August Essays

August Overview: Growing in Wisdom

Our next few weeks will be full of rich biblical wisdom. In the Old Testament we will read the wisdom of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. In the New Testament we will read Paul's wise counsel to several young churches in Philippians, Colossians, I & II Thessalonians and I Timothy.

As we read, we should be mindful of the Hebraic approach to wisdom. Westerners tend to see spirituality as otherworldly and abstract, about concepts like heaven, holiness and the nature of God. Paul's letters in the New Testament sound the most spiritual to us because they focus on these things, because Paul was writing to a Greek (Western-thinking) church. While eternal things are important, the Hebraic view is that true spiritual wisdom is da'at Elohim (knowledge of God) which comes from experiencing a life in relationship with Him. A Greek will discuss God with abstract terms like immutable, unchanging, steadfast, etc. But a Hebrew would tell the story of God's care for Israel in the desert through 40 years of constant complaining. While the Greek form of spiritual wisdom can be abstract and divorced from relationship, the Hebrew form is experiential, coming from real interactions between God and people. That is why the Bible is a book of stories of God's dealings with people, not just a theological treatise on the nature of God.

Another aspect of the Hebraic approach to spirituality is that it assumes that one cannot have a knowledge of God without walking with Him. To be dishonest with others is to show either that we don't believe that God cares about honesty, or that we aren't walking closely enough with God to care what He thinks. Either way it disqualifies us from having spiritual wisdom about God. We can have all the theological thoughts we want to about God's nature, but without a relationship with God, it is only so much speculation. So, to be spiritually wise encompasses all of life, including both beliefs about God and also how we do our jobs and raise our families.

This month we will see that Hebraic wisdom contains in it an understanding of how to live in a way that reveres God. We will find this both in the Old Testament and in Paul's writings in the New Testament. In Ecclesiastes we will learn that the things that the world values most are all "vanity", and that only what is done to glorify God is worthwhile. In Proverbs we learn many practical things about how to live life the way God wants. Even in Job, we don't read a long treatise on why humans are allowed to suffer, instead we have a story about God appearing to Job personally to remind him about how little he understands of God's ways, but then blessing him for his faithfulness. We are given a story about God, not an abstract theory, to explain God's ways.

Even in Paul's writings in the New Testament this Hebraic wisdom comes through. Paul is once again trying to teach the Gentile churches how to live a life pleasing to God, yet not confined to the Torah covenant that He gave to Jews. While he deals with key doctrinal issues, he also takes much time to give them wisdom about what to do with widows and lazy people, how to have a happy family, and how to choose pastors. And he holds his own life up as an example, (Phil. 4:9) because to teach about walking with God, one must walk with God first.

Week 32: Job 35 - 42, Prov. 1 - 6, Phil. 1 - 4, Col. 1, Psalm 88 - 89

First Things First

In our readings this week in Proverbs, Psalms and Colossians, we will encounter an idea that comes up often throughout the scriptures. This is the concept of the first, in terms of firstborn and firstfruits. As Westerners we tend to think of these words only literally - in terms of being the initial child or animal born, or the beginning of the harvest of the crop. But if we understand the significance of the first in Hebraic thought, it will greatly enhance our appreciation of what we are reading.

Firstfruit of the crops

In biblical times, the first portion of every crop was considered to be intrinsically holy and set apart for God. In fact, until the first crops were offered to God, the whole field was considered to be holy and none of it could be eaten. (Lev. 23:14) The idea that the crops of the land are holy until an offering is made is still even practiced today among traditional Africans in Uganda and Sudan. In these agrarian cultures, the fertility of animals and ability to grow crops is essential to survival, and assumed to be due to God's favor.

In biblical times the same thing applied to animals - the first male born of the mother was set apart to be given to God, out of thankfulness that He gave the ability to produce, trusting that He would bless with more later. The first products of animal and land, therefore, were considered to be great blessings, the most special offerings to give back to God. That is why in Proverbs this week it says,

"Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. " (Prov. 3:9-10)

If we want to apply that to our own lives, that means that we should assume that the first and best of everything that we have is a special blessing from God and something we should offer back to Him. He gave us our relationships, our family, our time, our job, and our money. Do we offer the best back to Him, or do we give him the "last fruits" of our time, our effort and our money?

