What’s in a Word?


How much significance can we attach reasonably to a single word in the Bible?  Can it really serve as a linchpin for understanding God?  Well, no, not likely, and yet very rarely, yes.  Let me be clear.  Biblical interpretation and Christian preaching have been muddled by the tactic of lifting Bible verses and even mere phrases or individual words out of context, altering their meaning from what it was in context, and then making too much of them.  But there are some very important terms in the Bible, terms loaded with meaning, and sometimes the context supports understanding a word to have special significance.

By the end of the second chapter of the Bible’s book of Exodus, Moses has failed in his attempts to save a fellow Hebrew from oppression and to serve as a law-giver for his people, and now he must flee Egypt to preserve his life.  First he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave and hid the man’s body, and the next day he tried to break up a fight between two Hebrews.  To his dismay, one of the fighters asked him if he intended to kill him as he had killed the Egyptian.  The crime is known, and Moses realizes it will soon reach the ears of the authorities.  So, he goes into exile to the land of Midian where he marries, settles down, and starts a family.  On his own, Moses cannot become deliverer or law-giver.

The chapter concludes with this summary of suffering in slavery:

23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.   25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. [emphasis mine.]  (Exodus 2:23-25 NRSV)

The end of verse 25 presents a problem.  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates, too weakly I think, “and God took notice of them.”  The Hebrew says simply, “and God knew.”  Knew what?  Is something missing from the Hebrew text?

The Hebrew word for knowing is a relational term in various senses, as has been exploited popularly by comedians for its reference to sexual intimacy, as in “So-and-so knew his wife, and she conceived . . . .”  Jokes about knowing “in the biblical sense” aside, the Hebrew verb “to know” is relational, as was the people’s thought-world and way of speaking about life.  They did not separate knowing from understanding and caring, hearing from listening and responding to the other person’s need, or acting righteously from treating one’s neighbor justly.  They did not compartmentalize the human being into intellect separate from emotion or emotion apart from action (response).  When the Bible says God “hears,” it is telling us that God listens, cares, and wills to respond; it is not telling us merely that God receives auditory information through divine “ears.”

So, the truth declared by this seemingly incomplete sentence in Exodus is not that God received some information but that God looked upon the Israelites and empathized with them in their sufferings.  God felt their misery with them.  This God was not the “Unmoved Mover,” but the empathic God who took the people’s pain and humiliation to heart.  Because God “knows” in this relational and responsive sense, something will happen for the people’s benefit.  Remembering the covenant relationship, God is moved and will act.  In the next chapter, we’ll see how God will choose to act, but first we are led to understand that God cares.  Chapter 3 confirms this deeper, richer interpretation of the simple phrase, “and God knew.”  We are not lifting a single word out of context and exaggerating its importance but recognizing how very important that word is in context.

When Christians speak of the Bible as revealed truth, they may mean either of two very different things.  An authoritarian Christianity means, “This is what you must believe and had better believe and obey, or else!”  A Christianity more receptive to grace and less impressed with itself means, “This reveals the way God really is in relation to us and our world.  This gives us hope!”  God is empathic: responsive to human suffering, caring, and compassionate.  God is not indifferent to us.  God is not dismissive of our pains and griefs.  The wealthy and powerful among us may not respect the powerless.  The cries of the vulnerable and used may not resound in corporate boardrooms or move those in high office, but the Bible reveals the God who cares.

The Bible’s truth is relational, and it is redemptive rather than vindictive.  It is not the truth of majesty and power but the truth of empathy and compassion.