As we walk into the new year, I believe the ancient Hebrew perspective of walking backwards into the future is a nice approach. Some I dearly love may prefer the modern perspective of leaving the past behind and looking forward to the future. They would say, “Forget about 2022. Let’s move on already!” I would say, “Whatever happened to bring joy or sorrow, let’s fix our gaze on the acts of God on our behalf which we have seen in the past.”
Hebrew Words for Time are Loaded Backpacks
The ancient Hebrew view of time is much different than a modern western view of it. To understand time, it’s important to know that Hebrew words are like overstuffed backpacks. Ancient Hebrew (so the Old Covenant/Old Testament of the Bible) has about 8,000 words. Modern English has about 1 million words, though native speakers know about 42,000 words and regularly use 20,000 to 30,000. Still, each ancient Hebrew word carries loads more meaning than modern English words.
Past also means East, Antiquity, and Front
So, when we look at the ancient Hebrew word for “past” קדם (qedem), it carries loads of meaning. While it literally means, “the direction of the rising sun (east),” it also means antiquity, past, and front. When the word we translate as “past” is thought of, it is like a looking forward at the acts of God that happened in the past, including the creation and ordering of creation that happed in Eden (east), the recreation and reordering of creation after the flood (east). Read more here.
Likewise, the word for “yesterday” (the past) תמול (temol), comes from the root מול (mul) meaning “in front.” The word for “tomorrow” (the future) מחר (mahher) comes from the root אחר (ahher) meaning “in back.”
All that to say, it’s like we fix our eyes on the faithfulness of God in the past which is in front of us. As we walk into the future, it is like walking backwards (looking at what we know God did), since the future is behind us (unknown- what we can’t see).
Event-Oriented not Time Oriented
Another aspect of this is a cultural one. Modern eastern cultures and ancient Hebrew culture (the context of the Bible) is event oriented rather than time oriented. Western cultures focus on time and think about past, present and future linearly. Eastern cultures focus on events instead. We see this in verb tenses in Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek are not primarily concerned with time but rather flow or type of action. So, Ancient Hebrew doesn’t have past, present and future. It only has two tenses. These show events that have completed action or events that have uncompleted action. Read more here.
Another aspect of Ancient Hebrew time is the reality that, unlike the western linear view of time, they viewed time as circular. This has always been hard for me to wrap my head around in understanding culture. But we see this in the concepts of seasons which cycle back into the next season (winter flows into spring which flows into summer, which flows into fall which flows into winter….and on and on circularly). Biblically, we see God create, which includes providing order to chaos. Mankind is to fill the earth and rule it under God’s rule as His representatives on earth. But they reject Him, leading to the eventual downfall of all creation. We see that in the beginning of Genesis. Then, we see the cycle circle back again with Noah and the flood in Genesis 6. We long for the day when the Messiah will return and create a new heavens and new earth. Thus, time, is like a circle, with events circling back.
Summary of Ancient Hebrew Time
All that to say, when we read the Bible and think about time, it is more like a looking forward at all the events in which God has manifested His goodness and acts on behalf of creation and His great Name. These events often work in circles that remind us of patterns we have already seen (also in front of us) in the past.
How Hebrew Time Helps me Today
Today, as I look at the time gone by, I like the concept of looking forward at all God has done. All that is in front of me. It’s very difficult for my western mind to wrap itself around. Honestly, my stomach sometimes feels a little upset trying to switch it around in my head. But, there is great peace in keeping in the forefront the acts of God.
In the very recent past in front of me, I see last week and the celebration that the 16 cm mass in my thigh is not cancer, the removal of it, and all the support of loved ones who have helped me in my difficult but progressing healing from that (The news we were waiting for when I wrote Wait with Me). Just beyond the surgery and the celebration was the news that it was cancer and that I would walk again- but no one knew what that might look like. I’m so thankful that was a misinterpretation of the results.
I see joys and sorrows of the past year and beyond. Recent deaths and dying of people that I have loved that have loved me in different seasons of my life. I see celebrations of dreams realized, long seasons of waiting, and loads and loads of God working in my life and the lives of those I love. I see the pain drawing me closer to God and helping me know Him more. I see the joys celebrated with Him. I see tremendous healing as I learn to know Him better and trust Him to be all He is. I see Him revealing where my heart aligned with lies about Him that kept me bound and the incredible freedom, joy, peace, love and overall more of Him that I have been able to experience as my heart realigned with Him.
In short, I love the idea of keeping God’s acts in front.
What I can’t see is dark and unknown. I can guess what is behind my chair as I sit and write this based on experience and what I have already known- but can’t know for sure. Likewise, I can guess what might be in my future based on what I have seen God do in the past- but I can’t know. It is behind me, where I cannot see.
What is in front of me has taught me that God is fully trustworthy with it all and entirely good.
So, as I walk into the future backwards, I rest in the reality of God’s provision and love.
What do you think about this approach to time?
Is it hard to wrap your mind around? What is your perspective? Please share in the comments below.
If you liked this, you might like these:
- Ancient Philosophy of the Hebrew Language
- Ancient Hebrew Concepts of Time
- The Culture of the Hebrew Language
- Ancient Hebrew Philosophy
- New Year, New Morning, New Mercies
- Wait with Me
Photo adapted from Photo by Smart on Unsplash
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