When I was in college at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, I decided to take a course in Biblical Hebrew as part of my studies as a seminarian. I thought it would be a good thing to be exposed to the original language of the Old Testament of the Bible. I had already taken Latin and I knew I would have to take Greek in the future so when Hebrew opened up, I thought ‘why not?’ and signed up. It was an eye-opening experience.
Biblical Hebrew is a fun language to learn but one that comes with its own set of difficulties. First you have to learn the Hebrew alphabet and then you have to get used to reading right-to-left. Finally, the vowels are written above and below the letters and usually left out altogether! While all this took a while to get used to, I ended up enjoying my study of Hebrew—I did okay on the final exam, thanks to a very large curve on the grading. I decided against taking any further classes but I was thankful for my introduction to Hebrew.
One of the first passages that I was able to translate and really read looking at the Hebrew itself was from our First Reading last weekend, from the Book of Joshua: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” I remember being so happy to be able to read that verse in Hebrew and, somehow, reading it in the original language really made an impression on me. The Hebrew word abad that is translated as “serve” in the verse means “to serve, to work, or to labor.”
A nineteenth century commentary on the Bible remarks on Joshua’s command to choose which gods they will serve. It says, “Here speaks the sturdy old warrior, who had led them to victory in many a battle. He invites them to make their choice between the false worship and the true, between the present and the future, between the indulgence of their lusts and the approval of their conscience.” But what about Joshua and his house? “But as for himself, his choice is already made. No desire to stand well with the children of Israel obscures the clearness of his vision. No temptations of this lower world pervert his sense of truth. The experience of a life spent in His service has convinced him that God is the true God. And from that conviction he does not intend to swerve.”
Joshua says that “he and his house” will serve the Lord. Yet in the genealogy present in the First Book of Chronicles, Joshua’s name is the last in his own line. It only makes sense when we read it together with Hebrews 3:6 which states that we are God’s house. When Joshua says that he and his house will serve the Lord, he is speaking for us too—in a way, the house of Joshua embraces all the faithful servants of the Lord. Remember that abad means “to serve, to work, to labor.”
That old commentary on the Bible goes on and says, “In days when faith is weak and compromise has become general, when the sense of duty is slight or the definitions of duty vague, it is well that the spirit of Joshua should be displayed among the leaders in Israel, and that there should be those who will take their stand boldly upon the declaration: ‘But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’” Times haven’t changed much since Joshua’s time, have they? Let us serve the Lord!