Inhabiting a Word


Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that His word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made us small enough to inhabit a word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Book Moth

RIDDLE 47

A moth ate words. To I who wondered it seemed
A remarkable fate, when I learned of it,
That the thing had devoured the speech of a certain man.
A thief in the dark of night, chewing through proverbs,
Replacing them with himself. That unwanted guest,
Was no whit the wiser for the words he ate.

The Book of Exeter

I can still remember coming across this poem as a child in a bright orange paperback on my Mother’s bookshelf titled, “Anglo Saxon Poetry.” I remember reading this poem and being disappointed in the riddle. “It’s a moth,” I thought to myself, “It’s right there in the first line.” I quickly lost interest and moved to other things. The wisdom of this simple parable was wasted on me. It wasn’t until I flipped through the book as teen who was hungrily devouring poetry that I chanced upon the riddle again and found much in it worth contemplating. There is a difference between being a reader who simply chews through words and is not made any wiser and a reader who understands and internalizes what she is reading. When Ezekiel is given the prophecy he is to set before the people, he encounters it in a vision of a scroll which he must eat. When the 1st Psalm declares that the righteous “meditate” on God’s Word day and night, the word “meditate” is the same word used for “chew.” We are called, as disciples, to devour scripture. But there is a difference between memorizing verses, stories, and bits of theology, and actually applying that wisdom to our lives. When we read the words of scripture, we must put them into practice. Otherwise, like the book moth, we will be no whit wiser for the words we ate.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…