Archives for posts with tag: Hebrew

I’m quite sure few people consider the Bible to be funny.  It’s certainly not one of the first characteristics popping to mind when we think about Scripture.  But every once in a while the Bible throws in a little comedy.  My focus today on the birth of Isaac is one such story.  As is often the case with translations, the story loses some of its humor and wit in English, so I will try my best to convey those aspects of the story to you.

The birth of Isaac is introduced in Genesis 17:16, with God promising Abraham not only a son through his aged and infertile wife, Sarah, but a son who would become great, the father of many kings.  Abraham responds to God by falling on his face and laughing at God.  Let’s be honest, we might do the same if God made this promise to us when our spouse is 90 years old (actually, I think I would weep and beg for God to change his mind, but that’s beside the point).  But as I mentioned, some of the humor in this story is “lost in translation” (Bill Murray’s worst movie, by the way), so let me translate Genesis 17:17 slightly differently: “Then Abraham fell on his face and Isaaced, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?'”

You can see this is quite a strange “translation,” but I do this because the name Isaac in Hebrew means, “he laughs.”  So literally, in the Hebrew, Abraham falls down on his face and calls out his son, Isaac’s name (without knowing that yet, of course).  In English, you just do not get the same sense.  The only other way you could fully comprehend the significance in English would be to say Abraham named his son “he laughs.”  In either case, what is happening in this story is clear.  Abraham laughs at God’s promise in chapter 17.  Sarah laughs at Him in chapter 18.  And in chapter 21, God has the last laugh when Isaac is born of the senior citizen, Sarah, and serves as a reminder to his parents–by his very name–that they laughed off God’s promise.

Besides teaching us that God can overcome nature, and that we should put our trust in His promises rather than laughing at them, this birth story of Isaac highlights several other systematic biblical concepts.  I will mention some of them here only briefly, as they are related to the issue of Isaac’s naming, and the idea that God gets the last laugh.

The birth of Isaac shows the blessing of God comes through God’s promises, not through human planning and acquisition.  The story of Isaac is clearly contrasted to the story of Ishmael.  Ishmael was the product of Abraham and Sarah devising their own scheme, in order to give Abraham a child for the blessing God had promised him (to become a father of many nations).  In that story (Genesis 16), the Bible clearly mentions (in its own, modest way) that Abraham and Hagar had a sexual relationship to bear Ishmael.  In the case of Isaac, there is no mention of Abraham and Sarah having a sexual relationship.  Certainly, it is implied, but the Bible presents the story so that Isaac, in a sense, proceeds out of the mouth of God, a fulfillment of God’s promise.  Accordingly, when Paul mentions this story in Galatians 4:21-31, he mentions in vs. 28 how we are children of Abraham according to Isaac (i.e. the promise God made to Abraham). 

Similarly, the story of Isaac sets a precedent throughout the Bible, with God consistently choosing for His covenant to continue through one of the younger siblings rather than through the elder son.  This process shows that God will not be limited by normal human convention.  If He wills to do something, He is not bound by the limitations, ideals, or basic concepts of humanity.  In this case specifically, if God wishes for His covenant to continue through the younger son, Isaac, rather than the older son, Ishmael, it is God’s business.  Functionally, God behaves this way so no one can ever say His plan continues through human wisdom and strength.  Choosing the younger, the weaker, the poorer, etc., shows that God’s plan continues only by Divine Providence and not through the normal ordering of the world.

Or, as today’s blog title says, God gets the last laugh.

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I have just returned from vacation with my wife.  We had a great time.  I will again be leaving town for the Parish Life Conference in Houston, but I hope to keep the blog updated regularly this week.

Yesterday in the Orthodox Church we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit.  For those of you who heard my sermon yesterday, I apologize for repeating myself to you.  For those who did not hear it, I hope you find these comments helpful.  By the way, if you want to listen to the sermon in its entirety–or any sermon offered at St Mary, whether by me or our bishop or deacon or a guest homilist–check out our website at http://www.stmarywichita.org/sermons.html.  It is usually updated from the weekend by Monday or Tuesday.

