Biblical Student

Home » Posts tagged 'Biblical'

Tag Archives: Biblical



Sr. Santosh Maria BS.

The author is a biblical student belonging to the congregation of Bethany in India. She is very passionate about the Word of God. This is published with the permission of the author.

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more Icalled them, the more they went from me;they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in myarms; but they did not know that I healed them.

I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.

The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.

My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.

They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.

images-173God created the human kind in his own image and likeness. He made them male and female. So logically, in God must exist both male and female characteristics, masculine and feminine elements. And He has to have the best qualities of a mother and a father, which are the finest expressions of womanhood and manhood. God has to have the tenderness of a loving mother and the affection of a caring father. In Isaiah 66.13 we read, “You shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip and dandled upon her knees. As the one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” In Jeremiah 31:9d, YHWH speaks to the people, “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first born.” But our salvation history has failed to a greater extent to show the blending of these two natures in God; instead it always depicts God as a male figure in the portrait of a loving father. Even the maternal images depicted in the scriptures are interpreted in paternal dimensions. Hence we experience God partially, most often only as a father and are deprived of his refined and tender qualities. In fact God has no sex but we address only as ‘He,’ and never ‘She’ even though God is ‘she’ as much as ‘he.’ I am sure looking at God’s maternal face will help us to experience the depth of his love for us, a love we missed so long. Through this paper I am trying to encounter the maternal face of YHWH portrayed by Prophet Hosea. He is the prophet of love and to be true to his charism, he has to experience YHWH as a loving father (husband) and mother. And YHWH has blessed him with such a gift of himself/ herself. And in my exegetical study on Hosea11:1-11, I try to encounter the maternal face of God, which the prophet experienced and communicated to us.

1. Delimitation of the Text

The text selected is a clearly defined unit. Hosea 11 begins a new section, and there is not a single key-word linking it to preceding section, 10.9-15. It opens with a historical-theological retrospect. In chapter 12 we find another new beginning without reference to chapter 11, but containing a series of discrete prophetic sayings. Thus Hosea 11 is a separate block whose theme and set of connected key words reveals it as a closed and integral unit.[i] Yet in what sense is 11:1–11, in view of its internal structure, to be considered a unit? First of all, vv 1–7 are clearly combined together by copulae (vv 3, 6, 7); by the use of personal pronouns in the singular (vv 1, 4b, 5a, 6a) or plural (vv 2, 3, 4a, 5b, 6b, 7); for “Israel” (v 1), “Ephraim” (v 3), or at the climax of the passage—for “my people” (v 7a); finally, by the unity of the theme: Israel has responded to YHWH’s love with obstinate disobedience from the very beginning (vv 2, 3, 5, 7).[ii] Only verse10, on the basis of its style and content, diverges from this integral unity.[iii]

Like 10:9–15 it contains a historical reflection on Israel’s past and later changes to a direct address in the passage. But otherwise it shows no sign of being directly connected. A new passage begins with 12:1, where Ephraim/Israel/Judah are the subjects, and the new theme (trickery, lies, violence, etc) does not follow closely chap. 11.[iv]

The passage changes somewhat at v. 8. Here Ephraim (paralleled by Israel) is addressed directly as the dominant subject as opposed to “Israel” in v 1 and “Ephraim” in v 3, each spoken of in the third person. The spirit of the passage shifts to hope and a promise of restoration. This follows the basic pattern expressed in the Mosaic covenant. Blessing and restoration following, destruction and exile (Lev 26:38–45). The passage’s logic presents to us a loving God who reaches out to a child in mercy. For YHWH to show his mercy once again by bringing his “children” back from exile is simply a turn full circle to a new benefaction, as was the theme of 2:4–17, 18–25 and chap. 3. Moreover, if a sense of the court proceeding is to be understood throughout, the decision to show mercy as expressed in vv 8–11 is not so much a contradiction as a development. The plaintiff may choose not to exercise his right to demand utter destruction of the rebel(s), and the judge (YHWH) may partially suspend the capital aspect of the punishment sentence in keeping with the covenant promises of restoration for a remnant (Deut 4:27).[v]

2. Sitz Im Leben of the Text

Hosea delivered his oracles primarily to the northern kingdom. At times, he addressed particular groups such as the priests (4:4–9; 5:1) and the royal house (5:1), all Israel/Ephraim (5:1; 9:1; 11:8) or Judah (6:4, 11), and even particular cities (8:5; 10:15). Whether or not Hosea delivered his oracles personally to these audiences, his words were obviously intended for them and no doubt ultimately reached them. Hosea spoke to a people in need of a word from God. In the early years of his ministry, he addressed a society that had experienced outward success and renewed prosperity under the long reign (792–752 bc) of Jeroboam II (2 Kgs 14:23–29). Politically, the relative weakness of their traditional Assyrian enemies allowed the Northern kingdom to extend its borders to nearly the same size as that enjoyed in the Solomonic era. Economically, it was a time of renewed commerce, building activities, and the amassing of personal wealth (8:14; 12:7–8). But unfortunately, such wealth was often accrued at the expense of common folk (12:7; Amos 4:1–2; 8:4–6) and was a reflection of an immoral and unjust society that had been loosed from its spiritual life. Such conditions only worsened as political disintegration set in, first with the assassinations of Zechariah and Shallum in 752 BCE and the bloody contests that followed in the days of Menahem, Pekahiah, and Pekah (2 Kgs 15:16–31).[vi]

The long history of prevailing sin that characterized Israel’s history finally reached its climax during the reign of its last king, Hoshea (732–722 bc). When the spiritual degeneration of the Northern kingdom had reached intolerable limits (2 Kgs 17:7–17, 20–23), God brought judgment upon his unfaithful people in the form of the defeat and deportation of its populace at the hands of the Assyrians (2 Kgs 17:1–6). Conditions at this time were not much better in the Southern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:18–19); only the rising prominence of Hezekiah stemmed the tide of God’s eventual judgment on Judah. To such an era and such a people, God’s prophet was sent with the message of God’s undying love for them, as well as a declaration of his unwavering standards and conditions for spiritual success. No doubt it was too often a discouraging ministry. Yet through it all, Hosea, like God himself (11:1), loved his people and held out the consoling prospect of God’s ultimate blessing to his repentant and restored people (14:4–7).[vii]

The Sitz im Laben of the chapter 11 can be best sought in prophet’s intimate circle of disciples, where these words were collected and elaborated, even beyond the time of the collapse of the Northern kingdom. Hosea himself, though he may well have seen it coming, probably did not witness the destruction of the capital Samaria and the deportation of the people in 722-721BCE. The words in chapter 11 are from the prophet’s later period and can be regarded as purest and the most perfect form of a painful and mature prophetic life. Hosea 11 seems to be absolutely authentic text and undeniably stems from an 8th century prophet. In spite of its linguistic difficulties, its original and clever images and the relative complicated history of transmission, which often leaves room for the variety of translations, we can clearly see this as one of the most significant theological text from the Northern Kingdom of Israel[viii]. The most probable certainty that this text comes from Hosea himself makes it especially important to illuminate the text from a new and perhaps previously unrecognized angle.[ix]

3. Literary Genre and Literary Context.

Given the fact that Hosea 11 includes speech whose speaker is clearly and unequivocally YHWH, some scholars like Mays, consider it an oracle, or a set of oracles if they divide the text into separate speeches. Some of these speeches may even be organized thematically. Thus, one may maintain, for instance, that Hos 11:1–7 is a “historico-theological accusation.” In addition, Bjornard maintains that the form of vv. 8–9 is “fairly similar to the oracle of doom that we find in 6:4–6” but “instead of the expected conclusion of judgment, there is a total break, with God asserting his love and holy otherness” [x] In its form and genre, Hosea 11 is a historical –theological lament, constructed entirely in the “I” form. YHWH the God of Israel speaks in the first person throughout. Only verse 10, already mentioned forms an exception, as YHWH there is referred in the third person.[xi]

The passage at its outset has similarities to the form of the legal complaint made by parents against a rebellious child (Deut 21:18–21. Isa 1:2–20 where hope is held out that the child [Israel] may yet repent and receive compassion rather than death). Though Hos 11:1–11 is less obviously structured as a legal complaint than the Isaiah oracle, “historical-theological accusation” is a possible designation for it. It contains a statement (as if to the court) of evidence about the child’s rebellion in the face of loving care, a sentence of judgment, but then a surprise (vv 8–11): the plaintiff YHWH, addressing the defendant Israel, changes his mind (v 8) and decides not to destroy Israel utterly (the punishment for a rebellious child in Deut 21 is death) but to restore Israel. This surprise verdict parallels that of 2:16–17. Complaint yields to punishment, then to hope.[xii]

The passage is entirely a divine speech, including, probably, v 10, which refers to YHWH in third person. God who refers metaphorically to himself as “pus” and “infection” (5:12) would hardly avoid comparing himself in first-person speech to a lion. Israel is referred to in the third person singular (vv 1, 4, 5, 6), the third person plural (vv 2–5, 7, 10, 11), and the second person singular (vv 8, 9). The variation of the persons and their pronouns is somewhat unpredictable, but by no means illogical or confusing. To Hosea’s audience it would have been accepted as typical. The suggestion that v 10 is a late Judean gloss is obviated by the fact that nothing in it specifically addresses Judean interests. In structure, the passage shifts from past to present to immediate future, to eschatological future, as follows:

A.     Past: God’s calling and Israel’s rebellion (vv 1–4)
B.     Present and future: immediate threat to Israel for their continuing rebellion (vv 5–7).
C.     Eschatological future: refusal to destroy utterly, and promise of restoration (vv 8–11).[xiii]

4. Major Themes of the Text.

4.1 The God of Hosea

Before we look at the God of Hosea in chapter 11, it is good to understand the Prophet’s view of the God of Israel in general.

Hosea names God “YHWH” more often than “God”when he specifically mentions the one he serves as messenger. For Hosea knows only the God who, since the time of Moses (12:14) has revealed himself in the proclamation of his law and through his liberating acts: “I am YHWH, your God from the land of Egypt…” (12:10; 13:4). Nor does Israel know another as God and savior besides YHWH (13:4b). Hosea is familiar with the interpretation of YHWH’s name in Ex 3:14, as he indicates in his negation of the old covenant formula. YHWH, the ancient God of Israel, is the God whom Hosea proclaims anew. Except for the divine personal name, there is hardly any general mention of “God.” Usually a suffix is attached to אֱלֹהִים (ʾĕlōhîm), so that the word characterizes YHWH as Israel’s God: “YHWH, your God” in 12:10; 13:4; 14:2, “YHWH, their God” in 3:5; 7:10, “their God” in 4:12; 5:4, “your God” in 4:6; 9:1; 12:7, “my God” is said by the people in 2:25; 8:2, by Hosea in 9:17, “our God” in 14:4, “her God,” i.e., Samaria’s God, in 14:1. In those few instances in which “God” appears without a possessive pronoun (3:1; 8:6; 13:4b), the word ‘God’ also serves to elucidate Israel’s right relationship to YHWH alone; otherwise, simply the word “God” appropriately stands only in the pre-Mosaic Jacob tradition (12:4 ). The word ‘אֵל (ʾēl)’emphasizes the incomparability of Israel’s God.[xiv]

Hosea’s language unequivocally shows that he is unable to speak of a divine being in a general religious sense; rather, he speaks precisely of YHWH, who has attested and proved himself in history as the God of Israel. Since this YHWH is God not only of the past but of the present as well, the prophet can use new, extremely bold expressions in referring to him. YHWH has Hosea describe him as “pus to Ephraim” and “rottenness to the house of Judah” (5:12), or as a “lion” that “rends and carries off his prey,” from whom “none shall rescue” (5:14). There is also the imagery of the leopard and the enraged she-bear robbed of her cubs (13:7, 8). The prophet’s language itself strikes in the heart of his audience the terror of YHWH’s presently burning anger (5:10; 13:11). As far as we know, never before had anyone dared to speak of God in this fashion.

Hosea also uses extreme imagery in his announcement of salvation. The power of God’s saving deeds is elucidated by metaphors of the “dew” in 14:6 and of the “luxuriant fruit tree” in v 9.

Hosea’s use of the mythologumenon of YHWH as Israel’s husband has its roots in the prophet’s recognition of Israel’s specific guilt: the people have given themselves to “whoredom.” By her cultic practices and her dependence upon Canaanite mythology and thought, Israel has become unfaithful to YHWH. The metaphor of the “first husband” (2:9, 18) thus has the purpose of elucidating the accusation that Israel is guilty of whoredom and adultery. The context in which these sayings in each case appear indicates how Hosea’s God, in profound sorrow, laments the apostasy of his people; how God suffers under the distress their estrangement prepares for them.[xv]

4.2. The God of Hosea 11.1-11

What is the background of this prophetic saying which speaks of Israel as God’s son? Since the time of ancient Egyptian Wisdom, spiritual son-ship was a concept essential to the ancient oriental ideas of raising and educating children. An eighth century Phoenician gate inscription by Azitawadda of Karatepe, king of the Danunites, stated: “Yea, every king considered me his father because of my righteousness and my wisdom and the kindness of my heart.” Thus, according to the courtly concepts at the time of Hosea, not only righteousness and wisdom, but “goodness of the heart” belonged to the fatherly or motherly image. In the next century an oracle addressed to Bel by Esarhaddon of Assyria assured him that his prayer had been granted in these words: “Fear not, Esarhaddon! I, the god Bel, speak to you. The beams of your heart I strengthen, like your mother, who caused you to exist… When you were small, I sustained you. Fear not.…” These words are very similar to those found in v 1. Here we find the concept of the king as God’s son, known in Egypt since the third millennium, i.e., since the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. A thousand years later, the concept appears in Mari in an oracle of Adad in the following form: “Am I not Adad, the Lord of Kallassu, who raised him (Zimrilim) on my knees.…” In spite of these similarities, it is improbable that Hosea borrowed the concept of Israel as YHWH’s son from the wisdom tradition or the traditions of the court and cult, developing it further antithetically. Hosea’s world of thought is that of Canaanite myth and cults which had exerted its influence upon Israel. According to Canaanite concepts, the father and mother deity belong together. Hosea freely forms and develops his concepts as he struggles against the Canaanite religion. There is no evidence that 11:1-11 is an adaptation of preexisting formulas; rather, it is very likely that Hosea is again struggling against the myth of Baal (vv 2, 7b). In his polemic against Canaanite myth and religion, Hosea speaks of early Israel as the legitimate son of God. Then he freely develops the metaphor, guided above all by the traditions of Israel’s history.[xvi]

In the light of Exodus 4:22f Israel is called by God as “my Son.” YHWH plays the role of a teacher, an educator and a nurse. The helpless dependence of an infant on the adult and the personal involvement of the adult with the child are expressed here in terms of election verbs “loved” and “called” (11:1-2). At the same time more than a father image, the mother element seems to be more apt here. YHWH will deal with Israel according to his holiness in terms of “compassion and tender emotion which parents feel towards a helpless child.” The expression ‘my heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender’ used in this context may support the idea of a “teacher- mother.” Besides the term נהומים (nhwmym) translated as ‘warm’ is close in meaning to רחמים (rḥmym), (the womb) and hence mother figure with all her human gentleness and compelling affection is all the more appropriate here. YHWH as a compassionate mother, committed instructress or dedicated nurse is what Hosea seems to be insinuating in this chapter.[xvii]

So in chapter 11 we encounter a God who is both motherly and fatherly in action. In other words, Hosea seems to struggle to call him “mother”, even though his heart means so. However, he is careful not to attribute any sex to his YHWH. Thus YHWH remains free to be chosen as a father or a mother; yet maternal images seem to prevail. Let us look into the maternal images Hosea attributes to his YHWH.

4.3 The Maternal Images of God in Hos 11.1-11
4.3.1. The Meaning of נער (nʿr)

נער (nʿr) means “lad, youth; servant, retainer.” No precise designation of age is implied, but adolescence is the usual connotation. Kuhnigk renders “slave, servant.”[xviii] However, the נער (nʿr) is not an independent person but subordinated to a parent’s care and affection.

Here the cognate noun נער (nʿr) is used because it is capable of meaning not only ‘boy’, ‘child’ but also ‘servant’, and thus conveys the notion of Israel’s pitiable state of bondage to Egypt. In that Hosea, traces back YHWH’s relationship with the nation to the very beginning. YHWH’s love for Israel and his adoption of the nation as his son depicts the same gracious initiative that is exemplified by the all-important and decisive rescue from servitude in Egypt. By that decisive action, Israel’s special relationship with YHWH is constituted and from that moment the nation becomes YHWH’s son.[xix] YHWH’s words in Hos11:1 is best understood in light of Ex 4:22–23, the commission from YHWH to Moses at the very beginning of his journey to Egypt to lead the exodus: “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go.…” Hosea and Exodus both link the adoption of Israel to son-ship with the liberation from Egypt, the emphasis being placed on the very first encounter of YHWH with his infant nation. Hosea depicts נער (nʿr) Israel in such a way that the נער (nʿr) needs all the care of a mother for its survival which YHWH like a mother provides to “ בְנִֽי (bĕnî).” It looks like Hosea wants us to encounter a motherly God from the very beginning of the chapter. Even though he calls Israel as son, he never attributes a father face to God, but simply describes all that YHWH does for the child. Let us look into those specific maternal actions of YHWH.

4.3.2. Analyses of the Verbs Used to Describe God’s Action אהב (ʾhb)

אהב (ʾhb) = love, friend, niphil-be loveable, piel-love.

The first event in the life of young Israel worthy of report is that YHWH loves him. With this metaphor Hosea was the first to use the word “love” (אהב (ʾhb)) as an interpretation of the election of God’s people. The initiative in the relationship is taken by YHWH who chooses Israel and confers the status of a child on him. The first historical recognition of this is in Exod 4:22 where YHWH says to Pharaoh, “Israel is my child, my firstborn.” The latter term makes the relationship even clearer. Israel is not simply “a child of YHWH.” He is the senior, the privileged heir.[xx] The term אהב (ʾhb) expressing God’s love appears frequently within the circle of theology in which Deutronomist, Hosea and Jeremiah stood. In so far as the covenant is the permanent expression of this elective and exclusive relationship between God and Israel, YHWH’s love is one of the most important bases of the covenant (ברית (bryt) itself. [xxi]

Divine love predominates in Hosea 3:1, 9:15, 11:1, 4, and 14:4. It is evident that אהב (ʾhb) functions in Hosea with direct reference to the divine-human covenant as is so often the case also in Deuteronomy, for in four of the five occasions in Hosea 3;1, 9:15, 11:1 and 11:4, the root אהב (ʾhb) belongs to the semantic domain of divine-human expression of the covenant relationship. Secondly it belongs to the semantic domain of expressing an emotion of love of God for Israel.[xxii] Hosea describes YHWH’s love under the metaphors of motherly love (11:1, 4) and matrimonial love (3:1) but also directly without such metaphors (9:15, 14:4).

Some of the scholars express the intensity of YHWH’s love expressed in Hosea 11. Quell, sums up the significance of Hosea’s love concept of YHWH, “It nearly seems as if God’s love is more powerful in its compelling force than God’s very self.” Snaith, “God’s love for Israel is an unconditional love, a sovereign love, and ‘a love in spite of’ an ‘over plus’ love. Wallis explains it in this way, “When YHWH on account of Israel’s sin punishes them, his love breaks through in terms of lament in 11:8-9.”[xxiii] A close examination of these opinions show us that YHWH’s heart is a motherly heart and his love is more closer to maternal love than of paternal love in its intensity because it is love expressed for נער (nʿr). נער (nʿr) is passive and YHWH does everything for him out of his אהב (ʾhb). קרא (qrʾ)

קרא (qrʾ)To call, to encounter, to meet, cause to happen.

Throughout the Old Testament קרא (qrʾ) finds explicit use as a term to denote the establishment of a relation between a human individual and God. Calling by name is the idiom of choice to express the establishment of a relationship with YHWH. YHWH says that He called his son out of Egypt. “Call” (קרא) is used in a variety of senses in the OT, as in modern English. Here the emphasis is only partly upon “election”/“adoption.” The context suggests that “summon” or “gather” is also intended, and the statement must be seen in the light of divine guidance and protection.[xxiv] It is precisely this call make the Israel ‘a son.’ “From Egypt I called my son,” can be understood as a specification of YHWH’s love. Jeremias rightly puts it thus, “it (concept of call) applies both the calling out of Egypt and calling to be a son; both constituted a single act that happened in a single call.”[xxv] But in reality YHWH’s son rarely cared about the worth of his call. Often YHWH repents for calling him, yet his love is so maternal that he relents, brings his son back to him. ידע (ydʿ)

ידע (ydʿ) – to notice, to hear of, learn, to know (by observation and reflection), to take care of, to know, to know sexually, have intercourse with, copulate, theologically- to take care of someone, to understand something, to have experienced, have understanding.[xxvi]

The root ידע (ydʿ) ‘to know’ is of primary importance to the book of Hosea. With YHWH as the object and Israel as the subject it occurs in Hos 2:10, 22; 4:6; 5:4; 6:3; 8:2; 11:3, and 13:4. Huffmon observes that the root ידע (ydʿ) can indicate Israel’s recognizing YHWH as its legitimate God and vice versa and thus points to covenantal relationship. Thus Israel’s לא ידע (lʾ ydʿ) becomes a refusal to recognize YHWH’s authority.[xxvii] Baumann holds that ידע (ydʿ) in Hosea belongs a realm of psycho-physical emotions and relations.[xxviii] YHWH desires that the people should have an intimate knowledge of him. The sin of Israel primarily consists in her lack of knowledge of him; and this lack implies her forgetfulness of him, her maker.[xxix] Something more than “they knew” is needed for יָדְע֖וּ (yodʿû) the people are blamed for rejecting the knowledge gained by experiencing YHWH’s love and ignoring his healing them. This ידע (ydʿ) is one of intimate relationship they have for each other.[xxx] In this verse the prophet has in mind YHWH’s knowledge for Israel as that of a mother’s remembrance of her infant. However busy may be a mother, her mind will be preoccupied with that of her infant and the infant never goes away from the sight of its mother, even when it hides from her for a little while, soon it returns with a new enthusiasm. Prophet seems to relate to us such a deep knowledge of YHWH for Israel and demands in return the same intensity. It involves volitional and emotional commitment. That is why he accuses them for not recognizing that it was he who healed them. The knowledge of YHWH has two dimensions, on the one hand it demands a response from the people for the salvific acts he has done for them, saving them from the slavery of Egypt, and making them a nation dear to his heart. On the other hand it demands a relationship which is righteous and genuine by being faithful to the commandments he has given to them. YHWH’s heart breaks like that of a mother, when her infant does not recognize her as its mother.רגל (rgl)

רגל (rgl): denominative from רֶגֶל (regel);רָגוּל (rāgûl) hobbled (by tying together the lower leg and the thigh), hif. To accustom, מרוגלת: (mrwglt) = in a belt, to accustom, lead astray; to bend down[xxxi]

The prophet explains the word תִרְגַּ֙לְתִּי֙ (tirgaltiy) (tiphil perfect first person common singular) describing YHWH’s care and guidance for Ephraim.[xxxii] YHWH says, “It was I who taught him to walk, taking them in my arms.” Teaching them to walk expresses his providential care in directing their footsteps. This rightly brings to the mind of the reader, the careful attention a mother bestows on her baby as it progresses to walk independently. She has to bend down and hold her infant’s tiny hand and carefully teach to take its each step one by one. Here YHWH stands in contrast with Baal reminding them of all that he has done for them from the time he brought them out from Egypt.[xxxiii] But this rebellious child went away from His love through ignorance and ingratitude (11:3). The forty years in the wilderness were special times of God’s care. He graciously provided water, quail, and manna for his dependent child, just like a mother feeds her baby. He taught Israel to walk, to depend on him (Deut. 8). That would confirm their son-ship (Deut. 8:5). But God’s people seemed not to understand His care. The murmurings and discontent which fill the pages of Exodus and Numbers stand as evidence of this ignorance and forgetfulness.[xxxiv] Other than here in chapter 2:8, 7:1 and 14:4 the prophet will use this verb, reminding the people their past history of ingratitude and YHWH’s tender love in leading them. This maternal image is a strong reminder for the people to come back again into the loving embrace of this motherly God and to depend on him like a child. רפא (rpʾ)

רָפָא (rāpāʾ)– to heal, to make whole, to be sound, to be healthy.

