To commemorate the launch of our ministry website, I thought Iʼd post this series of articles to offer our friends my “cliffs-notes” on this complex and important question.
In their short 70 year history, itʼs probably never been more important to gain understanding about Israel. According to polling data, worldwide support for Israel continues to wane. Sadly, that trend extends into the Evangelical Church. A recent survey of Evangelicals conducted by Lifeway research suggests a decline in support for Israel among young Evangelicals (18-34) and some experts in Israel question whether they can survive without the support of the United States.
As an American, I can see plenty of geopolitical reasons to support Israel but that is not my purpose for writing. Our reasons for standing with Israel go much deeper than “American interests abroad” or the survival of Western civilization.
I hope this series of articles will help provide you with a coherent rationale to answer the question, why does Israel still matter?
First, let me zoom out to take a look at a basic assumption of mine. For centuries the Bibles we read, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament, have been filtered to us through the minds or lenses of translators from copies of original manuscripts or other translations. In other words, translators are interpreters… they canʼt help it. To do their jobs they must choose words from one language to express words and thoughts from another.
The Hebrew Scriptures, referred to as the Old Testament by over a billion Christians, were originally written in Hebrew and, in some cases, Aramaic. When those scriptures were eventually translated into other languages they did not always translate word for word or thought for thought.
While we do believe the scriptures were inspired in their original languages, we donʼt believe the translators were inspired and some of their choices have had unforeseen consequences.
It was twelve hundred years before the entire Bible was translated into English primarily from the Latin Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate had been translated into Latin by Jerome from a variety of sources including earlier attempts in Latin, Coptic, Syriac and Hebrew. The Old Testament also existed in a popular Greek form, The Septuagint (Hebrew Scriptures in Greek).
Did you ever play grapevine, telephone or Chinese whispers as a kid? I think you’re probably getting the idea. The point is things get lost in translation and when they do, there are consequences. The Jewish poet, Haim Nachman Bialik wrote that reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil.
To help you see this more clearly, Iʼll give three examples of Hebrew concepts that were mistranslated into English and try to demonstrate how this mistranslation has effected the way we see God and what we think He is like. The Hebrew words are; Torah, Tsedakah and Berith; the latin words used to translate them were, Lex, Justitia and Foedus; and finally the English words that were used in translation were; Law, Justice and Covenant/Contract.
Ok, put your thinking caps on and letʼs get started.
First, the Hebrew word Torah was generally filtered into the English language as Law from the Latin word Lex which conveys a rigid legal and judicial framework and is extremely narrow and linear. The English word Law used in translation borrows from the Latin meaning and neither words express the depth of meaning contained within the Hebrew word Torah. The Hebrew word Torah is panoramic and sweeping in scope, it describes God’s rich covenantal commitment and his covenantal faithfulness to his people including specific ways He provided for them to respond to Him. The righteous obligations that issue from within that covenant, ways of behaving that lead to life and ways of behaving that lead to death.
Second, the Hebrew concept of Tsedakah was filtered into English as Justice from the Latin word Justitia. Again, the Latin idea of justice flows from within the same legal matrix as Lex and falls well short of representing the Hebrew idea of Tsedakah. Even the English word Justice when used to translate the Hebrew idea of Mishpat falls short. Mishpat is a much, much larger idea and to translate Mishpat with justice oversimplifies its meaning, especially in Western thinking addicted to the legal matrix.
Mishpat is derived from shaphat which means to judge. But our Western understanding of to judge flows from within that same latin legal matrix and focuses on the actions of a Judge. The larger meaning of shaphat reflects the way God has provided for us to participate in how He governs his creation.
Think of Tsedakah as the Mishpat of God in motion. Therefore Tsedakah could be better understood as righteousness and, while it certainly includes our idea of justice, it goes well beyond something that God merely distributes by rewarding virtue or punishing vice. Like Torah, Tsedakah is a covenantal word where the emphasis is placed on right relationships and all the behaviors necessary for relationships to be right.
Finally, and hereʼs where all of this comes back in over the plate like a long slow curve ball. The Hebrew concept of Berith (Covenant) has probably suffered the most in this lost-in-the-translation thing. When the Hebrew idea of Berith made its way into Western nomenclature it was primarily translated into English from the latin word Foedus which, although translated as covenant it carries the primary meaning of “Contract” in Latin and that meaning informs the English understanding. In other words, the Western concept of covenant is contractual… another word dripping with legal connotation.
Like the other examples, Foedus was simply inadequate to translate the robust meaning of Berith. To the Western mind a covenant is a contract, a legal agreement between two parties defining what each party receives from the other. In a contract your chief concern is to protect yourself and your interests.
In stark contrast to that, the Hebrew concept of Covenant is where you commit yourself with specific promises to another person for the sake of the other person. Covenants have played a fundamental role in the ancient near-east for thousands of years. On the other hand, Western culture is almost entirely contractual. Marriage is the only remaining so-called covenant we have left, but it is generally treated like a contract.
We may say the word covenant but we hear contract and we see contract because weʼre all wearing what I call contract lenses. To think contractually is our default setting and much of our Western theology has been informed by that bias.
Do you see what Iʼm getting at? All of these words contain ideas… pictures. Like Legos or building blocks, the ideas behind these words form the basic conceptual tools that we use to build our picture of who God is and what He is like. To me, understanding the difference between Covenant & Contract is where we need to begin in order to answer the question, “Why does Israel still matter?
Next in part 2: “God makes covenants NOT contracts”