by Lonnie Lane
If you could hear the Psalms read in Hebrew you would hear a depth of meaning and poetic beauty that is almost lost in English. I’ve had them translated to me directly by an Israeli family member and there is a musical quality to the language and meanings we can’t appreciate as we hear them in English. Similarly there are certain ‘givens’ we have in our English translations that are not quite what the original languages of Hebrew and Greek convey. These don’t change the meaning of the Gospels, the message of the Kingdom of God, nor the essential doctrines. But an understanding of some translation…shall we say, alternative meanings, will help to bring some interesting clarifications and insights.
An “Only Begotten Son”. Heb 11:17 says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son.” Son actually isn’t in the original, but is assumed. Isaac is said to be Abraham’s “only begotten” even though Isaac wasn’t really Abraham’s only biological son. We justify the phrase by saying, Well, Isaac was the only son of the covenant, even though there was Ishmael and then later a whole plethora of other sons Abraham fathered by Keturah after Sarah’s death (see Gen. 25:1-2). The word used in Hebrews 11:17 is monogenes: mono (only) genes (to beget). Hence, “only begotten”. But mono (only) genos (kind or race) could also mean “only one of its kind.” Isaac is Abraham’s unique, one of a kind, son of the covenant rather than his only son, which would not be true. We attach a spiritual meaning to the “only begotten son” phrase, but the language clearly shows it doesn’t dismiss Abraham’s other sons as if they didn’t exist. (Could this linguistic dismissing of Ishma’el as if he was no son of Abraham be one reason for Ishma’el’s descendents’ antagonism towards the descendents of Isaac?)
If you could hear the Psalms read in Hebrew you would hear a depth of meaning and poetic beauty that is almost lost in English.
This same “only begotten” wording can also apply to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Begotten harkens back to the Genesis “begats” but in the Greek that’s not what it says. It says that Yeshua occupies a place of monogenos the only Son of His kind. A corresponding word in Hebrew would be yahid, meaning only or alone. Psalm 25:16 says, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely (yahid) and afflicted,” which has no reference to “begetting” whatsoever. It does set him apart in the quality of being alone but it doesn’t change his humanness. It just means he’s alone or by himself. That may sound obvious but let’s expand this “onliness” (not loneliness) to Yeshua. Through Yeshua we all can become adopted sons and daughters of God, yet Yeshua remains unique in character and as the only one like Him, even though He was just like we are in all His human characteristics. To understand this correctly takes Yeshua out of that ethereal other-worldliness in which He is so often portrayed and makes Him as human as we are. But once we see that, we have a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of the quality of His Sonship with God.
Thinking with the heart: We use the terms “heart” and “mind” to mean two different things in English. We can think and have no emotions about what we’re thinking, or have an emotion that does not include rational thought, by which I mean thinking it through logically. The word in Hebrew, “levav” which is translated into English as “heart,” to a Hebrew means both rational thought and emotion. Both, not either/or. When I speak of rational thought, since we are speaking Biblically, this would mean a sanctified mind. There’s nothing in Hebrew to suggest that our English “heart” does not include rational thinking and understanding. They would see both as connected, as two parts of a whole. We westerners separate the two as mind and heart; as intellect and/or emotions. We often think of heart as being related to emotions, primarily of love, and as being romantic, regardless of whether our minds tell us if it’s a good idea or not. (If that wasn’t so, why would we have so many supposed “Love Songs” singing the blues?) On the other hand, heart can have to do with hatred as a raw or irrational emotion, such as when one looses ones temper or looses control. But to a Hebrew, hatred was an emotion that was to be tempered by rational thought, as in: “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17). In this, the emotion and the conscious decision as to what to do about the emotion is a safety against acting only through the motivation of the emotion. The same balance of emotions and rational thinking exists for Hebrews regarding emotions generally, including having to do with fear and courage.
