The Hebrew Understanding of Church
There are primarily two words for Church in Hebrew: קהל (qahal) and עדה (‘edah). Qahal is defined in a very similar manner as ἐκκλησία. Qahal is the called out ones; those who are called together for a sacred purpose (Thayer, p. 196). Qahal refers to a congregation or an assembly that has been called out for a specific purpose. The person doing the calling is the קהלת (Qohelet). It is the role of the one calling to set or explain the purpose. In regard to the Church, it is God who is the קהלת.
The other Hebrew word for Church is more spiritually significant. This is the word עדה. While this term can mean congregation, it is broader in its scope. עדה is “an appointed meeting, a congregation, a family, something that testifies” (Gesenius, pp. 607-608). Why should the word עדה be chosen as the proper word for Church in the Old Testament? Is there a significant difference between the terms ἐκκλησία and עדה? How should the understanding and comparison of these two terms impact the Church today? What cultural and societal changes could be enacted if Christians clearly understood the biblical definition of the עדה? Is this simply a question of semantics? Should one really consider the use of עדה rather than עהל or ἐκκλησία?
To answer these questions one must understand how the word עדה originated biblically. This word is actually represented in one of the greatest verses of faith in the Old Testament called the Shema. While the Shema is made up of three separate passages of scripture; in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37, for the purpose of this paper we will consider only the portion found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The Shema derives its name from the single verse found in Deuteronomy 6:4. In order to understand the origination of the עדה the verse must be seen and read in Hebrew. The Shema reads:
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד׃
The last letter of the first word is ע (ayin) and the last letter of the last word is ד (dalet). These letters are much larger than any of the other letters in the sentence. The writer draws attention to the two letters דע which together form the word “witness.” What were they to be a witness to? The rabbis say that they are a witness to the oneness of God–אֶחָֽד. The word, as used here, is from the root אָחַר meaning “to be joined together” (Gesenius, p. 16). While it does convey the idea of “one,” this oneness is a by-product of twisting and binding strands of cord into a single rope which has greater tensile strength than any single cord. The sum total is greater than any individual part. Jesus interprets this word אֶחָֽד when he states,
“That they may all be one (אֶחָֽד); as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one (אֶחָֽד) in us. That the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one (אֶחָֽד): I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect (mature) in one (אֶחָֽד); and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:21-23).
Jesus interprets אֶחָֽד and by so doing defines witness. The Church is called to be a witness of what it looks like to twist and bind our lives with the fullness of the Godhead. God selected a process by which this goal could be achieved and through this achievement impact our community, nation, and world.
That process was through the calling out (קדש) of the family, Abba’s House (clan or extended family), tribe, and nation. One only has to read through the pages of Scripture to realize the significance of these four ordinations to see how God established them be the functional part of the עדה. To understand the impact of the עדה, we must clearly understand the role of each as originally designed by God.
Of the four, the family is by far the most important. In Hebrew, the word for family is משפחה (mishpachah) and contains both the idea of family and Abba’s House or clan. According to Donats Chukwa,
“The family has vital and organic links to society, since it is its foundation and nourishes it continually through its role of service to life: it is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find first schooling on the social virtues, the animating principles for the existence and development of the society itself…. Traditionally, there are two kinds of family units: nuclear and extended families. All other forms of families fall within these two typologies. Different nations and cultures have variant understanding of what the family is and place emphasis on one form or the other. Just as the concept of family varies from culture to culture, the extended family connotes a variety of meanings and categorizations…. The extended family does not necessarily emphasize consanguine relationships but rather the fact that each member sees himself or herself as belonging to one common ancestor.” (Chukwa, location 1872 of 9104, Kindle Edition).
While this comes close to the explanation of family as part of the עדה, it is not sufficient to explain the dynamic of either family or Abba’s House. In Jewish culture family was not defined by its members, but by the function that it was expected to perform as part of the עדה. To the Hebraic mind, the home was the center of spiritual growth and was more important than the synagogue or the Temple. This was because it was the parents’ responsibility to teach the children the Torah. While the mother was the first person to teach the children the Torah, the primary responsibility of teaching fell to the father. Continue Reading