In my sermon I tried to make the function of the Holy Spirit clear to my parishioners.  They have a great advantage over everyone else because they live in Kansas.  Why, might you ask?  Because in Kansas we understand what it is like to have a mighty wind.  In the Greek and Hebrew, the word translated as “spirit” (in reference to God’s Spirit) means “spirit,” “wind,” or “mighty wind.”  They are all one and the same word.  In relation to the Holy Spirit, this takes on great significance in two areas especially.

First, the wind cannot be controlled by human beings, or essentially anything else for that matter.  It blows where it wishes.  You cannot grasp the wind or stop it.  This is quite relevant to the function of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit is uncontrollable.  He does what He wishes, when He wishes (of course, it is assumed He only acts in accordance with the will of the Father), irrespective of human thought or custom.  For example, in Genesis, God consistently chooses the younger rather than the older for the continuation of God’s promise and covenant.  This goes strongly against human convention at the time.  Another example: God decides to take His message to the Ninevites, a people despised by the Jews as we learn from the story of Jonah.  In the New Testament, God sends His Spirit upon the Gentiles equally to the Jews–the Jews cannot stop God from choosing the Gentiles just as He chose the Jews.  In yesterday’s reading, we also heard from the Pharisees that a prophet had never arisen from Nazareth.  Well, if God’s Spirit wants to blow on one from Nazareth and make him a prophet He will do so.  The consistent theme is this: the Spirit, just like the mighty wind of the Kansas tornadoes is unpredictable and unstoppable by us humans.  Therefore, we must always be ready for Him to blow where He wishes; we never know when He will raise a sinner to be a saint or bring in people who previously had been lost.  Consequently, we at all times must be prepared to welcome the sinner, the foreigner, and the stranger.

Second, as with the mighty wind, the Spirit can bring destruction.  The Holy Spirit blows a “gentle breeze” on those who follow God’s teaching, but on those who stubbornly refuse He wreaks havoc.  This is what St John the Baptist said would happen when Jesus “baptized with the Holy Spirit”: the threshing floor would be cleared with the wheat separated from the chaff.  If a tornado comes through Kansas, like it did so memorably this Pascha, we flee to our basement for shelter.  To be saved from the mighty tempest of God’s Spirit we have one protection: to walk in the commandments of God as taught to us most clearly by Jesus Christ.  In Ezekiel’s prophecy (which we read at Great Vespers of Pentecost), Ezekiel mentions that God will send His Spirit so we may walk in His commandments and keep His statutes (Ezekiel 36:27).  Jesus Himself mentions how the Spirit will remind us of all the things Jesus taught, so that we might walk in that way (John 14:26).

I know there is much more that could be said about the Holy Spirit, but for the time being I am limiting myself to these two key areas because I believe they are often overlooked.  Further, I think it is important to see that names are never chosen randomly or haphazardly in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit of God is thus called for specific reasons.  Namely, the Spirit functions as a mighty wind, with both the capability to bring about a gentle breeze or complete destruction.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church was John 4:5-42, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  The story is, of course, packed with meaning, but I would like to point out one interesting aspect that is frequently overlooked.

John 4 says Jesus came to a city of Samaria called Sychar.  To my knowledge, there is no historical evidence such a village existed.  This led some Church Fathers and scholars to conclude there is some sort of scribal error involved with Sychar.  However, I am inclined to think it is no error at all. 

The root of Sychar in Hebrew means to earn your living by working as a servant/slave.  It is this same word used in Genesis to describe the 14 years of Jacob’s labor to acquire Rachel.  In addition to this Sychar, several times throughout John 4 the Greek word “kopio” is used.  In verse 6 it is translated as “wearied” and in verse 38 several times as “labor.”  The word “kopio” is also used by St Paul in his epistles to speak of laboring for the Gospel.

