Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

27 June 2010


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Then trees and animals and such. Then people, who, sadly, didn’t love him as much as he loved them. In fact, they didn’t pay him much attention at all and went through many generations at a stretch before they acknowledged his existence or proclaimed his name.

So, to punish them perhaps, or maybe to nudge forth a like-kind exchange of sorts, God created genealogies: list upon list of people’s forgotten names that God crammed into an anthology he was busy editing that, through the voices of other forgotten people, told the story of his relationship with humankind. Thus it is that, having forgotten all these people, the tellers and the ones whose existence is recorded in the anthology, we can nevertheless not escape their names: Enosh, Kenan, Mahilalel, Eliud, Eliezar, Jeconiah, Peleg, Esli—as worthless and unrelenting as socks whose mates were lost in the wash. Nor can we escape the abiding worry that maybe these forgotten names and people and their unrecorded deeds were important, somehow, else why were they included in the Bible to begin with? That, perhaps, for some unfathomable reason, God had had these people in his sights all along—that he had loved them and kept on loving them and yearned for them, even now, centuries after their deaths.

None of which makes biblical genealogies much fun to read. The typical response is to skip over them to the stories of those among the many who by faith still speak, as the forgotten writer of Hebrews writes, even though they are dead. Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Their names appear in the genealogies, too, sprinkled among the forgotten. Rahab. Jacob. David. Jephthah.

Today I glean this from the “written account” the writer of Genesis offers us of Adam’s line. First off, unlike most genealogies undertaken in modern times, this one makes no attempt to be exhaustive. Indeed, it is highly selective. Adam had lots of kids, but only one son figures in his official line: Seth—a son “in his own likeness, in his own image,” as the Genesis writer remarks, echoing both the words and the emphatic repetition of the creation song of Genesis 1. Just as humans were God’s special creatures, made in his own image, in his likeness, so this one son of Adam is also special—mirroring Adam’s sinfulness, as my Bible notes point out, yes, but also special in that we can follow this particular vein in the genealogy of Adam (as Luke does in the genealogy he includes in his gospel) right down to Jesus, the Son of God. And of that one son of Adam’s many sons and daughters, only one grandchild makes the list. And so on. This singling of one child out of the many makes the people in the biblical genealogies significant, at least by association. Many many are called, but only a few are chosen for the written account.

The biblical genealogies are, as I have pointed out, written accounts. Presumably oral accounts—probably recited or sung in some sort of rhythm to aid memory—predated it. This selective account is, in other words, archived, not intended to be forgotten, as I imagine many oral genealogies were in the old days. And as, in fact, many written genealogies are these days, despite the arduous efforts of self-appointed family genealogists. I know, at least, that the two fat books of genealogical research taken up by relatives of mine—plus the genealogical results of my own efforts to establish my Choctaw lineage—lie amouldering in the closet.

A few names do come accompanied by enough story to arrest the modern reader. It doesn’t take much. About Methuselah, for example, all we’re told is that he lived for 969 years, which happens to be the oldest age recorded in scripture. So he lives on in all manner of hyperbolic expressions of longevity as well as in the names of a scientific organization dedicated to the reversal of aging and of a much revered bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California believed to be almost 5000 years old.

Adam’s line in Genesis 5 also includes Enoch, my mother-in-law’s favorite Bible character for no other reason than that, rather than dying like the rest of us, he was taken away by God. I would take Mamaw’s fondness for Enoch to be the wishful thinking of an eighty-five year old who has outlived ten siblings and a husband and surely seen much suffering, except that she also told me that she has always envied Enoch. Since childhood. And so I hear in her longing the voice of my daughter Lulu and my own voice as a child, the voice of every child who has contemplated death with fear and considered and ranked the ways that one might go. A pain-free dying in one’s sleep is hands down the best, but the worst can rank from long and slow—like, say, the skin cancer of the husband of an acquaintance whose name I have forgotten that rotted him from the inside out—to fast and violent. A fall from a height. A thorough car crash. Gunshot to the head.

22 June 2010


I hadn’t been a believer for very long before I started struggling with what exactly the biblical writers meant by the word love. That is, what God meant. I’m rather slowwitted when it comes to things spiritual. In any case, I started studying the word love in the biblical passages I was reading and soon discovered that there are two Hebrew words commonly translated as "love" in English translations of the Old Testament: ahab and hesed.

The first word, ahab, seemed more like our English word love and was applicable in a lot of the same situations in which we use the word. Parents and children, spouses, and lovers all ahab each other in scripture, and, in the Law, God commands his children to ahab not only their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18) but also strangers: “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt (Leviticus 19:34). In the most important passage of the Law to the Jews, a passage that they traditionally commemorated on doorways and gates and bound to their wrists and foreheads, Moses exhorted them to ahab God as well: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The other Hebrew word for love, hesed, was more puzzling. A key word of interest to Jewish theologians over the centuries—the root of a word used in Psalms for the especially devout and of the name of a group of especially pious Jews, the Hasidimhesed is used almost exclusively in passages describing not our love but God’s. Within the translation of scripture I read in those days (the NIV), hesed was translated into many quite different English words: not only love but mercy, kindness, loyalty, faith, devotion, approval, favor, glory, and grace as well as subcategories of these like loving-kindness, unfailing love, and acts of devotion. Other Bible versions, I discovered, were just as varied in their translation of the word hesed.

Jesus himself refers to the word hesed when he quotes Hosea 6:6, a rare biblical instance when the word is used for humans. "[G]o and learn what this means," He tells his audience of hecklers and disciples alike: "‘I desire mercy’—hesed—‘not sacrifice.’" (Matthew 9:13).

In recasting the Hebrew of Hosea 6:6 into New Testament Greek, Matthew uses, possibly echoing the Aramaic word Jesus actually used in speaking, not one of several Greek words for love but eleos, which means mercy. Having studied and puzzled over for years Hosea’s and Matthew’s choices of words for what God was saying, here’s what I think God means.

Yes, I have given you lots of rules to follow, God was telling the famously obedient prophet Hosea and tells us to this day. I have demanded sacrifices to atone for every disobedience imaginable and even for behaviors I never specifically told you were forbidden. But what I really want from you is not merely that you obey my rules but that you love me. And not in the feeble way you love one another. Not ahab. I want you to love me the way I love you. Hesed.

~excerpted from my current writing project, tentatively titled Easy Burdens: Doing the Stress-Free, Guilt-Free Work of God

06 June 2010


The Bible offers us many kinds of eyes—eyes that see clearly,
eyes overflowing with tears, eyes with scales on them, eyes with
planks in them, eyes darker than wine, eyes that should be gouged
out, eyes that are lamps, eyes that hate the hands or the feet or
secretly envy other body parts, eyes that cause us to sin, eyes too
small for a camel or a rich man to pass through, and lustful eyes,
painted eyes, eyes that offend us, eyes with barbs in them, eyes
that see treasure, eyes that see destruction, eyes that are on all of
creation from the beginning of the year to the end. People make
covenants with their eyes. They open their eyes, close their eyes,
wipe their eyes, and lift up their eyes to the mountains. The blind
are made to see, and the sighted become blind because of sin or
drought or sheer stupidity. Both good things and bad things are
pleasing to the eye, and seeing is metaphorical for everything from sinning to repenting to understanding. Ironically, there are blind watchmen, as well as blind men, who are the only ones who can see. Through our eyes we are enlightened and also led astray.

What are we to make of it all? How, as Christians, do we take
on this burden—described by Jesus as “light”—of seeing the way
God would have us see? Is seeing through the eyes of faith the
same thing as what many Christians tell me they are trying to
do—that is, seeing ourselves as God sees us? And how is that,
exactly? Does he see me as I see my own children, as flawed, horrible even, but utterly lovable because they are mine? Or does he see only our sins, those bloody rags we drag after us? Does the All-Seeing One see only the part that doesn’t offend him, the purity of Jesus in us? I have been offered each of these possibilities. Just how do we go about being students of God? What do we look at? And what should we do about what we see? Is closing our eyes a correct or faithful way of seeing?

~excerpt from Confessions of an Amateur Believer (Thomas Nelson, 2007)