Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Greater love?

John 15:13 says,

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Now, it is difficult to comprehend how this simple thought can be misunderstood, but it has almost universally been so. In fact, the misrepresentation of this verse demonstrates clearly the difficulty in translation caused by projecting backward Christian ideas and forgetting the Hebrew values which spawned it.

Albert Barnes wrote: "No higher expression of love could be given. Life is the most valuable object we possess; and when a man is willing to lay that down for his friends or his country, it shows the utmost extent of love."

John Gill wrote: "By these words our Lord shows, how far love to another should extend, even to the laying down of our lives for the brethren; which is the highest instance of love among men"

These thoughts clearly represent the Christian value developed as a result of Yeshua's death. But, Yeshua was not referring to his own death. In fact, he was referring to a simple, mundane act in his own life--stooping to wash the feet of his friends.

Two important issues regarding the translation that follows. First, the Greek word normally translated as "that," is hina. Clauses beginning with the word hina are purpose and result clauses and should normally be translated beginning with "so that," or "as a result." Second, the Greek word agape, which is normally translated as "love," means much more than love. It means "to act out of love," or "to care for." In the Hebrew mind, agape represented an ethic (or morality) of care, a form of restorative justice, intended to create and preserve shalom among a community.

An ethic of care emphasizes a person as a part of an interdependent relationship that affects how decisions are made. In this theory the specific situation and context in which the person is embedded becomes a part of the decision-making process. Instead of considering the consequences or our duties (as in virtue ethics), an ethic of care considers the situation that may involve a vulnerable, dependent, and weak person who needs the support of the community.

Yeshua had in mind just such a code of ethics of care in this instance. He begins his thought actually in Chapter 13. Just prior to partaking in the Passover feast with his disciples, he does a remarkable thing. (verses 4-5) He rose up from the supper and laid aside His garments. And taking a towel, girded Himself. Then He put water into the basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe [it] off with the towel, with which He was girded.

Explaining to them (at verses 12-15) he said, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me the teacher, and, the master. And you say well, for I am. If then I, the master and teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash the feet of one another. For I gave you an example, that as I did to you, you also should do." Yeshua told them, (at verses 34-35), I give a new precept (or ethical command) to you, so that you might care for one another; according as I cared for you… By this all shall know that you are my disciples, if you have care among one another. (14:12) Indeed, I tell you truly, the one being faithful toward Me, the actions, which I do, that one shall do also, and greater than these he will do... (14:27) I send forth shalom to you; My shalom I give to you. Not as the world gives [do] I give to you.

After explaining, through a metaphor of the vine, how, in order to remain within the sphere of God's care, the disciples must "bear fruit" (by demonstrating care for one another), he said (again referring to the feet-washing example) (in 15:8) "In this thing My Father is glorified, so that you should bear much fruit; and (so that) you will be disciples to me."

Yeshua then repeated the same concept two times (verses 12, 13), "This thing is my precept, as a result you care for one another as I cared for you. 13 Greater care than this thing has no one, as a result, one is laying aside his self in place of his friends.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Most Christians understand grace to be God's unmerited (undeserved) favor, His unmerited love. They hold that God gives us something even though we deserve the opposite; that God's grace is the basis of our relationship with the God of the universe; and that such grace is made known through Yeshua Messiah, God's unmerited gift to mankind. Now, all of this seems true enough, but it represents a superficial understanding of grace and a profound underreporting of the mutual nature of grace. Yeshua said (Mat 7:2):

"for with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured again to you."

James 2:8-10 says:

"If you truly fulfill the Kingdom Law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well. But, if you discriminate, you work sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep all the law, but stumbles in one, he has become guilty of all."

Thus, grace is not free, and grace is not a matter if "deserving." Grace is a mutual obligation designed to instill safety and shalom within a community. It is the law. One is kind to a neighbor, not because the neighbor either deserves or does not deserve kindness, but because one wants to solicit kindness and peace from their neighbor in return. Likewise, communities pass and enforce laws to protect the peace. This system of obligation to mutual respect is grace.

