Archive for April 14th, 2012
Jabez called upon the God of Israel saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain.” 1 Chronicles 4:10 ESV
Pain – The key Hebrew word encompassing the verbal expression (“might not bring me pain”) is ‘atsav. But this translation is a little misleading. If we read the verse like this, we get the impression that Jabez is saying, “God, keep your hand with me and keep me from evil so that I may not have pain,” or “so that evil will not cause me pain.” But there is more to this phrase. Some Hebrew words have different stems. The reason that this is important is that the meaning of a word can change dramatically from one stem to another. This Hebrew word (‘atsav) has a wide range of meanings, from “grieve or displease” to “sorrow, labor, wound, toil and terror.” In its first verb stem, ‘atsav means “grieve, displease or vex.” But with a very small repointing of the vowels, the second stem means “make worship.” It is only used twice in the Tanakh in this way, but it is nevertheless a part of Scripture. In this verse, the verb stem follows the first meaning, “ grieve or displease.” The word is a verb, not a noun, so the translation “might not being me pain” misleads us. Reading the text this way makes us think the verb is “to make.” But that’s not the case. Jabez is saying something about the nature of “harm.” In order to understand him, we will have to back up a bit.
“Keep me from harm” is the Hebrew asita mera’ah. You’ll notice the second word is ra’ah, the Hebrew word for evil. Jabez is asking that God keep him from evil. Of course, this might mean that he wants God to protect him from external sources of harm, but it could also mean that Jabez knows he needs the Lord’s help in maintaining a life that does not succumb to evil. If Jabez prays only that God keep evil away from him, then we can understand the resulting expression, “that it might not bring me harm,” for that’s what evil does. And all of that seems quite proper – except for the word translated “not.” That word is le’vilti. It’s not the usual word for “not.” Belet (the bet sounds like v in the construct) can mean “not” or “except” but its stem has an unusual approach to negation. It basically means “to become old, to be worn out.” As an infinitive following a preposition (as in this case, following le), it means “on account of not” or “so as not.” But think for a moment about the stem of this word in Jabez’s statement. Do you suppose Jabez might be saying that ra’ah wears one out, brings one to nothing? Do you suppose that it isn’t harm that Jabez wants to avoid as much as it is wearing away? Do you think that Jabez might be concerned about the possibility that without increase his life will waste away never to be remembered? That would be very Hebraic. Greek thought equates identity with possessions. Hebrew thought equates identity with legacy.
With this in mind, we can look at the expression “might not bring me pain.” ‘atsav is introduced into the Tanakh in Genesis 3. There the word certainly could include pain but the real message of ‘atsav is sorrow in toil. Is Jabez asking God to remove pain from his life, or is he asking God to rescue him from sorrow in toil? ‘atsav is the opposite of the experience of enjoying exactly what God intends for each of us. ‘atsav is the drudgery of labor that fails to bring blessing, worship and service. It stands opposed to avodah – work that fulfills God’s purposes and my desire. What if Jabez is asking God to keep him from those choices that follow the yetzer ha’ra in order that he will not experience frustrating and pointless drudgery, ‘atsav? What if Jabez is not praying for wealth, health and success but rather for legacy, permanence and fulfillment? Which is more likely the thought of an ancient near-Eastern servant of the Most High?
Topical Index: Jabez, evil, ra’ah, pain, ‘atsav, 1 Chronicles 4:10