Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Holy: Understanding it Better Through the Biblical Method of Defining Words

I doubt that I am the only one to ever have this question: "Why doesn't the Bible have its own internal dictionary?"  For the English language there are a host of dictionaries available to consult, if a person does not understand a particular word.  Why does the Bible lack the tool of its own internal reliable dictionary?  But what if it does have one?  What if we are looking for the wrong kind of dictionary? 

Using the example of dictionaries for the English language, the majority are written in a format where words define other words.  Good examples are: Webster's New World Dictionary and Black's Law Dictionary.  But there are dictionaries that follow a different format.  I could point out a host of them on-line, but for my examples I'd like to look at my own dictionary shelf.  It contains The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, The Magic World of Words: A Very First Dictionary, and Ultimate Visual Dictionary.  For my purposes, I want to point out that the last two use illustrations or pictures as a primary way to define words.  This raises the question whether the Bible could have its own format for a dictionary that does not follow only the format of words defining words.  It doesn't use pictures either, but this does not rule out word pictures. 

A number of years ago I ran across a scholarly article that ruled out the idea that the Hebrew words zedekah (translated as righteousness) and mishpat (translated as justice or judgment depending on the context) are synonymous.  I mentioned this to a Christian teacher, who travels worldwide, and when he tried to present the same idea in Germany, Lutherans there protested that Luther saw them as synonymous.  So how are we to solve this problem?

The first clue came for me from my experience of working in carpentry and reading in Isaiah that righteousness is like the plumb line while justice is like the horizontal leveling line.   The top picture of a plumb line level combo is especially relevant, since it is very similar to the tool thought to have been used in building the pyramids in Egypt. 

Since that time I have read a similar comparison from the context of streams and rivers found in the book of Amos.  Here's one way it is translated:

This is no surprise, since he was previously a shepherd and would have needed to water his flocks.  Finally, I recently ran across another example of comparison using the example of light in Psalm 37.  This comparison comes the field of astronomy or from the observation of daylight 

Another easy way to think of the distinction between righteousness and justice is to think of the difference between the answers to two similar, yet different questions.  They are:

How many?  (Quantity)

How much?  (Quality)

Note here that the quantity is this passage is: "light" as one, but it also has a quality: "As the noonday [light]".  The difference between the two things are clear since the comparisons are not exactly the same.   The point is their difference though they are both measures or amounts.  Can you clearly see this?  "Light" and "noonday" are distinct and not synonymous though related. 

FINALLY, a light shone brightly in my own mind.  What if the Bible instead of defining words by other words, defines words by concrete comparisons that are well-known?


This also explains Jesus' motivation with parables to insure people understood the meaning of his words.  It also agrees with the concept that I learned years ago that a knower and a teacher are distinct from each other and also a complement to each other.  The knower is focused on experience or the referent  (thing referred to in communication) and the teacher is focused on words. Ideally in communication the two work in tandem.  It would seem that the Bible's definitions for righteousness and justice do just that.  It ties the real world to the vocabulary world. 

So now part of my task is to find the contexts that connect Yahweh and holy to a comparison much as righteousness and justice are compared to no less than three concrete things.  This is now a critical part of my quest for a definitive definition for holy.  May the righteous and just God of all eternity bless your day. 

In Christ,