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).

    Passover contemplation 2

    Posted in feasts, specific Hebrew words on April 5th, 2010 by yf

    The Passover night, which is different from all other nights, is repeated each year across the millenia. This is more than a reminder of distant events, for Hebrew treats time differently from Indo-European languages and cultures (which include Greek and English).

    Those languages have verb tenses for past, present and future. Hebrew has only two verb tenses: the perfect tense for actions that have been completed, the imperfect tense for actions not yet completed. The tenses relate to action, not time.
    watch with Hebrew characters

    A Hebrew speaker would not ‘spend time’ or be ‘short of time’. The Tanach (Old Testament) lacks terms for the abstract concepts of time, or of past, present, and future. The Hebrew word et (translated ‘time’) refers to the point or duration of an action. In Hebrew time is not like another spatial dimension: things do not happen ‘in time’. Things happen and the happenings map time. The future does not lie before us but consists of the actions that are not yet complete.

    In this way, we each move in and produce the stream of events that comprise history. The present is part of future history; past actions repeated today or not yet complete are part of that future.

    In the Passover meal, the past is made present and future – alive and part of the ongoing making of history. As the traditional Passover haggadah (service) says: “In every generation, each individual should feel as though they had gone out from Egypt.”

    This is a Biblical pattern. Moses, in speaking to a later generation than those who received the Ten Commandments, says:

    “The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all of us alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 5:4)

    This same pattern of identification with “our fathers” through action is also found in the New Testament when Paul (addressing gentiles) speaks of the exodus of “our fathers” from Egypt in 1 Corinthians 10:11.

    History is worked out through our ongoing actions. The Passover celebration shows us both what came before us and that it continues with us and through us.