Friday, December 18, 2009

Hebrew Mnemonic #4: Shema, O God!

The Bible was written primarily in Hebrew and Greek.

The Greek words are often easily exposed for what they really are. For example, it comes as no surprise that anthropos means "man" or that theos means "God." These words have connections with our English language. They walk our streets and hang out in our restaurants. Also, Greek uses an alphabet similar to the English alphabet which provides a certain comfort level.

Hebrew is a bit more elusive. The alphabet is wholly unfamiliar, and the words do not naturally stick with you. To top it all off, you have to read from right to left. Learning Hebrew requires acting like a mole inside a high level government agency, in order to crack the code. Or like trying to find out the identity of your local neighborhood superheroes - sure, they do great things, but who are they?

For example, here's a line from Deuteronomy 6:

שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְהוָה אֶחָד.

Having said all that, my point is actually that some words (very few, truth be told) actually wear their meaning on their sleeve. They were exposed long ago for who they are, and now they roam around in the full light of day, having given up all pretense of anonymity.

One such word is the first word (to the far right) of the Hebrew cited above. Cracking the code, the word is shema, which means "hear," and the verse written above is the highly familiar "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Or, "Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.")

The reason shema has become familiar to us is that we call this famous part of the Old Testament "The Shema." It is very, very easy to remember that shema in Hebrew means "to hear."

But here's where this becomes helpful...

The other day I was studying Psalm 4, and I saw this most familiar of words pop up. David prays a prayer so simple it might go by us without much thought. He cries out, "Hear, O God!"

In the Hebrew, this is "Shema, O God!"

And it struck me... God tells us to hear Him. We are to give careful attention to His words. That is our duty as human beings whom He created, and it's an honor we sadly rarely give to Him. And yet, we are actually so bold as to come to Him and say, "Shema!"

But what's even more amazing is this. Psalm 4:3 says, "But know that Yahweh has set apart the godly for Himself; Yahweh hears when I call to Him."

God actually pays attention when his people pray "shema!" even though we often wander away when he pleads with us to "shema." What an amazing God we worship and love.

Final note: You may notice that you don't need to study Hebrew to figure this out. You could be just as impressed if you notice that God says "hear" and David asks God to "hear." But there's something about digging around like a mole in the original language that makes you slow down just enough to notice these things. It helps you truly shema what God is saying.

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