רְפָאתִֽים (rĕpāʾtîm ) – Verb, Qal perfect first person common singular suffix third person masculine plural.[xxxv]

The word heal speaks of salvation (Hos. 5:13; 6:1; 11:3; 14:4). By it Hosea draws attention to pain and pleasure: the pain of God’s discipline and the pleasure of forgiveness so freely granted to repentant people. A child learning to walk takes many falls. Those cuts and bruises were tenderly cared for by the loving Parent and great Physician. Yet Israel never acknowledged the healing touches of God’s love. Prophet develops a contrast between God’s care and Israel’s obstinate disobedience by extending the metaphor of the child (11:4–5). God is pictured as the child’s mother, who carries the infant Israel strapped to her back or hip in a carrying pouch made of cords of human kindness and with bands of love. Her touch is warm and affectionate, like those who lift infants to their cheeks. The divine Mother holds infant Israel in her lap and bends over to nurse the child (11:4c); the Lord of history suckles Israel. The metaphor breaks our stereotypes of God. What more can a child ask for? Could any mother give her child more tenderness, more liberating guidance, more ample nourishment? The image ends abruptly, as though interrupted by a mother’s pain at her child’s ingratitude. The language turns toward correction (11:5).[xxxvi]

YHWH helped Israel grow to independence, in his tender youth YHWH bore him in his arms and protected him. Israel, however, did not listen to the call of the one who led him out of Egypt, nor did he give attention to the care provided by YHWH’s motherly/ fatherly actions. Israel should have understood this as his “healing.” YHWH, not the Baal, was the physician who saved Israel from the deadly peril in Egypt. In the Pentateuch, the word רפא (rpʾ) occurs only twice; first in the secondary development of the theme “guidance through the wilderness” in Num 12:13. There the word is used in a narrative concerning Moses prophetic office (Hos 12:13) he interceded in Miriam’s behalf after she had been struck by leprosy. The word is found a second time in Ex 15:26, a Deuteronomistic passage in which YHWH categorically refers to himself as Israel’s physician. In Hosea, too, the Exodus-Conquest traditions are connected by the wilderness tradition, v 4 with 13:4–6.[xxxvii] So this verb brings to the mind of the people the whole of their salvation history and the soothing love of their motherly YHWH, often they failed to experience. היה (hyh)

The verb היה (hyh) in Hebrew is also a noun. It is the divine name of the God of Israel. The tetragammaton “YHWH” is a causative imperfect of the Canaanite proto Hebrew root

הוי (hwy), which means “to be.”[xxxviii] The revelation of this name is drawn from the theophany associated with the burning bush. The deity reveals himself to Moses in a verbal descriptive form, a verbal component of the Hebrew root היה (hyh), which means ‘to be,’ not only static existence but also dynamic effectual presence.[xxxix] The same root in ancient time meant ‘to fall out’ or to blow.’ It derives from the imperfect form of היה. Authors interpret it in two ways, whether it is Qal (simple active verbal form) or Hiphil (causative active verbal form) and whether it is present or future, there is no unanimity with regard to its form.[xl] Unlike most of deities of the ancient Near East, YHWH is portrayed alone without company of minor gods. He was not Lord among lords, but the only Lord, the absolute one of Israel. Another very important aspect is that YHWH remained single without a consort, son or daughter. YHWH did not tolerate any other gods beside him and claimed his worshippers to him alone. He was a God of moral purpose, who required unconditional faith and absolute obedience, a God of righteousness and justice and of ethics and morality. He was a God of ethical demands and was not satisfied by mere cultic practices. He appeared in human form (Gen1:26-27) and was against his people making his idols in any form. Because of the sanctity attached to his name, the people dared not to pronounce his name and so they called him אדוני (ʾdwny), which means ‘my great Lord.’ But soon the people sought after a God whom they could relate closely. And so they went after the pagan gods whom their neighbors worshipped through the idols and practiced some fertility cults which were very much appealing to their senses.[xli]At this juncture Hosea offers a new face of YHWH, which more appealing to the senses as well as to the heart. Formerly he pictured YHWH like a faithful husband who goes after his way ward wife, each time forgives her and speaks tenderly to her heart. Still the people failed to grasp the depth of YHWH’s love and so now he portraits a motherly face of YHWH to the people. Like a mother to an infant so YHWH is to the Israel. YHWH mother loves them with an everlasting love, unable to punish them forever.

4.4. The Images of Lifting up a Child and Bending Down to Feed

Nwaoru identifies in this phrase the image of YHWH as an affectionate mother who tries to feed her infant. He understands this image as an adaptation of the image of a goddess of the Ancient Near Eastern literature. Then what is new in Hosea? It is the daring courage to project his personal God YHWH in the imagery of a mother, otherwise considered as a male God.[xlii] Schungel-Straumann sees here motherly feeding of a suckling. In the place of לְחֵיהֶ֑ם (lĕḥêhem ) “to their cheeks,” she readלחיקם (lḥyqm) “to their breasts,” as it then may explain the plural also. She takes both the lifting up of the child to the breasts and bending down to the infant as denoting the same action. While infant is lifted up high, YHWH must bend down.[xliii] Clearly the comparison of God’s love with the love of a mother indicates that in the eyes of Hosea such a motherly love is the most constant, most reliable, and most consistent of all forms of human caring. Hosea brings down the all holy God to pick up the infant Israel and feed it. Through this imagery the prophet wanted to show the people the depth of YHWH’s love and the ingratitude the people returned in the form of apostasy.[xliv]

4.5. The Meaning of “Heart Recoiling”
(נֶהְפַּ֤ךְ עָלַי֙ לִבִּ֔י יַ֖חַד נִכְמְר֥וּ נִחוּמָֽי (nehpak ʿālay libbî yaḥad nikmĕrû niḥûmāy))

In Hosea 11:8, we read thus, How can I give you up Ephraim, can I deliver you up Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboim? My heart recoils within me, my entrails become altogether warm. Here the love of God appears to imitate the passionate human being or, better yet, the affectionate mother. “My heart is upset, just as a woman would say about her child. My heart is upset just like the mother’s.” [xlv]

The verb הפך (hpk) occurs in qal, niphal, and hithpael conjugations and “can refer an action that brings about a sudden change or to a process that suddenly and abruptly upsets a chain of events or a condition, often changing it into the opposite.”[xlvi] In this respect, YHWH’s fervent self-caution not to destroy Israel totally is not surprising here. In spite of his obstinate ways, Israel is not totally lost. Above all, YHWH has not given him up; rather, he attempts to bring him back by his disciplinary measures, although in vain. The other occurrences of Admah and Zeboim in the Old Testament are found only in connection with Sodom and Gomorrah: Gen 10:19. Hosea refers to a tradition attested in Dt 29:21f which tells how YHWH’s burning anger overcame these cities, totally destroying all life and the possibility of renewed life. Now, on the other hand, at the time when the worst difficulties are befalling Israel, Hosea lays the foundation for the certainty that YHWH will never conclusively surrender Israel. Israel will not be completely “overturned”as the cities mentioned here; rather, there will be an “overturning,” i.e., a change, in YHWH’s heart. YHWH’s will is directed against Himself, i.e., against his wrath (v 9a). In the phrase “my heart turns against me” (נהפך לבי בקרבי (nhpk lby bqrby)),בקרב (bqrb) is replaced by עלי (ʿly) which has a hostile sense. The rarely used word “remorse” (נחומים (nḥwmym)) emphasizes the turning point in YHWH’s will.[xlvii] The word נחומים (nḥwmym) occurs only thrice in the Old Testament, once here, in Is 57:18, and in Zech 1:13. The emotion is one of compassion and pity; it describes the desire to bring consolation. As such it is close in meaning to רחמים (rḥmym). נכמר (נכמר), always Nipʿal, means “to become hot,” as the comparison with the Owven shows (Lam 5:10). In Gen 43:30 and 1 Kings 3:26, it describes the arousal of the most tender affection. The subject in both of these places isרחמים (rḥmym), and the feeling is one of pure love with no element of pity or compassion.[xlviii] The very word רחמים (rḥmym) takes us back to the womb of a mother, whose heart is always warm for her children. She cannot punish her children for eternity but only for a while and if the punishment is one of great shame she will soon change her heart and relent. There is no doubt that Hosea is presenting to the people of Israel such a YHWH with a wombish heart, who cannot but struggle within himself, a struggle between justice and love, always love prevailing. At this point I would like to quote what Theodore of Cyril commented on this verse, “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute the fierceness of my anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.” God imitates a father and mother who are naturally worried and cannot turn away from their children for too long. He says that, however, not because he wills one thing now and then changes his mind. Rather, he expresses his thought in different ways, in anger and love, in threat and mercy, chastising and persuading.[xlix]

4.6. The Implications of “Returning Home”

They will come trembling like birds from Egypt,
Like doves from the land of Assyria,
And I will make them return to their homes, oracle of YHWH.

Accordingly, the final period of the nation’s history is not to be dominated by the consequences of Israel’s deeds; rather, the future will be determined by YHWH’s decision to let his love rule. Now Hosea proclaims the return of an anxious people who are to return home trembling from foreign lands: Israel will no longer seek false political alliances; the threat of weakness and death in Egypt and Assyria is rescinded. The people are to achieve a peaceable life in the land. The preposition על (ʿl) (“to [lit. ‘on’] their houses”) quite probably is not a continuation of the metaphor of the bird that again finds his nest, since in v 11b Hosea leaves the metaphor and speaks of the people themselves. He most probably uses “house” (בית (byt)) again in the sense of (native) residence as in 8:1; 9:15. Hence, YHWH’s love finally prevails, achieving its goal of peace: Israel is delivered from Egypt.[l] Egypt and Assyria stand in contrast with בית (byt). Now YHWH is bringing them to their own homes. The image of a home brings to our mind warm feeling of love and safety, children experience in the presence of their parents. There is a greater freedom to be oneself, in the midst of the loved ones. Such a joy is offered by YHWH to the people of God. It is an unconditional promise, in spite of their unfaithfulness. He assumes the role of an affectionate mother and a protective father. This home coming after the exile implies beginning of a renewed covenantal blessing. Thus this ‘home coming’ can assume a new exodus.[li]

5. The Original Meaning of the Text

YHWH speaks through Hosea of having brought his people out of Egypt in order to make a covenant with them. This time Israel is a son, a beloved one, who though richly endowed, violated every overture and expression of divine affection. The result would be an inevitable Assyrian conquest and dispersion (v. 5), though not with irremediable and permanent consequences (vv 8-11).[lii] He must return to the land of Egypt 8:13, 9:3–6, 11:11. The prophets had both Egypt and Assyria in mind as places of exile; both powers are constantly threatening invasion; Is. 7:18. Predictions are made of restoration from both countries. [liii] This chapter gives a very pathetic representation of God’s tender and affectionate regard for Israel, by metaphors chiefly borrowed from the conduct of mothers toward their tender offspring. From this, occasion is taken to reflect on their ungrateful return to the Divine goodness, and to denounce against them the judgments of the Almighty, 1–7. But suddenly and unexpectedly the prospects change. Beams of mercy break from the clouds just now fraught with vengeance. God, to speak in the language of men, feels the relenting of a tender parent; his bowels yearn; his mercy triumphs; his rebellious child shall yet be pardoned. As the lion of the tribe of Judah, he will employ his power to save his people, he will call his children from the land of their captivity; and, as doves, and they will fly to him, a faithful and a holy people, 8–12.[liv]

This reading conveys a strong message of hope in the form of a divine self-disclosure in which YHWH characterizes not only as a deity unable to completely destroy Israel, no matter how the gravity of its deeds, but also as one who will bring Israel back to himself and to the land at some point in the future. It communicates and reinforces images of YHWH as a God (mother) emotionally involved with child Israel and, therefore, as protective of Israel in a very fundamental sense. [lv] In fact, the text reflects and shapes a discourse in which past and future seem fixed in a closely linked relationship that is expressed and communicated even at the level of word choice. הלך (hlk)“go” in Hos 11:2 and 10, and references to Egypt in 11:1, 5, and 11, from the larger perspective of Hos 4:1–11:11.[lvi]

6. The Relevance of the Text for Today’s World

To imagine God as a father seems to be an easy task for most, because the centuries have taught us to do so, but in reality it is tougher to meet God as a father than to meet God as a mother. All those who have experienced the bitterness of patriarchal rule, the father figure is not as sweet as it should be. But mother icon has always remained as gentle and caring, forgiving and self giving, although exceptions are there in both the cases.

Carefully going through the scripture we get ample of maternal images of God, but often they too are figured in masculine terms. Is 42:14 uses a simile of YHWH experiencing labor pains. Is 49:14 speaks of God as a mother. Many other biblical images picture God as one who carries (Hos11:3-4), feeds (Wis16:20-21), protects (Dt32:11-12), heals, guides, disciplines, comforts (Is66:13-14), washes (Ezk36:25), and clothes (Gen3:21) her human children.

In an ancient Syriac work, “Odes of Solomon” of the third century, female imagery is employed for God. He is pictured as a “milked mother” and “nurturing mother.”[lvii] St Clement of Alexandria speaks of God as a suckling one. To Clement the aspect of God’s nature that has sympathy with human kind is mother. St John Chrysostom uses imaginary of a woman nourishing her baby with her own blood and milk. St Ambrose of Milan speaks of the Fathers’ womb and even of the nourishing breasts of Christ. St Therese of Avila in her Interior Castle comments, “For from those divine breasts where it seems God is always sustaining the soul there flow streams of milk bringing comfort to the people.”[lviii]According to Anna Maria Tependio, women express the tender (חסד (ḥsd)) side of God, the maternal womb (רהמים (rhmym)), concern for children who suffer the most. The father becomes feminine through loving. We see the greatest proof of this in the Son who proceeds from God’s very bosom.[lix] John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatam writes, In various passages of the Scripture the love of God who cares for his people is shown to be like that of a mother: thus, like a mother God “has carried” humanity, and in particular, his Chosen People, within his own womb; he has given birth to it in travail, has nourished and comforted it (Is 42:14; 46: 3-4). In many passages God’s love is presented as the “masculine” love of the bridegroom and father but also sometimes as the “feminine” love of a mother (Hosea 11:1-4; Jer 3:4-19).[lx]

Keeping all these maternal images of God in mind, the reading of Hosea 11 will take any one to an entirely new realm of God’s care. The marginalized and the orphans can experience special care of a mother YHWH who needs them. The sinners can return to the ‘warm heart’ of this tender loving mother, who forgets her child’s misdeeds after a while. The handicapped and differently able can feel the security in their YHWH’s arms for YHWH like a loving mother has enough time for them. Whatever is ones sex or age, most of us feel so close to ones’ mother, and it is a human tendency to feel like a child in order to experience maximum security. It is like returning to one’s mother’s house, one of the greatest joys of every human heart!


When a little child hurts its little finger and cries, its mother comes, picks up the little one and kisses at the little finger, the child feels all better, and such would be the experience of a person who reads through Hosea 11:1-11. A God so human like an affectionate mother follows you right from your birth to your returning home. YHWH loves you, cares for you, feeds you, lifts you up to her cheeks, teaches you to walk, scolds you, punishes you, and brings you back to her love and keeps you forever as her possession. Hosea purposefully adopts this maternal image of God, for Israel needs a new image to experience YHWH in a new way. This passage is described as the Gospel of the Old Testament, for it says with John ‘God is love.’ In the first chapters Hosea presents YHWH as a faithful husband contrasting an unfaithful wife, and here a faithful mother against an unfaithful child. As I did my exegetical study on Hosea 11, I have the satisfaction of meeting a motherly God, who bore the Israel in her womb and delivered her as a new nation, while bringing them out of Egypt. Deliverance from Egypt was not a one day affair, but YHWH like a mother bore them. His ‘calling’ them from Egypt was indeed the result of his love. They knew and experienced YHWH very personally and were attached to him like a child to its mother. However Hosea brings out in this chapter the failure of that love story and the enduring love of YHWH, who cannot but love. Like a mother who is unable to punish her child who indeed needs a punishment, YHWH too struggles. Thus we encounter the maternal face of YHWH.

[i] Helen Schungel-Straumann, “God as Mother in Hosea” in A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets (ed. A. Berner; London: T &T Clark Ltd, 2004), 194-218.

[ii]Hans Walter Wolff, Hosea: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Hosea (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 193.

[iii] This verse is regarded by most of the commentators as a reference to Amos1.2 and other similar passages which are of later insertion.

[iv] Straumann, “God as Mother in Hosea,” 195.

[v]Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah (WBC 3; Dallas: Word Press, 2002), 176.

[vi] C.L. Seow, “Hosea, The Book of,” ABD 3:291.

[vii]Richard D. Patterson and Andrew E. Hill, Minor Prophets: Hosea-Malachi (CBC 10; Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 4.

[viii] Hosea is the only writing prophets from the northern kingdom. Amos appeared in the northern Kingdom, but he came from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Hosea by contrast was a native of Northern Israel in his origins, his world of ideas and his theological thinking. His language is often difficult to understand.

[ix]Straumann, “God as Mother in Hosea,” 197-8.

[x]Ehud Ben Zvi, Hosea vol. 21A/1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 232.

[xi] Straumann, “God as Mother in Hosea,” 195.

[xii]Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 175.

[xiii]Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 178.

[xiv]Hans Walter Wolff, Hosea: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Hosea (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 25.

[xv]Wolff, Hosea, 26.

[xvi] Wolff, Hosea, 197.

[xvii] R.J Raja, “YHWH: Motherly Father-Fatherly Mother?” Vaiharai 4(1999): 5-22.

[xviii] Francis I. Andersen, and Freedman, David Noel. Hosea (AB 5; Garden City: Doubleday, 1980), 576.

[xix] Macintosh, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Hosea, 437.

[xx]Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 576.

[xxi]P.J.J.S.Els, “אהב,” NIDOTT1: 277.

[xxii]Els, NIDOTT1: 279.

[xxiii] Els, NIDOTT1: 280.

[xxiv] Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, 178.

[xxv] Kakkanattu, God’s Enduring Love, 42.

[xxvi] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, “,ידע” n.p., HALOT vols 1-4. On CD- ROM Version c. 1994-96.

[xxvii] Kakkanattu, God’s Enduring Love, 54-55.

[xxviii] Kakkanattu, God’s Enduring Love, 120.

[xxix] Gunnar Odtborn, YHWH and Baal, (Lund: Hakan Ohlssons Boktryckeri, 1956), 69.

[xxx] J.K.solari, “Hosea, Book of,” NCE 7:115-116.

[xxxi] E.J. Brill, “רגל,” THALOT 4:1183-86.

[xxxii]E. H. Merrill, “רגל,” TDOT 13:1047-49.

[xxxiii]William Rainey Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 363.

[xxxiv]Allen R. Guenther, Hosea and Amos: Believers’ Church Bible Commentary ( Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 179.

[xxxv]Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, “, רָפָא ” n.p., HALOT vols 1-4. On CD- ROM Version c. 1994-96.

[xxxvi] Guenther, Hosea and Amos, 179.

[xxxvii] Wolff, Hosea, 199.

[xxxviii] S. David, Sperling. “God in the Hebrew Scriptures,” The Encyclopedia of Religion 6:1-8

[xxxix] George Fohrer, History of Israelite Religion, David E Green, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1972), 77.

[xl] Paul Palatty, “The Divine name of YHWH: A Historico-Theologico-Critical Study on Ex.3:3-15” BB1 (1993): 5- 18.

[xli] T. Xavier Terence, “Be Mine: YHWH’s Invitation to Israel,” IJS 25(2012):245-71.

[xlii] Kakkanattu, God’s Enduring Love, 62.

[xliii] Straumann, “God as Mother in Hosea,”124-125.

[xliv] Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: Biblical Imagery of God as Female (New York: The Cross Road Publishing Company, 1984), 20.

[xlv]Alberto Ferreiro, The Twelve Prophets: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture OT 14. ( Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 45.

[xlvi] Kakkanattu, God’s Enduring Love, 79.

[xlvii] Wolff, Hosea, 201.

[xlviii] Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 588.

[xlix] Ferreiro, The Twelve Prophets, 45.

[l] Wolff, Hosea, 202.

[li] Kakkanattu, God’s Enduring Love, 99.

[lii] Eugine H. Merrill, “History, Theology, and Hermeneutics,” NIDOTTE 1: 68-85.

[liii] Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea, 366.

[liv]Adam Clarke, “ Hosea,” n.p., Clarke’s Commentary on CD-ROM. Version c.1999.

[lv]Ehud Ben Zvi, Hosea 21A/1 (Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 239.

[lvi] Ben Zvi, Hosea, 226.

[lvii] Isaac Arckappalil, “Feminine Face of God.” AH 3 (2009): 31-39.

[lviii] Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine, 8-9.

[lix] Linda A. Moody, Women Encounter God: Theology across the Boundaries of Difference (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 64.

[lx] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Muleris Dignitatem, 8, 1987.


Primary Sources
Andersen, Francis I. and Freedman, David Noel. Hosea. Anchor Bible 5. Garden City: Doubleday, 1980.
Bitterweck, G.Johannes, Riggren, Helmer and Fabry, Josef, eds. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 16 vols. Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
Elliger, K., and W. Rudolph, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1997. Repr., Funfte: Verbesserte Auflage, 1997.
Gemeren, Willem A.Van, ed. New International Dictionary of the Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. 5vols. Michigan: Zonder Publishinng House, 1997.
Koehler, Ludwig and Baumgartner, Walter. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament vols1-4. On CD-ROM. Logos Library System Version c.1994-96.
Marthaler, Bernard L, ed. New Catholic Encyclopedia. 19 vols. Washington: Gale Group, 2003.
Mircea, Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. 6 vols. New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, 1987.
Noel Freedman, David, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. New York: Double Day, 1992.

