“Hope” in the Hebrew Bible

While studies in hope from a psychological perspective are helpful and give a basic understanding of the concept of hope, they leave something to be desired regarding the breadth and depth of the concept of hope for people of faith. Therefore, I wanted to do a biblical word study on the terms we translate “hope” from Hebrew and Greek to get a better understanding of how this concept turns up in the Bible and how the Jewish and nascent Christ-followers spoke of hope. Today I’ll discuss a couple of the Hebrew terms, and I’ll share about the Greek term in another post. After a discussion of the Hebrew terms and their implications, I offer a brief explanation of how this expanded vision of hope enables me to enter into caring for creation with deeper commitment.

No one word in the Hebrew Bible covers the range of Hebrew understanding of hope, but there is a “highly differentiated cluster of linguistic tools” used by the authors of the Hebrew Bible to speak to the concept we call “hope” in English (The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. XV, 760). According to the New Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies, the following words can connote hope:

  • בָּטַח (batach): trust, with a secondary meaning of hope
  • חָסָה (chasah): refuge, shelter, trust in for safety and protection
  • יָאַשׁ (ya’ash): despair, no hope
  • יָחַל (yachal): wait, hope, patient waiting, longing, so far disappointing but still hoping and waiting
  • בֶּסֶל (basal): the loins, trusting or hoping with the confidence of the place where a man’s strength comes from
  • קָוָה (qawah): “to hope strongly; to stretch out the mind in a straight direction towards an object of hope or expectation” (222); includes תִּקְוָה and מִקְוָה.
  • שָׂבַר (sabar): look for expectantly, hope for

The two that seem most relevant are yachal/tohelet and qavah/tiqwah, so I did a bit deeper study of these words based on the entries for tiqwa and yachal in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vols. XV and VI.

Tiqwa ( תקוה) comes from the root קוה (qwh), which is used once in the Bible to mean “cord” (from קו), but otherwise it means “await, hope for,” from qawâ. There are 32 occurrences of tiqwa in the Hebrew Bible (though two of them are suspect based on Septuagint translations): 12 in Job, 8 in Proverbs, 4 in Psalms, 2 in Jeremiah, 2 in Ezekiel, 1 each in Hosea, Zechariah, Lamentations, and Ruth. The root qwa occurs 76 times, all in the prophets, Psalms and wisdom. Interestingly, it is used more as a verb in the Psalms and prophets and more as a noun in the wisdom literature.

The roots qwa and yhl are similar in meaning and become merged somewhat semantically. Yhl has a similar range of meaning of “hope” outside the religious context, while qwa is more focused theologically on “expectant hoping that is always goal-oriented” (Vol. XV, 760).

Tiqwa focuses on the duration and quality of human life, both its uncertainty and its fulfillment. For example, it can refer to one’s prospects within the social structure, such as the loss of Naomi’s hopes/prospects, or the admonition in Proverbs to instruct your children in wisdom while they still have hopes/prospects. It sounds like this particular verb has to do with hope in this life, the hope of a long life that is fulfilling and lived ethically, in right relationship. In these cases it is used as a noun, something people have (or don’t have). In contrast, Job uses it as a verb 5 times, possibly indicating that Job had to actively hope—he didn’t get to just wait patiently through a good life.

The verb יָחַל (yachal), and its noun form, תֹהֶלֶת (tohelet, expectation), is found only in Hebrew and cannot be convincingly connected to words from other Ancient Near East languages. It may be associated with strength and standing firm, or perhaps with being in labor and waiting in painful expectation. It appears 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, with several more occurrences of a possible misspelling that probably is meant to be this root. Yachal almost always requires an object to be waited for, usually God, God’s word, God’s law, or actions of God. A few times it has no object but the meaning is “to wait continually.”

Yachal and qawah, or tohelet and tiqvah/miqvah, often appear in parallel, so that “to wait” and “to hope” seem to go together in Hebrew thought. Yachal also is often used in connection with stillness or silence, as well as looking expectantly.

The object waited for is always good, but the subject doesn’t necessarily receive the desired outcome, which is a topic of complaint. Yachal often appears in the formula,“wait for God,” or, where there is no object, it has a sense of enduring patiently. It is also used in the lament-form “I wait for the Lord,” in situations where the waiting feels like it is not answered.

In Hebrew thought at the time the books of the Hebrew Bible were written, there was no expectation of an afterlife, so the hopes for this life perish when wicked people die, according to Proverbs. The authors of this commentary take it to mean that the illusory riches of wicked people come to nothing in this life or after, that their puny aspirations of wealth and power have already failed in this lifetime, because true hope/expectation is based on living a righteous life. In Psalms, the psalmists hope in God (verb) in the midst of their own suffering, as opposed to debating the idea of having hope (noun), as is more common in the wisdom literature.

It seems to me as if yachal has more of an individual sense of waiting, while tiqvah has to do with the expectant hope of the whole Hebrew community and its eschatological hope. While this eschatological hope was not perceived at the time as leading to a personal afterlife, it refers to the purpose and meaning that extends across time in the life of the community, the faithfulness of the People of God across time. Waiting on God did not always feel personally fulfilling in this life, then as now. The authors of the laments spoke clearly to the distress they felt that the wicked so often seem to proper more than the righteous, and yet they chose to continue to hope in this expanded vision of the purpose of the community: living out God’s call to righteousness across time. Participating in this long-term hope makes it worthwhile to enact justice, even when that justice does not lead to material comfort in this life. Each person’s acts of waiting and trusting in the long-term hope contributes to the coming of the hoped-for shalom of God. It provides meaning to suffering and trials, a context within which these painful and discouraging experiences make sense.

This is a much deeper and richer understanding of hope than can be found when looking at hope simply as goal creation, as Snyder and others do when looking at hope from an individual psychological perspective. When we recognize a hope that goes beyond our personal lifetime and that is mediated by a broader vision than our own comfort or current level of life satisfaction, we are able to draw on a vast and deep well of experience, communal vision, and purpose than we can when we only have our own life experiences and past successes and failures upon which to base our hopes. This communal understanding of hope allows us to continue working for justice and righteousness even when we despair of that hope manifesting fully in our lifetime.

When I think of holding hope regarding the ecological situation we currently face, “hope” based in my own lifetime does not motivate me to attempt to change the way we are going about living. I can convince myself that things will probably be fine in my lifetime. They will probably not go extremely downhill here in Oregon until after I’m already dead (though this is getting harder and harder to convince myself, as we pass more and more milestones of species extinctions, glacier melts, temperature records, polluted air and water crises, and human displacement due to blatantly climate change-related reasons such as sea level rise or obliquely climate change-related reasons such as drought, famine, wars over resources, and displacement of people due to corporate buy-outs of land or decimation of land due to resource extraction, and so on). But if I think of hope in a long-term sense, in the sense of the arc of history bending toward justice, I see history from a different vantage point. I recognize my contribution to the history of justice and righteousness, and I want to be part of creating that community of shalom, rather than only creating a momentary blip of personal comfort in my own lifetime. This biblical vision of communal hope rather than individual goal completion offers a broader and deeper purpose for acting on the part of the planet and all creation to steward God’s created world with care, looking toward the future with hope for the entire community of creation.

References:

Botterweck, G. Johannes, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds. 2006. “Tiqwâ.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, XV (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company): 759–65.

Botterweck, G. Johannes, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds. “Yachal.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, VI (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006): 49–55.

Wilson, William. 1987. “Hope.” In New Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications): 222.

Advertisements

One thought on ““Hope” in the Hebrew Bible

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s