Book- sefer (Strong’s 5612)
In Hebrew script: סֵפֶר
Sounds like sefer
Tomorrow (October 15th) marks the one year blogiversary of Hebrew Word Lessons! It’s been a great year, pouring over Hebrew words, diving deeply into Scripture, praying for understanding, and being amazed at what YHWH has done (especially helping me pull it all off in time for a Sunday deadline, week after week). In honour of this momentous occasion I wanted to come up with a special word to start of Year 2 of Hebrew Word Lessons.
So I’ve chosen a word near and dear to my heart… Book.
I love books. I love reading and research and getting lost in a story. I love it so much I made a career out of it. I started my book based career at age 13 when I became a student assistant at my hometown Public Library in Tiverton Ontario Canada. Not ironically, the position was called a “library page”. My Dad still loves to point out that I was just another page in the library, in a building filled with pages.
I ended up working in libraries, surrounded by books, throughout my time in University and then, eventually, it somehow turned into my career. I now work as a Library Technician at the University of Prince Edward Island and I’m the managing editor of the website http://www.booklives.ca, a virtual environment that matches old books with the lives of their previous owners… a genealogy of books, you might say. (I’m also fiercely into genealogy, but that’s another story).
Coincidentally the Hebrew word for book is sefer… which made me grin from ear to ear the first time I heard it. My initials are SEF. Many moons ago I used sefer in one of my old email addresses (sefer, in my mind, was simply a shortform for S.E.F(ish)ER). I love that my initials are uniquely connected with the Hebrew word for book. How delightful… and validating, in some kind of way.
So let’s go back a few thousand years. What did a book look like in the time of Moses?
Well, it looked nothing like what we picture a book to be today. The first “books” [seferim] were actually scrolls. Binding pages into a square shape with conformed edges wasn’t in the mindset of the Hebrew people. Papyrus and animal skin was much easier to roll than cut into uniform pages and sewn into a binding. When we hear the word book [sefer] in the Tanakh we should be picturing a scroll. These scrolls may have been historical volumes, or letters, or the writings of prophets, or poetry… anything that was written onto some sort of parchment was considered a sefer.
The very first time we see the word “book” in the Tanakh (Old Testament) is five chapters into Genesis, and the verse offers an explanation of what the book is about:
This is the book of the generations of Adam [mankind]. In the day that God created man, He made him in His own likeness. Male and female He created them, and He blessed them. And in the day they were created, He called them “man” [adam].
This isn’t just a creation story, it’s the story of humanity… and it starts with a genealogy.
As we carry on throughout this divine story of what it means to be human we are introduced to many individuals who are called by YHWH to write books/scrolls… and it’s these books that make up our Bible. This call begins with Moses:
Then YHWH said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll [ba-sefer] as a reminder and recite it to Joshua, because I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and named it YHWH Is My Banner.
For what purpose does YHWH want these words written down? They were to be written to be a remembrance for the generations to come. The divine name YHWH Nissi [YHWH is our Banner] highlights that God is the signal that shines amongst the people. He is the flag that flies in the face of history, saying “See what I have done for you. See what I will continue to do for you”. YHWH’s word, written in Scripture, is the flag that flies, the banner that spreads out in front of us, and the signal that won’t be put out.
YHWH also called on Isaiah to write:
[YHWH to Isaiah:]
Go now, write it on a tablet in their presence
and inscribe it on a scroll [sefer];
it will be for the days to come, a witness forever and ever.
Here YHWH tells Isaiah to write the latest events down in words, to be an everlasting witness of God’s character. It’s not necessarily written for the people at that time, because they’ve lived through the event, rather it is written for the people to read in “the days to come”.
YHWH also called on Jeremiah to write His words down. Jeremiah hires a scribe:
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from YHWH: “Take a scroll [sefer] and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah, and all the nations, from the day I first spoke to you during the reign of Josiah until today. Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about all the calamity I plan to bring upon them, each of them will turn from his wicked way. Then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin.”
So Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah. At the dictation of Jeremiah, Baruch wrote on a scroll [sefer] all the words YHWH had spoken to Jeremiah.
Here YHWH wants Jeremiah to write His words out to be a warning to the people, and to give them a chance to repent. However, King Jehoiakim isn’t pleased with Jeremiah’s warning scroll:
The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll [ha-megillah], and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the scribe. And Jehudi read it in the hearing of the king and all the officials who were standing beside him.
Since it was the ninth month, the king was sitting in his winter quarters with a fire burning before him. And as soon as Jehudi had read three or four columns, Jehoiakim would cut them off with a scribe’s knife and throw them into the fire-pot, until the entire scroll [ha-megillah] had been consumed by the fire.
So King Jehoiakim was a scroll burning king… but tossing YHWH’s words into the fire had dire repercussions:
After the king had burned the scroll [ha-megillah] with the words Baruch had written at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of YHWH came to Jeremiah: “Take another scroll [megillah] and rewrite on it the very words that were on the original scroll [megillah] , which Jehoiakim king of Judah has burned.
You are to proclaim, concerning Jehoiakim king of Judah. that this is what YHWH says: You have burned the scroll [ha-megillah] and said, ‘Why have you written on it that the king of Babylon would surely come and destroy this land and deprive it of man and beast?’