Secondary Sources
Ben Zvi, Ehud. Hosea 21A/1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
Clarke, Adam. “Hosea.” Clarke’s Commentary on CD-ROM. Logos Library System Version c.1999.
Ferreiro, Alberto. The Twelve Prophets: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture OT 14. Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 2003.
Fohrer, George. History of Israelite Religion. Translated by David E. Green, New York: Abingdon Press, 1972.
Guenther,Allen R. Hosea, Amos: Believers’ Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998.
Harper, William Rainey. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1905.
John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem, Apostolic Letter, 1987.
Kakkanattu, Joy Philip. God’s Enduring Love in the Book of Hosea. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006.
Macintosh, A. A. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Hosea. Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 1997.
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. The Divine Feminine: Biblical imagery of God as Female. New York: The Cross Road Publishing Company, 1984.
Moody, Linda A. Women Encounter God: Theology across the Boundaries of Difference. New York: Orbis Books, 1996.
Odtborn, Gunnar. YHWH and Baal. Lund: Hakan Ohlssons Boktryckeri, 1956.
Patterson, Richard D. and Hill, Andrew E. Minor Prophets: Hosea-Malachi. Cornerstone Biblical Commentaries. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008.
Straumann, Helen Schungel. “God as Mother in Hosea.” Pages 194-218 in A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets. Edited by A. Berner. London: T &T Clark Ltd, 2004.
Stuart, Douglas. Hosea- Jonah. Word Biblical Commentary 31. Dallas: Word Press, 2002.
Wolff, Hans Walter. A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

Arckappalil, Isaac “Feminine Face of God.” Asian Horizons 3(2009): 31-39.
Palatty, Paul. “The Divine name of YHWH: A Historico-Theologico_Critical Study on Ex.3:3- 15.” Bible Bhashyam 1 (1993): 5-18.
Raja, R.J “YHWH: Motherly Father-Fatherly Mother?” Vaiharai 4 (1999): 5-22.
Terence, Xavier. “Be Mine: YHWH’s Invitation to Israel,” Indian Journal of Spirituality 25 (2012): 245-71.


Envisioning Equality : An Analysis of James 2:1-13

LadyJusticeDecal1(1) My brothers (and sisters), Have no partiality in the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. (2) For if a man with gold ring and in shining clothes comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in dirty clothes also comes in, (3) you may look at the one wearing the shining clothes and say, “Sit here, a good place” and to the poor man you say, “Stand there” or “Sit under my footstool.” (4) Do you make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges of evil reasoning? (5) Hear, my beloved brethren, did not God choose the poor in the world, rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those loving him? (6) But you dishonoured the poor. Do not the rich oppress you and themselves drag you into tribunal? (7) Do they themselves not defame the good name that was invoked over you? (8) If, however, you fulfill the Royal Law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you do well. (9) But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (10) But whoever may keep the whole law but stumble on one, he has become guilty of all. (11) For the one who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. (12) So speak and so act as to be judged through the law of liberty. (13) For it is merciless judgment to the one who had done no kindness. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

In a modern democratic state, we often hear about equality and justice for all. In such an idealistic scenario, the unequal treatment that the biblical author speaks about in James 2:1-13 runs counter to our expressed ethos. Yet, the reality still pricks our conscience and the passage becomes a real challenge for us. The call that resounds in the passage is to love the neighbour as oneself. This passage on respect of persons, prejudice, partiality, favouritism, or snobbery is one of the most abidingly challenging and relevant sections of James.[i]

My study here will follow the following method. After investigating the background of the Epistle and the pericope of my interest in the first section, I will do an exegetical analysis of the pericope in the second section. The third section will be a hermeneutical study of the text in the context of the present day modern world, especially that of the church in India.

1. Background Analysis of the Text

1.1 An Introduction to the Epistle of James

The author of the Epistle of James (now on as the Epistle) identifies himself as James. He qualifies himself as the servant of God and of Jesus Christ (Jas 1:1). He is arguably a teacher (Jas 3:1). Scholars differ on the identity of this James.[ii] However, the tune and the mood of the epistle show that the author did exercise a great authority in the early church. He probably had access to the Q material of Jesus, especially to the Sermon on the Mount. He was someone who had the first-hand experience of Jesus and his teachings. As many in the recent scholarly field agree, he is most probably James, the brother of the Lord (Gal 1:19) who had a great authority in the Jerusalem church.[iii]

Since the epistle is from someone who had a first-hand experience of Jesus Christ, we must conclude that the author wrote in the early stages of Christianity. The absence of an elaborated Christology[iv] might point to a fact that the writer never felt the need to do so as his potential readers had already accepted Jesus as Christ. Many teachings of Jesus, especially that of the Q appears in James but unlike in Gospels as direct quotations.[v] In most probability, the readers were well aware of the sayings of Jesus, that the just mentioning of it could remind them of Jesus. Although there are differences in the scholarly circle one can, thus, easily find reasons to date the Epistle to be of an early tradition, when the Christianity was just an offshoot of Judaism.[vi]

James’ address (1:1) to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” leaves open the possibility that he writes to more than one community. Although, this community is manifestly Jewish in character, it is unmistakably a Christian writing[vii] and understands Jesus as Lord and Chirst (1:1) and as Our Lord (2:1). Therefore I prefer to use the general term “Jewish Christians”[viii] to refer to the first readers of the Epistle.

There is no consensus among the scholars with regard to the literary genre of the Epistle. Martin Dibelius considered the Epistle as a paraenesis- a genre of hortatory literature which resisted any immediate application to a single audience or single set of circumstances and lacked any demonstrable continuity of thought.[ix] But, James is now widely perceived to be an intentionally ordered, coherent composition, rather than a stringing together of loosely connected units lacking continuity of thought.[x] The Epistle does have traces of the Greek literary style of diatribe. But it is found only occasionally.[xi] The Epistle is of Jewish sapiental literature.[xii] I believe that the Epistle is a masterpiece of the Christian rhetoric, which could be considered as a pastoral epistle[xiii] which uses a superior Greek rhetoric style.

1.2. De-limiting the Study

There are four significant structural indicators on the macro-discourse level of the Epistle. These include inclusions crafted at 1:2-4/1:12, 1:12/1:25, 2:12-13/4:11-12, and 4:6/5:6. The first two indicates a structural reason for taking the first chapter of the Epistle as an introduction to the book. [xiv] “The third major inclusio, crafted at 2:12-13/4:11-12, marks off the heart of the letter body (2:1–5:6). The opening of the inclusio (2:12-13) summarizes and concludes the opening essay in the body of the letter (2:1-11), and the closing of the inclusio (4:11-12) forms a transition to the closing of the body of the letter (4:13–5:6). Thematically, both opening and closing essays concentrate specifically on issues of poverty and wealth.”[xv] The inclusio may be depicted as follows. [xvi]

Table 1



λαλεῖτε (laleite)

καταλαλεῖτε / ὁ καταλαλῶν / καταλαλεῖ (katalaleite / ho katalalōn / katalalei)

ποιεῖτε (poieite)

ποιητὴς νόμου (poiētēs nomou)

ὡς διὰ νόμου ἐλευθερίας (hōs dia nomou eleutherias)

καταλαλεῖ νόμου (katalalei nomou)

μέλλοντες κρίνεσθαι (mellontes krinesthai)

καὶ κρίνει νόμον (kai krinei nomon)

κρίνεσθαι / κρίσις / κρίσεως (krinesthai / krisis / kriseōs)

ὁ κρίνων (x2) / κρίνει / κρίνεις / κριτής (ho krinōn (x2) / krinei / krineis / kritēs)

Thus, the inclusio provides a clue that the chapter one serves as an introduction to the whole of the Epistle and 2:1- 4:12 forms the major section of the Epistle. And in this major section 2:1-13 forms the first essay of the Epistle.

James’ use of Ἀδελφοί μου (Adelphoi mou) (My brothers) (1:19, 2:1, 2:14) is an indication that he intends to start a new section. But if it is taken for face value that whenever ‘Ἀδελφοί μου’ (Adelphoi mou) is used, it is an indication of the beginning of a new section, it would be faulty. James uses ‘Ἀδελφοί μου’ (Adelphoi mou) also to get attention from his readers (eg.2:5).

Although there is continuity with regard to the theme of the pericope from that of the earlier one, especially with regard to the mentioning of the perfect law in 1:25, this pericope (i.e. 2:1-13) deals with the issue of partiality in particular. One author has argued that James uses many mirrors (cf 1:22-25) for the readers to understand themselves. This teaching against being partial is the first mirror he uses.[xvii] So we can find a thematic difference here from the earlier pericope which deals with the hearing and doing the word and about the pure religion and the following pericope which deals with the relationship between faith and works. This is a base for a successful de-limitation of the text.

1.3. Literary Genre of the Text

Form criticism has identified the literary genre of the pericope as “treatise.” It follows the below pattern.[xviii]

Thesis : 2:1

Illustration : 2:2-4

Exposition : 2:5-11

Conclusion : 2:12-13

The pericope also contains elements of Greek rhetoric, antithetical parallelism, and diatribe style. These will be discussed further in the exegetical analysis.

1.4. Context of the Text

The literary context of the text is already explained in the section under de-limitation. The pericope is the first major section of the teaching of the Epistle. This passage fits coherently within the flow of the letter. James has already introduced the theme of caring for the needy (1:27).[xix] The analogy of the one who looks into the mirror is further developed by James as he invites his readers to look into their attitude and behaviour through the mirror of the royal law. One can easily find the motive of James in taking the side of the poor and marginalized.

James carries on this discussion in the following chapters. In 2:12 he says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. In 2:14-26, he explains the need to act according to the law of liberty and in 3:1-12, the need to speak properly. Therefore 2:1-13, serves as an important passage which explains the concern of James.

The historical context of the passage can be perplexing. The use of the word ‘synagogue’ could point to the fact that the Christianity in James was not yet separated from Jewish religion. According to scholars, the setting could be either of worship or a court. Whatever be the situation, one can without doubt confirm that everything in the community of James was not perfect. Poor were looked down and were treated unequally while the rich continued to oppress them.

1.5. Structure of the Text

I have structured the text as follows in the line of the literary genre of treatise.

1. Thesis (2:1)

2. Illustration (2:2-4)

a. An Example (2-3)

b. Conclusion (4)

3. Exposition (2:5-13)

a. First Argument (5-6a)

b. Second Argument (6b-7)

c. Third Argument (8-11)

4. Conclusion (2:12-13)

2. Exegetical Study of the Text

2.1. Thesis (2:1)

Greek Text: Ἀδελφοί μου, μὴ ἐν προσωπολημψίαις ἔχετε τὴν πίστιν τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τῆς δόξης.

( Adelphoi mou, mē en prosōpolēmpsiais echete tēn pistin tou kyriou hēmōn Iēsou Christou tēs doxēs.)

James begins this pericope with the common rhetorical address “my brothers” (Adelphoi mou). This indicates his relationship with his listeners as brothers in Christ. This also has a purpose to introduce a new topic. The word Ἀδελφοί (Adelphoi) in plural can also mean brothers and sisters. [xx] Therefore it is correct to translate this as ‘My brothers and sisters’ (NRSV).

The term προσωπολημψίαις (prosōpolēmpsiais) is not found in either secular Greek or the LXX. It is apparently a creation of the early Christian tradition to translate a common Hebrew term nāsā’ p̄ānı̂m (נָשָׂא פָּנִים ) (LXX πρόσωπον λαμβάνειν (prosōpon lambanein) or θαυμάζειν πρόσωπον (thaumazein prosōpon))[xxi] which literally means ‘to look down on somebody’s face.’ The proper meaning of προσωπολημψία would be to discriminate people according to their appearance. The prohibition of προσωπολημψία (prosōpolēmpsia) is found in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:15; Ps. 132:2; Mai. 2:9); it is against the nature of God (Deut. 10.17; Job 34:19; cf. Acts 10:34). Its usage here almost resembles that of Lev. 19:15. In both places, it is a prohibition to treat people according to their riches or poverty.

The teaching prohibits expressing faith (πίστις(pistis)) while holding discrimination.[xxii] Faith is a response to the revelation of God as manifested in ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’. A response that holds prejudice and discriminate people according to their appearance is not Christian. The word πίστις (pistis) takes an objective genitive here. Therefor the clear meaning of the phrase is the faith of the believer in ‘our glorious lord Jesus Christ.’

‘τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τῆς δόξης’ (tou kyriou hēmōn Iēsou Christou tēs doxēs) is a long phrase which makes it difficult to translate it correctly into English. This phrase is translated differently by many scholars. Those who hold on to the view that the Epistle is just a re-edited Jewish work, argue that the phrase ‘ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ’ (hēmōn Iēsou Christou) is added by the editor. It might seem to make perfect sense to read ‘τοῦ κυρίου τῆς δόξης (tou kyriou tēs doxēs).’ τῆς δόξης (tēs doxēs) is identified with the Shekinah of Old Testament. In Old Testament Shekinah (from the root שכן (škn) “to dwell”) means the visible presence of the Lord.[xxiii] Israelites experience this presence of the Lord in the form of fire and cloud in the wilderness. Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon said, “two that sit together and are occupied in words of Torah have the Shekinah among them.”[xxiv] However, by adding the phrase Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Iēsou Christou) James seems to be equating the presence of Jesus with that of God. Probably the early Jewish Christian believers hailed Jesus as the Shekinah or visible manifestation of the divine splendor.[xxv] It could also mean that the believer experiences the living presence of Lord Jesus Christ in the community (Mt. 18:20). This presence makes it a maxim to avoid all types of partiality or prejudice in the community.

The thesis of the treatise could, therefore, be read as- “My brothers and sisters, you should not hold on to your prejudice and treat people according to their physical status as you live an authentic Christian life responding to the revelation of Jesus Christ in his abiding presence.”

2.2. Illustration (2:2-4)

Verses 2-4 comprise one long sentence in the Greek text. The long ‘if’ clause sets up the situation and the two main clauses critique the situation by raising two rhetorical questions[xxvi] through an explanatory καὶ. After stating the thesis in the first verse, James illustrates his thesis with an example in verses2-3. Like the story the poor man’s lamb told by Prophet Nathan to King David, this illustration serves as a mirror for the members of the community to understand the unequal treatment they offer to different human beings. Thus the conclusion in verse 4 is drawn in two rhetorical questions accusing them of making distinctions and becoming judges with evil reasoning.

2.2.1. An Example (2-3)

Greek Text : 2 ἐὰν γὰρ εἰσέλθῃ εἰς συναγωγὴν ὑμῶν ἀνὴρ χρυσοδακτύλιος ἐν ἐσθῆτι λαμπρᾷ, εἰσέλθῃ δὲ καὶ πτωχὸς ἐν ῥυπαρᾷ ἐσθῆτι, 3 ἐπιβλέψητε δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν φοροῦντα τὴν ἐσθῆτα τὴν λαμπρὰν καὶ εἴπητε, Σὺ κάθου ὧδε καλῶς, καὶ τῷ πτωχῷ εἴπητε, Σὺ στῆθι ἐκεῖ ἢ κάθου ὑπὸ τὸ ὑποπόδιόν μου,

ean gar eiselthē eis synagōgēn hymōn anēr chrysodaktylios en esthēti lampra, eiselthē de kai ptōchos en rhypara esthēti, 3 epiblepsēte de epi ton phorounta tēn esthēta tēn lampran kai eipēte, Sy kathou hōde kalōs, kai tō ptōchō eipēte, Sy stēthi ekei ē kathou hypo to hypopodion mou

Ἐάν (ean) with the subjunctive denotes that which under certain circumstances is expected from an existing general or concrete standpoint in the present: ‘case of expectation’ and ‘iterative case in present time’.[xxvii] Therefore, it denotes that even if the case that James presents is hypothetical, his readers can agree to this as happening in the real time and often.

In the New Testament it is the only instance where the word συναγωγή (synagōgēn) is used to address a Christian assembly. The word συναγωγή (synagōgēn) means a meeting place. In the religious context, it is primarily a Jewish place of meeting or meeting itself, preferably for worship.[xxviii] This has also been a reason for some scholars to think that the Epistle was originally written to Jews. But συναγωγή is also used for the liturgical meetings and meeting-places of Christians.[xxix] However, some scholars think that the setting is of a court (1 Cor. 6:1–11).[xxx] The legal vocabulary that follows in the pericope adds strength to their argument. But Davids is wrong to argue on the ground that both the men are strangers who need to be directed to take a seat. In the Synagogues, there was an official called חזן (ḥzn) who directed people to their seats. It was a regular custom in the Synagogue.[xxxi] A possible allusion to the practice of giving preference is found in Matt. 23:6b (“the Pharisees who love the best seats in the synagogues”).[xxxii] The main argument of the pericope is the partial treatment that is rendered to the poor and it does not matter where it occurs. Both the arguments can co-exist without being paradoxical. Probably Christians came together for worship (XXX) and also to resolve the disputes among themselves (1 Cor. 6:1–11).

The example of the man in fine clothes versus the poor man in dirty clothes offers an antithetical parallelism. This is analysed in the following table.

Table 2

a man with gold ring and in shining clothes comes (2a)

and a poor man in dirty clothes also comes in (2b)

you may look at the one wearing the shining clothes (3a)

and to the poor man (3c)

and say, “Sit here, a good place” (3b)

you say “Stand there” or “Sit under my footstool.” (3d)

They are not treated equally by the members of the community. The appearance and the treatment both the men receive are in apparent antithesis. Man with gold rings comes in shining clothes whereas the poor man comes in dirty clothes. The community looks at the well-clad man before they say anything whereas they just say to the poor man without even looking at. The well-clad man is offered a good seat to sit whereas the poor man is asked to stand or sit on the ground.

Rich verses poor is a recurring theme in James (1:9-12; 2:1-13; 5:1-6). However, James does not explicitly mention the rich (πλούσιος (plousios)) here. Rather, he qualifies the man with a gold ring and in shining clothes. The gold ring probably resembles an aristocrat Roman or Jewish leader with political or religious authority. The fine clothes he wears makes him a rich and highly placed individual. The shining clothes that he wears, and the acceptance he receives in the community due to its glory is in sharp contradiction to the glory of Jesus Christ (2:1). The glory of the rich man is external whereas the glory of the Lord is internal. [xxxiii] In contrast to the appearance of this rich and powerful man, the poor man is qualified as poor (πτωχός (ptōchos)) and in dirty clothes. James takes utmost care to qualify this man as poor. Poor in Israel were instantly qualified as the anawim, or the poor of YHWH. This clearly tells his intentions to take the side of the poor. The poor man is in dirty clothes, probably because he has neither time nor resources to make his clothes clean or get shining new clothes, like the aristocrat rich person.

It is interesting to note that it is not the appearance of individuals that James is condemning. His interest is on the differences of the treatment that is rendered to the individuals according to their appearance. The man in fine clothes is asked to join the community by ‘looking at him with admiration’ (ἐπιβλέψητε (epiblepsēte)) and requesting him to “Sit here, a good place.” ἐπιβλέψητε (epiblepsēte) is found only here and in Luke (1:48; 9:38). The earlier verse in Luke is from the Magnificat where Mary praises God because he has “regarded” the lowly condition of his handmaiden. God is praised for demonstrating his care for the poor and humble. This attitude is evidently absent from the congregation to which James writes.[xxxiv] The presence of ὧδε (hōde) shows that the community itself is seated in the good place, thereby asking the man to join them. In contrast, the poor man is not even looked but only asked to “stand there” or “sit at my feet.” Thus, by treating the poor in such a contrast manner, the community separates (note the use of ἐκεῖ (ekei)) itself from the poor.

2.2.2. Conclusion (4)

Greek Text : 4 οὐ διεκρίθητε ἐν ἑαυτοῖς καὶ ἐγένεσθε κριταὶ διαλογισμῶν πονηρῶν;

ou diekrithēte en heautois kai egenesthe kritai dialogismōn ponērōn

Lev. 19:15 prohibited rendering unjust judgment by being partial to the poor and defer to the rich. The Israelites are asked to judge their neighbour with justice. This law is explained by various Jewish teachers in their ‘Halachic Midrash’ teachings. Thus the law required the Jewish people to treat people with justice and equality. If a rich man had a dispute with the poor man and they come to a court, the rich man had to dress like the poor man or dress the poor man like the rich (Dt. Rab. Shofetim 5:6 on Dt. 16:19;  Babylonian Talmud Shebuoth 31a). The law also required both the parties to either sit down or stand while prohibiting one to sit and another to stand in a court (Sipra Kedoshim Perek 4:4 on Lv. 19:15; Babylonian Talmud Shebuoth30a;  Tosephta Sanhedrin 6:2;  Abot de Rabbi Nathan 1:10).[xxxv]

By not complying with such practical norms, the community was judging unjustly. James rightly accuses them of making distinctions (διεκρίθητε (diekrithēte)) among themselves and becoming judges (κριταὶ (kritai)) with evil reasoning. James uses a strong literary style in two rhetorical questions, eliciting an agreement from his readers. The two questions are linked together by a play on words: διεκρίθητε (diekrithēte) and κριταὶ (kritai).[xxxvi]

διεκρίθητε (diekrithēte) is better understood in the sense of discriminating or making distinctions.[xxxvii] Thus in the first question, James levels the charge that such discriminating treatment between the richly clad and the poor by the community of faith is indeed a violation of the principle of impartiality implicit in its faith commitment to Jesus Christ, the Shekinah presence of God in the community.[xxxviii] The second question condemns the mental activity that produces such discrimination. Christians are not to ‘judge’ each other (Jas 4:11; Matt. 7:1-5; Rom. 14:4; 1 Cor. 5:12), especially according to their outward appearance. Such a judgment is the result of ‘evil reasoning’ (διαλογισμῶν πονηρῶν (dialogismōn ponērōn)). The word διαλογισμός (dialogismos) is often used in the New Testament with a negative meaning (Mt. 15:19; Mark 7:21; Luke 2:35; Luke 5:22; Luke 6:8; Luke 9:46; Rom 1:21; etc.).[xxxix] In the letter to Philippians, St. Paul urges his readers to “Do all things without grumbling or questioning… (Phil 2:14).” By using the word διαλογισμῶν and qualifying it with the adjective πονηρῶν (ponērōn), James strongly condemns their mental frame which causes the differential treatment rendered to the individuals according to their appearance.

2.3. Exposition (2:5-11)

James builds up on the illustration (vv.2-4) in the light of the initial thesis (v.1). He brings home his point by using three arguments. First, their action contradicts God’s action (vv 5-6a); second, their experience contradicts their action (vv. 6b-7); and third, their action is a violation of God’s law in the fuller sense (vv. 8-11). This section is also very rich in literary style. The first two arguments are formed in two rhetoric questions. In the third argument James uses the diatribe style to make his point.

2.3.1. First Argument (5-6a)

Greek Text : 5 Ἀκούσατε, ἀδελφοί μου ἀγαπητοί· οὐχ ὁ θεὸς ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ πλουσίους ἐν πίστει καὶ κληρονόμους τῆς βασιλείας ἧς ἐπηγγείλατο τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν; 6a ὑμεῖς δὲ ἠτιμάσατε τὸν πτωχόν.

5 Akousate, adelphoi mou agapētoi; ouch ho theos exelexato tous ptōchous tō kosmō plousious en pistei kai klēronomous tēs basileias hēs epēngeilato tois agapōsin auton? 6a hymeis de ētimasate ton ptōchon.

This is the first argument that James makes against the behavior of the community. The argument starts with James calling attention of his listeners as ‘my beloved brethren.’ This gives us a glimpse of his relationship with his audience. He is like a true teacher or pastor feels for his people as they are straying away from the truth. He wants them to listen to his arguments, so that they will understand the truth.

James proves that their discrimination against poor is against the action of God. The concept of election was deeply rooted in both Jewish and Christian thought. [xl] The main Hebrew equivalent of πτωχός (ptōchos) is עָנִי (ʿānî). Primarily the word expresses a relation (the dependent) rather than a state of social distress. Only in a more developed usage does עָנִי (ʿānî) refers to poverty. Yahweh is presented as the protector of עֲנִיִּים. Poverty includes both material poverty and social poverty, that is, belonging to an oppressed class (Ps. 35:10; 37:14)[xli] Anawim spirituality can also be traced in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20; Mt 5:3; 5:5). Just as Jesus made the poor, the heirs of the kingdom of God (Mt 5:3), James also makes them blessed and the heirs of the kingdom of God. This poor are rich in faith (πλούσιοι ἐν πίστει (plousioi en pistei)) which goes well with the religious meaning.[xlii]

Although the poor are ‘God’s elect,’ the behaviour of the community towards them is in contrast with the activity of God. The community of the believers, where the presence of Christ is felt, dishonoured the poor by treating him as an outsider to the community. Thus they have dishonoured the heirs of the kingdom to which they themselves belonged.