Firstborn son of the family

The firstborn son of a family also had great honor and status, and usually received a double portion of the inheritance, unless the father decided that another son was to be given preference. God also claimed the firstborn son of each family as His own as well, because he would have been the most valued child, the heir and successor to the family. The other children of the family would treat the firstborn with special honor and respect, reflecting his status as the successor to the patriarch of the family. Because of this special favor that was given the firstborn, the term "firstborn" could mean "most exalted" or "closest in relationship" or "preeminent in status" even if it wasn't literally speaking about something that actually came first. For instance, this week in Psalm 98 we hear God saying,

I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him... He will call out to me, 'You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.' I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. (Psalm 89:20,26-27)

David was youngest of his family, and God passed his other brothers by to choose him as king. When God said the He would appoint him firstborn, He doesn't mean that he would be first before anything else in sequence, but that David would be preeminent in favor and status. Another instance of this is in Exodus when God spoke metaphorically of Israel as His "firstborn son". God told Moses,

Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, "Let my son go, so he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'"
                                                                           (Ex 4:22-23)

Once again, the term "firstborn" means "closest in relationship". Israel is God's "treasured possession", His nation especially set apart for relationship with Him.

The First Represents the Whole

One other generalization in Hebraic thought was that the first of anything was a representation of the whole. Adam was the first human, so he was the representative of the whole human race. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the Amalekites were the first enemies to attack Israel, so in Hebraic thought, they became representative of all of Israel's enemies. Often in the Bible, the name of a father of a tribe was used interchangeably with the tribe itself - for instance it says,

You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Amos 6:6

Using the name Joseph was a reference to the tribes that came from Joseph - Ephraim and Manassah, the largest tribes of the north who were destroyed by Assyria. The father of them, Joseph, represented them as a whole. So the prophet is talking about grieving over the destruction of the tribes of Ephraim and Manassah.

In the New Testament, we see Paul using the logic of the "first representing the whole" about Jesus:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
                                                                       (I Cor 15:20 - 23)

Because Adam was the representative of humanity, since he died, we all will die. But Christ is the representative of all those in His kingdom, and since he was resurrected, we all will be resurrected. He is the firstfruits - the promise of the harvest to come. He is not only representative of all because He was first, He is supreme over all because He is first. We hear a similar thing this week in Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. (Col. 1:15 -18)

Listening to this passage with Hebraic ears gives us additional understanding of the passage. Since Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, to speak of Him as firstborn suggests that He is a created thing, not fully God. But to think of him as firstborn in terms of being of greatest honor and closest to God, makes more sense. But yet, he is firstborn from among the dead, a promise that all who are a part of His kingdom will rise too. And not only is He representative of all of his kingdom, He is also highly exalted of all of creation, worthy of honor and glory as the firstborn son of God.


See also, Listening to the Language of the Bible, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004, pp. 73-74. The book contains many other word & culture study articles like this one.

©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

Week 33: Prov. 7 - 20 , Col. 2 - 4, I Thess. I Thess. 1 - 2, Psalm 90 - 91

Fear and Trembling?

Last week we read a sentence from Paul that catches many Christians off guard. In Philippians 2:12 - 13 it says:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

We might struggle over Paul's words because they appear to say something that seems incongruous with the rest of his writing. This passage sounds like we should be in perpetual worry about our salvation. He seems to be saying that salvation is something to be earned; yet, we are taught throughout scripture that salvation comes through faith in God. Two Hebraic concepts that Paul might have had in mind may shed some light on this verse.

Salvation is a relationship with God 

First, in Hebraic understanding, salvation begins during our lives, it is not just something to look forward to after death. Someone who is not saved is estranged from the family of God -- wandering from the flock -- "lost". Salvation comes through restoring a relationship with God the Father by believing in the atoning work of His Son; it is to be rescued from a life separated from God. The phrase "eternal life" is sometimes used to describe life in relationship with God here on earth that extends into eternity, and not just after our death. We can "hear" this understanding coming through in John's writing:

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

Unless we understand eternal life as life in relationship with God, both now and in the future, this verse makes no sense to us. It is true that there are many places where the scriptures speak of salvation in the future, in terms of being saved from judgment. So, of course salvation in that sense is something in the future. But it is clear from the John passage that it began the moment we repented and believed in Christ. As Paul says, "By grace you have been saved..." (Eph. 2: 5, 8), using the past tense, not the future tense. In that sense, our salvation has already happened, and we are new creatures!

