Passion in Biblical Hebrew

As in Greek, there is no single word in Biblical Hebrew that encompasses all of ‘passion’, but a family of terms. Just as Greek needs ‘PATHOS, PATHIEN, PENTHOS, PATHIAZOMAI, THYMOS’, etc, to state what the single term in English ‘passion’ implies, so too the Biblical Hebrew uses a family of words.

None the less, there is a single root from which all the Jewish passional words emanate. In Biblical Hebrew, SAVAL [s-b-l] is the root meaning “to carry a load.” This can be an actual load [Genesis, 49,15] or metaphorically, a spiritual load [as when Yhwh ‘carries’ the remnant of the house of Israel, Isaiah, 46,4].

There are two main things that passion carries as a heavy weight: “Pain” [Isaiah, 53,4], and “Burden” [Ecclesiastes, 12,5]. Each of these root meanings seems to give rise to a host of related words. Not just humanity, but Yhwh also carries pain and carries burden [especially in Isaiah].


SEVEL can mean carrying ‘pain, struggle, suffering.’ Carrying it implies to ‘bear’ it [for example, we bear our ancestors’ sins, Lamentations, 5,7].

SOVLANUT is usually translated ‘tolerance.’ Tolerance here means not indifference to the fate of another, but rather, conveys the connotations of ‘acceptance.’ Tolerate it means accept it, as in the Old English: “Suffer the children to approach”, “Accept the children to come.” Thus to carry suffering implies that we must tolerate, accept, or bear it. However severe the pain, or deep the sorrow, we bear it. There is another sense to Jewish tolerance: it also has connotations of accepting otherness, unknownness, mystery, difference, variety, as opposed to insisting on things be as we map and plan them. This meaning of tolerance veers into ‘respect’ for what is other and different [to what we are familiar with], respect for the sheer ‘isness’ of things [as opposed to what we would like them to be]. Tolerating could also imply ‘bearing the brother’, in as much as we must put up with suffering [and burden] to assume the weight of the other person.

SAVLANUT is usually translated ‘patience’, which implies that what we bear we also ‘endure’ over time and circumstances. This, in turn, is close to persistence, fortitude, not being premature but ‘seeing it through to the end.’

Hence ‘to suffer, to tolerate or bear, to endure’, is one major theme of passion in Biblical Hebrew.

[2] Carrying BURDEN, TASK, DUTY

SEVEL can mean a load or burden, as well as pain. It is cognate with SOVEL, which is usually a metaphorical burden [such as ‘oppression’, Isaiah, 9,4], and also close to SIVLOT, which means burden in the sense of a ‘task.’ This notion of task links passion to doing one’s ‘duty’ in the world, for God; a duty which is heavy and hard, not light and easy. Duty has the connotation of what Martin Buber terms humanity’s ‘calling’ in the world, for the sake of the world, which comes with a gift from God to do something that needs to be done. This illumines, for example, the nature of the sin of ‘accidie’, where all passion dies because we refuse our duty to the world, and thereby lose our authentic calling and the gift needed to fulfil it.

But, there are other meanings in the ‘passion’ of Biblical Hebrew. Though carrying a heavy weight or load, both as pain/suffering/sorrow and as burden/task/duty, are essential to the Jewish understanding of passion, two other extremely important connotations should be mentioned.

[3] Carrying in the sense of DRAGGING ONESELF ALONG

In the Hithpael passion means to ‘drag oneself along.’ This is what we mean when we refer to life, or a given challenge, becoming a ‘hard slog.’ All we can do is drag our heart along, slow but steady. Passion can suddenly break through, but it can also be bogged down, barely able to move. Sometimes ‘progress is slow’, and all we can do is ‘hang in there’, and ‘keep going’, at a snail’s pace. The Desert Fathers speak of times when the spiritual life is all about dragging ourselves to do things, and in the doing of these things, just barely able to continue and feeling our heart as a heavy stone we must drag ‘reluctantly’ towards where we are going.

[4] Carrying in the sense of PREGNANCY

In the Pual passion can mean ‘pregnancy.’ This is probably why Christ occasionally refers to himself in maternal imagery vis a vis the Jews, and by extension, humanity. Passion must suffer, accept, tolerate, bear and endure, ‘undergo’, hard, and wounding things; it must carry a tremendous burden, task, duty in what it is called to do, and thus make an extraordinary ‘exertion’ and ‘effort’ in terms of what it must ‘pick up’ and ‘assume’; yet, paradoxically, this very woundedness and burdenedness is what makes passion carry the possibility of new life at the end of its travails. In effect, it is all the Old Testament “sufferings and raptures of the spirit” of passion that can become pregnant with The Christ, pregnant with His resurrected life through His death. Only passion can win heaven from hell.