These concepts of Christian grace are derived from the Hebrew notions of chanan ("hospitality"). Specifically, it is the hospitality of the Hebrew tent camp that is the ancient focus of chanan.

Genesis 33:9-11 says:

"And Esau said, I have much, my brother. Let what you have be to yourself. And Jacob said, No, please, if I now have found favor (chen) in your eyes, take my present from my hands. For I have seen your face, like seeing the face of God; and you are pleased with me. Please take my blessing, which has been brought to you, because God has favored (chanan) me, and because I have all things. And, he urged him; and he accepted."

And, Genesis 42:21 says:

"And they said each to his brother, We are truly guilty because of our brother whom we saw in distress of his soul, when he sought favor (chanan) from us, and we did not heed. So, this distress has come to us."

One of the major responsibilities of the Hebrew clan was to provide hospitality to anyone who came to them. This may be a member of a related clan or even an enemy of another tribe. In both cases it was the responsibility of the clan to provide food, shelter and protection as long as the "aliens" were within their camp. An important custom in Hebrew society was the practice of hospitality. A guest, even an alien guest, was honored and entertained, even at considerable expense to the host (Gen. 18:1-8, 24:28-32). Once under the host's roof, or having shared food, the guest was guaranteed protection (Gen. 19, Judg. 19). Should the stranger settle in the community, he enjoyed most of the rights and responsibilities.

From Deuteronomy 10, we hear a call to do what God requires, to love, fear, and serve God, to walk in God's ways, to keep God's commandments. God does require something of his people -- a certain kind of culture. God's people are to do this with all their heart and soul! After all, God is calling for this particular way of life because the very "well-being" of the people is at stake.

Exodus 22:21 says:

"You shall neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: because you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

The inescapable meaning of this verse (in its proper context) is that we are to treat others with grace precisely because of the grace of God. While grace may not be deserved or even earned ahead of time, it is, in God's plan, certainly to be repaid.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bring up a child?

Proverbs 22:6 says:

"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (KJV)"

The CEV says: "Teach your children right from wrong, and when they are grown they will still do right." The CJB: "Train a child in the way he [should] go; and, even when old, he will not swerve from it. "

Gill has noted that "...there are exceptions to this observation; but generally, where there is a good education, the impressions of it do not easily wear off, nor do men ordinarily forsake a good way they have been brought up in..."

This proverb seems more like wishful thinking than the wisdom of sages. Can such an often-excepted proverb have developed among the Hebrews, who measured reality by experience? A closer look says, it probably did not.

In Hebrew, the verse says:

"HanoC' lana,ar ,al ´ piy dar'cO gaM ciy ´ yaz'kiyN lo` ´ yasur mimenah"

The first word, hanoc, means “to throttle, make narrow, restrict, or place limits on.” In Arabic, a sister language, this word was used of a rope in a horse’s mouth, like a bit in a bridal to make the animal submissive and bring it under control. This certainly illustrates how training includes the use of discipline, the application of external controls, in order to bring a child under control, which ultimately means God’s control. Good English words to substitute for this idea are "steer," "direct," or "usher."

Ezekiel 33:9 indicates that the Hebrew phrase "lo Shab midar'co" means "he will not turn from his way." Whereas this proverb uses "lo yasur mimenah," "he will not be turned aside." The one uses the root shub (to turn) while the other uses sur (to be turned aside).

Also, the words "al piy dar'cO" (literally: at the mouth of the way) form a common idiomatic phrase which means "according to the command of the way."