There was a situation, for instance, when Israel was up against her enemies, and it became clear that not everyone had a levav for war. Some were “weak of levav” or “soft of levav” (soft hearted) translated in English as “fainthearted.” So here was the solution in English: “Who is the man that is afraid and fainthearted? Let him depart and return to his house, so that he might not make his brothers’ hearts melt like his heart” (Deut. 20: 8). The faint of levav is not just emotionally fearful; he’s looking at the situation and seeing it as dangerous, though admittedly without faith. His faithless fear could be infectious so those with a weak levav were to stay home. Years earlier, when Abraham was speaking of why he thought it was okay to turn his wife over to King Abimelech, he says, “In the integrity of my heart (levav) and the innocence of my hands I have done this” (Gen. 20:5). He obviously thought it through; it wasn’t just emotions (of fear), but in it being a well integrated decision on his part. We may not agree, but it makes the point that his levav, meaning his emotions and logic, were involved.
If we look at a verse such as, “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart (levav), that you may observe it” (Deut. 30:14), interpreting “in your heart” through our idea of heart, we will most likely consider that this is talking about having the word in our hearts so that we love it, and feel an affection for it, which is entirely appropriate. But it’s not really a proper translation of the verse. We’ve heard those words so many times that it makes sense to us to interpret the verse as meaning, The word is very near you because you can recite it from memory (speak with your mouth) and have a love (heart) for the word of God.” It’s not talking about memorizing it, but understanding it, processing it rationally with your sanctified mind that seeks to be conformed to the character and nature of Yeshua. We can memorize something with very little grasp of what it truly says..But we cannot speak intelligently or do what the word requires without understanding it first. Then, because we love God and He’s the One who said it, we feel an affection for the word. It may also be because we see the wisdom in it. So clearly levav has to do with thinking and understanding, in our case processing it through our sanctified mind and our understanding of the word of God, not just heart, meaning primarily emotions, as we use the term heart.
In Hebrew, “levav” which is translated into English as “heart,” to a Hebrew means both rational thought and emotion.
We say things like, ‘Use your head” or we may refer to “a sharp mind” or someone who is “brainy.” For Hebrews, all that thinking would take place in his levav, the mind as well as the emotions. They cannot be separated in the Hebrew mind. So using “heart” to translate levav, it has been suggested by some translators, is really a terribly inadequate translation because it really does not convey the Hebrew understanding of the word to mean and therefore what the Hebrew experience was related to the word. Mind and emotions go together like our proverbial heart and soul. It might be quite helpful to us to process the word of God this way, to consider it not as heart or mind, but as heart and mind together. A kind of heart-think. This is likely to help us carry out commandments we’ve had trouble with because we were considering them either as thought or emotions. For those, for instance, who continually feel guilty for not loving the Lord or other believers enough because they just don’t feel all the loving emotions they think they’re supposed to have. Remember the Lord says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me” (John 14:21). It isn’t in the “feeling” that matters but in the doing them, in considering them worth doing because of who put forth the commandment in the first place. To God, using our thought-out will to obey is a higher use of our levav than if we had a whole lot of emotion about it but didn’t follow through on what He said to do.
Perhaps now you can better understand that Yeshua was speaking of employing our levav, not just our affections but our rational minds. When making decisions, especially those of a highly emotional nature, we would be wise to use not just our emotions but to consider the situation through “heart-think,” through using your levav, choosing to balance your emotions with your rational mind. God is not saying to suddenly whip out your levav when a crisis arises, but to live that way as a life style, balancing your thought and emotions in a well integrated manner. This is a good way to live a life that aligns with God’s word and His own levav.
Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way. This matter of levav seems in keeping with the Hebrew idea of “hear” or “listen” which is entirely connected to obeying the word of God. To a Hebrew if you do not obey or comply with the word of God, you haven’t heard it. To hear it is to obey it. We “Englishers” have inherited a Greek way of thinking, which is to debate or deliberate the thoughts or philosophies put before us. It’s why Paul warned against philosophy, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Messiah” (Col. 2:8). We Westerners are more likely to hear or listen and then decide if we think it’s worth obeying or not, if it’s applicable to today, etc. We “listen” selectively.
