I am not a Biblical scholar. In fact, I am not a scholar of any sort. Nor am I an expert on any given topic. But with that disclaimer firmly in place, I do want to assure you that I can read. It’s truly a pleasure be a part of worship with you today.
As I began to read and organize some thoughts, I came across some devotional material that caught my attention, and here’s why: Our Christian heritage has deep roots in the Jewish faith. The Old Testament is full of rich stories and readings, some of which are pretty grim. But knowing and understanding some of the beautiful Hebrew words enriches our own Christian beliefs. And so, here are 7 words every Christian should know.
The first word is HESED. It means love. HESED is not just a feeling—it’s an action. It intervenes on behalf of loved ones and comes to their rescue. Theologian John Oswalt says, “‘HESED is a completely undeserved kindness and generosity. HESED is not romantic love. It’s faithful. It’s reliable. It’s a wife praying for years for her husband to know God. It’s a dad, once again, bailing out his drug addicted son. It’s parents who lovingly care for an autistic child. Isaiah 54:10 states ‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord who has compassion on you.” Love such as this lifts both the giver of this love and its receiver.” Today we can rely on God’s HEEESD for us…no matter what we face.
AMANAH is the next word, and it means faith. James 2:17 says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” AMANAH literally means to take firm action—faith to act. Last month our congregation participated in a Faith in Action Sunday. Many took their faith to the community through service, fellowship, engaging, and connecting. We do not know what impact it had on others, but we do know our actions brought faith to life. This is less about knowing and more about doing—it is faith to act.
Following God is not an intellectual decision. AMANAH is a bit like climbing a staircase. We intellectually know the steps go up, but until you actually climb them, you don’t experience the next level. You don’t see what there is to see. You don’t get to where you are headed. What you DO is more important than what you KNOW. Don’t just believe in the stairs….climb them. What would you need to change today to ensure your faith was defined by what you do instead of by what you know?
TEFILAH is our next Hebrew word, and it means prayer. How often do we use prayer as an emergency call to God for something we need or want? We bargain with God: “If you will just grant me this, I promise I will never skip church.” Or, “Get me out of this horrible situation I am in.” A little over a week ago, my husband, Bill, and I made a trip to the emergency room in the middle of the night. Bill was experiencing chest pains. He was admitted and the following day, the doctors placed a stent in him to open one of his arteries. You can believe I was begging God to help the doctors heal him and restore his health.
The English word for pray is “to ask or beg.” But TEFILAH means to self-evaluate. So, for Jews in the Bible, it was not a time when they asked God for things. It was a time when they examined themselves. They’d use prayer as a way to compare actions, behavior, and attitudes against God’s holiness. 2 Corinthians 13:5 states, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize Christ Jesus is in you-unless of course you fail the test?” It goes on to state, “I trust you know you have not failed.”
Interesting. As you consider prayer in this light, does the way Biblical Jews prayed change your ideas about prayer?
RUACH is our next word, and this Hebrew word means breath. Genesis 2:7 reads, “The Lord God formed the man of the dust of the ground and breathed life into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.” What a glorious verse! We don’t necessarily think about breathing unless we’re running out of air. Divers are mindful of air in their tanks as they explore the sea. Athletes learn the importance of managing their breath to compete. Singers must carefully breathe to support the musical notes coming out of their mouths. And those who practice yoga know it is the underpinning of all postures and thoughts.
The Hebrew word RUACH means breath, but it also means spirit. So, a man really becomes a living being when God gives him His spirit. Without this divine component, breath is simply mechanical and a function of the human body. The Psalms exhort “everything that has life and breath praise the Lord.” So, to be truly alive, we inhale God’s Spirit and exhale His praise.
This is life!
Now here is a Hebrew word you will know: SHALOM. This beautiful word means peace. The word Jerusalem in Hebrew is YERUSHALAIM, a combination of two words. YERU, which means “you shall see,” and SHALOM, “The peace of God.” Therefore, Jerusalem means the place where you shall see God.
When I think of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, I imagine a place as busy as perhaps a place like New York City—busy, crowded, loud. It’s difficult to be centered, to find that peace as it probably was in those ancient times. Amid the hectic world we live in, we seek finding the peace of God to center us, draw us close, and find a haven in today’s world just as Jesus’s words were intended.
John 14:27 contains these beautifully comforting words: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your heart be troubled and do not be afraid.” He told His followers that the Kingdom of God is within you, which means the peace of God is within us. You undoubtedly know someone who exudes peace, love, acceptance. Whenever you see this person—and it may very well be someone who is part of this congregation—you are warmed and happy to be in their presence. This individual IS that example for you. As we live our lives, do others see the peace of God within us?
And just when you thought I might have more familiar words, here is our sixth new Hebrew word: NEPHESH. It means soul. Psalm 19:1 reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” The glorious sky reveals God’s glory with its bright blue color and fluffy white clouds, or more ominous grayness as a storm approaches or a winter snow is about to begin. But this sky has no words, or speech or sound, yet the message of its beauty goes out to all the world and is “heard everywhere” without the slightest sound.
Our lives should carry this same message. We’re taught to love God with all our souls—or NEPHESH—which also means life, for ALL of our lives. Not for an hour each week at church but in everything we do every minute of every day. That’s a tall order! But we are also told that the reward is beyond our comprehension. If YOU never spoke another word, would the way you live your life glorify God?
Finally, our seventh Hebrew word is MEM. It means chaos. In John 6:19 we hear, “When they had rowed three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat walking on water and they were terrified.” In Mark 6:45 we read (and this was right after the feeding of the multitudes) “immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray. Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and He was alone on land. Then he saw His disciples straining and rowing, for the wind was against them. He came to them walking on the sea.” We know from reading these familiar scriptures that the disciples were frightened and, yet, confirmed in their commitment to Jesus.
During Biblical times, the sea had a negative connotation for the Jewish people. The Hebrew word for “water” is MAYIM, and it comes from the root “MEM,” meaning chaos. This makes sense when you consider that the Israelites grew up hearing that a flood wiped out the earth. Even to this day, there aren’t many homes or hotels on the thirty-three mile shoreline of the sea of Galilee, even though it is very lovely and picturesque.
Again, last week as Bill was facing this surgery and all of its unknowns, it felt like chaos rolling over us. We didn’t know what to expect, just like the disciples we were afraid. We knew to pray, but I am ashamed to admit my faith was weak. I knew I needed to trust God; it was in His hands. And thankfully, He graced us with a joyful outcome. If you face chaos today, remember Jesus is in control of your chaos and calling you to get on top of the chaos with Him.
So there you have it. Hebrew 101. 7 words every Christian should know. For the sake of our common tongue, I’ll paraphrase their meaning in English. Love, Faith, Prayer, Breath, Peace, Soul, and Chaos. A unique range of words each with a broader definition that expands their meaning as we know it. Each of these words tells a deeper story in their Hebrew roots.
We are called to reflect on the Scriptures and their teachings. God is here for us no matter what we face—this is ultimate love.
Our faith is defined by our actions.
Prayer is also a way to compare actions, behavior and attitudes with God’s holiness.
Breath is also spirit and the spirit of God is within us with the simple act of breathing as we contemplate His intent for us.
Peace is within us but we can also see peace in others. Do others see peace in us?
Soul reveals God in us without any words and our actions should glorify Him.
And if we have chaos in our lives, Jesus calls us to give it to Him and He is in control.
May this brief peek into our ancient past offer you reflection, hope, and a connection to our brothers and sisters in this rich heritage.