The Fear of God

The second Hebraic concept that may have been in the background of Paul's saying is the concept of "the fear of the Lord" (yireh adonai). This is an often-used phrase of the scriptures which means an awe and reverence of God that causes us to want to do His will. It does mean to respect God, who will discipline those whom He loves (Rev. 3:19). The emphasis is on a positive, respectful relationship with God, not in terms of being terrified by Him. Moses says to Israel:

Deut. 10:12 And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul?

Also, as we read Proverbs this week, we will often hear about the wonderful benefits of "the fear of the Lord":

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Prov. 9:10

In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, 
And his children will have refuge. 
The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, 
That one may avoid the snares of death. Prov. 14:26 - 27 

If having a "fear" of the Lord causes us to live with integrity and wisdom about God's ways, it will ultimately transform us. Paul was using the word "fear" in this sense -- having awe and respect for the Lord. He is exhorting us to live new (eternal) lives in obedient relationship with God, so that we can see Him working out His plans to redeem every aspect of our lives. We may be looking forward to a future in heaven, but we will be enjoying the richness of our relationship with the Lord on this earth as well.

See also the Director's Article, "Does God Want Us to Fear Him?". Also useful is Listening to the Language of the Bible, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004, pp. 7-8. The book contains many other word & culture study articles like this one.


©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

Week 34: Prov. 21-31, Eccl. 1-3 , I Thess. 3 -5, II Thess. 1 - 2, Psalm 92 - 94

The Richness of Hebrew Words

Now that we have been reading the Bible for several months, we have certainly noticed that the Bible often speaks in odd-sounding, poetic phrases that aren't always clear. Some translations of the Bible have interpreted them, but some of them leave them quite literal and hard to understand. But we can learn a lot about how people thought by understanding their idioms. This is especially true as we read the Old Testament, which is from a very different culture than our own. Sometimes this can also help us avoid great misunderstanding, when we see that even though the Hebrew word has been translated into English, there may be a different picture behind it than what we have.

         Hebrew has many less words than Greek or English, and each word often can have a greater depth of meaning than our corresponding word. Hebrew also uses concrete expressions to explain abstract ideas, which sound very poetic to us. I have found it amazingly useful in my study of the Bible to get a sense for these, so that I can translate for myself what some of this odd poetry really means. We have discussed some of these expressions before, but let's look at a few this week. The words below can have either their literal meaning, or the broader meaning that I have described.

Name - Authority, reputation, essence, identity - "In the name of Jesus" means "by the authority of Jesus", or "for the sake of Jesus" (See the earlier article from week 10 - March 4th)

Example: (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)

House - House, but also family, descendants, disciples, possessions, the temple -

Example: (Prov. 14:1) The wise woman builds her house, (meaning family)
But the foolish tears it down with her own hands.

Son - Descendant, including grandsons and later descendants, - The Israelites were called "sons of Israel", and the Messiah was supposed to be a "son of David".

Firstborn - Heir, most exalted, greatest in rank, supreme in authority - even when not literally talking about a family member (See week 32, August 5)

Remember - Do a favor for, come to the aid of - Joseph asked cupbearer to "remember him" by telling Pharaoh about interpreting his dream; Hannah says God "remembered" her when she conceived - He did her a favor

Forget - Refuse to show kindness toward, ignore - The cupbearer "forgot" Joseph - meaning he ignored his request.

Law (Torah) - Instruction, guidance, teaching  - comes from the word for "to aim" as an arrow.

Walk - General direction of life - Ps 1:1 Blessed is he who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked

Visit - Pay attention to, come to the rescue of, bring to judgment (a very wide range of meaning indeed!)

Examples: 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 up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
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.)

