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Beauty in the Hebrew Bible

This entry is part 2 of 34 in the series

"Doxology: A Theology of God's Beauty"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Few Christians would say that beauty is unbiblical. After all, they vaguely remember references to “the beauty of holiness” or the desire “to behold the beauty of the LORD”. But many might think of beauty as extra-biblical: mostly an aesthetic and philosophical concept, more at home in art galleries and philosophy lecture-halls than in churches and seminaries. And as that ancient biblicist Tertullian put it, what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?

This objection is the first of several stumblingblocks that modern Christians may have toward the concept of beauty. Are we forcing the square-peg of a Greek philosophical idea into the round hole of Scripture? Before I reveal all my cards on whether Plato and Paul could share a meal, I’d prefer to call for a cease-fire between biblicists and philosophers with a question for both: could there be a transcendental Reality that our English word beauty refers to, and which the Bible describes in several ways? In other words, could both Scripture and philosophy be pointing toward something transcendent that exists in God’s universe, even if the nomenclature differs between theologians and philosophers?

My answer is positive:  the reality to which beauty refers is all over the Bible. Seeing it might require wiping some of the salt-spray of the Enlightenment from our hermeneutical lenses, but it is fairly plain to see, if you look.

Let us proceed inductively, working from the worm’s-eye view all the way up to the bird’s-eye view. We’ll begin with the vocabulary of Scripture that carries the ideas of beauty, proceed to the key verses about beauty, and ultimately scan the themes of Scripture that seem to support the idea of beauty that carry across the canon. We’ll also notice the actual form of Scripture: the beauty of its own literary structures.

Wait. Aren’t we begging the question with such an approach? Aren’t we assuming a certain definition of beauty to be proven, and then finding in the Bible what we were required to prove? Yes and no. It is nearly impossible to avoid some circularity when we try define transcendentals such as truth, goodness or beauty, because you keep needing the concept to validate if you’re finding the concept. But it is still possible to do an honest search, and find if the ideas broadly accepted as approximate to beauty  are found in Scripture. The vital thing is to keep allowing Scripture to hammer our idea into shape, and not try to tame Scripture with our philosophical whip.

Hebrew Words

A word-search on the English word beauty will not yield illuminating results, because the English equivalents of Hebrew words are variable, including such synonyms as glory, beauty, excellency, honour, loveliness, comeliness, pleasantness, and delightfulness. You could say that the Hebrews took the idea of beauty for granted, without seeing a need to define it abstractly or conceptually. Beauty is more of an adjective than a noun in Hebrew thought, more a descriptor than an idea considered in itself. The Hebrew mind, given to describing the works of God, was not prone to philosophise on metaphysical concepts.

At least twelve Hebrew words carry the idea. Here they are, with their frequency in brackets, followed by lectionary definitions (BDB is Brown-Driver-Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament; HALOT is Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament)

  1. ybic., (31), meaning “honour, outward splendour, meriting admiration” (BDB, 7993), and “ornament, splendour” (HALOT, 7855).
  2. rap (21) associated with the ideas of crowning, beautifying, bringing splendour, and glorifying (BDB, 7550). Its variant noun (49) means beauty, glory, splendour, ornament” (BDB, 7552).

  3. dmoh, (27) meaning “desire and try to acquire, crave, covet” (HALOT, 2611); as a noun (16) it means pleasant, lovely, or precious.

  4. Hpey’ (50) ; the noun (19). These words refer to the outward beauty of a person, sometimes God’s own presence, the highest natural perfection (BDB, 460).

  5. Hw,an’, (10); the variant ha’n’ (3) referring to that which is beautiful or lovely, and that which is fitting, becoming, or suitable (HALOT, 5300).

  6. ~[n, (16) meaning pleasant, delightful, or lovely (BDB, 6191); the variant ~y[in’ (13) means “agreeable, pleasant, lovely” (HALOT, 5588).

  7. Rd;h (38) carrying the ideas of swelling, honour, adorn, glorify (BDB, 2291).

  8. bAj, (553)  This word has a broad semantic range that includes the ideas of good, joyous, pleasing, usable, suitable, lovely, friendly, good in quality, morally good (HALOT, 3016).

  9. DabK, (200) is the most common word for glory: weighty, burdensome, impressive in appearance, splendid, magnificent, distinctive, honourable, and glorious (HALOT, 3675).

  10. hw’n, occurring once in Exodus 15:2, meaning to adorn or beautify (BDB, 5955).

  11. ha,r.m, (116) referring to seeing, outward appearance, sight, vision, and what is good-looking (HALOT, 5035).

  12. Rp,v, (4) meaning to be beautiful, fair, comely, or goodliness (BDB, 10285).

In fact, there are many other words: metaphors for beauty, using images from fruit, jewellery, scents, and the like.

Now, you need not be lost in those details to see the point. In the Hebrew beauty-vocabulary, the ideas of splendour, majesty, honour, and glory mingle with the ideas of pleasure, desire, attractiveness and enjoyment. Interestingly, this represents a union of what, in Enlightenment thought, would be divided into separate realms of objective qualities and subjective experiences. For the Hebrew mind, no division seemingly existed between what was lovely and loving it, between the desirable and its desire, between splendour and its admiration.

Hebrew writers are describing a phenomenon, not defining an idea. Obviously the phenomenon contains the idea: excellence or attractiveness, as well as pleasure and delight. At this stage of pre-speculative intellectual history, no separation existed between the experience and considering the experience in the abstract. The broad overlap of these words, with no effort to single out one word as the true locus of meaning, suggests multiple synonyms for a phenomenon that the Hebrew mind saw no reason to define and delineate, only one to point to, and to invite participation in. The Hebrews knew both as a value and as an experience all that we now call beauty.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.