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.

A Passover contemplation

Posted in feasts, israel, specific Hebrew words on March 26th, 2010 by yf

We will be away for Pesach (Passover), so a contemplation for the week.

Passover is probably the oldest continously celebrated religious festival in the world: from the frightened rush out of Egypt, to the early years in the Holy Land, to a Jerusalem crowded with festal pilgrims coming to the Temple, to the terrible feast of CE70 when the Romans laid siege to the city, to the feasts celebrated in the diaspora in mansions or hovels or hiding places, to the return to the Land but with enemies at the gate and within.

Each year the movement from sorrow to joy, each year the same questions, each year a memorial to the same events in Pharaoh’s Egypt, each year the same hope – symbolised by the empty chair at the table reserved for the return of Elijah.

One can view this as folk memory or ritual. Or as a God given feast. If God given, what does He want us to learn from this night that is different from all other nights, repeated each year across the millenia? The Hebrew for remembrance – zeker – has the sense of speaking or acting out the memory. The little word zek means ‘pure’ or ‘clean’. So, in remembering together the memorial is built and we are cleansed.Traditional Passover meal

The central event remembered is the Passover itself: the tenth plague when all the first born in Egypt were slain, except in those houses where the Passover lamb had been sacrificed and its blood daubed on the doorposts and lintel. Death passed over those houses. That event lies at the heart of the night that is different from all other nights. That event is the most memorialised event in Jewish – and human – history.


Chag Pesach Sameach (Happy Passover)

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).

    The pope and the telescope

    Posted in creation, science on March 12th, 2010 by yf

    The pope refusing to look though Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter is an icon of humanism: science v religion (or ‘blind’ faith). The pope declined to view evidence that not everything in the universe revolves around the earth. Yet, from a Biblically based Hebraic perspective the moral of the story is turned upside down or, rather, put right-side up.

    Why wouldn’t the pope look? Galileo developed the ideas of Copernicus about the solar system, with the cautious backing of cardinal Barberini. But, Galileo fell foul of Vatican politics and lost Barberini as an ally after he became pope Urban VIII. This is the pope who declined to look through the telescope and forced Galileo to recant his claims.

    There is a deeper story here than the workings of a papal court. Greek philosophy dominated Western thought and rationalism. Aristotle’s idea of the sun, moon and stars fixed on crystal spheres revolving around the earth was generally accepted. The irrelevance or subordinate nature of the merely material world compared to higher thought comes from Plato and Aristotle. By the 17thC, it was embedded in Western thought – and to some extent in Jewish and Islamic thinking too. So why look through a contraption like a telescope to test an idea? Greek philosophy leaves only a subordinate role for empiricism.

    Unlike the Greek philosophers, the Bible gives great weight to the material world as created by God and as humanity’s sphere of action. Viewing the material world as both to be engaged with by us and as where God reveals Himself is part of the Hebraic mind-set. Galileo’s development of the scientific method stands on this foundation.

    The word ‘science’ originates from the Latin meaning ‘knowledge’. The Hebrew term for knowledge – yada – and related words are used in the Bible for practical knowledge (including the sexual act), for the ability to discriminate morally and for Divine knowledge (by man of God and by God of man). These are all part of a continuum of knowledge experienced and worked out in creation, without the hierarchy imposed by the Greek philosophers.

    Copernicus, Galileo and other astronomers saw no contradiction between their theories and the Bible (Interpretation of the relevant Bible passages is for discussion another day.)

    Zechariah 9:13 says “I will stir up your sons O Zion against your sons O Greece.” In these terms, the confrontation between Galileo and pope Urban was not between science and religion but between the sons of Zion and of Greece.

    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.

    Stumbling openings 2: “In the beginning…”

    Posted in creation on March 5th, 2010 by yf

    The opening Hebrew words of the Bible read awkwardly, causing dispute as to how to understand (and translate) them. The form is not used again in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament).

    They can be read as the first statement in a sequence of events – God did this, then this, then this. Or they can be read as a construct form – “In the beginning of His creating…” – and could even imply “for the sake of the beginning, God created…”. So, for example, the great Hebrew scholar Ramban takes the statement as the opening of a sequence; Rashi takes it as the construct form.

    If this is His book, couldn’t God have started – and stated – matters more clearly?
    In the beginning of His creating
    Unless the author begins with poor grammar, the wording draws attention to the very difficulty in the words concerned: how to describe the beginning of time with words that rely on the concept of time, that necessarily assume that time exists. When something begins, then previously in time it had not yet begun – the past differs from the present. But, there is no past before the beginning of Genesis 1:1; there is no before, and thus no beginning in a sense that we, as time bound creatures, can understand.

    Genesis 1:1 reminds us of this. The beginning of time is beyond the rules of grammar. By separating the creation of time (“In the beginning of His creating”) from material creation, Genesis is well in advance of scientific thinking. We have all been told that Genesis is unscientific and outdated in terms of understanding the physical world. But, as we shall see in a later blog, science in the 21st C is only just arriving at the understanding of the beginning that is set out for the simplest peasant in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1.

    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’.

    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.

    Purim 1: the cause of the trouble

    Posted in feasts, israel, temple on February 22nd, 2010 by yf

    The feast of Purim ( this year 28 February) marks the triumph of the Jewish people against the threat of obliteration, recorded in the book of Esther.

    Most Jews then lived within the vast Persian empire.  A royal decree was issued for their destruction on the day of purim, but why did this deadly threat emerge at this time?  There are three threads – one more obvious than the others.

    First, the dominant courtier of the day, Haman, was angered  by the refusal of the Jew, Mordechi, to bow to him and vowed revenge: a conflict between courtiers.

    Second, Haman was an Amalkite, a people with a deep hatred of the Jews.    In 1 Samuel 15, Saul disobeys God’s instructions to wipe them out and kill their king, Agag.   Five centuries later, Haman (a descendent of Agag) plots against Mordechi (a descendent of Saul) and his people.

    cup from Jerusalem templeGo deeper for a third thread.  The book of Esther covers a period when the religious Jews had returned to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem: in fulfilment of prophecy and with the agreement of the previous king, Cyrus (see the book of Nehemiah). Those remaining in Susa, the royal capital, had seemingly set that aside.  Indeed, Esther is the only book in the Bible not to mention God.

    The opening chapter of Esther records that Ahasuerus gives a banquet for his  princes and nobles at which he displayed his riches and then another one, lasting several days, for all those in Susa.  Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds (Esther 1:7).  Traditional Judaic sources (e.g. Megillah 12a, Yalkut Shimoni) record that the sacred vessels from the Jerusalem temple were used.

    Previously, king Belshazar, had drunk from those same cups at a feast in deliberate contempt of the God of Israel (Daniel 5).  Consequently, he received a terrifying vision and perished that same night.  Ahasuerus did not suffer the same fate, presumably because his action was not so defiant.  But the Jews of Susa participated with him and should have known better.

    Whilst the pagan king Belshazar suffered the consequences immediately, God is more patient with the Jews.  But still the deadly threat emerges, for His hand of protection has been removed from them.  Yet, through Mordechi and Esther, the Lord provides a solution.  Israel nearly brings destruction on herself but is saved and her would-be destroyers (Haman and co) are themselves destroyed instead.  Hence, the feast.

    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.