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I do not think it means what you think it means

One of the tools I learned way back at the beginning of my 2nd-level Hebrew class is the word study.  This one is pretty much what it says on the tin:  pick a word and study it.  Look up definitions, research how the word is used and where it came from, study the texts where it appears to see it in action.

Why do word studies?  Because they can show you things you didn't even think you needed to know.  Because they can reveal meaning in a text you had no idea was there.  This is especially true when studying something in a second language, but it's a valuable tool even in one's first language.

Here's an example we studied in Hebrew class.  We'll start with Exodus 20:4-6.  This is the NIV translation:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This is the 2nd commandment, prohibiting idols.  The part I'm interested in right now is one that I bet sticks in the craw of quite a few modern folks, verse 5: "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..."

Harsh, eh?  Your parents screwed up, so now God is going to punish you?  How is that fair?  Especially if you were already hurt yourself by your parents' screw-ups -- then this verse becomes an awful double-whammy of injustice.

Hang on a second, though.  Let's take a closer look at this word "punish."  Actually let's skip back to the original Hebrew text, where the word in question is a Hebrew verb paqad.

To study a word in Biblical Hebrew, you start at the same place as you would in English:  with a dictionary.  What's the basic definition?  What does the word mean?

In this case, if you look up paqad in a theological dictionary or two, you'll find Bible translators are in a bit of a pickle here.  It turns out that nobody is exactly sure how to pin this word down.  It seems to have an overly broad range of definitions and is used in very different ways in different contexts.  Here are some of the possible definitions, pulled from a selection of dictionaries:

  • make a careful inspection
  • look at or see to something
  • muster or pass in review (as in troops in an army)
  • instruct, command, urge, stipulate
  • call to account, avenge, afflict
  • entrust goods for deposit or delivery
  • take a census
  • take interest in a person
  • commission
  • condemn
  • carefully examine
  • take note of

What a mess.  With so many potential meanings of paqad, how do we interpret it?  Many scholars have worked on this question, and I can't give you a definitive answer.  But I hope it is at least clear that, with this word paqad involved, the Hebrew text of Exodus 20:5 is not as straightforward as the English word "punish" makes it seem.

My take?  The common thread through the definitions of paqad is that of carefully paying attention to something -- to a duty, an individual, or a group -- and taking appropriate action, either positive or negative.

If this is a correct understanding of the word paqad, it changes our understanding of Exodus 20:5 considerably.  We no longer have a picture of a vengeful God who simply punishes children because their parents screwed up.  Instead we have a God who carefully watches and responds appropriately to what he sees.  Where actions are negative, he brings discipline; where actions are positive he brings blessing.  In every case his actions are measured, considered, appropriate, and based on evidence -- because he sees what he is responding to.

Am I all cracked up on this?  Take a look at how the NET translation handles the same passage:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Inigo Montoya understands the value of the word study.  (Thanks to memegenerator.net for the image)

Inigo Montoya understands the value of the word study.  (Thanks to memegenerator.net for the image)

It feels very different from the NIV and many other translations (you can compare for yourself by using online bible software like biblegateway.com or blueletterbible.org).  The phrase "dealing with" children is much more neutral than "punishing."  It leaves room for many more potential actions -- including merciful ones.  After all, if your parents' screw ups hurt you, God saw it.  He knows where you are damaged from the "transgressions" of your parents, as this verse calls them.  If he is truly just, he is not interested in giving you extra punishments on top of that damage, damage that was NOT YOUR FAULT.

This interpretation of Exodus 20:5 also matches what's said elsewhere in scripture.  For example, Ezekiel 18 presents God's answer to people who are complaining that God is punishing them for the sins of their fathers -- exactly what some translations of Exodus 20:5 seem to say he will do.  In Ezekiel, though, God says very flatly that he does not punish children for their fathers' sins, that everyone is judged for their own sin.  So what's the deal?  Is God contradicting himself?  No, not if Exodus 20:5 is more nuanced than the English translations make it seem.

So that's the power of the word study.  This is only step one, though -- looking at the base definition of the word.  The next step is to see how the word is actually used.  I'll look at that next time.