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The Word in Hebrew and Greek

What a towering statement, a highpoint of biblical theology, a pinnacle of human understanding and spirituality. Thousands of years of human search for truth and for God, culminated in this statement by the Gospel writer John. The Word, the Logos was in the beginning – was, which means did not come into being at the beginning or some time before the beginning; but already was, in an indefinite past tense of the verb εἰμί, ‘to be’. This indefinite past tense is called the ‘imperfect’ in grammars – indicating no specific time, but a continuing state. And of course how could the Logos be anything other than always existing, since, as John tells us, ‘the Word was God.”

The noun λόγος, logos, is one of the most important gifts of ancient Greece, especially to philosophy and religion. But the religious weight of ‘word’ is not only derived from ancient Greek philosophers, but also from the Hebrew scriptures. The noun דָּבָר (dā·ḇār) is especially important in the form דְּבַר יהוה, dā·ḇār yhwh, “the word of the Lord.” It was by ‘word’ that God created the universe in the beginning of the scriptures, Genesis chapter one. So ‘word’ in the Genesis context can also mean ‘command’.

It is an open question whether John had more of the Greek background or the Hebrew background in mind. My own assumption has always been that John’s poetic inspiration in chapter 1 of his Gospel came from both the Hebrew and Greek usages of logos/dā·ḇār. How could it be otherwise? How could any single language ever do justice to the profound acts and revelation of God? So John borrowed from the two most important languages of the ancient world. That may sound chauvinistic, but let’s face it, what other languages have had the influence on human existence and history that these two languages have had? Yes, ancient Chinese produced extraordinary philosophical concepts independent of the Mediterranean cultures. But it is only in recent decades that Chinese philosophy became widely known and influential outside of eastern Asia – and that is happening at a time when eastern Asian cultures themselves are increasingly embracing western philosophies and cultural and religious concepts! The same can be said of the civilizations of the Hindus valley. And closer to home, Latin thought and language was so derivative of Greek that it doesn’t warrant much attention on its own. So it is not chauvinistic to assign such prime importance to the two languages that formed the Christian mind of John the Evangelist.

Another reason why John borrowed from both linguistic frameworks is that the Hebrew and Greek minds were very different but complementary for the purposes of what John needed to express: the Greek mind more contemplative, given to discourse and rational exploration; the Hebrew mind more earthy, more concerned with action. And the different minds are perfectly expressed in the noun ‘word’. The lexical definition of the Greek logos involves English words and concepts like the following: “word, saying, command, speech, conversation, report, story, law, proportion, explanation, argument, debate, reason, opinion, reflection, esteem, account, reckoning….” The philosopher Heraclitus (about 500 BC) was the first to give philosophical weight to logos. For him it meant the universal law, and thus the rationalism of the universe and the relationships among objects including the relationships among human beings. In later Greek philosophy logos also came to mean method of argument and discourse, so it came to refer primarily to the interactions of human beings in community. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis concludes the development of the Greek concept of logos this way:

Heraclitus’s general universal law and the Sophists’ individual oratorical ability are the extremes beyond which one cannot go within the frame of ref. provided by the understanding of λόγος that characterized the class. period. A fundamentally new orientation of thought, namely, the thesis that ethics is the basic problem faced by humanity, was provided by the Stoics, who confronted the Gk. starting-point of knowledge with the formulation of their question: How must I live in order to be able to be happy? Nevertheless, here too the complex of ideas from which the answer is worked out is denoted as the λόγος…

A thorough intellectual organization of the world and the definition of each person’s location in it—a fundamental precondition for ethics—is undertaken on the basis of Aristotelian schematization. There are, however, certain seminal, seed-bestowing Logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) that permeate the whole world and bring about the continuity of all growth and occurrence and thus its meaningful course. Furthermore, there is a “right reason” (ὀρθὸς λόγος) or universal law that bestows on human beings the power of knowledge and thence of moral behavior. Corresponding with the dual conceptuality of the term λόγος (thinking and saying), a distinction is made between the inner Logos (thinking) given by the God-Logos and the Logos ordained for articulation (speaking).

