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

The honey and the bee

Posted in specific Hebrew words, the law on March 24th, 2010 by yf

A land running with milk and honey is repeatedly promised by God to His people (first in Exodus 3:8). But then He wants them to seek honey from the rock (Deuteronomy 32:13, Psalm 81:16). Messy imagery or something more?

pollen on a beeAlways look for more. The Hebrew for honey – dabash – and for bee – deborah – come from the root dabar meaning a ‘word’ or ‘matter spoken of’. Possibly, the original meaning of dabar was ‘to arrange’ and its application to the bee reflects the beautiful symmetry of the honeycomb.

The relationship between the spoken word and the bee in Semitic languages has influenced other religious expressions in the Middle East.* In the Bible, the image of a land flowing with milk and honey points to a land flowing with richness or fatness (the root meaning of chalab, ‘milk’) and with the word of God. The word and speech of God is His dabar; the ten commandments are, in Hebrew, the ten words.** The word of God is compared to the sweetness of honey in Psalm 119:103.

These are pleasant images. So, why the reference to rock honey? Rock honey is not provided through human intervention in convenient hives. It is difficult, indeed dangerous, to collect yet is especially delicious. Maybe its healing properties are especially strong, as the bees have gathered from natural flora amidst the rocks, not from a farming ecosystem. The double imagery about honey tells us that the word of God may be readily available amidst abundance, but what is most valuable must be struggled for.

Honey is sweet, but sweet words can be dangerous. Proverbs warns “the lips of an adulteress drip honey” (5:3). As shown in an earlier blog, adultery is used of Israel’s unfaithfulness to her God, and leads to divorce. Both times the Bible speaks of seeking rock honey, it is in the context of failure by God’s people. Rock honey prevents or is the antidote to such failure.

Words – honey – which are convenient or tempting to us may come from the lips of an adulteress. Just before that verse about the adultress in Proverbs, it says “My son, give attention to my wisdom, incline your ear to my understanding”. The honey of the word of God requires us to give attention. Understanding is not to be found on the couch of an adulteress but in the place of struggle that is in the rock.

*For example, the Sumerian bee goddess, the Zoroastrian diety Mithra who holds a bee in his lips, or similar images of Diana of Ephesus.
**Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4.

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).