Listening Through Jesus' Ears
Anyone who does much study will notice that
the Bible often speaks in odd-sounding, poetic phrases. Some translations
of the Bible interpret them, but some translations leave them quite literal
and hard to understand. We often forget that the Bible comes to us from
languages and cultures different from ours. If we want to hear the Bible
for what it really is saying, we need to get a sense for its idioms and
This is especially true as we read the Old
Testament, which reflects an ancient culture very different from our modern,
Western mindset. Sometimes this can also help us avoid great misunderstandings
when we see that even though a word has been translated into English,
there may be a different picture behind it than what we have. Besides
making the Bible clearer, hearing its words as they were originally meant
is a tremendously enriching experience, giving us wonderful new insights
into God's word.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and
even though the New Testament was written in Greek, it was written almost
entirely by Jews growing up in a Hebrew-speaking, Semitic-thinking culture.
Because of this, its ideas come out of a Hebraic world-view. Having a
sense for the style of the Hebrew language is therefore very important
for understanding the Bible and gives us clues on the thinking patterns
of its writers.
Hebrew has a small vocabulary, and each word
usually has a greater depth of meaning than our corresponding word, to
describe many related things. For example, the Hebrew word for house,
beit, can mean house, temple, family or lineage. Also, the Hebrew
language lacks abstractions, and uses physical pictures to express abstract
ideas, like being "stiff-necked" (stubborn) or "heart was
lifted up" (was prideful) , which sound very poetic to us. Also,
Hebrew often uses the identical word to describe a mental activity as
the physical result of the activity. (For example, to listen can mean
just to listen, but it usually means to obey the words you hear - the
result of listening.) I have found it amazingly useful in my study of
the Bible to get a sense for these, so that I can get a fuller understanding
of what this odd poetry really means.
Here are a few examples of the idiomatic meanings
words can have in Hebrew in addition to their literal meaning in English
Name - Authority, reputation,
essence, identity - "In the name of Jesus" means, "by
the authority of Jesus", or "for the sake of Jesus".
Often it speaks about the temple as where "God's Name dwells",
which really means his authority and presence. See the examples below:
Matt. 10:41 "He who receives a prophet
in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he
who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall
receive a righteous man's reward. (meaning, because they know the
person's identity as a prophet or righteous man)
John 1:12 But as many as received him,
to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those
who believe in his name, (meaning, those who believe in Jesus'
identity as the Son of God)
Son - Descendant, including grandsons
and later descendants, disciples - The Israelites, both male and
female were called "sons of Israel", and the Messiah was supposed
to be a "son of David". It was assumed that descendants would
share the character of their forefathers too, so a "son of David"
would be expected to be kingly and powerful. Jesus says peacemakers
will be called "sons of God", because they are like God in
character (Matt 5:9)
House - Family, descendents, disciples,
possessions, the temple - God plays on the multiple meanings of
the word when King David asks if he can build a "house" for
God (a temple) and God answers that he would build a "house" for David, meaning a kingly lineage that will never end, see 1 Chron.
17:4, 10. We are God's house - his temple, but also his family.
Law (Torah) - Instruction, guidance,
teaching - comes from the word for "to point, aim, or guide".
In Jewish translations it is usually rendered as "instruction"
or "teaching". It has a very positive understanding in terms
of being God's word that contains his guidance for living. This is one
of the most misunderstood of words in church tradition, where the "Law" has taken on a negative idea of a legalistic body of oppressive rules.
Visit - Pay attention to, come
to the rescue of, bring to judgement (a very wide range of meaning
Gen. 50:24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely visit you (come
to your aid) and take you to the land he promised on oath to Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob."
Ps. 8:5 What is man that you are mindful
of him, the son of man that you visit (take notice of) him
Ex. 32:34 Now go, lead the people to the
place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, in the
day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them." (Meaning, I will pay attention to their sin and punish them.)
Interestingly, Jesus seems to be playing
on this when at the cleansing of the temple, he says, "For the
days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade
against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they
will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they
will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize
the time of your visitation." (Luke 19:43-44) The "time
of their visitation" could mean the time God has come to their
rescue in the person of Christ, but for those who ignore him, it will
be the source of their punishment, when God "visits" their
sins on them through the destruction of the temple.
Listen, hear - Take heed, be obedient,
do what is asked - The "Shema" is the first word of the
Jewish "Pledge of Allegiance", and it means "Hear".
But really, it means "take heed" or "obey". In fact,
almost every place we see the word "obey" in the Bible, it
is translated from the word "shema", to hear. When Jesus says,
"He who has ears to hear, let him hear", he is calling
us to put his words into action, not just listen.
Remember - Do a favor for, come
to the aid of - After the flood, God "remembered" Noah
and dried up the waters, meaning that he rescued him, and Hannah says
God "remembered" her when she conceived - he did her a favor.
The Psalms often plead with God to "remember his people" in
the sense of coming to their rescue.
Forget - Ignore, not act on - The cupbearer "forgot" Joseph - actually meaning he ignored
his request. God "forgets" our sins - meaning that he will
never hold them against us, not that his omniscient mind actually loses
the memory of them.
Know - Have a relationship with
another person, even intimately, to care for another
Gen. 4:1- Adam knew his wife Eve, and
she conceived, and bore Cain.
Prov. 12:10 - The righteous man knows
(cares for) his animals...
Jer. 24:7 'I will give them a heart to
know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will
be their God...
Having a sense for this way of speaking will
be a lot of help to those who want to dig for more of the meaning in passages.
Newer translations (NIV, etc.) tend to explain these words, while older
translations (King James) will use a direct literal meaning. While it
is nice to not struggle to understand, often the poetry and wordplays
and parallels between passages are obscured in less literal translations.
My recommendation is to have more than one translation available, and
compare to see the range of interpretations for passages.
One thing that we should notice about Hebrew
verbs is that they tend to stress action and effect, rather than just
mental activity. Our own Western frame of reference stresses that our
intellectual life is most important, while the Hebrew assumes that actions
will result from it. In the Hebrew sense, if you "remember"
someone, you will act on their behalf. If you "hear" someone,
you will obey their words, if you "know" someone, you will have
a close relationship with them. So when you read a word that sounds like
it is talking about mental activity, stop and think in terms of the action
that is expected to result. And, if you are reading the scripture to apply
to your own life, make sure that it goes beyond thought to concrete action
- that you are a doer of the word, and not a hearer only.
©2003 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.