As you can see from the above, John the Evangelist had a huge conceptual background when he composed the opening of his Gospel. And the concept of seed-bestowing logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) briefly mentioned in the above paragraph became essential building blocks of early Christian theology, especially when the early church had to engage in dialogue with pagan philosophy. The word ‘theology’ itself is composed of two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word, speech, concept). Thus, theology is: words about God – words, concepts!

The Hebrew mind saw ‘word’, dā·ḇār, primarily as force, action. The ‘word of the Lord’ was not a matter of discussion and speculation. It was active, sharper than a two-edged sword, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12) so eloquently expressed it in the New Testament. And as God spoke through Isaiah (55:11): so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. In the Hebrew mind the ‘word’ is all about action. So God sends his word to the prophets and to other chosen individuals – and those who receive the word have no choice but to act; sometimes against their own will, as in the case of Jeremiah, who fought tooth and nail against what God was instructing him to do!

Jeremiah is indeed a classic case of the prophet being overwhelmed by the power of God’s ‘word’. Consider how the book of Jeremiah begins:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

You see here the power of God’s word; as Jeremiah will speak the ‘word of God’ whole nations will be destroyed or built up! But it wasn’t easy for Jeremiah, he could not stomach pronouncing words of judgment, especially since it brought on the ridicule and violence of his listeners. So in chapter 20 Jeremiah cries out:

O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Such was the power of the word inside Jeremiah, like a fire, and he could not resist against it, even as it endangered his own life.

John took the importance that the Greeks assigned to logos and made logos the very definition of God. But that’s as far as John went in conceptual talk about logos. He brought the Greek fascination with logos to its logical (another logos word) climax by saying “the word was God.” (And let’s no forget that John gave another similarly concise description of God, when he wrote “God is love” in his First Letter.) Where can you go after that? That’s the end of Greek philosophy right there. Then the Hebrew mind takes over in John. And he continues his Gospel’s opening with these words:

All things were made through him [the Word], and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Here John echoes Genesis, where God created by ‘word’, spoken command. The Hebrew mind is now in control of John’s writing, and it culminates in perhaps the most radical statement of Hebrew understanding of God’s ways, in verse 14 of John’s first chapter:
And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
The Hebrew mind could not conceive of God becoming man. But the Hebrew mind could conceive of God’s word becoming incarnate. After all, the passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah above give us an image of God’s word present in living, active power in the world! So I don’t go for the usual assumption that John was more influenced by Greek philosophy. Certainly in introducing the term Logos he was definitely influenced by the Greek background. He was writing in Greek after all. But in my opinion the way he used logos in the first chapter of his Gospel is pure Hebraic.


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The Commandments of Theocracy

For many years evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States have been fighting for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially courthouses, city halls and legislatures. I have always understood this as only a political move to assert the mythology of America’s Christian origins. I see it as political because there is no theological rationale for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who claim salvation by faith alone and not by works to be so obsessed with placing the Ten Commandments on buildings. After all, they quote Saint Paul and his opposition to the law (meaning the Mosaic law, of course) every opportunity they get. They love Paul’s rejection of the Law, and yet they want to promote the heart and soul of the Mosaic Law! Go figure. But as I said, this is not a theological project; it is purely political and theocratic, the delusion of Christian nation.

The Ten Commandments have lasting value in and of themselves. They don’t need American theocrats to buttress them. They are essential building blocks of the covenants that God established with the people of Israel. But one has to question their validity outside the covenants with ancient Israel. One could accept the last six of the Ten Commandments (“words” as Exodus 20 calls them); they have some universal validity. But even among these last six commandments, there are questions that arise. What does it mean to honor father and mother? In the Mosaic Law, children are to be stoned to death if they disobey or rebel against their parents:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So along with the commandment to honor father and mother, will we also consider the punishment by death on those who don’t honor parents and who disobey their parents? After all, punishment is part of the bargain that a commandment implies.

