Someone wrote to me the other day with a question about the way the Scriptures talk about fear, because it can feature both as a good thing and as something from which God rescues us. Here are examples, as they appear in the NRSV:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)
His mercy is for those who fear him. (Luke 1:50)
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 43:1)
There is no fear in love, because perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)
The problem lies in find equivalences in English for Greek and Hebrew expressions. There are three variations on this problem.
- Sometimes English has one word and Hebrew and/or Greek have two, so English is confusing. “Violence” is an example. For people writing in English, violence may seem inherently wrong, and they may then be concerned about God’s violence in the Old Testament. But the Hebrew word translated “violence,” ḥāmās, never applies to God; it refers only to wrongful violence. When the Old Testament talks about God acting violently, it uses the verb nākâ in the hiphil, of which the traditional translation is smite. That verb can denote wrongful violence, but it commonly denotes proper “violence.” (Just to make things a bit more complicated, or perhaps a bit simpler, ḥāmās also means “violation,” which helps to make clear what it is that’s wrong about violence.)
- Sometimes Hebrew and Greek have a word for which we don’t have an English equivalent, which can make things for us to understand. One examples is the Hebrew word ḥesed, which is sometimes translated grace, sometimes mercy, but most often steadfast love or constant love. All those translations get at part of the idea. Ḥesed denotes the grace that a person shows when they make a commitment to someone and there was no reason for them to do so, and the faithfulness that a person shows to someone when they carry on being faithful to them after the person has acted in such a way as to forfeit any right to such faithfulness. I think the nearest English equivalent to ḥesed is “commitment,” but I haven’t convinced anyone.
- In the case of fear, Hebrew and Greek each have one word (yir’ah/phobos) and English has two (fear and awe), which is confusing. A Hebrew speaker or a Greek speaker would no doubt realize that there is a difference between bad fear (being afraid) and good fear (awe), but the actual languages don’t have a way of making the distinction, and English translations are wooden and misleading when they use the English word “fear” as if it also covered “awe.” So here are alternative translations of the first two of those verses:
The awe for the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)
His mercy is for those who are in awe of him. (Luke 1:50)
Again just to make things a bit more complicated, or perhaps a bit simpler, the word for “awe” doesn’t refer only to a feeling but to an action: they mean submission or obedience.