In trying to understand ancient Hebrew literature, especially passages in the Torah and the Bible, many ordinary people and scholars alike tend to assume that Jewish tradition is based in the western ways of thinking. However, according to Jeff A. Brenner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center and many other sources out there, this is the wrong assumption to make and can cause a lot of their scripture to seem contradictory or even misleading.
Brenner and his colleagues state that in the ancient world, there were two very different schools of thought. One was the Greek or western way of thinking, and the other was the Hebrew or eastern way of thinking. Typically, Christianity and Judaism alike are associated with western culture, and although that may be true for the belief systems of the people of today, that was not the case when all the scriptures were written down. The shift came when the Greeks conquered the Hebrews and when western thought became the dominant way of thinking throughout the Roman Empire and the periods following. Readers must understand that the scriptures were written to be understood by the Hebrew culture at that time, so their mindset as a people must be taken into consideration to fully understand how they felt about God and what their belief systems towards him were like and why.
In one of the most important examples of these differences, the Greeks explained things based on appearances and the Hebrews made descriptions based upon functions. This would have caused a great difference in the ways they viewed and described God. The Greeks would have said something like, “God is a being greater than all other beings and he created everything in the earth;” whereas the Hebrews would have said something like, “God interacts with creation and gives us help where we need it in our day-to-day lives.” A good example of this can be seen is Psalm 104 verse 20, where the psalmist says, “You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl” in a more traditional translation. However, in a more modern translation, the same verse says, “When it’s dark and night takes over, all the forest creatures come out.” These two translations do in fact mean exactly the same thing, but the reader can see the higher influence of western thought in the latter version.
Another huge misunderstanding of Hebrew thought in western culture today is their views on good and evil. According to Brenner, the western mind sees these two things as opposing forces, but the eastern mind sees them both as equal and necessary to the flow of the universe – much like the yin and yang of more stereotypical eastern religions. Brenner sites Exodus chapter 20, verse 21 which says, “The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” Moses had to walk into a storm to hear God speak what he wanted for his people at that point in time, which is not something we would typically associate with something like that. There are many other instances in the Old Testament where people are scared of the exposure to the holiness of God because they were afraid to die in its presence. In the western mind, if God is the source of all blessings and everything good, then people really should not have to fear him. But some other passages in the Psalms illustrate that as well. For example, in Psalm 104 verse 4, the psalmist wrote, “He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.” From this simple verse, the reader can see how powerful the Hebrew God is and that it would in fact be smart to fear him.
Verse 5 of Psalm 23 is also a great illustration of the balance of good and evil present in God in the Bible. It says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Because David was a son of God, he knew that God would protect him and bless him even in the most dangerous and evil of situations; after all, he is God and he did want the surrounding nations to see that the God of the Hebrews is the one true God.
Despite their knowledge that God was powerful over everything and mighty enough to tame fire to be his servant, they also knew and had a lot of respect for him as the great creator, lover and provider. Another difference between Greek and Hebrew thought is how things were described in relation to the person. The Greeks described things impersonally while the Hebrews were very personal in their thoughts and descriptions of how things related to their selves. For example, in Psalm 104, verses 27 and 28 say, “All creatures look to your to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.” This translation into English has probably had a lot of western influence along the way, so something closer to the original translation might be, “All creatures know you give them the food they need when they need it. They eat it up when you lay it out for them; you satisfy them with good things when you open your hand.”
Another great example of the ancient Hebrew people seeing God as their great lover, creator and provider is Psalm 23; the psalm of all psalms. The visions of God caring so much about an individual in the passage are breath-taking. In the first verse alone, the psalmist David says that because of God, he lacks nothing. Even though God may have been a balance of good and bad, he was enough of a high balance of good that David did not have to do anything extra to have his needs met, because God was there for him. This could very easily say something very profound about the way the ancient Hebrews thought the world should work; they did not deny that scary, unfavorable forces existed, but they knew enough about life to know that everything that operates should be basically good and for the benefit of others – just as God operated in the psalms. He wasn’t there to over-bless people that were especially good and pious, but he was there to ensure that his people were provided for, that everyone was treated equally, that everyone had a spiritually refreshment of their soul every on a regular basis, and that true evil would not be tolerated. A notable example of evil not being tolerated is in Psalm 137 verse 8. “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy are those who repay you according to what you have done to us.” Because Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, something good and holy on the earth, they have evil and destruction to pay for it.
When all is said and done, the literal meaning of the Bible and the stories inside it do not change just because the mindsets of those reading it have; it still carries the exact same teachings and truths it did when it was written thousands of years ago. However, with an open mind to a more eastern way of thinking in reading these scriptures, readers of the scriptures and followers of the religions will be able to gain much greater understanding and revelation than they would have before.
Brenner, Jeff A. Mechanics of the Ancient Hebrew Culture. Ancient Hebrew Research Center. http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/12_home.html accessed 18 February 2010.