As for adultery, of course it’s a sin. But put up this commandment in a courthouse? Are courts going to punish people who commit adultery? Moses of course said stone them to death. And how is one to define coveting, when our whole society is motivated by greed and competition?

But the real problem with the Ten Commandments lies in the first four; and I will claim that it is primarily for these first four that our evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats want to push the Ten Commandments into the public square. Let’s take the first four commandments one by one.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” If I am a Christian, I certainly will have no other god but the Lord. But the Lord did not bring me out of Egypt – perhaps out of slavery to sin, but certainly not out of slavery in the land of Egypt. This first commandment was God’s announcement of his covenant with the people of Israel whom he had just brought out of Egypt. It has nothing to do with me. My covenant with God is not rooted in an exodus from Egypt! And what right do I have to shove this commandment in the face of people who have no connection with the biblical narrative and worship a god of their own liberation?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” By this commandment, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians stand condemned. Regardless of how our traditions have rationalized the use of images in our churches, the evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats reject the Catholic and Orthodox use of images, so in their eyes we are transgressing against the second commandment. No wonder Orthodox and Catholics will not go up in the Rapture, right? Don’t make me throw up in your face, Mr. Evangelical Preacher!

But isn’t it ironic that the same theocrats who blast Catholic and Orthodox use of icons and statues like to start their worship services with the American National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag? When a conservative Evangelical or Baptist stands at attention at the start of a worship service with his or her right hand placed over his or her heart, how is that different from a Catholic or Orthodox venerating an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary? Granted the difference in theologies, I consider the veneration of flag in most Evangelical and Baptist churches a sheer example of idolatry and a clear violation of the second commandment. And finally, with respect to the second commandment: really, we are to promote the idea of God punishing the sins of parents to the third or fourth generation of children? Really, we should promote that image of God. Oh, I know, the theocrats only want to exhibit the short versions of the commandments – but that’s just dishonesty.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” Who can disagree with this commandment? And yet it is the most universally disobeyed of all ten commandments. So, good luck with this one.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” I love the Sabbath, but who observes the Sabbath besides observant Jews. Do Christians? Or have we replaced the Sabbath with Sunday? Yes, that’s exactly what the Christian church did back in the early centuries of Christendom. But do Christians even observe Sunday as a replacement for the Sabbath? How many of these theocrats resist the urge to go to the Mall on Sunday afternoon? And how many of them are out there watching their kids in team sports instead of being at worship? Oh, I forgot they don’t need to be at worship on Sunday morning because they prefer to go in the evening or Wednesday night instead. Those times are more convenient and do not interfere with kids sports. So how does anyone observe or honor, not the Sabbath, but the Sabbath idea?

But let’s return to that first commandment one last time. God begins by declaring, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” It begins there, that is the root cause and justification for everything that follows.

Consider now Exodus 22:20“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 23:9“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the same way that the first commandment begins with a reminder of Egypt, so also the commandments about how strangers and foreigners are to be treated are based on reminders of Egypt. But these commandments hardly register in the minds of flag-worshipping theocrats, because then they would have to disagree with their government’s policies toward refugees and migrants. No, their idolatry of flag and country and guns must endure! But let’s not be fooled by their pretense of honoring the word of God. In their minds and hearts these are the commandments of theocracy, nothing more or less.

 


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A Love Song

The Bible is a love song. Western Christianity has turned the Bible into a dry source of doctrines and judgments, all neatly wrapped up so as to make sense to the boring lives of people who are immune to the immensity of divine imagination and romance. People struggle to understand why there is so much warfare and ugliness in the Bible, not just in the Old Testament but in the New Testament as well. But when you look more closely you see a God who is passionately in love with his people and struggles with their unfaithfulness. So when the Lord God pours out violence upon his people in their calamitous journey of faith and unfaith, you also hear him groaning with anguish and even self-doubt. The language is extremely human, earthy, physical and emotional. That’s because the Bible does not present us an abstract, distant God, “the man upstairs” that we have mockingly reduced him to. No, the biblical God is ever-present in the lives of his people and he experiences their torments as his own.