Therefore, this is what YHWH says about Jehoiakim king of Judah: He will have no one to sit on David’s throne, and his body will be thrown out to be exposed to heat by day and frost by night. I will punish him and his descendants and servants for their iniquity. I will bring on them, on the residents of Jerusalem, and on the men of Judah, all the calamity about which I warned them but they did not listen.”
Then Jeremiah took another scroll [megillah] and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, and at Jeremiah’s dictation he wrote on it all the words of the book [ha-sefer] that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them.
Notice there were two words for scroll. The objecct (scroll) is a megillah, but the content of the object is the sefer (book). An empty megillah has no intellectual value, but the words inside of it make up its worth. The words make it a book.
So the first book that Baruch and Jeremiah produced was a warning… but after the king failed to heed the warning the second scroll became a judgement and YHWH outlined the consequences of Jehoiakim’s disobedience.
The last line of that chapter is intriguing… And many similar words were added to them… What words were added to this second edition? Well, most certainly this particular story would have been added, as it would not have been in the scroll that king Jehoiakim read.
By this point we have seen that the Bible was created to be a memory book, a witness to God’s character, a warning of things to come and a judgement for those who do not listen to the word presented to them.
One of the most interesting snippets regarding a book comes from the the tragic hero, Job. We don’t know who wrote his story down, and there are all sorts of scholarly debate as to when the book was written. Job did not claim to have written down his memoir, but he wished that somebody would:
I wish that my words were recorded and inscribed in a book [ba-sefer],
by an iron stylus on lead, or chiseled in stone forever.
But I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last He will stand upon the earth.
Even after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.
I will see Him for myself;
my eyes will behold Him, and not as a stranger.
How my heart yearns within me!
One wonders if he ever did discover that his words were recorded. If not, then he would be shocked today to discover that his story is one of the most widely read books in all of history.
There’s something about your story captured in a book that immortalizes your memory throughout time… and certainly that has happened for Job. Thousands of years after his body faded from existence, we still read about him. We still admire his resilience and his gut-wrenching honesty. But this is not what was important to Job. What gave Job the strength to stand was the powerful knowledge that his Redeemer was alive and that YHWH would be the victor when all was said and done. Job knew that long after he was dead and gone, he would still see his Redeemer God face to face, with his own eyes, not as a stranger, but as a beloved member of God’s family. This is what Job yearned for, and this is what Job lived for.
We are members of God’s family. The genealogies that are so prevalent throughout the Bible highlight the importance of family for YHWH. We are His family. We are redeemed through His Son, so that we can all become daughters and sons of God.
Jesus said to them, “These are the words I spoke to you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
Here Yeshua confirmed that the Tanakh (Old Testament) validated his claim. He was, and is, the Messiah… and the Torah (law), the Nevi’im (prophets) and the Ketuv’im (writings) all pointed to his coming.
As we have seen, the purpose of Scripture was to be a remembrance, a witness, a warning and a judgement, and through Yeshua it would also become Good News. According to Luke, Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. It was at this moment that the disciples understood that all the books of the Tanakh were about Yeshua/Jesus. From the very first page of the Torah (“in the beginning”), it was all about Jesus.
At the very beginning of Yeshua’s ministry we get a glimpse of him reading from the scroll of Isaiah:
Then Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. As was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. And when He stood up to read, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,
because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Then He rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him, and He began by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was the fulfillment of the Scripture. He was, and is, the one that redeemed us. Just like Job had boldly claimed: But I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last He will stand upon the earth (Job 19:25).
Jesus stood upon this earth and he gave his life to save us. That’s the most beautiful, touching, love story that exists. It’s the best book in the world and the greatest good news we can receive. The Bible is the story of humanity. It’s the story of you and me. We are characters in an epic adventure with great highs and disastrous lows… but although we are dragged many times through the depths of despair, in the end those who foster a relationship with the hero will rise up out of the ashes and be redeemed by the most beautiful, sacrificial, hero that ever walked the earth. Now that’s a good book!
But how are we characters in this epic tale? Well the Bible says our names are written into the story. There is mention of a special book, sometimes called the Book of Life, sometimes called the Book of Remembrance, and sometimes just called The Book. In it is a record of names, names of those who love, and are in relationship with, the Creator:
At that time Michael, the great prince who stands watch over your people, will rise up. There will be a time of distress such as never has occurred from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book [ba-sefer]—will be delivered.
At that time, those who feared YHWH spoke to one another, and YHWH listened and heard them. So a book of remembrance [sefer zikarown] was written before Him regarding those who feared YHWH and honoured His name.
“They will be Mine,” says YHWH of Hosts, “on the day when I prepare My treasured possession. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him…”
And it’s not just our names that are recorded, but also our wanderings, our tears, and our whole life story:
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all my days were written in Your book [sefre’ka]
and ordained for me before one of them came to be.
You have taken account of my wanderings;
You have put my tears in Your bottle.
Are they not in Your book [ba-sefre’teka]?
Then my enemies will retreat on the day I cry for help.
By this I will know that God is on my side.
God is on our side, and we are His anti-heroes! According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary the definition of an anti-hero is:
…a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.
We may feel like small, imperfect, humans most of the time, but we are central to the God’s story. Like all good choose-your-own-adventure books, we have choices to make and paths to take.
What is your role in this epic tale of humanity? Where are you in the Book of Life?
Next week: fear