One more thing to keep in mind is the play on the five husbands in the story.  The number five in Scripture is often a reference to the Torah, the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–the Mosaic Law).  Since the Samaritans only accepted the five books of Moses (and not the rest of the Old Testament), Jesus’ discussion here about the five husbands is likely referring to the woman being under bondage to the five books of Moses.  Remember, a woman during these times was legally subject to her husband, under his authority.

Based on this info, you can see how there is a play going on between Sychar and kopio.  The Sychar, the laboring to keep every aspect of the Mosaic Law, leads to bondage.  Drinking of that water leaves one thirsty, always needing to do more and more, work harder and harder.  On the other hand, the kopio, the laboring for the Gospel of grace, leads to freedom.  Those who drink of the Gospel’s waters will never be thirsty again.  They will reap that for which they had not labored (vs. 38) and, following this path of grace, will continue to kopio/labor for those who will come after them and reap of their work.

As Christians, this should be our worldview: freely you received, freely give (Matthew 10:8).  We have freely received God’s grace, so we must in turn labor to make this grace known to others–not only in our preaching, but through our works of love and mercy.

Before reading today’s entry, I recommend reading or, if you have already read it, calling to remembrance the 2nd half of yesterday’s entry.  In that entry I alluded to man being created in God’s image as an anti-kingly proposition.  Keep in mind the Hebrew root word for king relates to the word “possession” or “ownership,” which is very bad in the Bible–only God authentically possesses or owns things.  In Genesis 2 this criticism of the attitude of ownership and possession continues.

Eve Being “Built”

In most English translations of the Bible, Genesis 2:22 says something like: “Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman…” (NKJV).  Unfortunately, this is a poor translation.  The reason for the poor translation is understandable because a more literal translation sounds strange to the ear.  Let’s look at the Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) as an example: “And Jehovah God buildeth up the rib which He hath taken out of the man into a woman…” 

This YLT is more precise/accurate.  The Orthodox Study Bible follows this more accurate translation by also using the phrase “built” rather than “made” in reference to Eve’s creation.  While this difference may seem like a minor issue to many, the distinction is important.  Keep in mind Genesis is the first book of the Bible; thus, it builds the foundation for the rest of the Bible, introducing key terms and concepts.  Throughout the rest of the Bible–clear up through the New Testament–we find God does not like humans building things.  A few chapters later in Genesis, we will hear quite clearly God’s displeasure with buildings in the story of the Tower of Babel.  Human building in the Bible generally represents human arrogance and human attachment to earthly things.

Far from being a general criticism of women, Eve being “built” is simply a sign of what is to come through Eve and through human building: disobedience towards God.

Adam’s Attitude Towards Eve

Notice in Genesis 2:18 God desires for man to have a companion “comparable to him.”  In verse 19, God made the animals of Adam’s domain and “brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.”  Adam then names each of the animals.

But the story is slightly different when Eve is built.  After building Eve, God “brought her to the man.”  Notice what is different from this approach when compared to the animals.  With Eve, God did not “see what he would call them.”  Yet, Adam, in his presumption, decides to name Eve himself.

Why is this important?  Think about the things we name: our children, our pets, perhaps our vehicles.  In all cases, when we name something it is because we have a sense of ownership (ideally, we would also have a sense of stewardship).  If we have the right to name something, it is because that person or thing is subservient to us.  Our children have no right to tell us what to do–we teach and instruct them.  We are their senior and superior. 

The attitude of ownership towards Eve is evident in Adam’s statement in verse 23.  Rather than seeing Eve as God’s gift to him and someone who God created to be comparable with him, he says: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” and goes on to name her, as though this new creature is his personal property. Throughout most of human history, the attitude, or even legal principle, of men owning/possessing women has prevailed.

In Genesis 2 we begin to see how humanity’s sense of ownership/pride/arrogance drives a wedge between our relationship with God, but also between our relationships with each other.