Recently I’ve posted a couple examples to show you what I mean. In the article “Does God Forget Sins?” I explain how the words for “remember” and “forget” can help us unravel a theological knot about God’s omniscience. And in “Shema: To Hear is to Obey,” I explain that the same verb that is used for “hearing” also means “obeying.” Suddenly Jesus’ words about “having ears to hear” make more sense.
The Hebrew verbs for “remembering” and “hearing” have something in common – they seem to us to be only activities that occur in our minds, but in Hebrew they encompass physical actions too. This is actually common to many verbs that seem to be strictly cerebral activities.
In Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, I explain why this is so:
Many verbs in Hebrew that we think of as only mental activities often encompass their expected physical result.
- To “remember” can mean “to act on someone’s behalf.” In Genesis 8:1 it says that “God remembered Noah and dried up the flood waters.” But God didn’t just wake up one morning and suddenly recall that an ark was out bobbing around somewhere. He “remembered” Noah by coming to his rescue.
- To “know” another person is to have a relationship with them, to care about them, even to be intimate with them. When Adam “knew” Eve, she conceived Cain (Genesis 4:1).
Hebrew verbs stress action and effect, rather than just mental activity. This isn’t unique to Hebrew. Lorrie Anderson, a New Testament translator in Peru, searched for months to find a word for “believe” in the Candoshi language. No direct equivalent existed for that all-important term in Bible translation. What she finally discovered was that “hear” in that language also can mean “believe” and also “obey.” Anderson writes,
The question, “Don’t you hear His Word?” in Candoshi means “Don’t you believe-obey His Word?” In their way of thinking, if you “hear” you believe what you hear, and if you believe, you obey. These are not separate ideas as in English.
She and other Bible translators share the same observation. They often struggle to find words for mental activities that we see as all-important, but simply don’t exist in indigenous languages where thought is tied to its expected outcome.
Part of why this seems strange to us is because of our Western perspective. Many of our Greek cultural ancestors, including Plato, considered the mental world all-important and physical reality worthless. As a result, our culture tends to exalt our intellect as critical and discount our actions. Some of us Christians even see actions as “dead works” that are irrelevant, even opposed to faith.
The logic of Hebrew (and other languages) realizes that an action should result from what is in our minds. 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. Hebrew realizes that the longest twelve inches that your faith has to move is from your head to your heart. And once your faith makes that move, it naturally comes out through your hands and feet.
In the coming months I’m going to be sharing more about some of the fascinating nuggets of wisdom contained in Hebrew words. If you’re curious to learn more, check out my book Listening to the Language of the Bible (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004) which has dozens of devotional articles about Hebrew words and ideas. You can order it from my office or Amazon, of course.