MEDITATION IN HEBRAIC PERSPECTIVE
by Dr. Marvin R. Wilson
The world of the Hebrews was structured so that they had long periods of time for uninterrupted meditation. The rhythm of their lives was not ordered by alarm clocks or factory whistles but by the sun. Living outside as shepherds, farmers, and fishermen, the Hebrews were close to both soil and sea. In addition to the weekly Sabbath, each day, when the sun was high, the Hebrews took a break from work. When the sun set, their evenings were free. They also had periodic times for fasting. In the modern world, when we recognize these realities of ancient life, as well as the fact that both day and evening they did not have to deal with the competition of telephones, TV, and other modern sappers of time, considerable opportunity was had for meditation.
The subject of meditation is crucial for understanding the precise organization of the three-fold division of the Law, Prophets, and Writings in the Hebrew Bible. Joshua is the first book in the Prophets, -1- the second major division of the Hebrew Bible. The book opens with God commanding the Israelites to meditate on the law of Moses "day and night" (Joshua 1:8). Likewise, the Book of Psalms, the first book in the Writings, the third major division, opens with the same motif--that of meditating on God's law "day and night" (Psalm 1:2). Elsewhere, the Psalmist says, "I will meditate on all your works" (Psalm 77:12). Viewed contextually, these passages indicate meditation is the key theme which binds the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible together.
In each of the three texts cited above, the Hebrew word for "meditate" is hagah. The word properly means to "emit a sound," to "murmur," to "mutter," to "speak in an undertone." For the Hebrews, meditation was not like a Quaker meeting; it was not silent. Several texts clearly support this contention that meditation was normally oral, expressed in spoken words. In Psalm 49:3 (RSV) we read, "My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation (hagut) of my heart shall be understanding." The Hebrew parallelism indicates that what is spoken with the mouth is the same as "meditation." Hence, the NIV renders hagut not "meditation," but "utterance." Again, in the well-known passage, Psalm 19:14, the expression "words of my mouth" is parallel to "meditation (hegyon) of my heart." Furthermore, Joshua 1:8 states, "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate (vehagita) on it day and night" (Joshua 1:8). "Meditate," in this context, is defined by the command not to let the law ever be out of one's mouth. "This negative way of speaking implies a strong positive... The mouth is here the organ of speech." -2- Furthermore, hagah is used in the Hebrew Bible to indicate such varied sounds as the "growl" of a lion (Isaiah 31:4) and the "moaning" of a dove (Isaiah 38:14).
Such passages as the above give us graphic insight into what meditation involves. Meditation is the outward verbalizing of one's thoughts before God, the poring over his teachings and works. It means to articulate in a low tone, thoughts of worship, wonder, and praise. But in addition, the use of hagah in texts such as Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2 implies that the Scriptures were not primarily written to be read silently.
Indeed, in the words of Otto Kaiser, the law itself was to be "read aloud" by day and by night. -3-
This biblical style of meditation may be observed today in many Orthodox synagogues, and at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. A Jew will daven, or "pray--siddur, or "prayer book" in hand--expressing his thoughts half out loud. This enables him to pray with a greater sense of intensity and kavanah, that is, purpose, attentiveness, direction. If the din about him increases so he has trouble concentrating--and it can--he wraps his prayer shawl more tightly around his head.
Another contemporary example of Hebraic meditation is found in the ultra-Orthodox community of the Hasidim. It is the practice of hitboddadut. This Hebrew term means "to be alone," "to seclude oneself" (for purposes of meditation). Each day an observant Hasid will make time to be alone for a while so he can meditate by talking aloud with God. This period of aloneness is used for a private pouring out of personal prayers, doubts, or problems. To recover a childlike quality of faith (compare Matthew 18:3,4) the rabbis recommended hitboddadut at night in an open field. A familiar illustration of this personal articulation of thoughts to God is beautifully portrayed by Tevye, the dairyman of Fiddler on the Roof, in a number scenes from that popular musical.
Some contemporary forms of Church worship may appear to be a bit boisterous or too extemporaneous for our more subdued and orderly Western tastes. But it should not be forgotten that Hebrew worship--including prayer and the study of the holy books--was no sedate or dreary event. It included dancing with tambourine (Psalm 149:3; 150:4), all kinds of instruments--including trumpets and cymbals (Psalm 150), singing (Psalm 33:3), hand clapping (Psalm 47:1), and even shouting (Psalm 95:1). For the Hebrews, praise was the basic token of being alive; it was the way to observe the command, "You shall meditate on it day and night."
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-1- The Nebi'im, or "Prophets," are comprised of two
sections, the Former and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets
include the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.
The Latter (or "Writing") Prophets include Isaiah,
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (or "Minor Prophets").
-2- Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua (Grand Rapids,
Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1981), pg. 63.
-3- From a lecture by Otto Kaiser of Marburg University titled "The
Law as Center of the Hebrew Bible," at Cambridge University, Faculty
of Oriental Studies, May 13, 1987. RETURN
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Dr. Marvin R. Wilson is the Ockenga Professor of Biblical Studies and chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Gordon College, Wenham Massachusetts (01984).
Dr. Wilson is a frequent speaker in churches and synagogues, at conferences, and on radio and TV. On both local and national levels, as well as abroad, he is actively involved in building bridges of understanding between Christians and Jews. His innovative field-trip course at Gordon titled "Modern Jewish Culture" has been cited as an educational model in the field of interfaith relations.
An active writer, Dr. Wilson has authored or edited seven different books. He also has written more than 100 articles and reviews. Three of his works deal with Christian-Jewish relations and the Hebraic roots of Christianity (co-edited volumes with Rabbi A. James Rudin: Evangelicals and Jews in Conversation (Baker, 1978), Evangelicals and Jews in an Age of Pluralism (Baker, 1984), and A Time to Speak: The Evangelical-Jewish Encounter (1987). For eight years Professor Wilson worked as a translator and editor on the New International Version, currently the best selling Bible in the English speaking world.
Yavo Digest Vol. 1, No. 6, 1988
Bible Scholars: Question the Answers
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