Part 1: Why Does Israel Still Matter: Lost in translation

The truth is… the question ‘Why Does Israel still Matter?’ can only be asked by a Church that has become utterly alienated from its own origins. Nevertheless, it’s a question that needs to be answered if the next generation of Christians is going to take up the mantle of standing with Israel. 

The modern State of Israel may or may not be the final restoration of the Jews to their ancient land – only God knows. But it is impossible to deny with integrity that there is something mysterious going on in Israel.

Depending upon which branch of the Christian religion you have been exposed to, grew up with or have adopted, we each look at Israel through theological lenses. Likewise, Jewish people look at Christians through lenses they acquired through their experience. The truth is Christian and Jew belong together and, from the Christian side, that involves bringing the Church back to its original Hebraic vision. That does NOT mean make everyone a Jew, or romantic visions of finding your distant Jewish roots… what it DOES mean is that in the Jew Yeshua, everything changed and that in Him the human race became one new man.

So, to commemorate the launch of our first website, I thought Iʼd post this series of articles to offer our friends my “cliffs-notes” on this complex and important question.

In the short 70 year history of the modern State of Israel, itʼs probably never been more important than it is today to understand what’s happening here, who the players are and what’s at stake. 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 living in Israel, 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 and we certainly don’t take our queue from the media. To comprehend Israel both as a modern Nation/State and within its biblical context requires more thought and study than many people have time for.

We hope this series of articles will help provide you with a coherent rationale to answer the question, why does Israel still matter?

The Jewish poet, Haim Nachman Bialik wrote that reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil.

With that idea as a backdrop let me zoom out to take a look at a basic assumption. 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 and/or other translations. In other words, translators are interpreters… they canʼt help it, to do their jobs they must choose words and thoughts from one language to express words and thoughts in 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 didn’t always translate word for word or thought for thought.

While we do believe the scriptures were inspired in their original manuscripts, we donʼt believe the translators were inspired and some of their translation choices have had unpredictable long-term consequences.

From the time Jerome translated the Greek scriptures into Latin at the end of the fourth century it was twelve hundred years before the entire Bible was translated into English. The Latin Vulgate had been translated into Latin by Jerome from a variety of sources including earlier attempts in Latin, Coptic, Syriac and Hebrew. And the Old Testament in a popular Greek format known as The Septuagint had existed for centuries before that.

Did you ever play grapevine, telephone or Chinese whispers as a kid? I think you’re probably getting the idea. We all know things get lost in translation and when they do, there are consequences. It’s the consequences that need more thought.

To help you see this more clearly, Iʼll give three examples of Hebrew concepts that were mistranslated into English and became diluted and quite different from their original meaning. One tragic consequence has been that, over time, these mistranslations have effected the way we see God and what we think He is like.

In the Hebrew language each letter is a picture and every word is like a comic strip that tells a story. Let’s look at these Hebrew concepts/words; 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.

Ok, put your thinking caps on and letʼs get started.

To begin with, the Hebrew word Torah was generally filtered into the English language as Law from the Latin word Lex. Lex flows from within a rigid legal and judicial framework and is extremely narrow and linear. The English word Law borrows from the Latin meaning and neither words express the depth contained within the Hebrew word Torah which is an intimate family word that carries the simple meaning of instructions passed from the Father to his children.

The Hebrew word Torah is panoramic and sweeping in scope describing God’s rich covenantal commitment and His covenantal faithfulness to his people. These instructions included specific ways that He’d graciously provided for them to respond to Him. These responses became the righteous obligations that flowed from within that covenant. Explicitly spelled out in these instructions were the various ways of behaving that would lead to life and ways of behaving that would lead to death.

The second mistranslated Hebrew concept is Tsedakah.  Tsedakah was filtered into English as Justice from the Latin word Justitia. Here again, the Latin idea of justice flows from within the same rigid legal matrix as Lex and it falls well short of representing the Hebrew idea of Tsedakah. The actual Hebrew word for justice is Mishpat but even in that case our English idea of justice falls well short of how the Hebrews understand justice. Mishpat is a much, much larger idea and to translate Mishpat with our idea of  justice oversimplifies its meaning, especially in Western thinking that is so addicted to that rigid legal matrix.

Mishpat is derived from shaphat which means to judge. And don’t we love to judge… but our Western idea of “to judge” flows from within that same rigid latin legal matrix and it focuses on the actions of a Judge. In the Hebrew, the larger meaning of shaphat reflects the ways God has provided for us to participate in how He governs his creation.

So, 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 far beyond something that God merely distributes like 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 sometimes translated as covenant, carries the primary meaning of “Contract” in Latin and it’s that meaning which informs the English concept of covenant.

In other words, the Western concept of covenant is contractual… another word dripping with legal connotation.

Like the other examples, Foedus is simply inadequate to translate the robust meaning of Berith. To the Western mind a covenant is a contract which is 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 personCovenants 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 and 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. Quid pro quo… a simple exchange… I’ll do this and you’ll do that.

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”

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Excellent start to answering the question! Next article please!

  2. To clarify, when you say Bible, you are only referring to the Old Testiment. Correct? Because Hebrew is not the original launguage of the entire Word of God.

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