Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
Most scholars acknowledge two separate verbs of the form פסח (psh), whereas others (such as the renowned theologian Gesenius) think there's only one. This dispute is less futile than may seem, because from our root(s) comes the important word Pesah, or Passover, which in turn explains a fundamental element of the essential character of Jesus Christ.
Here at Abarim Publications we side with Gesenius, partly because this is often a good bet, but more so because all expressions of our root פסח (psh) can be easily summed up by one fundamental meaning. This fundamental meaning, in turn, explains the relation between the Exodus and the crucifixion with much greater clarity than before.
Another reason why we think that this root should be seen as one is that if we follow the traditional interpretation(s) of it, we see not two but three or even four distinct meanings:
- Our verb פסח (pasah) occurs three times in relation with the Passover event, and is in this context thought to mean "to pass over" or "to skip" (Exodus 12:13, 12:23, 12:27). From this verb stems the familiar noun פסח (pesah), which is commonly translated as Passover, or in other words: the Great Skipping.
- The other main group of meanings of this verb (or a second, identical one) concern having a physical disability: being lame or crippled. This verb is used most tellingly in 2 Samuel 4:4, where young Mephibosheth was dropped by his nurse and he was lamed in both his feet. Most often this root appears as the adjective פסח (piseah), thought to mean lame or cripple (Leviticus 21:18, 2 Samuel 19:27, Jeremiah 31:8). Somewhat parallel to our adjective פסח (piseah) is the noun צלע (sela'), also meaning cripple, but more in the sense of leaning on something or someone (Jacob after his bout with the angel was limping by means of צלע, sela').
- The third and most neglected nuance of our verb has to do with a hovering over someone or something during the pause just prior to a deliberate approach. There are two clear instances of this. In 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah asks the people how long they plan to hover over (most translations absurdly speak of limp on) two options and urges them to choose and follow either YHWH or Baal. And the prophet Isaiah tells of YHWH who will protect Jerusalem: Like the wings of birds so he will protect and deliver Jerusalem, he will hover over it and rescue it (most translation read pass over, i.e. skip, which describes the opposite).
- Fourthly, Elijah has the taunted Baal priests so riled up that they prance about their altar (1 Kings 18:26). The author of this story used the same verb five verses earlier, to describe people's indecisiveness. Translators of this scene are forced into similar antics as the Baal priests, and have the Baal priests limp or leap about their altar. Imagine screaming zealots going so far that they lacerate themselves in order to log onto their deity; their bodily movements were doubtless far removed from those of a disabled person, or someone who refrains from choosing between two mutually exclusive options.
It obviously takes a trick or two to connect the adjective meaning "lame" to the identical verb that would simultaneously describe (a) the frantic gait of clergy around their inert effigy, (b) the skipping of blood-stained houses by the Lord's angel of wrath, and (c) the imminent engagement of something preferred.
The blind and the lame
The solution to our conundrum comes in the familiar formula: "the blind and the lame" (עור ופסח, 'iwwer wa piseah; Leviticus 21:18, Deuteronomy 15:21, 2 Samuel 5:6-8, Job 29:15, Jeremiah 31:8, Malachi 1:8, Matthew 21:14, Luke 14:21), which in itself presents a bit of a mystery. Why are the blind and the lame grouped into a proverbial unity, and not, say, the blind and the deaf, or the lame and the one-armed? The answer is that the blindness referred to in this expression comes from having a "skin" where it shouldn't be.
The noun עור ('or), meaning skin, is spelled the same as the verb עור ('awar), meaning to be blind, and this condition may in fact not exclusively denote blindness but any condition of having skin extra, including being callous or cold of heart (Matthew 13:15, 24:12, Ephesians 4:19). Just prior to being healed by Jesus, the famous blind man Bartimaeus "threw off his cloak" for no apparent reason, and the Pharisee Saul of Tarshish was healed from his blindness when "something like scales fell from Saul's eyes" (Acts 9:18).
The opposite of having some extra is being some short, and that is precisely the core idea of our root פסח (psh). It does not simply mean to be lame, it means to be deficient, lacking or in want.
Too much, too little, and just right
Our verb פסח (pasah) denotes a shortage that leads to a similar disability as blindness caused by an extra skin. This blindness-by-skin is associated mostly to old age, when people may develop cataracts in their eyes or indifference in their hearts. Old king Solomon appears to have developed this kind of blindness (while he was known for his astounding clarity of vision) when he allowed the gods of his wives to pollute Israel (1 Kings 11:4)
The condition of being lame, or being short of something essential, is associated mostly to infancy. All babies are in fact lame, but a lameness that is not in due time "healed" by simple maturation is pretty much equal to remaining a child. Five year old Mephibosheth was dropped by his nurse and became "lame in both feet," which may very well be a colloquial way of saying that he was, well, "dropped on his head" or "couldn't stand on his own two feet" or "had a screw loose"; in other words: suffered henceforth from arrested development (2 Samuel 4:4). Likewise king Asa's feet became diseased in his old age (1 Kings 15:23), which is probably a polite way of saying that he suffered from senile dementia.
Our verb פסח (pasah) literally means to be infantile, in the sense of being childish or puerile. It denotes a stage of immaturity, a state of incompleteness due to being young.
Having a piece extra or being a piece short is also precisely the same detrimental duo of infirmities that may come to affect a nation that was constituted on God's Law but upheld by folks who either leave parts out at their discretion, or add their own injunctions ad nauseam: "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 4:2, Revelation 22:18-19). This is probably why Jesus called the Pharisees blind guides and not lame guides (Matthew 15:14).
