Ari Lamm Profile picture
27 Dec, 23 tweets, 4 min read
Why read the Bible in Hebrew?

Today's example is from the story of Noah. Let's take a look at the word "chamas" (חמס).

A thread (for non-Hebrew readers too!) 🧵 1
Why did God bring the flood and destroy His first go at creation? Genesis 6:11 fills us in: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence" (ESV).

What does that mean? Lots of fighting, war, etc.? 2
Well, that's where today's word "chamas" (חמס) comes in, which is the word being translated as "violence".

The English translators often rendered "chamas" that way, but not always. I suspect they weren't too sure what the word meant.

So what *does* it mean? 3
Forms of the word "chamas" appear 60 times in the Bible. Other than the story of Noah, there are only 3 times in the Bible where it accompanies the verb "malei" (מלא), meaning "fill."

Let's take a look at one of them: Micah 6:12, part of a prophecy against the city of Samaria. 4
ESV translation of the prior verse (Micah 6:11):

"Are there still treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights?"

Micah's criticizing ill-gotten gains. 5
That brings us to our verse, 6:12, "Your rich men are full of 'chamas'; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth."

The targets of God's anger here are those w/ so little regard for others that they have no problem stealing from them. 6
You can see the same thing—anger against those who enrich themselves through dealing dishonestly with others—in Ezekiel 7, where the prophet similarly castigates the people of Judah for "chamas".

"The city is full of 'chamas'" (Ezek 7:23)

What does 'chamas' mean here? 7
Ezekiel explains earlier in the chapter: "'Chamas' has grown up into a rod of wickedness. None of them shall remain, nor their abundance, nor their wealth; neither shall there be preeminence among them" (7:11)

Again, 'chamas' is related to dishonestly-gotten wealth. 8
Or take Amos's prophecy against Samaria (a generation before Micah): "'They do not know how to do right,' declares the Lord, 'those who store up 'chamas' and robbery in their strongholds.'" (3:10).

'Chamas' = the returns from dishonesty and greed. 9
"Violence" would've been such a weird choice in Amos that many translations, even ones that consistently render "chamas" as "violence", just opted for a completely different word.

E.g. NIV: "...who store up in their fortresses what they have plundered and looted" 10
So far we can see that "violence" is a poor translation for "chamas". Undoubtedly "theft" would be more accurate.

But even "theft" misses some important nuances.

The word "chamas" conveys a sense of callous disregards for other's humanity, not just on monetary matters... 11
This nuance is *crucial* for understanding the use of "chamas" in Genesis 16:5.

The context: Abraham (Abram at the time) has a child with Hagar. She then begins to treat Abraham's wife, Sarah (still Sarai here), with contempt. 12
Far from just building dramatic stakes, this actually gets at the theological/emotional question at the heart of the entire narrative in this part of Genesis:

Who had God chosen as his messengers?

Did he choose Abraham *and* Sarah? Or just Abraham, and Sarah's a sidekick? 13
Hagar's treatment of Sarah—and especially Abraham's failure to intervene—made it seem as if Abraham did not take Sarah seriously as a partner in the covenant.

So what is Sarah's response?

She accuses Abraham of "chamas" 14
"And Sarai said to Abram, 'May the wrong done to me ("chamasi") be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!'" (Genesis 16:5, ESV) 15
Sarah accuses Abraham of treating her with "chamas". Not as in stealing money from her, God forbid. No, if anything, her accusation is deeper:

You are not treating me as a full partner in the covenant with God. *Our* descendants, not just yours, have a role to play! 16
Ultimately, in fact, God will need to intervene on Sarah's side. See Genesis 21:12 ("Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named"). 17
But the word that Sarah uses originally to chastise Abraham is...chamas.


Because this was an accusation that one person was treating another as less-than in the eyes of God. 18
So let's bring it back around to Noah.

Why did God destroy the world? Not bc of physical violence, or even necessarily bc of theft. But because of "chamas"—treating others with contempt; failing to see our shared divine image. Once we do that, we become capable of true evil. 19
The ancient rabbis told the following story about the generation of the Flood:

You'd go to market w/ a bucket of produce. Passerby would all casually steal less than a penny's worth from the bucket. Too little to prosecute...but enough so that by day's end you'd have nothing 20
That story (Genesis Rabbah 31:5), is one of my favorites, because it so poignantly gets at both the "theft" meaning *and* the callous disregard for humanity.

No one cared about harming others. They just didn't want to be held responsible if they were caught! 21
So from now on when you read the Bible in English (or any other language!) and you come across a word that you suspect might be "chamas", go online and check the Hebrew! (Plenty of great websites can help with this, like biblehub or biblegateway).

Or ask me, happy to help! /end
P.S. Many thanks to @zenahitz and the @CatherineProj for giving me an excuse to delve into this!

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More from @AriLamm

26 Dec
The 4 biggest external pressures on the American rabbinate:

1. History of Congregationalism (suspicion of individual religious leadership)

2. Credentialism (treating semicha like a Masters)

3. Electoral politics (above all, don't offend)

4. Agglomeration (bigger = better)

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A thread:
If you're asking "Are Mishpacha/Ami good?", my reply would be "well, for what purpose? If your goal is to better enable internecine warfare among various frum Jewish communities, then no, these publications aren't for you. They're very inefficient vehicles for battle-line-drawing
Similarly, if your goal is to promote pluralism across the wider Jewish denominational spectrum, then Mishpacha/Ami are still the wrong address. They're not interested in the pluralistic inclusivity project.
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