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B'resheet/Genesis 15:1 Fear not, Avram, I am your shield; your reward is to increase exceedingly.
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While biblical Hebrew has an imperative voice, it does not have a negative imperative in its grammar; the negative particle is never used with an imperative verb form. Instead, the second person singular or plural prefix form - you will or you shall - follows a negative particle, although this is usually translated into English as a negative imperative. If the particle is , usually but not always joined to the verb with a maqqef symbol, then the prohibition "do not" is taken to apply immediately and in the (then) current context: you shall not now; if the particle is , then the prohibition has the sense of duration and permanence: you shall not ever. The former - followed by a second person prefix verb - is much more common.
In the text above, the phrase is started by : followed by the 2ms prefix form of the root , to fear or be afraid. Literally not-you-shall-fear, this common instruction occurs on numerous occasions in the Hebrew Bible text, mainly spoken by G-d. Nahum Sarna notes that "it is also found in extra-biblical literature" and is part of "a genre known as 'oracles of assurance'". Sarna adds that "these oracles were given to a king before battle." Avram's son Yitz'khak received similar assurance after a time of conflict with the Philistines: "Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for My servant Abraham's sake" (B'resheet 26:24, ESV); Avram's grandson Ya'akov also received an assurance when he was about to go down to Egypt: "Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation" (46:3, JPS). Other figures - such as Yosef's brothers from Yosef after Ya'akov's death, the people of Israel from Moshe before crossing the Reed Sea, Moshe fromHaShem before he defeated Og the king of Bashan, Joshua from HaShem before the second assault on Ai - were also encouraged by these words: "Do not fear" or "Fear not".
HaShem's words, however, beg a question.Hirsch explains: "As the word begins, 'Fear not, Avram!', it must have found him in an apprehensive, frightened mood. Why did G-d have to reassure and calm Avram?" The ancient commentators were also exercised as to what had disturbed Avram's faith so that he was afraid. "Rabbi Levi said: Avram was filled with misgiving, thinking to himself, 'Maybe there was a righteous or G-d-fearing man among those troops which I slew.' Rabbi Levi made another comment: 'Avram was fearful, saying, 'Perhaps the sons of the kings that I slew will collect troops and come and wage war against me.' The rabbis explained it thus: 'Abraham was filled with misgivings, saying to himself, 'I descended into the fiery furnace and was delivered; I went through famine and war and was delivered: perhaps then I have already received my reward in this world and have nought for the future world?'" (B'resheet Rabbah 44:4). Of course, these possibilities are answered.
To the first, Rabbi Levi answers his own question: "This may be compared to a straw-merchant who was passing the king's orchards, and seeing some bundles of thorns, descended [from his wagon] and took them. [The king] caught sight of him, whereupon he tried to hide himself. 'Why do you hide?' he said to him, reassuringly, 'I needed labourers to gather them; now that you have gathered them, come and receive your reward.' Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: 'Those troops that you slew were thorns already cut down [that is, doomed to death]'; thus it is written, And the peoples shall be as the burnings of lime; as thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire (Isaiah 33:12)". Rabbi Levi's second answer is: "The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: 'Fear not, Avram, I am your shield' - just as a shield receives all spears and withstands them, so will I stand by you." The rabbis response also quotes Scripture: "The Holy One, blessed be He, reassured him: 'Fear not, Avram, I am your shield' - meaning, a gift of grace to you - all that I have done for you in this world I did for nought; but in the future that is to come, 'your reward shall be exceedingly great', even as you read, Oh how abundant is Your goodness, which You have laid up for them that fear You (Psalm 31:20)."
The later commentators borrow and paraphrase these ideas; so, for example, theSforno writes, "Not only have your merits not been diminished by the victory granted to you by G-d, but you have earned a reward for the act of kindness shown to your relative and others, by saving these victims from their oppressors." The Ramban suggests, "The Eternal promised him that He will be his shield against them, and that his reward for walking with G-d shall be very great." Hirsch ascribes higher motives to Avram: "Or was it that Avram left his homeland with the promise that he bore within him the salvation of the future of the whole world, and now, after his extraordinary success and good fortune he was afraid just because of this good fortune? He might now be great, but this was far from the real goal in which his mission was to mature? The words meant: fear not, what I have to tell you is not a change from your own personal past. I remain your shield, and the happiness that blossoms from your devotion and self-sacrifice has no bounds." The Sforno also points to a section of the Mishnah that is read in the Shacharit prayer service every morning: "'very great' - in this world, and in the world to come, as our sages say, 'These are the things, the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world and the stock remains for him in the world to come' (m. Peah 1:1) and among these we find acts of loving-kindness."
When and how are we afraid, and how does Yeshua speak into our situations? In Matthew chapter 10, in His words sending out the disciples to minister in the Galil, Yeshua uses the phrase "Do not fear" three times, all focused on those who would persecute the disciples for their witness. The first time, "Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known" (Matthew 10:26, NASB), addresses a fear of secrecy, of secret plots and hidden motives - these will all be revealed; the second time, "And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (v. 28, NASB), covers the fear of death, of being killed for belief in Yeshua - this is only physical, it is more important to obey G-d than save one's physical life; the third, "Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows" (v. 31, NASB), stresses each disciple's individual value and worth before G-d. Peter too, tells those who are being persecuted for their faith in Yeshua, "Do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled" (1 Peter 3:14, NASB). After explaining to the disciples how G-d will provide for them in many physical ways - food, drink, clothing - Yeshua says, "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32, ESV). Everything that we need to get the job done is provided. Yeshua addresses our most basic fears about life and living.
Many people have a fear of isolation or loneliness; Yeshua promises never to leave us (Matthew 28:20) and to send His Spirit to be with us (John 15:26). Others fear speaking or witnessing to our faith; Yeshua promises that the Spirit will tell us what to say (Luke 11:11-12). Some are fearful about their future; but Yeshua tells each person to worry at most about today (Matthew 6:34). In fact, Rav Sha'ul covers everything that might cause fear: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to G-d" (Philippians 4:6, ESV). When we bring everything to G-d and trust Him to take care of it, then "the peace of G-d, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Messiah Yeshua" (v. 7, ESV). Fear or worry is a state of mind that can be overcome by G-d's peace and assurance that He really is in charge of everything and will not drop the ball on us. Fear is an irrational response to uncertainty about the future; even if the immediate future looks certain to be "nasty, brutish, and short"1, fear that what comes next will be no better locks us in a state of paralysis and inaction. Doubt about G-d's favour, compassion or victory over death leads to fear, but G-d has done everything necessary to calm our fears and trust Him; the Ruach "whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26, ESV) reminds us of Yeshua's words and promises so that we may not be afraid but rationally face our fears down to trust Him.
1. - Thomas Hobbes (1651), Leviathan, XIII.9
Further Study: Matthew 10:26-33; Romans 8:15; 2 Timothy 1:7
Application: Are you in a fear-full situation in life? Are you beset by worries and concerns? Remember G-d's promise that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18, ESV) and press in to know and experience His love for you today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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