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

Shalom and the philosophers

Posted in character of God, covenant, specific Hebrew words, the law on March 15th, 2010 by yf

God’s place in morality has been dismissed in much of modern philospohy, based on Plato’s views. Yet, by itself, the Hebrew word shalom restores the Creator’s role.

In the Euthyphro, Plato argues that either actions are wrong because God prohibits them or God prohibits them because they are wrong. If the latter, then God is unnecessary for a moral code – the actions are wrong anyway. If the former, then God is arbitrary in prohibiting actions that aren’t wrong or permitting ones that are. And is God bound by His own prohibitions: is He bound by a higher order or is He immoral?

peace in HebrewThe shallowness of such logic is revealed if we consider the Hebrew word shalom: that is peace, where a good moral order prevails. Covenant is the organising principle behond shalom. Abiding within the terms of an agreed and binding relationship is peace; outside of that is violence. The Hebrew Bible understands shalom as moral order achieved through covenant: “a coming together in completeness”.* Thus, relationship defines morality and finally this rests on God’s covenants with us. For example:

  • “the work of righteousness shall be peace” (Isaiah 32:17)
  • Shalom is given to those who love Torah. (Leviticus 26:6, Psalm 119:165, Isaiah 46:13)
  • “God is peace (YHWH-shalom)” (Judges 6:24)
  • but “there is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21)
  • In Hebrew thought, morality is neither abstract nor constructed top down by human lawmakers, or even by God. It lies in meeting what is needed for relationship. Justice belongs within a covenantal framework.** The deepest possible relationship and completeness lies in God. He is peace and He is justice. As He desires relationship with us, He too is bound by that morality – bound because that is who He is.

    As in the previous blog, the sons of Zion see matters differently to the sons of Greece. A Western mindset is poorly equipped to frame the issues Biblically and thus constantly misses the point.

    * Norman Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (New York: Schocken Books, 1964).
    ** An idea well understood by the early American Puritans and others who took a Hebraic approach – see Daniel Elazar’s 4 volume study The Covenant Tradition in Politics (1995-98).

    Torn: the nature of healing

    Posted in character of God, covenant, specific Hebrew words on March 7th, 2010 by yf

    In Hebrew, the word for heal is “raph”, which means to repair or sew together a torn garment. This tells us of the nature of healing.

    The root meaning of the Hebrew for garment (beged) is covering or rebel. After the incident at the tree in the garden of Eden, the Lord finds Adam and Eve hiding from Him – aware of their nakedness – and He provides covering for them. In the Bible, when somebody deliberately tears their garments, it is a sign of deep sorrow or affliction. Tearing of garments can be seen, then, as a tearing of the Lord’s covering, a reminder of our rebellious nature, or an expression of grief or rage.

    children wearing tallits at the Western Wall in Jerusalem But look at the nature of the garment that is torn. In Numbers 15, Israel is instructed to wear garments with tassels, with a cord of blue running through the tassel at each corner. The blue cord is to remind them of God’s commandments to them.* This is Israel’s part of the covenant with God, which they have sworn to fulfil.

    It follows that tearing the garment (called a tallit) is a breach in relationship with the Creator – whether the breach is by ourselves or has some other source. Healing, therefore, is repair of that relationship. Healing in the Biblical sense repairs spiritual or emotional gashes that cause loss of intimacy with God. It is not magic and it is not primarily physical but relational, though Moses, Elijah. Elisha and Isaiah all realize miracles of physical healing.

    Healing comes from God. In Numbers 15, the corner where fringes are to be attached is kawnawf which also means wing. We shelter under the wings of the Lord (Ruth 2:12, Psalm 17:8 etc.); His garment shelters us. Malachi 4:2: says “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wing”: that is, the corners of his garment shall mend the tears in ours. Our tattered relationship shall be made good there. More of this later.

    * The blue of the cord – made from the blood of a shellfish – reflects the colour of the sea, which reflects the colour of the sky, which reflects the colour of God’s throne (Talmud Menachos 43b). Some translations incorrectly identify the tassel as the reminder. The gender construction of the sentence points to the cord, not the tassel.

    God’s marital status

    Posted in covenant, israel on February 26th, 2010 by yf

    is God married
    We have all had to fill out a form asking for ‘marital status’. So, what would we enter for God: single, married, widowed, divorced? The correct answer may surprise you.

    Scholars agree with Judaic tradition that the entire book of Deuteronomy is a covenant document, with the 10 commandments at its core. It is a marriage covenant, with the Sabbath as the wedding ring of this marriage between the Lord and Israel.

    The Hebrew for marriage or betrothal is kiddushin:, from the root kddsh whose meaning is ‘holy’ or ‘separate’. So, marriage is inherently bound up with the concepts of holiness and of separation (from the world and to God).

    Israel is told to be faithful in Deuteronomy 6:10-15 and God’s marriage covenant with them is referred to in terms of sexual imagery in Ezekiel 16:8 and elsewhere. But Israel is found to be a harlot (in adultery) in Ezekiel 16:15 and Jeremiah 31:5. In Jeremiah 31:32 the Lord refers to “My covenant which they broke though I was their husband.”

    These are not mere words or symbols. A holy relationship within covenant is shattered by sin. The consequence is that the Lord, following His own law of Deuteronomy 24:1 etc, issues a certificate of separation (Isaiah 50:1) and proceeds to a bill of divorce (Jeremiah 3:6-10) from Israel. God is divorced.

    Punishment for Israel also follows, and this too is described in sexual terms: God gathers Israel’s lovers against her (Ezekiel 16:35-43) because she broke her covenant with Him.

    Yet, the Lord remains committed to Israel: there are many promises of Israel’s restoration and even in Jeremiah 31 the Lord promises forgiveness and an unbreakable covenant with Israel. Thus, there are consequences to sin but the Lord remains faithful, even when we are not.