09 September 2012

What's the point?

You shall therefore 
love the LORD your God, 
and always 
His charge, 
His statutes, 
His ordinances, 
and His commandments.
Deuteronomy 11:1

I noticed this verse as I was preparing to speak with leaders from the local Christian teacher's association last week. It was another one of those instances where something new in a verse I'd read several times all of the sudden registered for the first time. As I stopped to ponder this verse, I wondered if... and if so, why... God had Moses repeat the same basic thing four different times. After all, how different, really, are the following words in the context of this verse: charge, statutes, ordinances and commandments.

chart and Hebrew text from biblos.com

So I did what I normally do under those circumstances... well sort of. I usually use an on-line concordance, but our internet was so slow that evening we couldn't even get email to download, so instead, I pulled out my 20 year old, very well-used concordance. (There's a story behind that - it was a Christmas gift from an old boyfriend... one of only two good things that came out of that relationship...) and started looking up the meanings of each of those words. One of the first things I immediately noticed as I looked at the transliterations and the actual Hebrew characters was that there were definite similarities. 

Could it really be that all four words are essentially synonyms - repeated to emphasize the significance of obedience as the evidence of a sincere love for God? 

Or are there nuances in meaning that would have been seized by the Israelite listeners, giving these words a richness that I was missing reading it translated to English?

I dove into a bit of research.

According to Strong's, shamar, the word translated keep, means 
beware, be circumspect, take heed to self, keeper, self, mark, look narrowly, observe; a primitive root; properly, to hedge about (as with thorns), i.e. Guard; generally, to protect, attend to, perform a vow, etc. 
So the word keep has both a protective as well as a restraining sense - hedge about and guard the charge given to you by God. A large component necessary to accomplish that goal meant understanding the covenant vow implicated and included self-control and restraint in action, thought and choice. 

Then came the four seeming synonyms. And while in English, at least the last three words could be used as synonyms, in the Hebrew I found some  of those subtle nuances I mentioned before.

This included the ideas of observing (i.e. keeping) as well as preserving, teaching to following generations and foreigners, and protecting the integrity of the Giver's original intent - mission given to them by God - to love Him as their Lord and God.

Statutes seems to refer more to the customs, traditions, methods and places where prescribed ceremonies were to occur as well as determined and specific of behavior that the Lord had appointed, or commissioned His people and by which He expected them to abide. I wonder if this word referred more precisely to the ceremonial laws and expectations related to the temple/tabernacle, sacrifices and worship.

Ordinances appears to refer more specifically to those measures put into place to help keep order. It has a more legal connotation and abiding by both the privileges granted and penalties proscribed. This directs my thoughts more to civil and criminal law issues - regulations that cover human interactions... or the legal code.

I think this refers specifically to the divine commandments given to Moses on the Mount, what most commonly refer to as the Ten Commandments. This is the heart... the intent behind the specifics given in the statutes and ordinances. According to the New Testament, it is man's failure to abide by these commandments that clearly focuses our eyes on our need for a Savior.

Now, I'm not a trained, diploma-ed Bible scholar. I don't know Greek and Hebrew, so these thoughts could, very probably, be way off base. Knowing that, I decided to ask someone who knows a lot more than I, particularly in this domain. We've got some friends staying with us for the weekend - and he's a Bible translator - both in Mali and Benin. He said that maybe all 4 words were used because Psalm 119 uses every word, broad and specific that could possibly refer to God's Law, at some point within that chapter. These four words would probably be considered the main broad categories under which all the others could fall... and all four were used to "cover the bases," to use a cliche.

Two things really stick out to me, though, after thinking about this verse for a nice chunk of time over several days:
  1. The amazing richness of God's Word; and
  2. God cares - the way we follow traditions and customs, the way we submit ourselves to the legal code and whether the intents of our hearts obey His commandments - He cares about all of that because it is one way we can express how much we love Him and how much He means to us. As we protectively hedge about and act circumspectly in our efforts to obey God, we say, "I try to obey and please You because I love You that much." 
After all, He first loved me infinitely more than that much.

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