:32, Genesis 27:36, Exodus 8:32, Numbers 14:22).