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.

The nature of faith

Posted in character of God, messiah, specific Hebrew words, temple on March 19th, 2010 by yf

Is faith a matter of individual, inward belief? The individual struggling with a crisis of faith is a largely Western phenomenon. Other people can be a distraction to that inward struggle, yet, when religious faith falters, faith can be transferred to another person.Obama believe

In both Greek and Hebrew there is not a distinction between faith and faithfulness. To have faith is to act with faithfulness. Faith is not separate from action; hence, other people are not a distraction, nor can they fulfil one’s own limited faith.

The Greek word for faith pistis has the sense of persuasion or conviction: the thought is father to the action. The Hebrew takes us deeper. The Hebrew root word aman has the sense of supporting or upholding: to build up or to go to the right hand. The “Amen” used to conclude prayers is that word. With aman, the thought and the action are one. Faith in the Hebrew sense is not a subjective state of mind but an observable mode of engagement; faith constructs. The concept is of support, of pillars of a building. So, in faithfulness we are built up and in turn become pillars, supports for the whole structure. Why the right hand? Because in the Tanach (Old Testament) the right hand of God refers to the Messiah. Faith leads to Messiah.

In the Bible, the primary construction is the temple. The temple is that holy place where God and man meet, so faith builds that place. When the Bible describes the faithfulness of God (Psalm 36:5, Psalm 89, Psalm 119:90, Lamentations 3:23), it shows that He is building that meeting place where we can go to the Messiah and join God in faith.

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.

    Purim 2: no noose

    Posted in feasts, specific Hebrew words on February 27th, 2010 by yf

    Esther the name of the heroine of the book of Esther comes from the same root as natsar, meaning hidden. “Hidden” suggests that we should look for some hidden, that is prophetic, message in Esther. One surprise is the fate of Haman, the enemy of Mordechai and the Jewish people. He erects a gallows to hang Mordechai from (Esther 5:14) but ends up hung from it himself (7:9-10). But was he hung?

    The Hebrew words used are talah (suspend) and es (tree or wooden thing). One or both words are used to describe legal executions under the Egyptians (Genesis 40:22), Mesopotamians (Lamentations 5:!2) and Persians (Esther 2:12) as well as the general statement in Deuteronomy 21:23 that he who hangs on a tree is cursed. Ancient reliefs and the Roman historian Heroditus (History 3:125, 159) identify such ‘hanging’ as impalement and then llfting up the victim on display. The Roman form of crucifixion was a development of this. The noose was not used, presumably because hanging was an insufficiently awful form of execution.

    Haman's punishmentThe execution of Haman marks the salvation of the Jewish people from a terrible threat. At the feast of Purim, Jewish people celebrate this in playful fashion by reading the book of Esther with cheers and boos in appropriate places and, for example, hanging a toy figurine representing Haman. In the early centuries CE, the custom was to crucify and burn the figurine but this proved unwise in Christian countries. Michelangelo’s Punishment of Haman in the Sistine Chapel (left) shows him being crucified.

    As if by agreement, both synagogue and church have substituted the less awkward figure of Haman suspended by a noose from a gallows. What this hides is that:
    – anti-semitism in the Christian church has made the cross symbolic of those who are enemies of the Jewish people
    – salvation for the Jews may yet be associated with such a symbol and the curse upon he who ‘hangs from a tree’.

    The previous biblejolts blog

    Posted in character of God, creation, israel, specific Hebrew words on February 22nd, 2010 by yf

    Find the previous biblejolts blog here.