The root of passion in Greek is suffering that befalls us as a fate we cannot change. The native Greek speaker who first translated the Greek word ‘pathos’ for me said that it implies ‘a suffering that cannot be escaped, like a room of no exit.’ Though it is not necessarily evident to any Greek speaker from language alone, the black abyss of suffering contains the possibility of generating the red pillar of spiritual fire. ‘Thymos’, as the other pole in passion, has the root meaning of ‘spiritedness, aliveness, passionateness’, rather than just ‘anger’: hence ‘angry for truth’, ‘intensity of aliveness’, ‘vehemence of passion.’ No theory in psychology, nor any vision in theology, has addressed this basic paradox about passion, which encompasses both a ‘passive’ and an ‘active’, an acceptance and an assertion, a crying and a burning. How can grief give birth to ardour? Many people cannot make this link in their experience because they are active when they need to be passive—they try to resist fate by seeking to subdue it, rather than embracing it–and passive when they need to be active—they subside into quiescence once fate bites, rather than wrestling with it. Thus they go from the invulnerable master over fate to the equally extreme helpless victim of fate: from ‘power over’ to ‘in the power of.’ What passion can attain, if it passes from black to red, is ‘power with.’ If passion cannot move beyond innocent enthusiasm, or idealistic eagerness, once the Daemonic strikes, we fall into despair, cynicism, bitterness, revenge as compensation for defeat, or the self-suicide of apathy.

Biblical Hebrew also contains the link between the passive suffering and the active deed of passion, but if anything, this link is more evident in the close relation between ‘sevel’: suffering and ‘sivlot’: burden, task, duty. What connects ‘being affected’ and ‘affecting’ in Biblical Hebrew is the root common to both, which signifies carrying a weight, like a heavy load that has to be picked up and shouldered. There are many mythical images of this. Atlas carries the globe of the earth on his broad and strong shoulders, and he is an old Daemonic giant, not one of the newer charismatic, Eros–expressing gods and goddesses, none of whom would have the ‘heart’ for this ‘job.’ Another mythical image is the figure of Christopher, a travelling man who one day at a river offered to carry a child across to the other side. The child was small, and the man did not expect any problem. But once on his shoulders, and out into the fast flowing currents, the child mysteriously increased and increased in weight, to the point where Christopher’s shoulders began to buckle and he thought both he and the child would go under the waves. But the child is revealed as the Christ, and only with the child’s help can the man make it to the far shore. It is then that Christopher realises what the Christ, as the Chosen One, has been born to carry. Not only the original existential weight that the human heart was asked by God to carry, but the secondary and added weight of the human heart’s failure to carry this primary weight, is put on the shoulders of the Christ. He is to pick up and carry the weight we put down, and can no longer shoulder.

What is this weight only the heart, not the nous, not the soul, can carry? It is instructive in this regard to recall that Buddha, when abandoning the palace of delights, abandoned not only his rich, protected life, but also abandoned his wife and child. This child he called ‘The Burden.’ However far Buddha went in the Eros of nous illumination and soul philanthropy, he never picked up the burden the heart was forged in a furnace to carry. He left the burden where it had always been, from almost the beginning, in some terrible and holy brokenness of heart that undergirds human existence. Even Buddha’s teaching about replacing the suffering engendered by ‘attachment’ with the enlightenment engendered by ‘non-attachment’ contains the connotation of the burden he left behind, and which the other saintly travelling man could not assume by his own strength alone, since under it he was crushed. For ‘dukkha’, the Sanskrit for suffering, means precisely ‘to burn’, ‘pain’, ‘torment’, and this burning, this pain, this torment, is nothing other than the passion which is staggering under and struggling with the weight the heart must carry. To transcend this burning, pain, torment, in passion is to never even try to pick up the weight, but like Buddha, to leave it ‘un-raised.’ This means, in turn, that the heart fails to carry the load in existence that will have a redemptive power toward the world.

God’s heart carries the weight. The suffering of passion initiates us into our own carrying of the weight. By carrying the weight, the heart can do unbelievable things. This is what it really means ‘to have a heart’: it means to take things on that most people avoid, it means to not back off when most people buckle, it means to carry on when most people give in and give up. It means to be always ready to stand with the brother when most people have run away, and left him to the killers when they come. This is, literally, the strength of the heart, but it is also the real manifestation of its warmth and ardour, its fervour and vehemence, its unstinting and unrelenting dedication, its bearing and enduring, its patience and persisting, its coming through and its stepping up. My brother Duane Martin, chief of the Cante Tinze, once told me: “Passion knows what the heart can do.”

Only passion knows what the heart can do. The human tragedy is, we don’t have the passion to know what the heart can do.