Listen, hear - Take heed, be obedient, do what is asked - Jesus says "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (meaning, take heed and follow his teachings). Also "Shema" - the first word of the Jewish "Pledge of Allegiance" means "Hear" or "Take Heed" or "Obey"

Know - Have a relationship with another person, even sexually, or to care for another

Examples: (Gen. 4:1)- Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived, and bore Cain.
(Prov. 12:10) - The righteous man knows (cares for the needs of) his animals...

One thing that you notice about Hebrew verbs is that they tend to stress action, rather than just mental activity.  The Greek 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.  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.  

Even from the language -- Hebrew idioms and structure -- we see that we are to be doers of the Word -- not hearers only!



If this article interests you, consider reading Listening to the Language of the Bible, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. The book is an expansion of this article, sharing many Hebraic concepts that enrich your reading of the Bible.


©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

Week 35: Eccl. 4 - 12, S. Sol. 1 - 4, II Thess. 3, I Timothy 1-4, Psalm 95 - 98

The Hebrew Concept of Wisdom

Any student of language knows that languages frame the world in different ways. Often the same word is used for more than one thing that the culture considers equivalent, but distinguishes when differentiation seems important. For instance, in Thai, the same word for cheese is used for butter, since they don't eat much of either. In contrast, in Danish there are many different words to describe types of licorice, because it is a favorite in Denmark. Chiam Potok said that if you want to understand a culture, it is essential to understand the language, because that describes the very heart of the culture.

The heart of biblical culture is Hebrew. The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew with a little bit of Aramaic. And, even though the New Testament was written entirely in Greek, it was written almost entirely by Jews who knew much of the Old Testament by memory. It is filled with quotes from the Old Testament, and its commentary is full of Hebraic thinking. It is tremendously enriching to get into their minds by seeing how they framed their world in language. We discussed some words last week, and this week, let's look at one more in more detail - wisdom. 

          We have been reading much in Proverbs about wisdom. We as Westerners think of wisdom as to have cognitive ability - to be able to think great thoughts. We think of the wise philosopher as being the opposite of the manual laborer who pounds nails, or paints walls, or lays tile. But interestingly, in Hebrew the same word hokmah is used to describe both. It speaks of people who are skilled laborers as those who have "wise hearts". We read this term applied to the skilled laborers who built the tabernacle:

Ex. 35:25 Every skilled woman (literally, with a wise heart) spun with her hands and brought what she had spun - blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen.

And the Bible says that the craftsman who designed the high priest's robes were given the "spirit of wisdom":

Ex. 28:3 Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom (literally, the spirit of wisdom) in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest.

The word hokmah describes the ability to function successfully in life, whether it is by having the right approach to a difficult situation, or the ability to weave cloth. It is practical and applicable to this world, not just otherworldly. Judaism has historically held manual labor in high regard, rather than disdaining it as unspiritual. They would say that when a great rabbi entered a room, that people were to stop what they were doing and honor him. But a carpenter or other craftsman did not need to stop, because their work was just as honorable. This is part of the Hebraic affirmation of day-to-day life in this world.

We can learn a lot of wisdom from the Hebrew word for wisdom! As Westerners, we tend to believe that God is only involved in giving us the ability to do what we call "spiritual", like Bible study or prayer. We imagine that God's input into our lives ends when we leave church on Sunday, and the rest is "secular". But here we learn that biblically, it is considered "wisdom" to do our jobs well - in modern terms, to be able to use a photocopier, or program a computer, or run a lawn mower. A  janitor can be using his spiritual gifts as much as a pastor. 

We can see from the word hokmah, as well as the rest of Proverbs, that  all of our day-to-day lives are of concern to the Lord. God cares about whether we are a good 2nd grade teacher, or systems analyst, or check-out clerk. God is practical and down-to-earth. He cares about our credit card debt, whether our house is a mess, how much we watch TV. His desire is that we have wisdom in all things in order to live the life He gave us to the very best. Let's not make the mistake of believing that "eternal" life comes later -- we are already into it -- this is just the first part.  The "wisdom" God has given us is meant to be used skillfully in this kingdom, prudently and for His glory.


©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.