To an ancient Hebrew whose thinking took place in his levav, he was perfectly comfortable with loving the Lord with all his levav, his nephesh (soul) and his maoz (strength, might), as in, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5). He is to love the Lord with his kishkahs, his inner most feelings, but it also includes using his head and considering that God has proven Himself good to Israel and He can be trusted! That’s a rational choice based on observation and experience. We don’t “feel” trust, we must recognize trust intellectually. Remember, a Hebrew’s whole background was in knowing who God is, as El Shaddai…All Mighty, as He first introduced Himself to Abraham, and then all the other revelations of God as defined by His names that define His goodness to Israel.
Additionally, Yeshua said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). There are several ways to follow Him as our shepherd here. Sheep follow the shepherd. Wherever He goes, they go. We are to follow Him daily, abiding in His love and conforming to His will, and being sure we don’t wander from His presence. We are also to walk as He walked, and live as He lived. But also we are to follow, as in complying with what He said. Those who are not His sheep, though they may have heard the words He said, would not have heard in His voice, or His words, a call to obey Him. His sheep “hear” His voice, the voice of God, the voice of Messiah, the voice they must follow. People can listen but not “hear” because to hear is to follow Him in what He said. So regarding keeping His commandments or precepts, there wasn’t any discussion or deliberation. You just did it because it was God telling you to do it. If you notice that after God gave a commandment to Israel, He often followed it up with “I am the Lord.” That’s it. No further discussion. God said it, that settled it (except when Israel was in a totally backslidden state) .
So when you read the Scriptures, do so with your levav, keeping in mind that it is God who is speaking to you! Don’t just read the Bible as what happened or was said to other people. Get to know His voice speaking to you through His word. In doing so, when something comes up, “listen” with your levav and ask yourself, Do I hear God’s voice in the voice that’s speaking to me? Is that something I can imagine hearing Him say? There have been times when I have heard a supposed prophesy or a teaching and I think, I don’t hear the Lord’s voice in what they’re saying. That’s not my Shepherd speaking. Yeshua said in talking about shepherds and their sheep, “…the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4,5). We might save ourselves a lot of heartache if we make sure it is His voice we’re hearing or following.
We are to follow Him daily, abiding in His love and conforming to His will, and being sure we don’t wander from His presence.
Read it as the Hebrews would have heard it, as one of His people whom He expects will not deliberate or evaluate what He had to say in terms of their own likes or dislikes, social values, or personal inclination to obey or not. He expected them to obey, and in doing so, they found their love for Him grew. It’s like sowing and reaping. Sow obedience and you reap a greater love for God. If we wait to see if we feel love for Him before we obey, it’s not likely to happen. Don’t wait for the emotion before you act, use your heart-think and do as unto the Lord to honor Him. When Israel did that, all went well with them, and so it will with us. How much more at peace our lives would be if we just did what God said the way He said to do it. “You shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you” (Deut. 4:40).
So when you are considering your relationship with the Lord, all us Western English speaking people, lets keep in mind that we are to ‘mind” what our “minds” are saying as much as what our emotions may be clamoring for, both good things and not-so-good things. This same principle applies to how we carry out the multitude of instructions in the Bible. There may have been great discussions and even debates among rabbis or Hebrew scholars, but it was how to observe or how to obey, not whether to observe or not. In that sense, they were more integrated as whole persons, perhaps, than we who are a bit fragmented where our minds, emotions and even our bodies often war against each other. If you don’t think that’s true, go look at the self-help or diet sections of a bookstore. When making a decision, ask the Lord to reveal to you what His will is, but as you process it with the Lord, consider not only what your thoughts are but what your heart or inner most feelings are. God gave us a conscience and an inner sense of right or wrong, but also a mind to process things rationally. We might say, trust your instincts, but be sure your mind agrees that it lines up with the word of God. “Be strong and let your levav take courage, all you who hope in the LORD” (Psalm 31:24). “May He grant you your levav’s desire…” (20:4a).
Good bye. One final linguistic thought, though it is not a Biblical word, nor was it first found in Hebrew or Greek. I though you might find it interesting to know that our greeting of “Goodbye” is a contraction of an Anglo Saxon phrase meaning “God be with ye.” I leave you with that.
Reprint of this article is permitted as long as you use the following; Use by permission by Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2011.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.