The Fear of God


Joseph’s abilities as a dream interpreter eventually landed him a job as a high Egyptian official in charge of grain supplies. Meanwhile his family in Canaan had begun to feel the effects of the predicted famine, so Jacob sent a delegation of his sons to buy grain in Egypt. Joseph recognized his brothers at once, but they did not recognize him: he was dressed as an Egyptian and spoke to them through an interpreter.


Taking advantage of this circumstance, Joseph accused his brothers of espionage and had them all thrown into jail. After three days, however, he relented and freed all but one of them, saying, “I fear God.” What exactly did he mean by that—and why did he say it?


‘Fear of God” is a moving target: it underwent its own evolution from biblical times to later usage. But one point is most important: although it might not seem so, the “fear of God” (yir’at Elokim) in the Bible is generally quite distinct from the “fear of the Lord”(yir’at H’).


What’s the difference between these two? The “fear of the Lord” generally means “the worship of [Israel’s] God.” As such, it is something that had to be learned: “Come my sons, listen to me and I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:12). The king is required to keep a copy of the Torah with him, “Let it remain with him and let him read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah” (Deut 17:19); similarly, “and let their children, who do not yet know, listen and learn to fear the Lord your God” (Deut 31:13). When the Assyrians deported the northern tribes and replaced them with foreigners, at first the foreigners “did not fear the Lord, so the Lord loosed lions against them, who killed some of them… Then the Assyrian king gave an order: ‘Send back one of the priests (kohanim) whom you have deported. . . and let him teach them the practices of the God of Israel. So one of the priests whom they had exiled from Samaria came and settled in Bethel; he taught them how to fear the Lord.”


The “fear of God” has an entirely different meaning; in fact, yir’at elohim might best be translated in some instances as “fear of the gods,” because it is in no way restricted to the people of Israel and does not necessarily refer to Israel’s God. The usual meaning of the expression yir’at elohim is “common decency,” that is, the minimal set of moral values that any ordinary person could be counted on to possess. This is the point of Abraham’s remark to Abimelech in Gen 20:11: Abraham didn’t reveal that Sarah was his wife because “I thought to myself: there is no fear of the gods in this place, so they may kill me for my wife.” In other words, I wasn’t sure that out here even the minimum standards of human decency were respected. Similarly, when the Egyptian king ordered the Hebrew midwives to slaughter every newborn Hebrew boy, “they feared God and did not do as the Egyptian king had ordered; instead, they spared the boys” (Exod 1:17).


Even in an entirely monotheistic context, “fear of God”—in this case, our God—retains this basic sense of common decency. “You shall not curse the deaf, and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind, and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord” (Lev 19:14). “You shall stand up before the elderly and show respect to the aged, and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord.” Anyone with common decency wouldn’t put a stumbling block in front of a blind person, nor would such a person fail to get up and give his seat to an old man on the bus—this is just the minimum of human decency.


So Joseph wasn’t (as some ancient interpreters supposed) giving his brothers a subtle hint that he was actually their coreligionist. All he meant was that he too observed the usual standards of common decency; he wasn’t going to hold all of them hostage when he could accomplish what he wanted by holding only one of them.


Behind this distinction between these two similar expressions is, I think, an important point. It would probably not be wrong to think of “fear of God/the gods” as that primal awareness that theologians and philosophers have sought to attribute to all human beings since ancient times, the thing that John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis, the “sense of divinity” that nearly all humans seem to have (or used to have, in any case). It is properly called a “fear” because being aware of God/the gods includes the fear of doing anything that might result in divine punishment: after all, the gods control all those things that we do not. But to reduce it to that alone would certainly be foolish.


In any event, the “fear of the Lord” might then be seen as the concrete expression that this “fearing” takes in Judaism. Here, I think, it is not quite fear in the sense of being frightened but rather, in this religion of mitzvot, the sense of having duties/obligations to fulfill and the feeling of incompleteness, perhaps one might say of indebtedness, until they are fulfilled. That is what those Orthodox Jews (I am one of them) whom you sometimes see standing off to the side in shopping malls or on airplanes or at the side of the road are doing, praying the prescribed thrice-daily prayer (the ‘Amidah). It is not that they have some urgent request of God that cannot wait. Rather, this is pure fear of the Lord: “Judaism demands that I pray three times a day, and this is one of the times.” (The same of course is true of the five daily prayers of pious Muslims; Islam inherited this idea from Judaism.) There are numerous other duties that are also part of “fear of the Lord,” that is, the practice of Israel’s religion. The Jew who abstains from eating non-kosher food, who washes his hands before eating bread, and so forth, is motivated by this same sense of obligation. And this is ultimately connected to that first kind of fear, the fear of God and Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, that is, the sense of the presence of God. For the same reason, to “fear the Lord” is often coupled with what might seem its very opposite, to “love the Lord,” both followed by things like “to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deut 10:12) and similar expressions. All these refer to ‘avodat H’, the service of the Lord, that is, the positive actions to which the fear of God may lead.


“Everything is in God’s hands, except for the fear of God.” This saying, attributed to the third-century sage Rabbi Hanina b. Hama, is one of the best known of rabbinic aphorisms. The normal interpretation is: God will takes care of everything else, but you have to supply the first step, yir’at shamayim, that is, the fear of God. But actually (and in light of the foregoing), the meaning seems somewhat different. What Rabbi Hanina really seems to mean is that what each person receives is determined by God, down to its smallest detail—except, of course, for the fear of God, since God gives that to everyone. Like those cold gusts in Sepphoris that Rabbi Hanina knew so well (on which see j. Shabbat 14,3 [p. 14c; also Leviticus Rabba 16:8 (p. 364); Deuteronomy Rabba, Liebermann edition, p. 80]), the fear of God strikes the heart of every person, even the crudest savage. The saying is thus what used to be called a “pretty paradox”: Whatever happens to a person is in God’s hands, it can go this way or it can go that way—but there is one thing that can go only one way and that is the most important thing, the fear of God, since He gives that to everyone.


Shabbat shalom!

Leave a Reply