This passionate God is especially visible in what we call the “Old Testament”. I personally don’t like that term because it seems to make that part of the Bible as of less importance to Christians than the so-called “New Testament”. New is always better than Old, right? Not necessarily, as anyone can see about the newness of life in today’s world. There is nothing “old” about the first part of the Bible. It is as new as every word spoken by our Savior Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is the voice of the Lord Jesus that I hear and read every time I open the Psalms and the Prophets, and even many parts of the historical books and the “books of Moses”.

Jesus was the ultimate and final expression of the passionate God. Too bad that Christian tradition has turned Jesus into another remote deity, another version of “the man upstairs.” I love this little quote from Kahlil Gibran that I found in one of his books:

Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth

meets Jesus of the Christian

in a garden among the hills of Lebanon.

And they talk long.

And each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away

saying to Jesus of the Christian,

“My friend, I fear we shall never, never agree.

Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon and emigrated to the United States with his parents, but never left behind the earthy soul of the Middle East – that same earthy soul that formed the humanity of our Lord. There is something deeply monophysitic about how most Christian churches view and represent Christ. And so when we come to something like the Song of Songs we turn it into an allegory – a dry, passionless allegory. That’s what the Christian tradition did with this beautiful poem right smack in the middle of the Bible, from which our verse today is taken.

The Song of Songs is a love song. Most English translations call it the Song of Solomon – but the old Greek translation of the scriptures correctly calls it ΑΣΜΑ ᾀσμάτων. It is a dialogue between a man and his beloved. It is passionate, earthy and physical – much as God is represented in those “old” scriptures. But that does not make it an allegory. It is a love poem that the Hebrew editors of the Bible decided belongs as scripture – much as they also chose Ecclesiastes as scripture, even though it is hardly the most “orthodox” book of the Bible. The Song of Solomon is not an allegory of Christ and the Church, as Christian tradition has treated it. But the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is indeed passionate and earthy. He did not wear a crown when he walked the hills and deserts of Judea; nor was he richly robed as we show him in our icons. He probably wore a plain white tunic – much as men still wear in the poorer regions of the Middle East and central Asia – and walked barefoot most of the time. He was a poor man among poor men and women. He embraced sinners and invited himself to dinner wherever he could. He did not wear his deity mightily. As Saint Paul told us, “he emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7). In this great passage in Philippians, Paul tells us that it is precisely because “he emptied himself” that he is our Lord and Savior! It is precisely because he became earthy and barefoot that he is our Lord and Savior. And Kahlil Gibran tells us that we are far from that Jesus of Nazareth.

So don’t turn Jesus into “the man upstairs” – he is among us: not as an allegory, but as the way, the truth and the life. It is time to rediscover the earthiness of the Bible, in all its gut-wrenching passions, love imagery, and even its violence. It is not a Hellenistic book of philosophy, nor a dispassionate book of ascetic nonsense. It is full of real humans and a real God who shares their lives. It is full of war and human hatreds, but also of human and divine love, and a lot of eating and drinking. So in our verse today, the lover takes his beloved to the “banqueting house”, in the usual English translations. The Hebrew text says beth hayyayin, meaning “the house of wine”! Even the old Greek translation of the scriptures, the so-called Septuagint, correctly translated it as οἶκον τοῦ οἴνου. Is it because teetotal Anglo-Saxons want to avoid all talk of wine, just as they turn the wine of communion into grape juice? But it was wine that Jesus drank; and it was with images of food and drink that he spoke parables of heaven and the kingdom of God. He was speaking biblical language, the earthy language of his people. And there was nothing ascetic in the language of Jesus.

So don’t turn away from the Bible because you find some of its language unacceptable. And don’t turn the “unacceptable” parts of the Bible into allegories. If you want to get your feet wet in the earthy language of the Bible, the Song of Songs is as good a place to start as any. As are the prophets, as are the Psalms, as are the historical books. But why not start with a love song? That’s what the Song of Songs is, and everybody loves a good love song.