2.3.2. Second Argument (6b-7)

Greek Text : 6b οὐχ οἱ πλούσιοι καταδυναστεύουσιν ὑμῶν καὶ αὐτοὶ ἕλκουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς κριτήρια; 7 οὐκ αὐτοὶ βλασφημοῦσιν τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς;

6b ouch hoi plousioi katadynasteuousin hymōn kai autoi helkousin hymas eis kritēria? 7 ouk autoi blasphēmousin to kalon onoma to epiklēthen eph᾽ hymas?

After comparing their action against that of God, James now argues that their experience contradicts their action. Their experience of the rich are three fold: oppression, legal persecution, and blasphemy.[xliii] The community members are addressed as you (ὑμῶν (hymōn)) whereas the rich are addressed as they (αὐτοὶ (autoi)). The rich are, thus, presented as outsiders to the community. This is probably because the Christian community understood themselves as the ‘poor elect’ of the Lord.

The language of the first rhetorical question is strongly oriented to the Old Testament tradition of the oppression of the poor by the rich (Je. 7:6; 22:3; Ezk. 18:7, 12, 16; 22:7, 29; Am. 4:1; 8:4; Hab. 1:4; Zc. 7:10; Mal. 3:5; Wis. 2:10; 17:2).[xliv] James treats the oppression of the poor by the rich exclusively in 5:1-6.

The disputes among the Christians were settled among themselves, but some rich did drag cases to court. The rich could easily influence the court procedures. Paul in his letter to Corinthians questions the wisdom of going to the ‘secular court’ for justice (1 Cor. 6:1–11). It was not only those inside the community who drag the Christians to the legal courts. Jesus warns his disciples that their adversaries would drag them to court. James here explicitly mentions that it is the rich who drag the ‘poor’ believers to the court. It might not come as a surprise for us, as only the rich could have been able to afford a court case.

The second question in the argument (v. 7) accuses the community of taking side of the rich who blaspheme the ‘good name invoked over them (τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς (to kalon onoma to epiklēthen eph᾽ hymas)).’ The good name that is invoked over them is definitely that of ‘Our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,’ because the early Christians were called either ‘Nazarenes’ or ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26). In the acts of the apostle, Peter confirms that, “…let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12). In the ancient world, a possession was known by the name of the possessor; people under the name of their god (Amos 9:12; Num. 6:27; Is. 43:7; Jeremiah.14:9; etc.) a slave under the name of the master.[xlv] Christians were the possession of Christ Jesus (cf. 1:1) whose name was invoked over them. James, the president of the Jerusalem council while quoting from Amos 9:12 uses the same phrase (Act 15:17).

James accuses the rich of blaspheming this good name. Such an accusation has lead the scholars to think that the rich here are people outside the church. The rich people in the not-yet-divided synagogue might have blasphemed the Lord’s name. Though this reasoning seems to be valid, I find no reason to think that James does not include the rich in the community of the believers. The rich people in the community alienated themselves from the poor and demanded the best seats just like the Pharisees had done at the time of Jesus. If the rich in the community of believers oppress the poor, it should be considered as the blasphemy against the name of the Lord who is Love (cf. 11 John 4:16). Therefore the discriminations that are belted against the poor are against the love of God and the love of neighbour (cf. Jas 2:8-11).

Thus by drawing the experience of the anawim community of the Lord, James rightly shows the folly of being partial towards the rich who oppress, persecute the community and blaspheme the ‘good name that is invoked over them.’

2.3.3. Third Argument (8-11)

Greek Text : 8 εἰ μέντοι νόμον τελεῖτε βασιλικὸν κατὰ τὴν γραφήν, Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν, καλῶς ποιεῖτε· 9 εἰ δὲ προσωπολημπτεῖτε, ἁμαρτίαν ἐργάζεσθε ἐλεγχόμενοι ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου ὡς παραβάται. 10 ὅστις γὰρ ὅλον τὸν νόμον τηρήσῃ πταίσῃ δὲ ἐν ἑνί, γέγονεν πάντων ἔνοχος. 11 ὁ γὰρ εἰπών, Μὴ μοιχεύσῃς, εἶπεν καί, Μὴ φονεύσῃς· εἰ δὲ οὐ μοιχεύεις φονεύεις δέ, γέγονας παραβάτης νόμου.

8 ei mentoi nomon teleite basilikon kata tēn graphēn, Agapēseis ton plēsion sou hōs seauton, kalōs poieite; 9 ei de prosōpolēmpteite, hamartian ergazesthe elenchomenoi hypo tou nomou hōs parabatai. 10 hostis gar holon ton nomon tērēsē ptaisē de en heni, gegonen pantōn enochos. 11 ho gar eipōn, Mē moicheusēs, eipen kai, Mē phoneusēs; ei de ou moicheueis phoneueis de, gegonas parabatēs nomou.

The third argument of the James is drawn from the scriptures. The authoritative teacher as he is, James makes a strong argument using the scripture. In the Jewish exegetical style of ‘Halachic Midrash,’ he explains the royal law to love the neighbour to argue against the discrimination of the poor. One cannot assign degrees to the commandments of the Lord. Therefore if one is guilty of breaking one law, he or she is guilty of all. This is the most powerful argument of James. The issue is set up in the form of two conditional sentences (vv. 8-9), followed by two explanatory assertions establishing the hypocrisy in the discrimination between rich and poor.[xlvi]

The first “if” clause dealing with the royal law is taken from Lev. 19:18. The law is qualified as royal (βασιλικὸν (basilikon)) because it belongs to God who is universal king (Lev. 19:18) and was treated as royal by Christ the King (Matt. 22:34-40). It is also the norm for ethical conduct of the Kingdom of God (Rom 13:8-10) and the sum of the entire law (Gal 5:14). This indicates that to love the neighbour as oneself comes from God, and was hailed by Jesus as the sum total of the commandments and by the early Christians as the norm for the kingdom of God.[xlvii] In the context, the law is qualified as royal according to the scripture, probably indicating that Lev.19:15 is being quoted here, although all the above mentioned usages is surely in mind.[xlviii]

As in every diatribe of the Greek literature, this defence is made by an imaginary character. The imaginary character here is the community of believers. They argue that by honouring the well-clad man, they are only doing what is required of them by the law, because the law asks them, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18). James accepts that if they are only fulfilling the law according to the scripture they do well. But in the following verse he questions their treatment of the poor.[xlix]

The background of the second “if’ clause is Lev 19:15. Deut. 16:19 also forbids to show partiality. Partiality is stated here as the anti-thesis of the Royal law. To love is to do well but to be partial is to commit sin (Matt 7:23; cf. Ps 6:8; for the verb cf. 1:4, 20).[l] But for James, the action of showing favoritism, while considered inconsequential by some in the church, was a serious matter; he equates it with the act of sinning The presence of the word, μέντοι (mentoi) in v.8 and the strong statement in v.9 makes it clear that they have narrowed down the understanding of neighbour. Jesus had asked them to love not only the neighbour but even the enemies (Mt. 5:43-47). Thus, he added enemies also to the definition of neighbour. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught that any person-in-need is a neighbour. The poor man in Jas 2:2-3 was someone in need. He needed justice, love and care. He was also a neighbour to the community. Therefore by refusing to give him a fair treatment as that was given to the well-clad man, the members of the community have offended the very law they used to defend their activity. Because the law which asked them to love their neighbour (Lev 19:18) also required them not to be partial to the poor or defer to the rich (Lev. 19:18). By this argument James exposes the hypocrisy of the church and convicts them of doing sin.

The presence of this γὰρ in v. 10 suggests that what follows is an explanatory assertion. He does this using the ‘logia’ style of the Greek literature. He first states his thesis, then illustrates it with an example and finally draws a satisfactory logical conclusion.

In v. 10 he states his thesis, “But whoever may keep the whole law but stumble on one, he has become guilty of all.” Even if one were to commit but one sin, it is as though he has sinned against all commandments. This unitary conception of the law was held by Jews (LXX of Dt. 27:26; Philo  Legum Allegoriae 3.241; 4 Macc. 5:20; Testament of Asher 2:5; Babylonian Talmud Shabbath 70b; Sipre on Dt. 187; Pesiqta Rabbati R. 50:1; Nu. Rabbah 9:12 on Nu. 5:14). The traces of this thought is also found in the teachings of Jesus (Mt. 5:18-19; 23:23) and in Paul’s letter to Galatians (Gal. 3:10; 5:3). The thesis affirms the unitary nature of the law of God. [li]

James illustrates his thesis with two commandments from the tablets. “Do not commit adultery” and “Do not murder.” These two commandments are presented here as representing the entire Torah. This is evident from the statement he makes, because he speaks of the whole law in v.10. James illustrates that since the entire law is coming from the same God, the entire law should be considered as royal. Love of neighbour includes the entire law (cf. Gal 5:14). The selection of these two commandments might have been special to James. Murder is associated with discriminating against the poor, which is a failure to love one’s neighbor and associated with hate (Matt 5:21, 22).[lii] James in 5:4 calls those who make friendship with the world as “adulterers.” By honouring the rich and powerful, the community is making friendship with the world, whereas by discriminating the poor, they are committing murder. Now, even if one argues that they are not honouring, but only loving the rich neighbour, they still commit murder because they have discriminated the poor.

The conclusion in v. 11b follows the above two arguments. Since the entire law comes from the same God, one law is not above the other. One is supposed to obey the entire law and not parts of it. Therefore if you obey only one law and not the other, you are still a transgressor of the entire law.

The third argument of James can be arranged in a chiastic structure.

A: You are doing well if you are keeping the Royal Law according to the scripture. (v. 8)

B: The entire law demands you to treat everyone equally (v. 9)

             C: Whoever may keep the whole law but stumble on one, he has become guilty of all. (v. 10)

B‘: The same God gave the entire law. (v. 11a)

A‘: You are a transgressor of the law if you fail in any one law. (v. 11b)

Therefore the core of the third argument of James is that even if you treat everyone except one equal, you are a transgressor of the law which says to love your neighbour. To love your neighbour is not to be understood in terms of loving only those whom you like or who are ‘likeable.’

2.4. Conclusion (2:12-13)

Greek Text: 12οὕτως λαλεῖτε καὶ οὕτως ποιεῖτε ὡς διὰ νόμου ἐλευθερίας μέλλοντες κρίνεσθαι. 13ἡ γὰρ κρίσις ἀνέλεος τῷ μὴ ποιήσαντι ἔλεος· κατακαυχᾶται ἔλεος κρίσεως.

12houtōs laleite kai houtōs poieite hōs dia nomou eleutherias mellontes krinesthai. 13hē gar krisis aneleos tō mē poiēsanti eleos; katakauchatai eleos kriseōs.

Verses 12 and 13 serve as the conclusion to the entire pericope. As we have already seen these verse makes an inclusio with 4:11-12.

The two imperatives λαλεῖτε (laleite) and ποιεῖτε (poieite) are in the present tense, expressing the ongoing responsibility. They serve as connectives to the pericope which follow. One’s speech (Jas 3:1-12) and actions (Jas 2:14-26) should be in conformity with each other and the word they hear and do (cf. Jas 1:22), because they will be judged according to the law of liberty (cf. Jas 1:25). They cover the entire outwardly action of a person (cf. Acts 1:1; 7:22; 1 John 3:18).[liii] The repetition of the word οὕτως (houtōs) underscores the demand made by the imperatives.

That which will serve as the criteria of judgment is the “law of liberty.” According to James, this law of liberty is the perfect law. The observers of this law are not just hearers who forget but doers who act (cf. 1:25). ἐλευθερίας (eleutherias) is objective genitive. The phrase νόμου ἐλευθερίας (nomou eleutherias) (law of liberty) could be understood as “the law that makes free.” The true function of “law” is not to condemn but to set free, and to promise God’s compassion to those who in turn appreciate it in so far as they also are compassionate.[liv] Rabbinic Judaism spoke of the Torah as setting one free (Aboth 3:5; 6:2; Baba Kamma 8:6; Baba Metzia 85b).[lv] According to James, one needs to understand the law not only as ‘royal’ but also as ‘liberating.’ The law demands liberation from oppression, persecution, and defaming of the good name. The law belongs to the kingdom of which the heirs are the poor.[lvi] The partial treatment of the poor is a violation of this ‘law of liberty.’ To love one’s neighbor is the highest form of freedom exercised, and ends in fulfillment of the law.[lvii] Therefore, this is an invitation to love one’s neighbour and treat everyone equally and take a preferential option for the poor as they are the ones who need to be liberated. This is a call to be doers of the word and not just hearers who forget!

Verse 13 contains two proverbial sentences. The switch from the second person in v 12 to the third person may indicate that v 13 is gnomic.[lviii] The first sentence says, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” It is directly linked to the behaviour of the community. The judgment that is to come (v.12) will be without mercy, since they have shown no mercy to the poor. Thus this sentence summarizes the above pericope. Such an idea is also present in Jewish literature (cf. Shabbath 151b).[lix] “Failure to show mercy to others cuts a person off from a true appreciation of the divine compassion (as emphasized in the dominical parable of the debtor servant and its application, Matt 18:21–35)… Thus, those who discriminate against the poor are reckoned to be in danger of the same fate as the godless. Such stern warning is reminiscent of Matthew’s special sources (e.g., Matt 13:24–30, 41–42, 47–50; 25:31–46).” [lx] Greek patristic commentators interpreted this passage in the light of the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. God would have shown mercy to the rich man, but since he did not show mercy to Lazarus, his own judgement was without mercy. In contrast Rahab in vv.20-25 is justified because of her hospitality. These examples show “mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13b).[lxi]

The second proverbial sentence reads, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” This offers hope in contrast to the threat of v 13a.[lxii] By their evil reasoning and discrimination, they have sinned and called judgment upon themselves. Only mercy can triumph over judgment now. There are differences of opinion among the scholars with regard to the source of the mercy mentioned here. Some think that the source of mercy is God[lxiii] and others that it is the believers.[lxiv]

In the Jewish Tradition, mercy means to care for the poor and downtrodden (Mic. 6:8; Zech. 7:9-10). Mercy is also a Christian necessity to receive God’s mercy (Matt. 5:7; 6:15; 18:32-35, Lk. 3:16). What pleases God is mercy and not sacrifices (Mt. 9:13). Jesus accuses the Pharisees neglecting the ‘weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith’ (Mt23:23). The human beings must show mercy to his fellow human beings, because God is merciful. The key to proper relationship with other human beings and God is mercy which in the Jewish heritage of James especially means caring for the poor — the very thing the church failed to do when the beggar showed up at church one day![lxv]

3. A Call for a Radical Change

The Epistle of James posits many challenges to the church as the kingdom community. James goes deep into the then existing social life. He challenges them to be doers of the word and not just hearers. He puts before them many mirrors to show their actual state and calls for a radical conversion. For him “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRS). Such a theoretical knowledge did not make any difference to the community. Therefore he goes on to give them a concrete example of doing this word. The pericope that deals with the discrimination and partial treatment really challenges the community and shakes their complacency.

James as a successful social analyser posits a direct connection between the individual and the social levels: divisions within the person lead to divisions within the community. “Those conflicts and disputes among you (i.e., within the community), where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you (i.e., within each individual)?” (Jas 4:1).”[lxvi] If each individual in the community can love the other as himself or herself, such cravings would disappear and all will be treated as the children of God and not according to their appearance.

3.1. The Concept of Equality.

It is right time to think about the concept of equality we have. Having equal opportunity or treating everyone equally will not bring equilibrium into a society which has a high proportionality of inequality that exists. Therefore the concept of equality should be to make everyone equal and treat everyone equal. This concept calls for not just equal treatment for the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, and the “haves and have-nots,”[lxvii] but a preferential option for the poor, powerless and have-nots. James clearly brings home this idea. According to James, even looking down at someone is against this equality. It is against the love of neighbour. If one loves the other as oneself, there will be perfect equality in the society. That is why the Royal Law of the Kingdom of God says, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself (2:8).”

3.2. Equality in the Society and State

In a country like that of India, the constitution envisages equality of all. It also provides greater opportunity for the poor, backward castes and tribes. However, even with such provisions, the gap between the haves and have-nots are increasing. Although there is a great development towards the equality of all, the reality is far from a satisfactory situation. The socially, economically, politically and sexually weaker and marginal sections of the society still experience a great deal of inequality. They are treated as second class citizens even by their own people. Such deep is the equilibrium in the society that one fails to notice it even in one’s own house or community.

3.3. Equality in the Church

Church claims to take a preferential option for the poor and the needy. Although a lot of work has been undertaken to lift the poor in the church, it is still an unfinished job. Many poor and backward classes feel dejected in the church. They are treated as outsiders by the powerful. The clergy, lay people, and authorities are all part of this structure. One faces partiality in many situations in the church. Be it in the institutions of the church or in the basic Christian communities, this discrimination is wide-spread. The church in India does run many institutions for the poor and the downtrodden. But the best of our resources are focused on the posh-rich-oriented institutions- be it schools, hospitals, or colleges. Even in the church, there is a great outcry for the greater role of laity in the church. Women in church are also not given an equal status. These underprivileged sections of the church need to be given more and more opportunities, not just equal, to be brought to the main-stream. They need to be given the best places in the assembly.

3.4. A Challenge for a New Paradigm of the Society and the Church

The Epistle of James challenges us in this situation of the society and the church. The church as leaven of the kingdom of God, should take greater importance to bring the down-trodden and long-forgotten sections of the society into the main stream society. Thus James 2:1-13 is a real challenge to show God’s mercy through the actions. We need to speak and to act as agents of mercy that will take care of the poor, widows, needy and the downtrodden sections of the society.

The early church was not a perfect society. But its leaders did challenge the situations that existed. Our leaders also need to challenge the existing social and individual conditions. As Christians we are not to judge others according to their appearance, for all are children of the same God. Our love should reach not only to those whom we love or are loveable but to all who are in need. This is not just a theoretical knowledge but a real challenge to treat anyone who comes across to us as part of us. Everyone, especially the poor and downtrodden deserves the best place in the assembly, so that he or she could experience the love of God in and through our love.

James teaches us with great authority to take the side of the poor. He questions our complacency. The church can no longer be at ease when the poor are suffering. James questions the wisdom of the community which thinks in the worldly line. For the world, the powerful is of great importance, but not for God. For James, social snobbery and partiality runs counter to the character of God, who is the ‘God of the Poor.’ If the worldly kingdom belongs to the rich and powerful, the kingdom of God is of the poor. Discrimination is a form of worldly judgment which recognizes the usefulness of a man to oneself, but in God’s view the soul of every individual is exceedingly precious. When motives are evil (v.4), the basis of discrimination is not spiritual but material—and in so doing we debase the name of Christ, forgetting the kingdom values for which He lived and died. To discriminate is also to limit God’s power, for it is tantamount to saying, God cannot do anything with such a man. Our actions, then is not based on love, but on likeness. Our glorious Lord was called the friend of publicans, harlots and sinners (Matt 9:11; 11:19) for He recognized the worth of every man and woman.[lxviii]


James, as a powerful teacher in the early Christian community, invites the community to take part in divine election of the poor. The community understood itself as poor, but treated its own poor members as outsiders and unequals. James questions the wisdom of such treatment. Echoing the Sermon the Mount, James argues that God has chosen the poor to be the heirs of the kingdom. Therefore, if any one fails to recognize the poor fails to understand the kingdom that is at work in the community. Treating people unequally is ‘playing God in the lives of others.’[lxix] That is absolutely sin. Mercy will be shown to those who are merciful. The poor man in James still questions our actions and thoughts. Even after twenty centuries he would not find a better seat in our homes or communities. “In his essay “The Message of James for Today,” Raymond Bryan Brown read James as calling Christians to the necessity of “a relevant Christianity” that could address the “credibility gap” facing the church.”[lxx] If the church still has to be a kingdom community, it needs to rethink its stand on the kingdom values and take not only a preferential option for the poor, but an option that works and changes the society.

[i]T. B. Maston, “Ethical Dimensions of James,” SWJT 12 (1969): 25.

[ii] James B Adamson, The epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 3-52.

[iii]Martin Dibelius, James: A Commentary on the Epistle of James (ed. K. Helmut; trans. M. A. Williams; 11th rev. ed. prepared by H. Greevan; Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 11-21.

Also Luke T. Johnson, “The Letter of James” NIB on CD-ROM. PDF Version. 2002, 210.

[iv] Johnson, James, 208.

[v] Adamson, James, 169-194.

[vi] Adamson, James, 193.

[vii] Johnson, James, 208.

[viii]Martin C. Albl, “’Are Any Among You Sick?’ The Health Care System in the Letter of James,” JBL 121 (2002): 123.

[ix] Donald J. Verseput, “Genre and Story: The Community Setting of the Epistle of James,” CBQ 62 (1 2000): 97.

[x] George H. Guthrie and Mark E. Taylor, “The structure of James,” CBQ 68 (4 2006): 682.

[xi] Adamson, James, 103-104.

[xii] W. Robertson Nicol, ed., The General Epistle of James (EGNT 4; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, ; repr., USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 405.

[xiii] Adamson, James, 110.

[xiv] Guthrie and Taylor, “The structure,” 683.

[xv] Guthrie and Taylor, “The structure,” 684.

16 Guthrie and Taylor, “The structure,” 684.

[xvii] Author is unknown to the writer of this article. However, it is acknowledged that the idea is not original to the writer.

[xviii] Lorin L. Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” SJT 29 (1 1986): 20.

[xix] Jeannine K. Brown, “James 2:1-13,” Interpretation 62 (2 2008): 175.

[xx] W. Bauer et al., “ἀδελφός,” BAGD 16.

[xxi] Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James : A Commentary on the Greek Text (includes indexes.; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 105.

[xxii] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 21.

[xxiii] Nicol, The General Epistle, 436.

[xxiv] Nicol, The General Epistle, 436.

[xxv] Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 60.

[xxvi] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 21.

[xxvii] F Blass, A. Debrunner, and R.W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (transl. & Rev. of the ninth-tenth German ed. incorporating supplementary notes of A. Debrunner by R.W. Funk; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), 188.

[xxviii]W. Bauer et al., “συναγωγή,” BAGD 783.

[xxix]Schrage, “συναγωγή, ἐπισυναγωγή, ἀρχισυνάγωγος, ἀποσυνάγωγος,” TDNT 7:840.

[xxx]Davids, The Epistle of James, 108.

[xxxi] Nicol, The General Epistle, 437.

[xxxii] Cain H. Felder, “Partiality and God’s Law: An Exegesis of James 2:1-13,” JRT 39 (2 1982): 55.

[xxxiii] Piros Zodhiates, “δόξα,” CWSD G1391.

[xxxiv]Martin, James, 62.

[xxxv]Davids, The Epistle of James, 109.

[xxxvi] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 22.

[xxxvii] In Jas 1:6, διακρινόμενος is a middle form and should be translated as “one doubting”

[xxxviii] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 22.

[xxxix] Nicol, The General Epistle, 437.

[xl] Davids, The Epistle of James, 111.

[xli] Bammel, “πτωχός, πτωχεία, πτωχεύω,” TDNT 6:888-892.

[xlii] Bammel, TDNT 6:910.

[xliii] Davids, The Epistle of James, 112.

[xliv] Davids, The Epistle of James, 112.

