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Thursday, September 15, 2016

(Hebrew) words matter

The model of salvation I was raised with might be termed "the Great Escape." Basically, the purpose of life was to be good, and trust Jesus, and when you die you got to go to heaven. "Going to heaven" was the number one goal of life. Along the way one encountered a different emphasis from this or that faith tradition, some said "being good" was bad, faith alone, while others put an extra emphasis on "being good" and seemed to generate lots of angst. However, what was not in question, was salvation was a prize awaiting us after we died and went to heaven. Dying and going to heaven confused me some, because it seemed logical to wonder why we are trying to stay alive when heaven was better. What was the point of life if the goal was to escape?

The Bible teaches an invasion model of salvation. Jesus' parables, reflecting Israel's Bible, paint a picture of a conquering king who intervenes to rescue His loyal servants from the Enemy Ruler. Salvation/rescue is not taking people out of the world into heaven, but bringing Heaven into the world to govern in peace and abundance. In this model, being good is about citizenship and preparing for the Lord's return. It does not earn salvation, but it is a prerequisite for accepting it. Call it cooperation! God is "making all things new" and we are His servants in that process.

Therefore, in the scripture it is common to see God's acts of salvation as (new) creation. This is something that runs throughout Scripture. The kingdom is compared to birthing a baby, growing seeds, new day dawning and literally 'new creation.' The creation image is one of making (or remaking, like Jeremiah's potter) and God is the Master of 'starting over.'

Today in Bible study we were looking at the end of Exodus 8 and the sign of the flies. This plague narrative is more drawn out than some others and part of what I showed was the Hebrew words which were connected to the creation account in Genesis. There are so many themes (e...g. seven days, water, darkness) and so many words (adamah=soil//adam) that lead me to see the stories as interwoven. The ancient Hebrew exegete would take note of words in different parts of the Bible and bring those texts together. I find it fascinating. So as we looked at these connections, we came to the word desert. Today's star of the class (let's call her Jo) asked what the Hebrew was for desert and if it was connected to creation, so on a lark we looked it up. The Hebrew word is midbar and it means wilderness, desert, pasture. It has a literal sense of "driving", that is like driving cattle into the place of pasture. It also means mouth. Mouth?!?!

So we had some discussion about this and then we looked at the root. In Hebrew most words are formed from a three consonant root. The root develops into a family of words, many of which are not obviously related in English. The root 'DBR' is the verb dabar which means speak, say, promise, etc. So this makes sense of the mouth. A different Hebrew vowel creates the noun dabar which means word, thing, matter, acts. (Side note, how different is this from English, in Hebrew the same word can mean "word" and "thing," "word" and "act." Ponder that.)

So the word desert has the same root as speak, and be assured the Hebrew reader would notice that. Which brings us back to the question of creation. How did God create? He spoke. He created with a word. (and John 1 will expressly state that: in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God.... all things came to be through Him and apart from Him nothing came to be that came to be) So the desert (root:speak/word) will be the place where rag tag Hebrew slaves are shaped and formed into a new people. Creation as salvation!

But this reminded me of a lecture by a local rabbi, she said in the silence of the desert one hears the word/speech of God. This is a fundamental spiritual principle which is lost on a consumerist society. We have no "quiet" place to hear God. Noise and images bombard us everywhere. The desert waste is actually an image of the human soul, stripped bare (or reduced to the essentials). In our journey of faith we are invited to go to the place of emptiness, which is frightful. Our lives are to be "full" (I heard that on a commercial). We need more stuff, busier lives, eat, drink, party! A stunning number of my peers (who are crossing over into their 60's) are still embracing the life of our post high school years. They trumpet the message "I never grew up," but it does not communicate a childlike innocence as much as a childish embrace of distraction and entertainment.

The Hebrew words, the actual Bible, lay out a secret message to all who will hear. To leave slavery (Egypt) entails a long, scary road into the desert. It is a place where we go reluctantly (Mark says that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.... which as we saw above is the meaning of desert in Hebrew). It is fraught with danger (demons and wild animals, and it is inhospitable, too). It is empty. The quiet is deafening. We are left alone with ourselves in the desert. Yet in that quiet, that dark quiet, we are able to hear the word. God speaks. And His word is communication. It is also an act of creation, like in the beginning. He speaks us into a new way of life, into new persons inhabiting a new creation. That is salvation. That is God's plan for us all. The journey starts with the first step of faith.

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