During my very brief inter-semester holiday break I’ve been doing some reading on the Psalms (as I’ve mentioned here before). In Psalm 1, King David mentions how he meditates (הָגָה, hagah) on the Law (תוֹרָה, torah) both by day (יוֹם, yom) and night (לָיְלָה, layelah). I was quite interested in some comments that Eugene Peterson made about the word Law in Hebrew. It turns out that Torah derives from the Hebrew verb ‘throw’ (ירה, or yarah). It is the 3rd person feminine singular Hif’il imperfect of the verb. What on earth does that mean? The Hif’il form of verbs is reflexive, which means that a person receives the action, kind of like (not exactly) a passive construct. With yarah in this form (becoming torah, תוֹרה) It indicates a person receiving something thrown at them, like a blunt object. In an ancient culture like Israel’s that would indicate someone being hit by something like a shot-put or discus. The emphasis of a Hif’il verb is not who does the action, but who receives it.
I find this interesting because it seems to be that the role of God’s word is that it is meant to kick a punch, like a discus or a shot put. In the context of Psalm 1 and biblical and Jewish thought in general, all of God’s word (not just the Law, or the torah) is like this. While there are countless words of gentle wisdom and solace in the Bible, it’s there to give you a punch in the unmentionables and wake you up. If you read it like you might read a quotation from a fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant, you best be warned because you’ll find yourself rudely awoken, like skittles at the end of a bowling ball alley.
Yet what Peterson also mentioned (and which I found as well in my study of Hebrew) and which I also found fascinating is the verb to ‘meditate’ (Psalms 1:2). That, in Hebrew, is the verb √הָגָה (hagah). It means to moan, growl, utter, rumble, meditate, and muse. In Psalm 2:1 it is also used to describe the way the nations ‘plot’ in vain (literally growl in wain) and in Isaiah 31:4 to describe what a lion does after conquering its prey. Interesting that when David meditates on the law, it is akin to the same thing. Peterson notes that this implies that it is not merely knowing the law or doing it that it essential for observing God’s word. Rather, “it involves murmuring and mumbling[the] words, taking a … physical pleasure in making the sounds of the words, getting the feel of the meaning as the syllables are shaped by the larynx and tongue and lips” (p. 26 of Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer). This is why Jews today speak and sing in their synagogues the Law; for them it is rhythm and life. If I’m not mistaken, they call it ‘shuckling’, see the video below. In modern Protestant thinking (influenced by the anti-emotive thinking of Anglo-Saxon culture) this has been lost and people can reduce things too crudely down to mere Bible verse memorisation. Or we just do it privately so that no-one else can hear it, as we’re influenced by individualism. That has its place, but in Jewish thought it so much more than that.
What Peterson says of memorising torah by speaking it is wonderful: “This is not so much an intellectual process … as it is a physical [one], hearing and rehearsing these words as we sound them again, letting the muscles sink into our muscles and bones. Meditation is mastication” (ibid.). I don’t think many Christians today think like this, particularly since the Hebrew Scriptures are not exactly the coolest thing in town and idiotic publications like ‘The God Delusion’ cause even people of faith to doubt the goodness and truth of the Bible’s timeless truths. If that is you then fear not, because you can start now. When you read the Words of God, speak them out- perhaps even put them to a tune. Close your eyes and say them slowly and say them over and over and over until they become a part of you, a joyful delight. They can be hard- particularly because they may come at you like a discus and hit you in the gut! But the point is that as you muse and groan over them they will become, gradually, a part of you and to shape you. I often do this in my private devotion time and it really has an impact. It can feel odd at first, especially with a text that seems jarring and clashes with how we think. But it does start to slowly get into you, bone, marrow and sinew.
Hope fully this will give you more joy and delight in reading God’s Word. It’s not there to be read the way a news anchor blandly reads out tomorrow’s weather forecast. It’s meant to be etched deeply into the fibre of your being because it’s so alien to how we ‘naturally’ think in this life. Besides, if God’s Word is not a delight to His people, then how can we expect others to hear it speak and apply it to their own circumstances?
Stay joyful and Torah-saturated :)