[xlv] Nicol, The General Epistle, 439.

Also W. Bauer et al., “ἐπικαλέω,” BAGD 294.

[xlvi] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 23.

[xlvii] Johnson, James, 220.

[xlviii] Davids, The Epistle of James, 114.

[xlix] John B. Polhill, “Prejudice, partiality, and faith: James 2,” R&E 83 (3 1986): 397.

[l] Martin, James, 68.

[li]Davids, The Epistle of James, 116.

[lii] Martin, James, 70.

[liii] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 24.

[liv] Martin, James, 58.

[lv] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 24.

[lvi] Johnson, James, 220.

[lvii] Martin, James, 71.

[lviii] Martin, James, 71.

[lix] Nicol, The General Epistle, 442.

[lx] Martin, James, 72.

[lxi] Johnson, James, 221.

[lxii] Martin, James, 72.

[lxiii] Martin, James, 72.

[lxiv] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 25.

[lxv] Cranford, “An exposition of James 2,” 25.

[lxvi] Albl, “Are Any Among You Sick,” 128.

[lxvii] Kenneth G. Phifer, “James 2:1-5,” Interpretation 36 (3 1982): 282.

[lxviii]M.S. Mills, James: A Study Guide to the Epistle of James (RSA: 3E Ministries, 1997; repr., Dallas: 3E Ministries, 1997), Jas 2:1.

[lxix] D. J. Smit, “Exegesis and proclamation : “Show no partiality…” (James 2:1-13),” JTSA 71 (1990): 65.

[lxx] Sharyn E. Dowd, “Faith that works: James 2:14-26,” R&E 97 (2 2000): 195-196.


Adamson, James B. The epistle of James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.

Albl, Martin C. “’Are Any Among You Sick?’ The Health Care System in the Letter of James.” Journal of Biblical Literature 121 (2002): 123‒143.

Bauer, W., W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature :. Second edition revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s fifth edition, 1958. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, c1979.

Blass, F, A. Debrunner, and R.W. Funk. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Transl. & Rev. of the ninth-tenth German ed. incorporating supplementary notes of A. Debrunner by R.W. Funk. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Brown, Jeannine K. “James 2:1-13.” Interpretation 62 (2 2008): 174‒176.

Cranford, Lorin L. “An exposition of James 2.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 29 (1 1986): 19‒30.

Davids, Peter H. The Epistle of James : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Includes indexes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982.

Dibelius, Martin. James: A Commentary on the Epistle of James. Edited by K. Helmut. Translated by M. A. Williams. 11th rev. ed. prepared by H. Greevan. Hermeneia–a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Dowd, Sharyn E. “Faith that works: James 2:14-26.” Review & Expositor 97 (2 2000): 195‒205.

Felder, Cain H. “Partiality and God’s Law: An Exegesis of James 2:1-13.” Journal of Religious Thought 39 (2 1982): 51‒69.

Guthrie, George H., and Mark E. Taylor. “The structure of James.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (4 2006): 681‒705.

Johnson, Luke T. The Letter of James. Edited by Leander E. Keck. CD-ROM, PDF Version. The New Interpreter’s Bible 12. 1998., Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002.

Kittel, G. and G. Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964–1976.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary 48. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Maston, T. B. “Ethical Dimensions of James.” South Western Journal of Theology 12 (1969): .

Mills, M.S. James: A Study Guide to the Epistle of James. RSA: 3E Ministries, 1997. Repr., Dallas: 3E Ministries, 1997.

Nicol, W. Robertson, ed. The General Epistle of James. The Expositor’s Greek New Testament 4. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, . Repr., USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.

Phifer, Kenneth G. “James 2:1-5.” Interpretation 36 (3 1982): 51‒69.

Polhill, John B. “Prejudice, partiality, and faith: James 2.” Review & Expositor 83 (3 1986): 395‒404.

Smit, D. J. “Exegesis and proclamation : “Show no partiality…” (James 2:1-13).” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 71 (1990): 59‒68.

Verseput, Donald J. “Genre and Story: The Community Setting of the Epistle of James.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (1 2000): 96‒110.

Zodhiates, Spiros, ed. The Complete Word Study Dictionary. electronic ed. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000, c1992, c1993.


31Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will cut a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

32Not like the covenant I cut with their fathers, in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. But they broke my covenant though I was their husband, says the Lord.

33For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord, I will put my law within them and in their hearts I will write it and I will be their God and they will be my people.

34and no man shall teach again his friend and his brother saying, “know the Lord.”For they all shall know me from the least to the great, says the Lord, for I forgive their guilt and will remember their sins no more.

1. Introduction

Jeremiah lived in a country whose doom was sealed. He was asked by the Lord to warn the people of it. But they did not listen to him.[i] People had failed to keep the covenant of the Lord which he had made with their ancestors, but has He entirely rejected them? This is a question relevant even to today’s world. This is where Jeremiah’s words of comfort become a consolation not only for the Israel, but for all of us. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Lord promises a new covenant. This is a covenant which promises a renewed, stronger, and ever-lasting relationship with the Lord. This promises an internal union with the Lord which cannot be broken.[ii]

Although vv. 31-34 are mostly free of grammatical, textual and lexicographical complications, there is considerable debate on the identity, meaning and provenance of the ‘new covenant.’[iii] My study will make an attempt on the exegetical issues of these verses in the context of the Book of consolation and the book of Jeremiah as a whole. Although as a Christian I cannot do away with the Christian understanding of this passage as the promise of the new covenant established by Christ, (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:1–14; Heb 8:8–12; 10:16–17),[iv] this study will not focus on the New Testament understanding of the new covenant. As Timothy M. Willis says, one should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that the Lord here is announcing the founding of Christianity only, six centuries before that event.[v] Therefore, when I speak in this about the ‘old covenant’ it merely is a mention to the Sinaitic Covenant which was older than the ‘new covenant’ promised by Jeremiah.

2. De-Limitation

The passage Jeremiah 31:31-34 is identified as one single unit, mainly because of its unique theme. It is the only instance in which the ‘new covenant’ (בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה) is used in the Old Testament, although there are instances where reminiscence of such a theme can be found. The promise of the new covenant is squeezed between the passage on promise for the individual restoration (vv27-30) and the national restoration (vv.35-37). Thus, one can easily find out the change in the theme. Another indicator for the de-limitation is the opening formula. The opening formula in v.31, ‘הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים (Behold the days are coming),’ marks the beginning of a new section (cf. Jer 7:32; 9:24; 23:5; 30:3; 31:27, 38; 33:14; etc.). [vi] It is the Lord who speaks in the first person just as he did in the earlier section (vv 27-30) but in v.35 the speaker of the verse is not the Lord, although, it begins with the formula כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה. Thus a change in the speaker can be identified from the following section.

3. Translation

The translation done above (look at the beginning of the article) is with the help of many aides[vii] and uses the BHS[viii] text as its original text.

4. Historical Context

According to most of the scholars, the ‘promise of the new covenant’ is made after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. People were already in exile. They had lost their land and the temple- the two pillars of Judaism. In fact these two created the national identity of the Israelites. But now they had lost their identity. The Lord, who promised to David of a continuous kingship in his lineage, had now deserted them. With this, all hope for Israel seemed dead. Jeremiah, who was the prophet of the doom until then, changes now. He instills in them a new hope. He promises the restoration of the ‘people of YWHH.’ The whole subject of the thirtieth and thirty-first chapters is this restoration of the Hebrews (Je 30:4, 7, 10, 18).[ix]

What could be the immediate background of this covenant? The argument of the Holladay is appealing. According to him, in 587 BCE it was time to recite Deuteronomy once more. Although there was no temple by the time, the priests tried to embark the ritual at the appointed time. Holladay argues from Jeremiah 41:1-5, where an account of the pilgrims from the north, from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria is mentioned. According to him the occasion for Jeremiah’s proclamation of the new covenant is this. If this is its setting, then its vision of the shape of a new initiative by Yahweh is astonishing.[x]

5. Literary Context

The passage is part of the ‘Book of Comfort’[xi] in the book of Jeremiah. “The poetic material in these two chapters marks them off as separate from surrounding material. At the same time, the nature of several prose passages within the chapters suggests what one might expect, namely, that hopeful poetry has had its share of prose expansions from later periods.”[xii] Here, the usual doom-prophecy of Jeremiah changes to a hope-giving. This section marks the fulfilment of the latter part of the call of Jeremiah namely to build and to plant (cf.1:10 and 31:28). The Book of Consolation concludes with a series of five short salvation oracles. They are more consistently future oriented than the rest of the Book of Consolation. They also forge a link with chaps. 32–33, which provide a context in Jeremiah’s ministry for the announcement of the restoration promises. The five oracles form a chiasm centered on 31:31–34, the promise of the new covenant.[xiii] It is structured as follows.

A 31:23-26 – Jerusalem

B 31:27-30 – Restoration of Individuals

C 31:31-34 – New Covenant

B’ 31:35-37 – Restoration of nations

A’ 31:38-40 – Jerusalem

6. Literary Features

Form-critically the passage is a proclamation of salvation (Heilsankündigung). It matches the form of the framework for the recension for the south.[xiv] The passage is a combination of carefully organized prose and poetry.[xv] The promise of the new covenant and the rejection of the old covenant (vv.31-33a) is in prose format whereas the description of the New Covenant (vv. 33–34) is a typical Hebrew poetry.[xvi]

7. Structure

As said earlier, the passage can be divided into two subsections. The prose section is arranged chiastically.

A 31a Behold the days are coming, says the Lord (הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

B 31b when I will cut a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.( וְכָרַתִּי אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־בֵּית יְהוּדָה בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה)

C 32a Not like the covenant I cut with their fathers (לֹא כַ‍בְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם)

D 33b in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (בְּיוֹם הֶחֱזִיקִי בְיָדָם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵ‍אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם)

C’ 32c But they broke my covenant though I was their husband, says the Lord. (אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה הֵפֵרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי וְאָנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי בָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

B’ 33a For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel(כִּי זֹאת הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל)

A’ 33b after those days, says the Lord (אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

Thus the centerpiece of the prose section is the word of salvation history, “in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt”; so that if the prose section is framed by “the days” to come, then the center is “the day” of the original exodus.[xvii]

The poetry section consists of consists of four parts, each delineated in a pair of synonymous lines.[xviii]

33b I will put my law within them (נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם)

and in their hearts I will write it (וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה)

33b I will be their God, (אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים)

and they will be my people.( וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ־לִי לְעָם)

34a and no man shall teach again his friend and his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,”

(וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת־יְהוָה)

for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord( כִּי־כוּלָּם

יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִ‍קְטַנָּם וְעַד־גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

34b For I will forgive their inequity(כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם)

and will remember their sins no more.( וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר־עוֹד)

It begins and ends with two bicola, each of which contains a pair of first-person singular verbs; each of these bicola offers a chiasmus with respect to verbs and prepositional complements. Then the opening bicolon is extended by the second bicolon, the covenantal formula (the last cola of v 33b), which of course contains one first-person singular verb and one third-person plural verb. The middle section of the poem thus consists of five cola (v 34a), the operative verbs of which are “they teach” and “they know”; the middle colon is the command “Know Yahweh.”[xix] So while the centre theme of the prose section is the salvific event of the exodus, the centre theme of the poetry section is the knowledge of YWHW, something which Israel failed to attain under the Sinaitic covenant, which will be replaced with the present covenant.

8. Exegetical Analysis

In the exegetical analysis, I will follow the structure which is outlined above for better clarification. Therefore the analysis will be done in two parts- prose and poem separately.

8.1. The Prose Section

(A) 31a: Behold the days are coming, says the Lord (הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

הִנֵּה : Translated as ‘behold’ the word is an attention-getter.[xx] This has a two-fold function here, (1) to give attention to what is being said, because of its importance and (2) to make clear that something new is being said.

יָמִים בָּאִים : Jeremiah uses this phrase 14 times altogether. This phrase is always put in the mouth of the Lord. He uses this phrase thrice to warn the Israelites of the impending punishment they will face if they do not turn back from their evil ways (7:32; 9:24; 19:16), four times to warn the other nations, who oppresses Israel, of the impending punishment the Lord will bring upon them (48:12; 49:2; 51:47; 51:52) and six times to promise the return from exile (16:14; 23:5; 23:7; 30:3; 31:27; 33:14) and once to promise the new covenant he will establish with them after those days(31:31). From this we can see a historically developed pattern of the phrase, whereas in the early stages of the ministry, he used this phrase to warn the Israelites, after the destruction, he uses this term to express the compassion of the Lord. Therefore given the background, we can assume that the new covenant would take place after the exile. This gives hope to the Israelites who were in utter despair for the lost and broken covenantal relationship with the Lord.

נְאֻם־יְהוָה: ‘Says the Lord’ is an inadequate translation. ‘Pronouncement of the Lord’ will be more adequate. Jeremiah uses this construction very often. This is very similar to the expression ‘Thus says the Lord.’ However, נְאֻם־יְהוָה is more affirmative than the יאמַר יְהוָה. It should be understood as authoritative, something to which people should pay attention. It is at times difficult to decide on the speaker of the phrase ‘says the Lord’. It could be either the prophet or the Lord or the editor.[xxi]

(B) 31b: when I will cut a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.( וְכָרַתִּי אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־בֵּית יְהוּדָה בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה)

כָרַה: A covenant is a formal agreement, often established as firm by some kind of oath or promise (3:16). There is often some sign given to mark it as well.[xxii] Cut a covenant’ means to make a covenant. It reflects the normal terminology of Old Testament. The word reflects the practise of cutting an animal and pouring its blood between the parties who make the treaty. To cut a covenant is a definitive action in the history. As such, it is a divine action that will be fulfilled in the history, like the repopulation and rebuilding of the land promised in vv 27-28. However, this passage gives no indication on how people are to ready themselves for the covenant. [xxiii]

בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה: Although not a fixed theologumenon in the Old Testament, the term ‘New Covenant’ is unique to this passage. Jeremiah here speaks of a new covenant in place of the old broken covenant. He also speaks of an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten (בְּרִית עוֹלָם לֹא תִשָּׁכֵחַ) in 50:5. But since there is no hint of a fresh covenant there, it might not have any relation to the material proclaimed here.[xxiv]

In the usual covenant renewal ceremony, people requested to renew the covenant. But here, the Lord makes the covenant on his own by promising it far ahead of time. “The goal of covenant renewal had been to avoid total destruction under the effects of the curse, but in Jeremiah 31:28 the end of the destruction has already been announced. Just as the Lord had voiced the people’s lament for them and then answered it in 30:12–17, here the Lord initiates the covenant renewal and then promises a new covenant in its stead.”[xxv] Therefore, the word “new” should be understood as indicative of renewal, reestablishment and revivification of the old.[xxvi]

אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־בֵּית יְהוּדָה : ‘The house of Israel and the house of Judah’ has forced many to believe that ‘and the house of Judah’ is a later addition and that ‘the house of Israel’ originally stood for both Israel and Judah. However, there is no textual basis for this assumption, and it seems quite unnecessary to suggest removing these words.[xxvii] These two houses, taken together as in the text, connote the totality of the twelve tribes, separated following the death of Solomon.[xxviii]

“The parties to the covenant are not addressed in the second person but are identified in the third person as “the house of Israel” and “the house of Judah.” These groups also appear in v 27 as the ones whom the LORD will save. The two names serve as a reminder of how God’s people were affected by their history in the land. In the book of Jeremiah, the houses of Israel and Judah stand together under judgment (5:11; 11:10, 17) and promise (33:14). Indeed, the reunification of the two houses is part of the promised restoration (3:18). Jer 50:4–5 portrays the nations Israel and Judah returning together to Zion in tears in order to “join themselves to the Lord; the eternal covenant will not be forgotten.””[xxix]

(C) 32a: Not like the covenant I cut with their fathers (לֹא כַ‍בְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם)

לֹא כַ‍בְּרִית : The Old Covenant mentioned here refers to the Mosaic/Sinaitic Covenant which was mediated by Moses between the Lord and his people at Mount Sinai. [xxx] The height of this covenant was the stone tablets on which was written the commandments of the Lord as Decalogue. People were to learn and to teach it to their generations. They were to follow these commandments in their lives. This covenant was to be the governing principle of their lives since. The new covenant is described as ‘not like the covenant’ which YHWH made with those whom he brought out of Egypt. It should be noted that the phrase is ‘not like the covenant’ and not ‘not the covenant.’ Therefore, it is not a cancellation of the old covenant, rather a fundamental change in the Sinai Covenant. [xxxi] Its newness is described in the following verses.

אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם : This could be better rendered as ‘ancestors’ instead of ‘Fathers’[xxxii] because the Sinai covenant was made to the whole nation. In Jeremiah 11:1-13, the Lord speaks of the covenant he made with “your forefathers when I brought them out of Egypt” (11:3–4, 7). “He accuses them repeatedly of not “obeying” (“hearing”) “the terms of this covenant” (11:3, 4, 6, 8, 10), because of “the stubbornness of their evil hearts” (11:8). He says that “both the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant” (11:10). It is this “broken covenant” which will be replaced by the “new covenant” in 31:31–34.” [xxxiii] Jeremiah makes the same argument in 7:21–34. God speaks of the covenant which he made with their ancestors when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. If they would obey him, he would be their God and they would be his people. Yet, they did not obey him.

(D) 33b: in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (בְּיוֹם הֶחֱזִיקִי בְיָדָם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵ‍אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם)

The old covenant was given in the context of the Exodus from Egypt, the saving act of God in the history of Israel. The covenant and the laws which followed was supposed to be the response of the people to the tender love and care of the Lord who carried them by hand out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (cf. Deut 1:31; Hos 11:3). This is the central theme of the chiasm formed in the prose section. By arranging the matter in such a chiasm, the prophet wants to remind the audience of the salvific event by which they were brought out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. By these words, the listeners of Jeremiah are encouraged to think that the Lord, who brought them out of the land of Egypt and gave them the identity of a nation, will surely bring them out of the exile and give them back their identity as his people. Just like the Sinaitic covenant was the life-principle of their lives, the new covenant will be the life-principle of their lives post exilic.

(C’) 32c: But they broke my covenant though I was their husband, says the Lord. (אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה הֵפֵרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי וְאָנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי בָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

Since there are difficulties in translating v.33[xxxiv] it may be better to start a new sentence here.[xxxv]

אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה הֵפֵרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי: The covenant which God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai was broken, provoking the anger of the Lord. This covenant was the bond between the people of Israel and the Lord. But by breaking the covenant they have rejected to be his people. The Lord accuses them that it was they who broke the covenant and not the Lord. Therefore, although, the people have rejected the sovereignty of YHWH over their lives, YHWH has not rejected them.

וְאָנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי : ‘ I was their husband’ can also be translated as ‘I was their Lord’ or ‘I was their master’ for the Hebrew word בעל can also mean “Lord” or “master.” The Septuagint and the Syriac Versions have a different reading. It reads ‘καὶ ἐγὼ ἠμέλησα αὐτῶν’ (compare Heb. 8:9) which literally means ‘and I neglected them’ Gesenius agrees with the Septuagint version of the text because he argues that the meaning of the phrase בָּעַל בְּ is to reject.[xxxvi] The Vulgate uses dominatus sum meaning ‘I was their Lord.’ However, I am of the opinion that since the phrase occurs in a covenantal background, the meaning ‘husband’ or ‘lord’ will be more accurate. It can thus mean the husband as he is the owner and ruler of the wife. [xxxvii] The verb בעלתי means to “marry,” with an emphasis on the rights and authority the husband exercised over his wife (e.g., Gen 20:3; Deut 21:13; 22:22; 24:1) as the master of the household.[xxxviii] The covenantal relationship between the Lord and the Israel was often illustrated in the marital covenant. It is this covenant which Hosea speaks when he speaks of the Lord as a faithful husband and the Israel as an adulterous wife. Jeremiah adopts the metaphor of a broken marriage to warn his listeners in the days of Josiah of the possibility of an exile of their own (Jer 3:6–20). He also speaks of Israel and Judah as sisters, both guilty of adultery, both sent out of the house by their husband, and both offered the possibility of reconciliation (cf. Ezek 16:1–63; 23:1–49).[xxxix]

There is also a pun with the name Baal (בעל), the strange god to whom the people were making offerings (11:13, 17). By serving בעל, “Baal,” they abandoned the LORD who had mastered them as a בעל, “husband.” Thus the covenant breaking became complete that it was irreversible. Both the analogy to a broken marriage and the promise of a “new” covenant make this point clear.[xl]

(B’) 33a: For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel (כִּי זֹאת הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל)

The promise here to Israel is the covenant which the Lord is going to make with Israel. The old covenant was completely broken. It could not be renewed again. Therefore the Lord is going to make a new covenant with the house of Israel. “The promise unites the two houses of v 31 into the one “house of Israel.” The reading of some manuscripts, בני, “children of,” Israel, makes this interpretation explicit.[xli]

(A’) 33b: after those days, says the Lord (אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם : The expression ‘after those days’ has brought many speculations in the exegesis of the passage. Considering that הָהֵם (those) is not the same as הָאֵלֶּה (these), scholars have speculated that the idea referring here is the ‘coming days’ or ‘in the end of days’ as an eschatological promise. [xlii] But these speculations do not stand convincing. “No passage can be shown in which the Old Testament prophets make predictions concerning the heavenly state. The prophet therefore sets before his hearers a period of terrestrial development.”[xliii] ‘After those days’ indicates sequence, a later time, but does not specify the antecedent. It cannot be a time after the covenant making in v 31, unless there are two such occasions envisioned.[xliv] The meaning of the expression may be ‘after the days of the exile’ or ‘after the days of the punishment’ of which Jeremiah had warned his listeners. The Lord here already sees the end of the exile. This gives real hope to the people. “In the present context of the Book of Consolation, “those days” could mean the days described in 30:27–30 when the judgment will be complete and God will begin planting, building, and repopulating the land.”[xlv]

8.2. Poetry Section

Once the promise of a new covenant and the description of the old broken covenant is done, the oracle proceeds to describe the characteristics of the new covenant through this poetry. It is interesting to note that the main theme of the poetry section is the knowledge of YHWH which will eventually lead to a renewed and everlasting relationship with the Lord.

33b: I will put my law within them (נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם)
and in their hearts I will write it (וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה)

“After the heading “this is the covenant,” one expects a statement of its substance, as in the covenant formula just discussed, but the promise at the center is more like the “provision for deposit and reading” in the treaty form.”[xlvi] While the Sinaitic Covenantal laws were written on the stone tablets and put on the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the temple, which was then destroyed, the new covenant will be written on the hearts and put within them, thus, making it impossible to be destroyed. In the Hebrew Psychology, קֶ֫רֶב stands as the seat of the emotions and לֵב stands as the seat of thinking. So the new law will govern the thinking and emotions of the people.[xlvii]

נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם : While the Sinaitic law was set before them (נָתַן לִפְנֵיהֶם) (cf. Jer. 9:12, Deut. 4:8; 11:32, 1 Kings 9:6) the new covenantal law will be put within them (בְּקִרְבָּם).[xlviii] קֶ֫רֶב is the inward part of human person and the seat of emotion.[xlix] The new law will govern the emotions of the people. “My law here represents the total content of God’s revealed will and purpose for his people” (cf. Jer. 2:8).[l] While the Sinaitic law was written by the Lord and vouchsafed for their happiness, which was put in the arc of the covenant, the new law will be put within them. While the Sinaitic law had to be made one’s own the new law will be part of oneself by its very nature.

וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה : While the first covenant document was written by God on two stone tablets and mediated by Moses(Exod 31:18; Deut 4:13; 5:22; 10:1–4), the new covenat will be written in their heart without any mediators. When God writes the law on the people’s heart, mediators are bypassed and the limitations of written documents are superseded. Stone tablets can be broken (Exod 32:19; Deut 9:17) and that scrolls can be lost or ignored (2 Kgs 22:8), and burned (Jer 36:23) or drowned (Jer 51:63). Their availability is also restricted. The metaphor of writing on the heart shows how these limitations and vulnerability will be eliminated.[li] For Hebrew mind, לֵב is the seat of the thinking, reflection and memory. [lii] Thus it is the mind. But even in the old covenant, Israel is urged to receive the law of the Lord into her heart (Deut 6:6; 11:8. Although the Lord had asked the people to write His laws in their heats, they inscribed their sins in their hearts (Jer17:1).[liii] Only God’s hand can overcome their stubbornness and prepare them for loyal obedience.[liv]

Since, the covenant is put in the heart of the believer; they don’t need to renew the covenant as they did earlier. Even the loss of temple would not affect them, for the heart of each one would become the Holy of Holies as they contained the writing of the covenantal laws.

33c: I will be their God, (אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים)
and they will be my people.( וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ־לִי לְעָם)

The law of the Lord thus forms, in the old as well as in the new covenant, the essence of the relations between the Lord and His people. The essential element of the covenant remains the same in both the old and the new covenant (Lev. 26:12 with Ex. 29:45), “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “The formula has already appeared twice in the Book of the Covenant as a promise (30:22; 31:1; cf. Zech 8:8), and it occurs four other times in the book of Jeremiah, twice with reference to the Sinai/Horeb covenant (7:23; 11:4) and two more times as a promise for the future (24:7; 32:38).”[lv] W.D. Barack quotes Sarason about the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, “[n]Old Testament a new Torah…just differently transmitted and more perfectly observed”[lvi]

By keeping the Sinaitic Covenant, the Lord had promised to be their God and they were to be his people. In Deuteronomy 26:16-19, God promises to keep them as His people and treasured possession. But by not obeying the Lord, the people had ceased to be his people. Prophets repeatedly warned people of their downfall. Hosea, dramatically names his son Lo-Ammi (Hos 1:9), which means not my people. By this act, he signified that God had deserted them ass His people. Yet the Lord gives promise to the people that they will be again His people and He will be their God (Hos 2:25). Jeremiah had used this phrase often in connection with the old covenant which was broken (7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22). In 24:7, the Lord promises He will give the people a heart to know Him, and they shall return to Him with their whole heart and He will be their God and they will be His people. But the new covenant will ensure that the Lord will be their God and they will be His people forever because it was a covenant which could not be broken. “Thus the hope proclaimed is a perfect integration of God and people, a flawless reciprocity, an undisturbed interaction: ‘And I shall be their God and they will be my people.’ This deep coincidence of divine and human issues is a harmony of divine and human wills and disposes of the tensions between obedience and disobedience to God’s demands.”[lvii]

34a: and no man shall teach again his friend and his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” (וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת־יְהוָה)
for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord ( כִּי־כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִ‍קְטַנָּם וְעַד־גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד : The earlier covenant needed somebody to teach the fellow Israelite to obey the commandments of YHWH. The Israelites were asked to teach their younger generation about the law of the Lord. But the new covenant will be inscribed in the hearts and put inside each one that they will no longer need anyone else to instruct them or lead them to renew the covenant.

אִישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו: Hebrew normally uses masculine nouns and pronouns for references to people in general.[lviii] Therefore, the expression, here, includes all the people without exclusion. People need not remind the other of their duty to know the Lord.

דְּעוּ אֶת־יְהוָה: As a result of the God’s putting His law in the heart of the people, all, small and great, will ‘know the Lord.’ The knowledge of YHWH, of which the prophet speaks, is not the theoretical knowledge which is imparted and acquired by means of religious instruction.[lix] Therefore, the interpretation that the office of teaching will cease to exist when the new covenant will come into exist cannot be accepted without reservations. Here, with the people as subject, Know the Lord means to be in a close relationship to the Lord.[lx] The knowledge of YHWH is based upon the inward experience of the heart which is a life-transforming one. In Psalms, the knowledge of YHWH is to accept him as God. It is to accept that He made us, and we are His, His people — and the flock of His pasture. (Ps 100:3). According to Jeremiah, to know the Lord is to obey His commandments, to walk His ways and to do what is right and just (Jer. 2:28; 4:22; 8:7; 16:21; 22:15–17; 24:7). It includes the ability to recount how the Lord saved Israel (2:6–8). The knowledge of YHWH consists in knowing that, He acts with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things he delights (Jer 9:24). Therefore, to know YHWH is to walk in the path of justice, love, and righteousness in the earth.

While the center piece of the chiastic structure of the prose section of the ‘new covenant’ passage is the ‘salvific event’ of the exodus, the center piece of the poetic section is the knowledge of YHWH. The clear implication is that, in the new covenant, each person will do what is right and just so perfectly that no one will ever have to encourage another to do so. These lines match the promise of the Lord in 24:7, where he says, “I will give them a heart to know me.”[lxi]This characteristic of the new covenant reminds us that only a proper relationship with God can be translated into proper relationships with one’s fellow human beings. (see Deut 4:5–8; 6:1–3, 24–25; 7:12–14; 16:18–20). The Lord has always called on those who “know” him to do “justice and righteousness.” The difference in the New Covenant is the expectation that these ideals will be realized consistently by every person.23

לְמִ‍קְטַנָּם וְעַד־גְּדוֹלָם : This is a Hebrew way of including people of all social levels (8:10; 16:6; 31:34; 42:1; 16:21; 24:7). [lxii] This sums up a list of people from children to the very aged in 6:11–13 and the poor and the rich in 5:1–5. The same phrase, but without pronominal suffixes, describes the lay participants in the covenant renewal led by Josiah in 2 Kgs 23:2.[lxiii] Unlike the old covenant, the knowledge of which had to be accessed, the new covenant would be easily accessible to all. So under the new covenant, all the social disparities will come to an end, for all will have the knowledge of the Lord, equally.

34b: For I will forgive their inequity (כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם)
and will remember their sins no more.( וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר־עוֹד)

The people will know YHWH for (because) He would forgive their inequity and would remember their sins no more. This כי clause is offered as a reason for all that has gone before.[lxiv] Therefore, the knowledge of the Lord can only be there if the Lord forgives the sins and this the Lord bestows freely. In the old covenant, people had to do sacrifices to receive the atonement. Although the Jeremiah’s contemporaries had refused to turn away from sin and be pardoned, (5:1; 36:3), the people of the new covenant will not bear the guilt of their ancestors’ sin or their own because of God’s gracious gift of pardon. Here, the new covenant differs substantially from the old covenant.

Hosea says in 8:13b, “Now he will remember their iniquity, and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt. But Jeremiah’s words here reverse these. He says, “…forgive their inequity and will remember their sins no more.” Remembering inequities and punishing sins are inseparable. The Lord only remembers the inequity when he punishes the sin. Conversely, when He declares that He has forgotten the inequities, it means He will never punish them for their sins. In sum, “forgive” and “forget” does not mean that the Lord has some kind of the loss of mental recollections, but rather they are synonymous terms for a single act; they do not denote sequential and complementary acts.[lxv]

Although there are arguments that the inequities and the sins referred in here are the events that lead to the exile, this is too narrow an understanding. Since, no such explicit mention of the sins and inequities mentioned we would very well assume that the mention here would be to all the sins which would be committed until the new covenant. For once the new covenant is established, it is impossible to sin.[lxvi] When the heart and mind inscribed with the revelation of God one cannot turn to sin again. Therefore, faithfulness to the new covenant will be a gift of divine mercy, not a human achievement.[lxvii]

9. Theology and Message

In the Old Testament, there were mainly four covenants spoken of. They are (1) The Abrahamic Covenant, (2) The Mosaic Covenant, (3) The Davidic Covenant, and (4) The New Covenant. While the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were promises with a future tone, the Mosaic covenant was temporal and conditional. The New covenant of which Jeremiah speaks is also a promise and unconditional. But unlike the Davidic and Abrahamic Covenants, which were mainly made with an individual, the New Covenant will be made with all the Israelites. The New Covenant therefore is both common and individual.

The new covenant offered a new hope for the people of Israel who had lost their identity. While in the exile, they had no land and no temple, which were considered to be the pillars of the Israel society. Even though, God had repeatedly warned them of the punishment, if they did not obey him, they would not listen. Now that the punishment and the wrath had befallen them, God had compassion on them. He offers a new identity for the people of Israel. For centuries, their lives revolved around the covenant which God established with them at Mount Sinai when he took them by hand out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. His commandments were written on a stone tablet and kept in the temple. But now they were destroyed. Their identity was in crisis. So God offers them a new hope with the new covenant. The Lord will write His laws in their hearts and deposit it within them. It made the loss of the land and loss of the temple immaterial. They could now hope for a union with God which could not be taken away by the external factors.

It made also made them equal in the society. No one had better access to the law, but each one had the law within oneself. There will be no mediator or no teacher. This law cannot be broken, as it would become the life-principle which governs their thoughts, feelings and actions. It also offered forgiveness of sin. God would not remember their sins anymore! As a result of this unconditional forgiveness, everyone would know the Lord. By knowing the Lord, they would accept Him as their savior remembering all that He had done for them and would walk in the way of the Lord, in love, justice and righteousness.

The difference between the Sinaitic Covenant and the New Covenant are shown in the table below.

Sinaitic Covenant New Covenant
People broke it. It was breakable. People will not break it. It is unbreakable.
Only the Lord was living up to the expectations of the covenant Both the Lord and the people will live all the expectations of the covenant.
The laws were written on the stone tablet The laws will be written in the heart
The laws were kept in the temple They will be kept within each one
People were needed to be taught to know the Lord No one will need to be taught as all will know YHWH
Only conditional forgiveness was offered Unconditional forgiveness offered
Renewal Ceremonies were needed No need of such ceremonies
Mediators were needed There will be no mediators.
People were asked to keep the law in their hearts The Lord will write the law in the hearts of the people
It tried to control the conduct of the people It changed the character of the people so that they will love and obey God.[lxviii]
Breaking of the covenant brought curses. No such curses.
External laws were to be kept Internalization of law is the main feature of the covenant.

10. Conclusion.

As a Christian I cannot ignore the effect of the ‘New Covenant’ proclaimed by Jeremiah on the New Testament (1Cor 11:25; Mk 14:24–25; Mt 26:27–29; Lk 22:17–20)[lxix], an adaption that it shares with the Qumran community.It is the book of Hebrews which is influenced more by this passage (Heb 8:8–12; Heb 10:16–17). Most of these New Testament applications apply the passage to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.[lxx] But it is worth looking at the covenant as it is proclaimed by Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s proclamation of the New Covenant is a consolation and hope to a group of people who lost their identity. It envisages a society where the power of the Lord will bring equal justice to all. Everyone will know the Lord. This will be a free gift. In a world which is broken by the broken and hurting relationship, the covenant promises us a right relationship with the Lord which will be spilled over to the relationship with our brothers and sisters. If we imbibe the spirit of this covenant, we will be able to heal many broken hearts. And indeed we have been far from being such a New Covenant Community.[lxxi] A long way to go!

[i]L. Richards and L.O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987), 414.

[ii]J.P. Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Jeremiah, Lamentations (ed. P. Schaff; New York: C. Scribner & Company, 1871), 274.

[iii]W. McKane, A critical and exegetical commentary on Jeremiah (v. 2; v. 19; 2 vols.; vol. 2: T. & T. Clark, 1986), 817.

[iv]G.L. Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52 (Word Biblical Commentary; eds. B. M. Metzger, et al.; 52C vols.; vol. 27; Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 130.

[v]T.M. Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations (The College Press NIV Commentary: College Press Pub Company, 2002), 255.

[vi]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 127.

[vii]The translation uses the following aides.

J.J. Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament: Isaiah-Malachi (Analytical Key to the Old Testament; 4 vols.; vol. 4; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 340-341.

F.F. Brown, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906),

[viii]Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bielgesellschaft, 2006), Je 31:31-34.

[ix]A.R. Faussett, The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments; eds. R. Jamieson, et al.; 2 vols.; vol. 1; Hartford, Conn: S.S.Scranton & Compnany, 1871), 539.

[x]W.L. Holladay, Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 26-52 (Hermeneia–A Critical and Gistorical commentary on the Bible; 2 vols.; vol. 2; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 35.

[xi]According to Holladay, Jeremiah 30:1-31:40 forms the book of Comfort. For a detailed discussion see, Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 148-171.

[xii]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 155.

[xiii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 126-127.

[xiv]William Lee Holladay, 170.

[xv]William Lee Holladay, 164.

[xvi]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 257.

[xvii]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 164.

[xviii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 257.

[xix]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 164.

[xx] B.M. Newman and P.C. Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah (UBS Handbook Series; New York: United Bible Societies, 2003), 30.

[xxi]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 31.

[xxii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxiii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxiv]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 165.

[xxv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxvi] Walter Brueggemann, “Texts That Linger, Words That Explode,” Theology Today 54, no. 2 (1997), 190.

[xxvii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxviii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 255.

[xxix]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxx]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 256.

[xxxi]McKane, Jeremiah, 818.

[xxxii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxxiii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 256.

[xxxiv] For a detailed exposition see, …McKane, Jeremiah, 819.

[xxxv]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxxvi]W. Gesenius and S.P. Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1957), 130.

[xxxvii]Brown, et al., BDB, 127.

[xxxviii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxxix]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 256.

[xl]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xli]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlii]C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Prophecies of Jeremiah (Commentary on the Old Testament; trans. J. Kennedy; 10 vols.; vol. 8; Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1996), 8:282.

[xliii]Lange, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 275.

[xliv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlvi]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlvii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 652.

[xlviii]Keil and Delitzsch, Jeremiah, 8:282.

[xlix]Brown, et al., BDB, 899.

[l]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 652.

[li]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[lii]J. Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, Together with Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek Words of the Original, with References to the English Words (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986), H3820.

[liii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 258.

[liv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[lv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[lvi] William D. Barrick, “New covenant theology and the Old Testament covenants,” Master’s Seminary Journal 18, no. 2 (2007)

[lvii]McKane, Jeremiah, 820.

[lviii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 652.

[lix]Keil and Delitzsch, Jeremiah, 8:283.

[lx]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 653.

[lxi]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 134.

23 There is probably a connection here with Jer 5:4–5. The inclusiveness of “from the least of them to the greatest” is reminiscent of the references there to “the poor” and “the leaders.” Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 198.

[lxii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 191.

[lxiii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 134.

[lxiv]McKane, Jeremiah, 822.

[lxv]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 260.

[lxvi]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 260.

[lxvii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 134.

[lxviii]W.W. Wiersbe, Be Decisive (The Be Series Commentary; Wheaton: Victor Books, 1996, c1995), Je 31:31.

[lxix] However, neither Mark nor Matthew, in the earliest and best MSS., uses “new” with “covenant” though later MSS. do offer “new” at that point. Luke offers two text traditions, a shorter one which does not mention “covenant” at all, and a longer one which mentions “the new covenant”.

[lxx]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 94.

[lxxi] John Bright, “Exercise in hermeneutics : Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Interpretation 20, no. 2 (1966), 208.


. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bielgesellschaft, 2006.

Barrick, William D. “New covenant theology and the Old Testament covenants.” Master’s Seminary Journal 18, no. 2 (2007): 165-180.

Bright, John. “Exercise in hermeneutics : Jeremiah 31:31-34.” Interpretation 20, no. 2 (1966): 188-210.

Brown, F.F., S.S.R. Driver, and C.A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

Brueggemann, Walter. “Texts That Linger, Words That Explode.” Theology Today 54, no. 2 (1997): 180-199.

Faussett, A.R. The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. Edited by R. Jamieson, D. Brown, and A.R. Faussett. 2 vols. Vol. 1, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. Hartford, Conn: S.S.Scranton & Compnany, 1871.

Gesenius, W. and S.P. Tregelles. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1957.

Holladay, W.L. Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 26-52. 2 vols. Vol. 2, Hermeneia–A Critical and Gistorical commentary on the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch. The Prophecies of Jeremiah. Translated by JAMES KENNEDY. 10 vols. Vol. 8, Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1996.

Keown, G.L., P.J. Scalise, and T.G. Smothers. Jeremiah 26-52. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker. 52C vols. Vol. 27, Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1995.

Lange, J.P. . A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Jeremiah, Lamentations. Edited by P. Schaff. New York: C. Scribner & Company, 1871.

Owens, J.J. Analytical Key to the Old Testament: Isaiah-Malachi. 4 vols. Vol. 4, Analytical Key to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.

McKane, W. A critical and exegetical commentary on Jeremiah. 2 vols. Vol. 2, v. 2; v. 19. T. & T. Clark, 1986.

Newman, B.M. and P.C. Stine. A Handbook on Jeremiah. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 2003.

Richards, L. and L.O. Richards. The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987.

Strong, J. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, Together with Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek Words of the Original, with References to the English Words. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986.

Wiersbe, W.W. Be Decisive. The Be Series Commentary. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1996, c1995.

Willis, T.M. Jeremiah and Lamentations. The College Press NIV Commentary. College Press Pub Company, 2002.

The Conflict of a Sign

An Exegetical Study of Matthew 12:38-45

1. Introduction

A sign is something that points to another reality. When scribes and Pharisees ask for a sign from Jesus, they are in fact asking him to prove him as Messiah. “They had witnessed countJesus-and-pharisees-taxless miracles pointing to the reality of the kingdom and the truth of Jesus’ proclamation and yet would not believe. They had been the recipients of far more evidence than had the Ninevites or the Queen of Sheba. Whereas the latter acted upon what little they knew, the Pharisees not only failed to accept what they saw, but they attributed it to the power of Satan.”[1] Thus by asking for a sign they are refusing Jesus and his message. For those who fail to believe in Jesus even after the miraculous deeds he performed, the sign which he gives to Pharisees and scribes will be a stumbling block. This is no sign for unbelievers. As St. Paul says, Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1Cor 1:23).

2. Translation

38. Then answered some of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39. And he answering said to them, “A generation, evil and adulterous, seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40. for, as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster three days and three nights, so shall the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. 41. Men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, for they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and behold! Something greater than Jonah here! 42. A queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon here! 43. And, when the unclean spirit may come out from the man, it goes through waterless region seeking rest but doth not find. 44. Then it says, I will return to my house from where I came out; and having come, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45. Then it goes, and takes with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and having entered, they dwell there, and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first; so will it also be to this evil generation.”

3. Text-Critical Notes

Not many textual difficulties can be found with regard to this pericopy. United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament does not mention any variant readings. However, Donald A. Hagner in Word Biblical Commentary mentions a few variants. The important ones are: “B (Vatincanus) and a few other mss (manuscripts) omit καὶ φαρισαίων, “and Pharisees,” probably by accident (homoioteleuton).”[2] “τὸν οἶκον, “the house,” is found only in D (syhmg) (Codex Bezae (A Syriac variant reading in the margin)); a few other mss of lesser importance have αὐτόν, “it.” The words are added in the translation for clarity, not in dependence on D.”[3]

3. De-limitation of the Passage

Although it might look difficult to de-limit the passage in the way I wish to do (Mt 12:38-45), it is clear to an earnest reader. Let me apply the best known methods of de-limitation of a passage.

Change in Place: The place of the passage is the same as that of the passage of the Be-el’ze-bul controversy that preceded and the passage of the controversy over the true kindred of Jesus that followed. Therefore it is difficult to de-limit the text using this criterion.

Change in Persons: A change in persons or characters is evident in the present passage.[4] The earlier passage had Jesus, crowd, Pharisees, Be-el’ze-bul and Holy Spirit as the characters. The present passage has Jesus, some of the scribes and Pharisees (not the whole group of Pharisees), and the mention of Jonah, the people of Nineveh, Solomon, the queen of the South, unclean spirits as the characters. The passage that follows also has different characters. Jesus, his mother and brothers, the crowd, the informer, and the disciples are the characters here. Therefore using this criterion, we can de-limit this passage.

Change in Time: The Greek word ‘τότε’ which in English usually translated as ‘then’ or ‘after that’ could be a mention to the time that elapsed in the narration. Although the events have taken place in a single day, some amount of time has passed in between. This word ‘τότε’ is usually used by the narrators to express the lapse of time and the beginning of a new episode (cf. Mt 12:22; 13:36; etc.) Therefore it is easy for us to say that the passage starts from verse 38. In the same way, the Greek phrase used in verse 46, Ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος, suggests that a new passage starts from here. Therefore using the principles above, we can de-limit the passage from Matthew 12:38-45.

Thematic Change: The earlier passage contains Be-el’ze-bul controversy story and the following passage contains the controversy of Jesus’ true kindred, whereas this passage contains the controversy of sign.

Although using the above mentioned criteria we can easily de-limit the passage, there might arise a few doubts in the reader. The mention of the return of the unclean spirit in verse 43-45 might seem like another passage. But a thematic unity as presented by Matthew dispels such a doubt. A careful study suggests that verses 39-45 are the answer of Jesus to the question that was put before him by scribes and Pharisees in verse 38. The phrase γενεὰ πονηρὰ καὶ μοιχαλὶς in verse 39 and the phrase γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ in verse 45, suggests that Matthew has included the answer of Jesus in between these two phrases. This is a typical style of inclusion that Matthew Matthew uses to establish the unity of 12:38-45.[5]

5. Context of the Text

To understand the text, it is imperative to place the text in its context. The text as part of the gospel has a special place in its present context and one need to look at the wider and immediate context of the text.

Wider Context: As part of the gospel of Matthew, the passage is part of the conflict or controversial stories which formulates chapter 12. The events of chapters 12 and 13 take place in a single day. In chapter 12, the rejection of Jesus reaches a new height. The chapter contains three conflict stories. They are

a) Conflict over the Sabbath (12:1–21)

b) Conflict over Satan (12:22–37)

c) Conflict over Signs (12:38–45)

In each of these conflict stories the approach to Jesus was negative, but Jesus responded positively. The rejection of Jesus comes from two main sources, the animosity of the Jewish leaders and the indifference of the common Israelites. [6] The passage of my concern is part of these conflict stories which find a thematic ascension in the tension between the Jewish people and Jesus and will end in the final pronouncement of Jesus about his real household. Since Israel has rejected Jesus as the Messiah, he includes to his household all those disciples who do the will of his Father in heaven.

Immediate Context: The passage comes after the healing of a demoniac who was blind and mute (Mt 12:22). The healing of this demoniac was a clear sign that Jesus is the messiah. But Pharisees fail to understand this and they accuse Jesus of casting out demons with the power of Be-el’ze-bul. Jesus was very critical about their view and unbelief. But scribes and Pharisees would like to question Jesus further and they ask for a sign from him. This is the immediate context in which Jesus gives a sign which is a no sign at all for an unbeliever.