Both these forms of blindness and lameness are the opposite of the familiar verb שלם (shalem), meaning to be complete, unbroken and whole, and this verbal structure demonstrates that the Hebrews were as concerned with the Middle Way as was Buddha. Both wisdom traditions recognized that too much (being overweight, overly honored, too rich, and so on) was as unproductive as too little (being underweight, dishonored or poor).
Plants, fractals and libraries
Note the seemingly unrelated reference to plants in the verse preceding Jesus' assessment of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:13). Prior to the discovery of DNA, people commonly thought that plants were much simpler organisms than for instance us mammals — now we know that all living things are, and always have been, roughly equally complex — but in recent years several plants were found to be based on colossal accumulative genomes several times larger than the human genome. The Loblolly Pine's genome, for instance, is seven times larger than the human genome, and the Paris Japonica's genome is fifty times larger. This is all due to "endless repetitions" rather than progression in any evolutionary sense.
The Hebrew Scriptures "operate" on self-similarities and broken symmetries, and progress along an axis of complexity rather than time, and indeed any alteration within a fractal ruins the whole thing on all levels. Creatures like the Paris Japonica demonstrate that sometimes an entire library of commentary upon commentary results in a mere shrub, while a highly efficient text such as the Torah nails the whole universe in a few kilobytes (or so claimed several modern sages such as the Vilna Gaon and Shneur Zalman).
The Biblical nail
The contexts of our verb פסח (pasah) now effortlessly fall into place. The prancing Baal priests weren't necessarily prancing; they were standing there a shake short of a Happy Meal, yelping to their god but perpetually short of a reply. They stood there imploring an existential vacuum while the Lord (whose character and ways can be clearly seen through what had been made; Romans 1:20) was readily available to them. They refused to embrace the Lord of Life and clung to ridiculous rituals, even when it was obvious to everybody that their rituals had zero effect. Instead of acknowledging that they were doing something that wasn't worth doing, and change their ways to their own benefit and that of everybody else, they kept at it, like junkies addicted to the void. They died not because Elijah killed them but because they refused to grow up. Their tradition was the theological equivalent of a fast food restaurant.
Deliberately choosing nonsense over sense is as detrimental as not choosing at all. Like the Baal priests, the agnostics of five verses earlier too suffered from stunted growth due self-inflicted malnourishment. But most tellingly, the Lord hovered over Jerusalem knowing it was short of something that it could never attain itself. He likewise passed through Egypt separating people who openly confessed that they were needy from those who thought they were self-sufficient; those people who believed that they were good enough to stay the way they were.
The Bible maintains that there is as much correlation between the behavior of one person and his ultimate fate (smokers die younger, angry people get beat up more often, etcetera) as there is between the attitude of a whole nation and its fate (Deuteronomy 28:9-10). The ten plagues that befell Egypt were sent by the Lord, sure, but in modern parlance: Egypt got what it had coming by doing what it was doing. Egypt is known for its astounding, millennia-long resilience to change, but in a world that is designed to evolve, stationariness is a vice that will eventually lead to disintegration.
"The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change," remarked Bill Clinton and Charles Darwin once said, "It's not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change". And although both Clinton and Darwin were great at being wrong, they hit this Biblical nail smack on the head. The Lord's angel slayed the Egyptian's first-borns, which was obviously an assault on Egypt's perpetuation. But he sanctified the first-borns of the Hebrews, and led them to safety (Exodus 12:2).
The Lord's angel did not simply show up for the occasion but is with us all the time. He "passed over" the houses of the Israelites because with the sign of the blood of the lamb on their doors they indicated that they were aware of the fact that they were insufficient. The sign of the blood was a visible equivalent of a confession of sin, which wasn't only visible to the Lord, but also to all other people (Matthew 3:6, Acts 19:18).
Our verb expresses the most fundamental attitude that a human being must assume in order to lay claim on the salvation promised in Jesus Christ, the salvation that can not be earned but which is available to anyone who asks for it. Asking for salvation is by definition preceded by one's understanding of being unable to achieve anything or reach anywhere on one's own (also see our article on the verb זבח, zabah, meaning to sacrifice).
Leaning on the everlasting arms
Moses wrote that the eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27, see John 13:23), but a modern writer may note that all of creation is a symbiotic system and every creature does as much leaning as getting leaned upon.
From this simple but eternally profound observation comes the inevitable conclusion that the Creator is intimately involved with creation, that he wrote himself into the song that we are, and is as much part of the cycle of giving and receiving as the rest of us are. He is not needy but became needy for the sake of our neediness. It's arguably the greatest idea ever proposed: that the Word became flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14) and engages us as much as we engage him (Genesis 32:24). But it's a mistake to think that this idea has to do with any religion. It doesn't; it has to do with natural reality.
Atoms are held together by electromagnetism and the universe by gravity; hence Jesus is the light and God is love (John 1:9, 8:12, 1 John 4:8). God is not simply the start of creation, he is incorporated into creation. He is not simply the instigator of all things; in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17) and he makes all things work together (Romans 8:28). He's not a God of miracles but the God of every event that unfolds anywhere, both the spectacular and the most mundane. He is the God of the tuxedo as much as the T-shirt, of the eagle as much as the sparrow (Isaiah 45:5-7, Matthew 6:25-29).