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….

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.

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

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’.

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.

    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.