6. Analysis of the Parallel Texts

Matthew records the sign narrative in two places (Mt 12:38-45 and Mt 16:1-4). They are partially parallel. But it is unlikely that we here have two different stories or sayings from the life of Jesus,[7] rather Matthew has placed the story from two different sources. V 38 is similar in content to 16:1 but has scribes in place of Sadducees.[8] Matthew has supplied an introduction resembling Mk 8:11 and thereby making the entire passage conflict story.[9] V 39 is in verbatim agreement with 16:2a–4, except for the latter’s omission of the final two words referring to Jonah as τοῦ προφήτου, “the prophet.” Although both Luke and Mark narrate this passage, this is mainly dependent on Q, which is more developed than Mark 8:11–12.[10] “Matthew reproduces the Marcan form in 16:1-4 and the Q form here.”[11] The notable deviations from Luke 11:29-32 and 24-26, suggests that some material is drawn from Matthew’s special source or he has freely edited the Q source.[12]

“V 38 is probably a rewriting of Mark 8:11 or of the Q source reflected in Luke 11:16 (16:1 is perhaps a little closer to Mark 8:11).”[13] V. 39 is in verbatim agreement with Matthew 16:4 except for the omitted the words τοῦ προφήτου, “the prophet,” and has a more close parallel with Luke 11:29 for the description of the generation as πονηρά, “evil,” and the promise of the sign of Jonah (cf. Luke 11:29 omits the words “the prophet” as in 16:4). Mark avoids the quality of the generation as “evil” completely and also completely denies the promise of a sign. Therefore v 39 is obviously drawn from Q. Though v 40 is in agreement with Luke 11:30, the phrase ουʼτως ἔσται ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, “thus the Son of Man will be” is unique to Matthew.[14] In v 40 Matthew has explained the meaning of the sign of Jonah, which compares Jonah’s three day and night ordeal to the time of Jesus’ stay in the heart of the earth.[15] Vv 41 and 42 are transposed compared to Luke 11:31 and 32, but in verbatim agreement except for Matthew’s omission of τῶν ἀνδρῶν, “the men” (Luke 11:31), before “this generation,” thus producing a more perfect parallelism, and the slight change of the following pronoun. Matthew has thus successfully edited vv 41 and 42 transposing them to keep the references to Jonah together rather than separating them.[16]

For Matthew, the following narrative about the return of the unclean spirit is part of the conflict story of sign. But for Luke, it is part of Be-el’ze-bul controversy and follows that passage. vv 43-45 is in nearly verbatim agreement with Luke 11:24-26. “ The only differences apart from a few very minor changes in word order are the following: Matthew’s inserted δέ, “but” (though here a simple connective and not in its adversative sense), at the very beginning (v 43); Matthew’s ἐπιστρέψω (v 44) for Luke’s ὑποστρέψω, both meaning “return”; Matthew’s σχολάζοντα, “unoccupied” (v 44), probably an addition to Q; Matthew’s μεθʼ ἑαυτοῦ, “with it” (v 45), probably omitted by Luke from Q (given Matthew’s tendency to abbreviate rather than to add); and finally, Matthew’s concluding sentence, “Thus it will be also for this evil generation” (v 45), added to adapt the pericope to its present context and to apply the passage to that generation.”[17]

Matthew has thus freely edited Q, introducing his own materials in v 40 and in v 45. He has also changed the order of the verses to adapt to his style and theology. He transposes the vv 41 and 42 to make it a more comprehensive parallelism. He adds vv 42-45 to the present story forming one answer of Jesus to the demand of the scribes and Pharisees to see a sign. He adds the phrase “thus it will be also for this evil generation” to knit these verses well in the present context. Given the importance of the resurrection to Matthew, and his convenient and more emphatic change of the meaning of the sign from repentance to resurrection, and the breaking up of the story to add this dimension, one can for sure assume that Matthew has freely edited the Q source.

7. Literary Genre

If we take the whole of chapter 12, we can find that the whole chapter is a movement towards the pronouncement of Jesus about his household. Since Jewish people have rejected the Messiah, Jesus now includes anyone who does the will of his Father in heaven into his household. Therefore the whole chapter can be taken as one unit and a pronouncement story.

The story of the sign of Jonah (12:38-45) is part of chapter 12. This is the third conflict story in the chapter. The first is the conflict over the Sabbath (12:1–21), the second is the conflict over Satan (12:22–37) and the third is conflict over Signs (12:38–45).

The passage also contains different literary devices. The answer of Jesus to the demand of scribes and Pharisees is adequately articulated in an inclusion (or intercalation) with the reference to the evil generation in v 39 and 45. vv 41 and 42 contain a beautiful parallelism. Although not a perfect parallelism, the being of the prophet Jonah in the belly of the sea monster is paralleled to the resurrection of the Son of Man from the heart of the earth. There is also the parabolic analogy between a person who is repossessed and the present evil generation. There is also the proverbial saying about the last state of the person as being worse than the first.

8. Structure of the Text

The simple structure of the passage can be seen in the following outline: [18]

a. The request of the scribes and Pharisees (12:38)

b. The response of Jesus (12:39–42)—It is fourfold:)

i. He condemns the scribes and Pharisees (this generation) (v.39a)

ii. He promises the Pharisees one sign -the sign of Jonah (vv.39b-40)

iii. He warns the Jewish nation of judgment to come (12:41, 42) (using the twofold examples of their history)

1. Ninevites (v 41) and

2. The queen of the south (v 42).

iv. Caution against a worsened state of this generation (v.43-45)

1. The first state of the man (12:43)

2. The final state of the man (12:44–45)[19]

9. Analysis of the Text

After analysing the background of the text, we are in a position to look at the text more closely. This analysis will therefore contain a verse by verse study of the passage using the above structure and analysis of the selected words or phrases along with the implied theology.

9.1. The request of the scribes and Pharisees (12:38)

Greek Text: Τότε ἀπεκρίθησαν αὐτῷ τινες τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων λέγοντες· διδάσκαλε, θέλομεν ἀπὸ σοῦ σημεῖον ἰδεῖν.

Τότεἀπεκρίθησαν (then they answered): “The opening words τότε ἀπεκρίθησαν, “then they answered,” relate this passage to the preceding material as a continuation of the exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus begun already at the beginning of chap. 12.”[20] Even though it is a weak connectivity, [21] we can find a thematic continuity between the Be-el-‘ze-bul controversy and this story through these words. Jesus had reacted very strongly to the claim of the Pharisees that Jesus used the power of Be-el-‘ze-bul to cast out demons. He questioned their attitude. Now it was the turn of the Pharisees to answer him. And therefore the above phrase acts as connectivity.

ἀπεκρίθησανλέγοντες (they answerd…saying): There are different arguments put up by the scholars to show that this phrase is just redundant here.[22] They argue that this pleonastic participle, ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν became to such an extent an empty formula that it is even sometimes used where there is nothing preceding to which an answer can be referred. According to them it is just like the common Hebrew formula wayyaʿan wayyoʾmer, or the asyndetic ʿanah weʾamar in Aramaic.[23]This argument is also because it occurs almost exclusively in the Synoptic Gospels.[24] However, the above analysis of the Τότε ἀπεκρίθησαν could tell us that this formula is not a redundant here, but connectivity between the passages.

γραμματέωνκαὶΦαρισαίων (scribes and Pharisees): The scribes and Pharisees are commonly linked in Matthew (see 5:20, and especially chap. 23).[25] According to some scholars, the first group here is subset of the second. [26] They are depicted as the common antagonist in Matthew. They represent the Jewish leaders in common.

διδάσκαλε (Teacher): In Matthew, it is those who have not accepted Jesus, most often address him as διδάσκαλε, “teacher” (see on 8:19; cf. 9:11; 17:24; 22:16, 36).Although it is a term of respect, in Matthew, it suggests a resistance to Jesus and his proclamation and a refusal to follow in discipleship to him.[27]

σημεῖον (sign): The “sign” in the Old Testament was an extraordinary or paradoxical event that manifested the present activity of God.[28] Considering the fact that the Old Testament heroes did perform miracles to demonstrate the God-given authority ((Exod 4:1–9; 29–31; 7:8–22; Judg 6:36–40; 1 Kgs 18:36–39; Isa 7:10–14; 38:7–8), it was highly reasonable that they should see a sign, that Jesus should by miracles prove his divine mission. Even though “sign” is not used in the Synoptics, as it is in John, as a word for “miracle,” it would be natural to assume that that is what Jesus is now asked for (as it is apparently in 16:1, “a sign from heaven”).[29] In the context the request is directed toward a Messianic sign, the type of event that in Jewish belief would precede the coming of the Messiah; see 24:3. The Be-el’ze-bul controversy is thus followed by an indirect, but not subtle, demand for a verification of the Messianic claims.[30] But when he had given so many signs already it was highly unreasonable to demand a sign now. [31]

The reason for the request was lack of faith. The request was therefore a criticism on Jesus for not giving enough evidence.[32] It was a challenge to prove him through miraculous deeds. This was exactly what the tempter had attempted in the desert. The synoptic parallels are very clear on this.Mt 16:1; Mk 8:11; and Lk 11:16 all have ‘a sign from heaven’, and all use the word, πειράζω, ‘tempt’.[33] Jesus never did any miracle to create an effect or to prove himself. They were part of his proclamation and thus designed solely to meet human needs.[34]

9.2. The Response of Jesus (vv.39-45)

9.2.1. He condemns the scribes and Pharisees (this generation) (v.39a)

Greek Text: ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· γενεὰ πονηρὰ καὶ μοιχαλὶς σημεῖον ἐπιζητεῖ, καὶ σημεῖον οὐ δοθήσεται αὐτῇ

Although the request for a sign is not in itself objectionable, Jesus dismisses the present request because of the attitude of those who have made it. Jesus considers these leaders as the representatives of all those people in general who are not receptive.

γενεὰπονηρὰκαὶμοιχαλὶς: (wicked and adulterous generation) The καὶ here is probably an explanatory καὶ, explaining who are the wicked generation. The wicked are adulterous. The word adulterous to qualify the generation appears only in Matthew and not Luke. By using this word, Matthew refers to the Old Testament metaphor for infidelity of Israel (see Jer 2:1-3, 20-25, 32-33; 3:1-5; Hos 2:3-22).[35] Jesus is hard not only on those who ask for sign, but on all those who do not believe in him. They were indeed evil because they were not faithful to the deeds of YHWH manifested in the person of Jesus. They not only hardened themselves against the conviction of Christ’s miracles, but set themselves to abuse him, and put contempt on his miracles.[36] They would eventually take him to cross.

9.2.2. He promises the Pharisees one sign -the sign of Jonah (vv.39b-40)

Greek Text: εἰ μὴ τὸ σημεῖον Ἰωνᾶ τοῦ προφήτου. ὥσπερ γὰρ ἦν Ἰωνᾶς ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ τοῦ κήτους τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας, οὕτως ἔσται ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας.

εἰμὴτὸσημεῖονἸωνᾶτοῦπροφήτου (except the sign of Jonah the prophet): The Sign of Jonah is an exepgetic genitive and therefore it is not a sign given by or to Jonah or in any other way merely connected with him, but is the sign which Jonah was, or Jonah himself, as a sign.[37] “The refusal of a sign is absolute in Mark’s parallel passage (8:11–12), but Matthew and Luke (11:29–30) both qualify it by an enigmatic reference to the “sign of Jonah,” which they then develop differently, Matthew by an explicit typological parallel (v. 40), Luke by stating more cryptically simply that as Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.”[38]

γὰρ (for): Γάρ is often used to introduce an explanatory statement. An explanation is less prominent than what is being explained. [39] Therefore the following verse is an explanation of the sign of Jonah. Matthew has significant change in the understanding of the sign from Luke which is probably closer to Q. According to Luke, it is the preaching of Jonah to repentance which is the sign, but in Matthew, it is explicitly the resurrection.[40] Resurrection was such an important theme for Matthew, that he breaks the flow of the passage to add this meaning.

τρεῖςἡμέραςκαὶτρεῖςνύκτας (three days and three nights): To be actual, Christ did not spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. This is a typical example of a Synecdoche referring to the use of the whole for a part or part for the whole. Thus it could be a reference to the first and third days and all the second.[41] According to Theodore of Heraclea, “we commemorate the third day of those who have died, not when three days and three nights, completed in equal measure, have gone by. But we reckon as a single, complete day that day on which the person died, regardless of what hour the death occurred.” [42]

The sojourn of Jonah in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights is a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew anticipates his own account of resurrection here.[43] Being a sign in the future, it fails to convince his present hearers. From this point of view, the refusal of a sign remains for the time being absolute despite the tantalizing “except.” It is only Matthew’s readers who have a post-resurrectional view (cf. John 2:21-22 for a similar sign) can understand this sign. [44] The resurrection of Jesus will therefore demonstrate a correspondence between him and the prophet Jonah, each released from Sheol (“the belly of the sea monster” and “the heart of the earth,” refers to Sheol). [45]

The Sign of Jonah, although was given to scribes and Pharisees, was not meant for them. The phrase τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς stands in contrast to σημεῖον ἰδεῖν (one cannot see things under the earth) and thereby ‘highlights the fact that the “sign” demanded and “sign” to be given … are diametrically opposed in nature’[46] Those who wish to know the Son of God through a demonstration of signs but not through faith will remain trapped in their disbelief, falling on the stumbling block of his death, which is the sign of Jonah.[47]

However, the analogy with Jonah as it occurs in Matthew is not quite perfect. Jonah, for one thing, did not die as did the Son of Man. [48]

9.2.3. He warns the Jewish nation of judgment to come (12:41, 42)

Greek Text: 41. ἄνδρες Νινευῖται ἀναστήσονται ἐν τῇ κρίσει μετὰ τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης καὶ κατακρινοῦσιν αὐτήν, ὅτι μετενόησαν εἰς τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰωνᾶ, καὶ ἰδοὺ πλεῖον Ἰωνᾶ ὧδε.

42. βασίλισσα νότου ἐγερθήσεται ἐν τῇ κρίσει μετὰ τῆς γενεᾶς ταύτης καὶ κατακρινεῖ αὐτήν, ὅτι ἦλθεν ἐκ τῶν περάτων τῆς γῆς ἀκοῦσαι τὴν σοφίαν Σολομῶνος, καὶ ἰδοὺ πλεῖον Σολομῶνος ὧδε.

“Two parallel sayings are now appended that indicate the repentance and receptivity found in those who had much less evidence to depend on than did the contemporaries of Jesus. The Ninevites, on the one hand, who repented at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:5), and the Queen of Sheba (i.e., “the south”), who traveled so far to hear the wisdom of Solomon (1 Kgs 10:1–10; cf. 2 Chr 9:1–9), will “rise up” (ἀναστήσονται) in the resurrection at the final judgment and condemn the present generation.”[49] Thus Jesus directs his questioners to two familiar passages of Old Testament. He condemns them of their stubbornness and warns them. Here we encounter a known Matthean motif of believing Gentiles and unbelieving Jews (cf. 8:10–11; 21:43). [50]

πλεῖον (greater): adjective normal accusative neuter singular comparative from πολύς .

The gender of the word πλεῖον is neuter. This is therefore translated as “something greater than.” The neuter gender is understood most naturally as referring to the entire reality of Jesus and his proclamation and the inauguration of the kingdom of God.[51] Thus it refers to the ‘Christ event’ in its totality. Jesus invites his hearers to look (cf. ἰδοὺ) at the Kingdom of God present among them in the person of Jesus.

In this chapter, we have three “greater/more than” sayings (cf. μεῖζον in v 6 and πλεῖον in v 41 & 42). These sayings also clarify Matthew’s understanding of the nature of Jesus. As Jonah represented the prophetic office, Solomon, son of David, represented the kingly office and the wisdom tradition. Thus Matthew affirms that Jesus is greater than the prophets and kings. He is also greater than the temple or priesthood (v 6). It is also notewordy to mention that Solomon was the builder of the temple, which Matthew considers irrelevant with the coming of Jesus (Temple is a prominent theme in Matthew’s gospel). He affirms that priesthood (cf. Matthew 12:6), prophets and kingship can be found in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ questioners have a thought-provoking basis on which to consider the question of his authority.[52] Jesus is thus and someone greater than the temple, and hence a high priest, a prophet, and a king.[53]

κατακρινοῦσιν αὐτήν (they will condemn it): The reference here is that the people of Nineveh and the queen of south will rise up in judgement and condemn this generation. Probably the reference may not be that the people of older generation themselves will judge the present generation in some future time, but they will be they will be the standard by which this generation will be condemned by God.[54] Ninevites and the queen of the south had far less advantages than the generation of Jesus’ day, who were asking for more signs; but Ninevites and the queen responded better to their opportunities. Therefore God will judge this generation more harshly because they had better opportunities. The people of Nineveh repented at the teaching of a prophet, a recipient of the word of God himself. Although, a gentile and a woman, the queen of the South (Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10) was not deterred by these weaknesses. She, merely hearing of Solomon’s repute, desired to see him. But the Jews of Jesus’ time did not receive Jesus who is the Word of God and the wisdom incarnated. Their rejection of Christ will count against them. This principle was also seen in the rebuke given the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum in the previous chapter of Matthew.[55]

9.2.4. Caution against a worsened state of this generation (v.43-45)

Greek Text: 43. Ὅταν δὲ τὸ ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα ἐξέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, διέρχεται δι᾽ ἀνύδρων τόπων ζητοῦν ἀνάπαυσιν καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκει. 44. τότε λέγει· εἰς τὸν οἶκόν μου ἐπιστρέψω ὅθεν ἐξῆλθον· καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον. 45. τότε πορεύεται καὶ παραλαμβάνει μεθ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύματα πονηρότερα ἑαυτοῦ καὶ εἰσελθόντα κατοικεῖ ἐκεῖ καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν πρώτων. οὕτως ἔσται καὶ τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ.

These verses extend the indictment levelled against the Pharisees throughout this chapter and especially the preceding passage, alluding not only to the failure of the Pharisees to accept Jesus and his ministry but also to the miserable future that lies before them.[56] In these verses Matthew gives an analogy between a person who repossessed and the present evil generation. This passage is closely associated with Be-el-zebul controversy in Luke. However, Matthew has a purpose to add this story here and to include in this pericopy. For him, the worse thing than the present rejection of Messiah can only be the crucifixion. Therefore it is apt that the rejection of Messiah which is the prominent theme in the chapter culminates with these verses.

Jesus aptly puts the situation of “this generation” is like that of the newly-exorcized person. They have experienced the liberation through the ministry of Jesus, but if they fail to take the road of discipleship, they are in danger of relapsing into a condition worse than before. The message here reflects that of v. 30: if they are not positively “for” Jesus they will turn out in the end to be “against” him.[57]

ἀνύδρων τόπων (waterless region): Waterless region or dry places or the desert in the Bible is the home of the evil spirit or Satan (cf. Matthew 4:1; Is 32:21; 34:14; Tb 8:3). At another time in the Gospel, Jesus was tempted in the desert. The temptor had asked him to prove his identity as the Son of God through various miracles. One can find such temptation in the demand of the Pharisees.

ἐπιστρέψω (return): The saying casts some light on exorcisms performed in New Testament times (see 12:27); the cure was sometimes only temporary, and the patient relapsed into a worse condition. The parable is a proof that Christ did not cast out devil using the power of Satan as they had accused him earlier. For if he had, the Satan would have returned. Christ’s ejectment of him was final, and such as barred a re-entry: we find him charging the evil spirit to go out, and enter no more, (cf. Mk. 9:25).[58]

εἰςτὸνοἶκόνμου (into my house): Satan speaks like a ruler here. He is imperialistic. It could be alluding to the Roman imperialism which the house of Israel was experiencing. Each time a lesser evil left Israel, there was peace for some time, but it always followed a greater evil.

In the Old Testament, Israel was considered the house of God. Temple was also the house of God. But here by comparing the man possessed with evil spirit to the generation of his time Jesus was calling the house of Satan to which it would return if they don’t fill the house with God’s works. Jesus had cast away the sinfulness of Israel but it would return sevenfold if they don’t accept Jesus and his message.

σχολάζοντα σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον (empty, swept, and put in order): Words σεσαρωμένον(swept) and κεκοσμημένον (put in order) are in aorist tense whereas σχολάζοντα (empty) is in present tense. Therefore empty is the problem. The house of Israel is now swept and put in order by the words and deeds of Jesus, but if it fails to follow it up with good and godly things, the evil spirit would return. The rejection of Messiah would lead to far grave consequences. “It is not enough that demons, whether literal or figurative, be cast out of the heart and mind; the Spirit of God must come into the life and be placed in control of the thought and conduct (see 2 Chron. 6:16; Eph. 2:22). It is not enough to hate the evil; we must ardently love and cherish that which is good (see Amos 5:15; 2 Thess. 2:10; see on Matt. 6:24).”[59]

ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύματα (seven other spirits): This refers to a more complete possession by the evil spirits.

καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν πρώτων (and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first): This generation has witnessed the powerful deeds of Jesus including exorcism but failed to recognize them. Israel has rejected Jesus and his teaching. The last worse thing that can happen to them is the complete rejection of Messiah on the cross.

ουʼτωςἔσταικαὶτῇγενεᾷταύτῃτῇπονηρᾷ (thus it will be also for this evil generation): This verses added by Matthew applies the parable to the present pericopy and completes the unbelief and resistane Jesus has encountered from Pharisees. According to Donald A. Hagner, “This evil generation (cf. v 39) had experienced the powerful deeds of Jesus, which included demon exorcism, and to that extent had benefited. But there had been no repentance, no acceptance of and commitment to Jesus and his cause, and thus this generation would be as susceptible to the power of evil as ever; indeed, the judgment it would later experience would be far worse than when Jesus began his ministry. In view (contra Davies-Allison) may be the destruction of Jerusalem (cf. 24:2, 15) and not simply eschatological judgment.”[60]

10. Significance of the Text

St. Paul calls the Jews as those who “seek signs” (1 Cor 1:22). There are many instances in the Old Testament, where people demand a sign or YHWH himself provides them a sign. The request by scribes and Pharisees becomes evil here, because they had already good and sufficient signs available to them to believe in Jesus. But they rejected them and accused Jesus of using the power of Be-el’ze-bul. Their unreceptively and unbelief is the root problem. Today also Jesus continues to do miracles every day. But failing to see those miracles and explicitly asking for spectacular signs to believe in the works of the Lord is testing him. Like in this case, it is very unlikely any sign would be given to such persons. Such demand is to test the Lord is equal to the work of the tempter in Matthew 4:1-11 and the demand of the Pharisees in Mk 12:38. In these circumstances, to ask for more evidence, more signs, is to reflect a deep-seated unbelief in the reality of God and his grace.[61]

Accepting Jesus as the Messiah is the key towards the discipleship. Those who cannot see Jesus as Christ will fail to accept him. The more we know of Jesus, the more will be demanded of us. Sometimes like the learned scribes and Pharisees, and like Israel, the house hold of God, we might be unable to see the miracles of God and the signs of the times (cf.16:3) in our midst. It is only those who have faith can really see and recognize God’s works. Faith can see signs. The sign of Jonah is a perfect example of that. It can be understood and recognized only by the faithful.

The Christian discipleship is not only refraining from evil, but filling oneself with the power of God, so as to be the house of the Holy Spirit. It is not prohibitions that constitute the discipleship but the affirmations towards God and life. Those who have experienced the freedom of the Lord must fill themselves with good things. They should represent Jesus in each day’s life. Those who are privileged to experience signs of the kingdom must respond in what will truly be a life-transforming and permanent way, namely, in commitment and discipleship to Jesus. [62]


Blass, F., and A. Debrunner. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Translated by Robert W. Funk. 9th Ed. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1896. Repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Blomberg, Craig L. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007.

Brown, Raymond E. et al., ed. The Jerome Biblical Commentary. 2. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1996, c1968.

———The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1990. Repr., Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2009.