Thus, by putting down the weight only the heart can carry, we have put the heart down, and thus we have no weightiness, we have no sand for doing anything from the heart; we are lightweight and blown away by all manner of swirling and pointless winds and waves that render existence full of ‘sound and fury signifying nothing.’ When things that really count arise, and need the doing of the heart, we are not available, we melt away like morning mist under the fierce mid-day sun.

The heart backs down when passion does not rouse it to what it can do.

Two conclusions stand out from studying the Biblical Hebrew for passion.

I have heard many Christians, West and East, urge a wrong uniqueness for Christ, as if he were some Cosmic Rescuer dropped into the mire and silt here below from the peerless height far above, to pluck us up and away. But this is not the way it is. There is a fundamental similarity between the passion of Christ and the passion of humanity. If we are fearful and dismissive of human passion, then what relevance can Christ’s passion have for us? Is what Christ did ‘for’ us just a deus ex machina, totally divorced from us, and consequently imposed upon us? The real situation is that human passion, despite its failure to hit its mark, is not so far from the divine-human passion of Christ. The weight God put on our passion from its inception means it was always called not just to humanness, but to the divine-human. God creates the human ingredients of passion in the image of, and capable of growing into the likeness to, his divine passion. Thus God creates the predicament wherein passion is stretched [angst comes from ‘angine’, which in Latin means ‘squeezed and strangled’], God sends the suffering that initiates passion into depth, God moves passion to the faith that takes a chance with risk, God forges the truth that empowers passion to stand over the abyss, and become on fire.

These ingredients are the Tree of Life.

These ingredients are taken up by Christ and taken farther. But it is these ingredients he respects, even venerates, and refashions to reconnect them to their origin and end. This is why he prefers the title ‘Son of Man’ to the title ‘Son of God.’ It is more important for us that he is the Son of God, it is more important for him that he is the Son of Man.

This is why Christ is universal; he addresses the tragedy in all of humanity and the redemptive possibility still hidden there, like the pearl of great price buried far down in dark ground.

This is why no church, no tradition, is big enough to contain, to do full justice to, Christ; he addresses the suffering and burdened heart in everyone, and for all our sake assumes what we all have put down, that we all can assume it again. This deed has no patent, no logo of ownership, on it because it is for everyone, whether they recognise it or not, whether they are religious or not, whether they are in this religion or in that religion. Christ’s deed is unique because it is unconstrained, and too incredible to define or limit or explain or justify. It exceeds all this human-invented limitation. The Christ who made the crucial turn around in the heart is a gift to everyone, and thus belongs to no one.

God’s promise, delivered via the Jews, is to give humanity a new heart. But this new heart is not going to descend from the Above, top-down, but ascend from the Below, bottom-up. God required the Jews to pass through all the spiritual errors of passional existence in this world for the sake of a relation between the old heart and the new heart more complex than some surgery to take out the old and replace it with the new. The old heart must be redeemed, it cannot just be replaced. This is the doing of the Chosen One, the Redeemer, the Christ. Through him the new heart emerges from the old heart. Most other religions, most other spiritualities, pursued nous and soul, and left the heart in its brokenness. But the Jews shoulder the tragedy in the human heart because they look to its redemption.

Greek and Biblical Hebrew senses of passion, even if their respective emphases are a little different, are united in the same paradox: the heart is made to undergo something deep because it is called to undertake something great.

God’s Spirit whispers, on the wind, trust this. Go with it. Let it sweep you along. Don’t bail out. See it through to the end.

Christ brings virtually nothing new to nous, or soul; what is unique about Christ pertains to the heart, and its spirit; what is new in Christ is passion.

This is already prefigured in the Old Testament, because the pattern there is that God inflicts upon the poor clay of the human heart a terrible and holy, fearful and wonderful, suffering/pain/trouble and burden/duty/task by insisting it carry a great weight. Yhwh puts a wound and a burden into his people, Israel, but then he joins their struggle to carry it, carrying it with them, thus upholding them in the struggle to carry it. This was in anticipation of what Christ would have to carry for us, after we put the weight down. He picked the weight up so that, through him, we could assume it again, and assume it for its true purpose: to redeem, not judge, the world.

It is clear the passion of the human heart is thrown into a long journey and an arduous battle; that it carries something heavy and deep [‘heavy’ often means ‘deep’ in everyday parlance], carries something heavy and momentous [‘heavy’ also means ‘weighty’ in significance in everyday parlance]. Passion is our great heartedness, broken, lost, defunct, derailed, yet redeemable and indeed capable of being transfigured, to become pregnant with The Christ. Only passion wins the strange, and final, victory– not for each of us alone, but for all of us, all things, in all times and places, forever. Passion is the loss that produces greater gain, in the end.

He who slays us becomes He who is slain for us.