A better translation:

"Steer a child according to the command of 'the way'; yea even when he grows older, he shall not be turned aside from it."
The thought is that if you train a child properly, though he may stray from the path, no one may remove him from it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


There is a longstanding controversy regarding the second word of the Hebrew Bible, bara. Some hold that the word should be translated "created," and that the term means "ex nihilo" or "out of nothing" creation. Others point out that the word is reserved for the "creative" activity of God and, even if it does not mean ex nihilo literally, it refers to the creation of the world and all things in it. Thus it is held that even if the verb bara has no explicit connotation of ex nihilo, that it is linked only with the creative power of God suggests that something more than use of preexistent matter is in view.

However, a careful reading of the Hebrew Bible along with a basic understanding of the root of the word will show clearly that the word does not imply ex nihilo, and is not exclusive to God's activity. A look at Ezekiel 21:19 will show both propositions to be false.

"As for you, son of man, make two ways for the sword of the king of Babylon to come; both of them will go out of one land. And cut out (bara) a signpost; cut (bara) it out at the head of the way to the city. (NASB)"
Clearly, this command to the prophet does not require that he make a signpost to mark the way to the city "out of nothing." Additionally, it is the prophet himself that is to be the subject of this imperative. Some have argued that the verb in Ezekiel 21:19 is in the piel stem, while the qal stem is reserved for God's action, but this "logic" goes against all other Hebrew verbs in which the piel intensifies the action of the qal verb or sometimes introduces a nuanced meaning. Elsewhere in the Bible the verb bara means "to cut down," or "to cut out."

Genesis 2:3, in Hebrew (transliterated) says:

"m'la`k'TO `a$er ´ bara` `elohiyM la,aSOT"
This is an interesting Hebrew construction that links the verbs bara and asah (aSOT)" ("making"). It is similar in form to Genesis 1:22:

"vay'VareC' `oTaM `elohiyM la`mor" - "and God blessed them, saying..."
which links the verbs "to bless" and "saying," indicating the process by which God blessed them. Likewise, Genesis 2:3 indicates the method ("making") by which God performed the act described by "bara." This essentially equates the two words.

It is insightful to understand that the verb habar derives from the same root as bara and means "to divide." The most likely cognate of both of the Hebrew words (bara and habar) is the Phoenician word habara, which describes an artisan's trade involving cutting (perhaps stone-cutting, but also likely wood-cutting and wood-carving). Also derived from this word is the Arabic bara, which means "to fashion by cutting." A good English translation would be "to carve," and it is similar in meaning to the Hebrew pasal, "to hew out." But, in Genesis, as in its Phoenician use, the focus (in the qal) is on the craft itself and not the action of cutting.

2 Chronicles 2:14 describes a man who:

"...was a man of Tyre, skilful to work in gold, and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue, and in fine linen, and in crimson; also to grave any manner of engraving, and to find out every device which shall be put to him, with thy cunning men, and with the cunning men of my lord David thy father."
1 Kings 5:6 takes up this story:

"...And now, command and they shall cut down for me cedars out of Lebanon. And my servants shall be with your servants. And I will give you hire for your servants according to all that you say. For you know that there is not a man among us knowing to cut timber like the Sidonians."

The extraordinary mechanical skill of the Phoenicians - especially of the Sidonians - was universally famed in the ancient world. Similarly, the best materials were at their command. On the slopes of Lebanon, which belonged to their territory, grew those world-famed cedars with which the palaces of Assyria were adorned, and, close by, at Gebal were the most skilled workmen (see Ezekiel 27:9).

The passages above demonstrate the Hebrew focus on the skilled artisan. And it is in a similar context that God is referred to in Genesis 1 where he is described, as "fashioning by cutting" (bara), "accomplishing" (asah), and "fashioning by squeezing" (yatsar). He commands existence by "speaking" (asah), and directing things to "spring forth" (dasha). He commands his creations to "bear fruit" (parah), "bear many" (rabah) and "fill in" (mala). All of these works are also described as "his work" (m'lakto).

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb craft: " To make or construct (something) in a manner suggesting great care or ingenuity." It is in this sense that the verb bara is used of God.

God is the crafty artisan or "craftsman" of the world.