Butler, John G. Matthew. Analytical Bible Expositor. Clinton, IA: LBC Publications, 2008.

Constable, Thomas L. “Notes on Matthew 2012 Edition.” No pages. Cited 29/7/2012. Online:

Courson, Jon. Jon Courson’s Application Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003.

Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. 3 vols. Commentary on Matthew VIII–XVIII 2. London; New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2004, c1991.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.,, 2007.

Gingrich, Roy E. The Gospel of Matthew. Memphis, TN.: Riverside Printing, 1985.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1–13. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger et al. Word Biblical Commentary 33A. Dallas: Word Books, 2002, c1993.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1991.

Moulton, James Hope, and Nigel Turner. Syntax. Vol. 3 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek. 2d ed., with corrections and additions. London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963.

Moulton, James Hope, and Wilbert Francis Howard. Accidence and Word-Formation. Vol. 2 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek. 2d ed., with corrections and additions. London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963.

Porter, Stanley E. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. 2nd Ed. : JSOT Press, 1992. Repr., Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Simonetti, Manlio, ed. Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture NT 1a. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter Varsity Press, 2001.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.

Willmington, H. L. The Outline Bible. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.

Young, Richard A. Intermediate New Testament Greek : A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Zerwick, Max. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Translated by Mary Grosvenor. 5th Revised Ed. Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1966. Repr., Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1996.

Zerwick, Maxmillian. Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples. Translated by Joseph Smith. Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963.

[1]Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (ed. Bruce M. Metzger et al.; WBC 33A; Dallas: Word Books, 2002, c1993), 352.

[2]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352.

[3]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 356.

[4] cf. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1991), Mt 12:38.

[5] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew 2; London; New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2004, c1991), 351.

[6] Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Matthew 2012 Edition,” n.p. [cited 29/7/2012]. Online:

[7] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[8] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352.

[9] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[10] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352.

[11] Benedict T. Viviano, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” NJBC 654.

[12] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[13] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[14] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[15] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[16]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[17] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 352

[18] cf. Roy E. Gingrich, The Gospel of Matthew (Memphis, TN.: Riverside Printing, 1985), 34.

[19] cf. H. L. Willmington, The Outline Bible (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999),Mt 12:44-45.

[20]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[21] Constable, “Notes on Matthew,” n.p.

[22]James Hope Moulton and Wilbert Francis Howard, Accidence and Word-Formation (vol. 2 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek; 2d ed., with corrections and additions.; London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963), 453.

[23]Maxmillian Zerwick, Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples (trans. Joseph Smith; Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), 127.

[24] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 649.

[25]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[26]Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 280.

(also)cf.Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (2nd Ed.; : JSOT Press, 1992; repr., Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 111.

[27]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[28] John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” JBC 2:85.

[29] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.,, 2007), 486

[30] McKenzie, JBC 2:85.

[31] Henry, Mathew Henry’s Commentary, Mt 12:38.

[32] John G. Butler, Matthew (ABE; Clinton, IA: LBC Publications, 2008), 209.

[33] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[34]Hagner, Matthew 1–13,353.

[35] McKenzie, JBC 2:85.

[36] Henry, Mathew Henry’s Commentary, Mt 12:38.

[37] Zerwick, Biblical Greek,16.

(also) James Hope Moulton and Nigel Turner, Syntax (vol. 3 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek; 2d ed., with corrections and additions.; London & New York: T. & T. Clark, 1963), 214.

[38] France, Matthew, 486.

[39] Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek : A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 182.

[40] Craig L. Blomberg, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 44.

[41] Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek : A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 238.

[42] Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13 (ACCS NT 1a; Downers Grove, Ill: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 254.

[43] McKenzie, JBC 2:85.

[44] France, Matthew, 486.

[45] France, Matthew, 486.

[46] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[47] Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13 (ACCS NT 1a; Downers Grove, Ill: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 254.

[48]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 354.

[49]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 354.

[50]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[51]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[52] France, Matthew, 486.

[53]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[54] Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 351.

[55] Butler, Matthew, 209.

[56]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[57] France, Matthew, 486.

[58] Henry, Mathew Henry’s Commentary, Mt 12:38.

[59] Courson, Application Commentary, 91.

[60]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 357.

[61]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 355.

[62]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 357.

Sheol: The Abode of the Dead

A Study of the Imagery of Sheol (שְׁאוֹל ) in the Book of Psalms

1. Introduction

Sheol is often defined as the “abode of the dead.” “Conceived of as situated in the depths of the earth, Sheol is a place of physical deathSHEOL_web_6in contrast to the vitality of life on earth with all of its brightness and activity (cf. Job 10:21–22). Both the righteous and the wickedwent to Sheol, although there is some indication of a distinction in their condition there (cf. De 32:22; Is 57:1–2; Lk 16:23). Moreover, the righteous looked for ultimate deliverance from Sheol (e.g., Ps 49:15; 73:24).” Although Sheol appears throughout the Bible, my interest is to study the imagery of Sheol in the book of Psalms. But it is imperative to have an overview of the full notion of the imagery of Sheol in the Bible before we delve into the study of it in the book of Psalms.

2. An Overview of Sheol in the Bible

2.1. Etymology of Sheol

The word Sheol occurs 66 times (including repointing Masoretic Text’s šĕ˒ālâ in Isa 7:11 to šĕ˒ōlâ following the reading eis hadēn in Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and most commentators). [1] Since this word is very unique to the Hebrew Bible, its etymology is widely debated. Among the many suggestions, I think two suggestions of Hebrew origin stands out.

a. A weakened form of the root שֹׁעַל (š‘l), from which derive the words for a hollow hand (Is. 40:12) and a hollow way (between vineyards, Nu. 22:24). In post-biblical Hebrew ša‘al means the ‘deep’ of the sea. If this derivation is correct, the original sense will be the hollow, or more probably deep, place.[2]

b. Another view that it is derived from the root שָׁאַל (š’l) meaning ‘ask’ or ‘enquire’. In this case it may have been originally the place of enquiry, where oracles could be obtained.[3] Jastrow found 28 times where š˒l is used of consulting oracles including references to consulting the spirits of the dead in Deut 18:11 and 1 Chr 10:13. [4]

2.2. Other Designations for the abode of the dead in Hebrew Bible

There are other designations used for the abode of the dead in the Hebrew Bible. They are mostly used as semantic equivalents to Sheol. They are found in similar context and imagery. They are

a. מָוֶת (māwet): “Death,” like Sheol, is often used to refer to the realm of death (Ps 6:6; Prov 7:27) as well as to the personified chthonic power behind death and to all that is associated with it such as disease, sterility, drought, etc. (Hab 2:5; Job 18:13–14; 28:22; Isa 28:15, 18; Hos 13:14; Ps 49:15; Cant 8:6).

b. שַׁחַת (šaḥat)and בּוֹר (bôr): šaḥat (Ps 16:10; Job 17:13–14; Isa 38:17–18; Jonah 2:3–7) and bôr (Isa 5:14; 38:18; Ezek 31:16; Pss 30:4; 88:4–5; Prov 1:12) both refer to the abode of the dead as the “Pit.”

c. אֲבַדּוֹן (˒ăbaddôn): This is usually translated “Perdition” or “(place of) Destruction” <˒bd, “to perish” (Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12; Prov 15:11; 27:20). The personification of Abaddon can be seen in both Old Testament and New Testament. (Job 28:22, Rev 9:11). [5]

2.3. Similar Usages in the New Testament and Translations

a. Hades : In the Septuagint (LXX), Sheol is often translated as Hades. In the Greek Mythology, “Hades is the lord of the dead and ruler of the nether world, which is referred to as the domain of Hades or, by transference, as Hades alone.”[6] The same idea occurs in the New Testament (Matt 11:23; Luke 10:15, Matt 16:18, Rev 1:18. In the New Testament Hades appears in the personified form too (Rev 6:8). Sometimes all the dead seem to be in Hades (Acts 2:27), but otherwise Hades is just the abode of the wicked (Lk. 16:23; Rev. 20:13-14). The forces against the church is described as the forces of Hades (Mt. 16:18). Christ preaches in Hades (1 Pet. 3: 19ff.) and he has the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). [7] Hades in New Testament derives meaning from Sheol but goes beyond it to adequately include the Greek mythical notions.

b. Abyss : The underworld is also often described in the New Testament as the “Abyss” (άβυσσος), often translated “Bottomless Pit” (Luke 8:31; Rom 10:7; Rev 9:1–2 ; 17:18; 20:1, 3)[8]

c. The Greek term denoting a place of punishment is Gehenna, used 12 times in the New Testament. Gehenna or Gê Hinnom, is the “Valley of Hinnom,” is a valley running south of Jerusalem. In this valley the Israelites sacrificed their children to Molech in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Ki 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6). In the New Testament the word gehenna (“hell”) falls many times from the lips of Christ in most awesome warning of the consequences of sin (Matt. 5:22, 29–30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). [9] However, Gehenna, is not to be confused with Hades or Sheol.

d. The translations of Sheol include grave, hell, and pit. They are poor and inadequate translations of the word, because they cannot contain the imagery of Sheol in its fuller sense. In the same way, earlier times there were attempts to identify Sheol with the popular Christian notions of limbo, purgatory, or hell. Although all of these notions contain partial meaning of Sheol, they are not the same. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible stands as antonym of the life and the abode of the dead.

2.4. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible

Before analyzing the notion of Sheol in the book of Psalms in particular, it is imperative to know the notion in the broader Hebrew Scriptures. In the majority of cases in the Old Testament, Sheol is used to signify the grave, a place to which one ‘goes down’ (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num 16:30, 33; 1 Sam. 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6; Job 14:13; 17:13, 16, etc.) [10] It represents the lowest place imaginable (Deut 32:22; Isa 7:11) often used in contrast with the highest heavens (Amos 9:2; Ps 139:8; Job 11:8). Sheol is often associated with various water images as in Jonah 2:3–6, which couples sheol with numerous terms for the chaotic waters including Sea (yām/yammı̂m), River (nāhār), breakers (mišbārı̂m), waves (gallîm), waters (mayîm), and the deep (tĕhôm).[11]The images of the gates of Sheol (Isa 38:10; Pss 9:14; 107:18; Job 38:17; Jer 15:7) and the “bars” of the underworld (Jonah 2:7, Job 38:10; Job 17:16) have to do with the imprisoning power of Sheol and its impassable nature, which prevents escape (Job 7:9). Another key characteristic of Sheol is darkness (Job 17.13). Sheol is also characterized by dust (Job 17:16; 21:26) and silence (Isa 47:5).[12]

In the Hebrew Bible just like in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures Sheol is also personified. Sheol, like Death, is described in the Hebrew Bible as having an insatiable appetite (Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5; Prov 27:20; 30:15b–16). Sheol also swallows people (Prov 1:12). Twice in Hos 13:14 Yahweh is described as ransoming Ephraim from the grasp of personified Sheol and Death. Sheol is also the personified king of the kingdom of dead (Is 14:9). Similarly, in Hab 2:5, the personified Babylonian empire is compared to Sheol. [13] But these personifications are purely political and in no place any deity is attested to Sheol.

The inhabitants of Sheol are called Rephaim. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is commonly the abode of the dead. But in many biblical passages this is the place for the wicked.[14] “In the later Jewish literature we meet with divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny ( Enoch 22:1-14). This idea appears to underlie the imagery of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Lk. 16:19-31.”[15] By the end of the Old Testament period, there was even hope that one would finally be delivered from Sheol (Jb 14:13–22; 19:25–27; Pss 49:15; 73:23–28; Dn 12:1–2). [16]

3. Sheol in the Book of Psalms

The imagery of Sheol is very strong in the book of Psalms and it possesses a variety of information regarding the nature of Sheol.

3.1. Place where You cannot Praise God

Psalmist does make it clear that those who are in Sheol cannot praise God. “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise (Ps 6:5)?” There are other Psalms which carries the same meaning. Psalm 115:17 says “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into silence. King Hezekiah’s prayer in the book of Isaiah is another coinciding passage: “For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness (Is 38:18).” In these passages Sheol and death are spoken almost synonymously. Thus it becomes clear that only the living can praise God (cf. Is 38:19, Ps 88: 10-12).

3.2. Place of Forgetfulness

Since Sheol is a place of inactivity its inhabitants cannot remember the great deeds of the Lord. That is why the psalmist compares Sheol with the land of forgetfulness (Ps 88:12). Another reason why The Psalmist calls it a land of forgetfulness is because God does not remember those who are here. “…like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand (Ps 88:5).

3.3. Place of Silence

“Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol (Ps 31:17).” In this passage the psalmist wishes that the wicked go dumbfounded to Sheol. At another place, the psalmist says that if the Lord had not been his help, his soul would soon have lived in the land of silence (Ps 94:17). Psalm 115:17 also expresses the same understanding. It is also probable that being a place where one cannot praise God, it becomes a land of silence.

3.4. Place of Darkness

The Psalmist says, “For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead (Ps 143:3). In Sheol there is no light (88:6,12). It is also considered the abode of the Raphaim (shades) (88:10-12) which is an allusion that Sheol is a place of darkness. Job says “…before I go whence I shall not return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness (Job 10:21-22).” There are other passages in the Bible which suggest Sheol as a place of darkness (Job 38:17; 17:13). According to Theodore J. Lewis, “Darkness is a key characteristic of netherworlds and this holds true for Sheol as well. It occurs in parallelism with ḥōšek, “darkness” (Job 17:13; cf. Lam 3:6; Job 18:18) as does ˒ereṣ, “underworld” (Pss 88:13; 143:3).”[17]

3.5. Place of all the Dead

As in the other books of the Old Testament, the book of Psalm also contains the idea that Sheol is a place of all the dead. “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol? (Ps 89:48). Like in other places of Old Testament, there are differences of opinion in the book of Psalms too concerning who will go down to Sheol. Although the above passage indicate that all the dead, both the righteous and the wicked would go down to Sheol, there are a few passages which think that only the wicked will go there (Ps 9:17). Probably, the idea of Sheol as being the place of all the dead has undergone a change in the course of history. From the place of all the dead, it later became a place for the wicked. Such a contrasting view is tried to reconcile in the later Jewish literature. The book of Enoch makes divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny ( Enoch 22:1-14).[18]

3.6. Land of Shades or Shadow of Death

Sheol is the place of theרְפָאִים (rephaim). The original meaning of the word is uncertain. It is often translated “the shades below” (cf. Ps. 88:11; Job 26:5; Isa. 26:14). These are dead people who dwell in “the depths of Sheol” (Prov. 9:18), where they live together in “the assembly of the dead (rephaim)” (Prov. 21:16). This understanding of rephaim seems to have been widespread in ancient Syria-Palestine.[19]

3.7. Sheol as the Pit

(Ps 30:3). יְֽהוָ֗ה הֶֽעֱלִ֣יתָ מִן־שְׁא֣וֹל נַפְשִׁ֑י חִ֜יִּיתַ֗נִי )מִיּוֹרְדֵי־](מִיָּֽרְדִי־[בֽוֹר׃

O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit (Ps 30:3). The text is a form of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism wherein the second part of the verse simply repeats and enforces the thought of the first. Therefore it becomes clear that in this verse, Sheol is synonymous with the Pit. In Hebrew the word Pit (בֽוֹר) is used 37 times. At least in a few instances, the word is used to mean the “pit” which becomes one’s grave (Ps. 55:23, “pit of the grave”). The word is also used to mean a place where one exists after death (Ps. 69:15). [20]

3.8. Place of Sorrows and Troubles

There are enough indications that Sheol is the imagery of the place of sorrows and troubles. The Psalmist in his distress feels that he is entangled by the cords of Sheol. “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me (Ps 18:4-5).” This verse has a parallel in the 2 Samuel 22:6. “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish (Ps 116:3).” In both these examples, Sheol is having a deep relationship with death itself. It is a place of deep sorrow in which one suffers distress and anguish. And when the psalmist life is full of troubles, he feels that he is near to Sheol (Ps 88:3). One thing to notice in all these psalms which uses the imagery of Sheol as a place of sorrows is that it is an expression of the deep sorrows and troubles of this life itself and not of a life after death. The psalmist feels that the sorrows and troubles of this life have brought him to Sheol.

3.9. Personification of Sheol

Sheol is depicted as having powers to entangle one. Only God can save one from the power of Sheol (Ps 49:15; 18:5; 116:3). In Ps 49: 14-15, Sheol is depicted as a home of the foolhardy as well as their custodian. Such personifications help us to understand that only God can help one from the clutches of death. The personification of Sheol can be found in other places of the Bible too as was explained earlier.

3.10. Descending to Sheol as a Form of Punishment

The wicked go down to Sheol alive as a form of punishment. Such an idea is also found in the book of Numbers. The rebellious Korah and his people go down to Sheol as punishment (Num 16:30-33). We have the parallel passage in Psalm 55:15. “Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts (Ps 55:15). The Psalmist prays that a person may be punished with death so promptly that he will be as if buried alive.[21] According to Psalm 141:7 the wicked will be punished their bones will be strewn at the mouth of Sheol (Ps 141:7).

3.11. YHWH’s Presence in Sheol

Even though Sheol is considered as the place of forgetfulness in which the inhabitants are like the like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom God remember no more, for they are cut off from God’s hand (Ps 88:5), it is not away from God’s presence. God’s omnipresence pervade over even the deep darkness of Sheol. The psalmist says he cannot run away from the presence of YHWH. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Ps 139:8). Such an idea is present in the other texts of Old Testament too (cf. 1 Sa 2:6; De 32:22; Job 14:13; 26:6; Pr 15:11).

3.12. Deliverance from Sheol

The eternal presence of YHWH even in Sheol suggests that in death God’s people remain under His care, and the wicked never escape His judgment.[22] Therefore it is only apt that God delivers the righteous from the shackles of Sheol which is the synonym of death and in which they cannot praise God. The power of God can deliver the psalmist from Sheol (Ps 16:10; 49:15; 86:13). Thus God restores the psalmist to life (PS 30:3). The idea that God delivers the righteous and the god fearing from Sheol is found also in other books (Pr 15:24; Hos 13:14). Thus it becomes clear that YHWH is the ruler of Sheol. This is a major difference from other Ancient Near Eastern traditions in which the ruler of the netherworld is another God.

3.13. Sheol as the Synonym of Anti-Life

From the above analysis it becomes clear that Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the book of Psalms, is a strong imagery for death and all that is anti-life. The meanings that emerged from our analysis clearly point out towards this fact. Sheol is first of all the abode of the dead where there is no praise of God. Even God does not remember those who are in Sheol. It is the place of silence and darkness. Sheol is rightly considered as the land of shades and the shadow of death pervades over it. No one can escape from the clutches of Sheol unless YHWH delivers him. The Psalmist in his distress and suffering feels that he is going down to Sheol. Even those who are alive feel at some moment the forces of death as very powerful. The wicked people live in darkness and do not like the light. They indulge themselves in anti-life activities and therefore the psalmist says that like Korah they will go alive to Sheol. YHWH who is the source of life, will deliver the righteous from the clutches of Sheol. He will not allow them to go to Sheol. In Psalm 116, we see that the psalmist was distressed and sorrowful because, as he puts it, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish (Ps 116:3).” Obviously the psalmist was quite concerned that he’d lose his life in this situation, but the LORD ultimately delivered him and that’s why he exclaims in verse 8: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” The psalmist knew that, if he died, his soul would go to Sheol, the world of the dead where life is as good as death. Because the LORD delivered him, he states in verse 9: “I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” If life in this world is “the land of the living” then it stands to reason that Sheol is the land of the dead or “the world of the dead” or “the world of the anti-life.”

4. Sheol and Contemporary Life

The powers of Sheol can be found in the contemporary culture. In all the aspects of our life, we see the cords of anti-life activities. People feel the absence of God in the social, religious and personal lives. Where God is neither praised nor remembered Sheol becomes a reality. When people love darkness of hatred and immorality more than the light of love and Godliness, Sheol will entangle them. The imagery of Sheol brings to our mind al the atrocities that take place against life. Wicked people bring Sheol to their own lives as well as to the other’s lives. The contemporary culture with all its wickedness, atrocities against the weak, poor, minorities, women and children do bring to our mind the imagery of Sheol. When one acts against the life, one becomes an advocate of Sheol. Sheol is the anti-thesis of life. But God as the Supreme authority and author of life will strongly condemn such anti-life activities and bring deliverance to the righteous.

5. Conclusion

The above study of the imagery of Sheol brings to our mind certain points.

1. Sheol is the abode of the dead often synonymous with death itself.

2. Sheol represents all that is anti-life.

3. Sheol is a place of silence where there is no praise of God.

4. Although the presence of God is not felt in Sheol, it is not outside YHWH’s jurisdiction.

5. Everyone experiences this Sheol (whether in this life or after death), God will deliver the righteous from its cords.

Sheol as the anti-thesis of life is the natural place of the wicked who act against the life. If anyone resists the life, he is in Sheol. Therefore as righteous and god-fearing persons, it is an invitation for us to live life. In a world which is so much anti-life oriented, we must become prophets of pro-life. Even though at times we might feel the absence of God in our lives, we need not worry. When one feels distressed and sorrows, one must remember that God as the Supreme author and authority of life can save one from the clutches of death and Sheol. As Christians the resurrection of Jesus, is a proof and surety for us God will not allow his faithful ones to remain in Sheol. Let us praise the Lord in the land of the living so that we will be able to say with the Psalmist, “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit (Ps 16:10).”


Bromiley, Geoffrey W. et al., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 vols. Revised. 1986. Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Elwell, Walter A and Philip W. Comfort, ed. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Harris, R. Laird. “The Meaning of the Word Sheol as Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts.” No pages. Cited 13-12-12. Online:

Unger, Merrill Frederick et al., ed. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. 3. 1966. Repr., Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.

Kittel, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 10 vols. electronic ed. 2000, c1976. Repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1964.

Lindemans, Micha F. “Hades.” No pages. Cited 12-12-12. Online:

Toorn, Karel van der et al., ed. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd Extremely Rev. Ed. Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill: Eerdmans, 1999.

Vine, W. E. et al., ed. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. 2 vols. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1996.

Wood, D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard Marshall, ed. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Youngblood, Ronald F. et al., ed. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Rev. ed. of: Nelson’s illustrated Bible dictionary. 1986. Repr., Nashville: T. Nelson, 1995.

[1]Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” ABD 2:101.

[2]D. K. Innes, “Sheol,” NBD 1092.

[3]Innes, NBD 1092.

[4]Lewis, ABD 2:102.

[5]Lewis, ABD 2:104.

[6] Micha F. Lindemans, “Hades,” n.p. [cited 12-12-12]. Online:

[7]Joachim Jeremias, “Hades,” TDNT 1:148

[8]Lewis, ABD 2:105.

[9]Merrill Frederick Unger, “Sheol,” NTUD.

[10] Unger, NTUD.

[11]Lewis, ABD 2:102.

[12]Lewis, ABD 2:103.

[13]H. M. Barstad, “Sheol,” DDD 769.

[14] Lewis, ABD 2:103.

[15]Innes, NBD 1092.

[16], “Sheol,” TBD 364.

[17]Lewis, ABD 2:103.

[18]Innes, NBD 1092.

[19]D. K. Stuart, “Sheol,” ISBE 4:440.

[20], “Sheol,” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words 1:178.

[21] R. Laird Harris, “The Meaning of the Word Sheol as Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts,” n.p. [cited 13-12-12]. Online:

[22], “Sheol,” NNIBD.

Technorati Tags: ,,,,,,,,,,

%d bloggers like this: