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Word Study Wednesdays

God bless in the name of Jesus Christ, who learned obedience (Hebrews 5:8).

In English “hear” and “obey” are two different words with different meanings.  Centuries ago, “to hear” could also mean “to obey.”  However, that meaning is now archaic or obsolete.  English handles hearing as a function of our ears, and obeying as a function of our will.  In Hebrew, however, shama is translated both “obey” and “hear.”  This word occurs over eleven hundred times in the Bible.  Roughly 1percent of those appearances are translated as “obey” rather than “hear” or “listen.”  (For example, the NASB translates shama with a form of the words “hear” or “listen” 981 times and with a form of the words “heed” or “obey” 95 times.  The KJV also has a 981/89split.)

Sometimes, it’s obvious whether to translate shama as “hear” or “obey.”  (When the prepositions “le,” “el,” and “be” follow the verb shama, “obey” is usually the intended meaning.  However, sometimes “obey” is intended even without those prepositions (Isaiah 1:19; Jeremiah 12:17; 35:14; Micah 5:15).  In Ecclesiastes 1:8, for example, it obviously means “hear.”  “All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing [shama].”  It makes no sense to translate shama as “obeying” in the above verse.  We find the opposite case in Exodus 24:7 which reads, And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient [shama].”  However, it makes perfect sense in“We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey [shama].”  Clearly, when shama is used after “doing everything” God has said, the idea isn’t just that the people will hear, but they will obey what they’ve heard.

Sometimes, it’s unclear whether to translate shama as “hear” or “obey.”  Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.”  Initially we may consider this as Moses commanding Israel to simply “Pay attention!”  However, Deuteronomy, means “Second Law.”  God gave the first law at Mt. Sinai, and here, just before the people cross the Jordan River to the promised land, Moses gives the law a second time.  The immediate context of Deuteronomy 6:4 abounds with exhortations to obey God’s commands.  Chapter 5 repeats the Ten Commandments.  Then chapter 6 begins:

Deuteronomy 6:1-9:
Now these are the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments, which the LORD your God commanded to teach you, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go to possess it: 2 That thou mightest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged. 3 Hear [shamatherefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the LORD God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in the land that floweth with milk and honey.  4 Hear [shama], O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: 5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: 7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. 9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

This passage emphasizes the importance of hearing and obeying God’s commandments.  Just hearing is not enough and obedience isn’t possible until the commandments are heard.  The importance of acting on the commandments is demonstrated by the instruction in the use of phylacteries which were designed to be a continual reminder of God’s instruction.

The double meaning “hear/obey” can provide unique insight into cultural practices.  For example, in Bible times, domestic bond slaves were to be set free and sufficiently supplied after a period of time.  However, they could choose to stay as slaves if they wanted to.  Some of them were treated well, and if there was a loving relationship between slave and master, they could mutually decide to make the relationship permanent.  If the bond slave chose to stay and the master wanted to keep him, the new permanent relationship would be sealed in a traditional manner.  They would go to a doorpost according to Exodus 21:6 and Deuteronomy 15:17.  Then, the owner of the slave would thrust an awl through the slave’s earlobe and spill blood.  It was a sign that the slave chose to stay, and the master chose to keep him.

By piercing the earlobe and shedding blood the two entered into a binding blood covenant.  Although in the ancient world, slaves were often physically marked by piercings and branding, the Biblical tradition chose to pierce and draw blood from the ear because of the close connection between hearing—which involves the ear—and obedience which was required of bond slaves.  This ceremony, though obviously odd for modern readers, may have made a fair amount of sense within the biblical world.

Many biblical texts say that disobedient, foolish people have ears, and hear not (Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 6:10; Jeremiah 5:21; 6:10; Ezekiel 12:2; Matthew 13:15; Mark 8:18; Acts 28:27; Romans 11:8).  The connection between not hearing and disobedience makes much more sense when one realizes that the Hebrew word shama carries with it ideas of both hearing and obeying.  When working shama, it may be helpful to see if the text also evokes the idea of obedience.  Such connections would have been easily grasped by contemporaries to whom they were written.  Next Wednesday we will handle the fourth tip:  Words that deal with the abstract may have more concrete meanings.