What ‘The Word’ Meant to the Hebrews

The Hebrew word for ‘word’ is transliterated, dabar. Dabar is word-act.  It is the thing, the matter, the issue.

Men’s solemn words such as promises and blessings cannot be retracted. We remember the story of Jacob’s deception.  Pretending to be his brother Esau, he deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Once spoken, the word of blessing could not be retracted, despite the pleading of Esau.  Gen 27:37,38

In the Jewish mind, there is a 1:1 correlation between word and the reality to which it refers. The Hebrew bible begins with the Holy One calling light into existence.  Isaiah understands the transforming power of the divine word…

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,and do not return to it without watering the earth  and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.       Isa 55:10,11

Jeremiah asks rhetorically,  Is not my word like fire, and says the LORD, like a hammer which breaks the rocks in pieces?  Jer 23:29

Barclay raises another important development into the understanding of the word of God.  Hebrew was no longer  spoken at the time of Jesus.  Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic.  The translators of the Aramaic scriptures, the Targams, were fascinated with the transcendence of God.  Seeking to avoid the directness of  anthropomorphisms, they changed texts such as Deut 33:27, which speaks of God’s everlasting arms, to read,  “The eternal God is thy refuge, and by his word the world was created.”  God’s word is now as stand-in, for God’s direct activity.  The phrase, word of God is found at least 320 times in the Jonathan Targum. This periphrasis for the name of God became a widely used Jewish expression.

Finally, Jewish wisdom literature personified wisdom. In Proverbs 8, she is spoken of as the chief architect, the master craftsman joyfully working with the God as he fashions the world, and one who delighting in and seeking the welfare of the children of men.

Barclay summarizes:  “So when John was searching for a way in which he could commend Christianity he found in his own faith and in the record of his own people the idea of the word, the ordinary word which is in itself not merely a sound, but a dynamic thing, the word of God by which God created the world, the word of the Targums which expressed the very idea of the action of God, the wisdom of the Wisdom Literature which was the eternal creative and illuminating power of God. So John said: “If you wish to see that word of God, if you wish to see the creative power of God, if you wish to see that word which brought the world into existence and which gives light and life to every man, look at Jesus Christ. In him the word of God came among you.””

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