The Gospel of John, chapter 6, contains the beautiful bread of life discourse. Here, Jesus claims that the true bread of life is the Torah as taught by Jesus. His teachings, Jesus argues to the Jews at Capernaum, are the truth and the way and the life and, since He is the embodiment of that teaching, salvation is available only to those that follow Him and Him alone.
Let’s dig a little deeper and try to understand how the Jews of the late 2nd temple period would have interpreted Jesus’ words and how a careful and thoughtful reflection on His teachings give us better insight into understanding His will for us.
Oh, and along the way, you’ll learn a tiny bit of Hebrew:
Lechem (~x,l,ê) – Inaccurately translated as ‘bread’. Lechem also can mean food or meat. Its widest use, however, is figurative. In this context, it is perhaps better understood as that which sustains life — both physical and spiritual.
Shamayim (~yIm:ïV’h;) – The heavens (plural). Hebrew does not have a singular form of heaven as does English.
Let’s begin with a very important background observation. Semitic languages (Ugaritic, Aramaic, Hebrew, etc.,) are concrete languages in that they express abstract concepts in physical terms. For example, in Hebrew the word for anger, transliterated as ‘aph’, literally means ‘a flaring or shortening of the nose’. Thus, for example, when God describes himself as patient, or slow-to-anger, the Hebrew, from which these English words were translated (erek apha’im), literally means “long of nose”. Keep this in mind as we explore the Biblical meaning of ‘bread’.
Casual readers (and some not so casual) of the English versions of Old Testament are mostly unaware of the distinction between bread as ‘food’ and bread as symbolizing something altogether different. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word for ‘bread’ (lechem) is seldom used literally as in actual bread per se. Somewhat more frequently lechem is properly translated as ‘food’ in the sense of something that you would eat for nourishment. However, its most frequent use is much more figurative and implies the substance necessary for an abundant life.
The English word ‘food’ occurs 55 times in 48 verses in the KJV’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. These 55 instances of the English word ‘food’ were translated from a number of different Hebrew words (7 to be exact). This is why, when one reads different Bibles, one finds the same verse using different words. The important concept, not to be missed here, is that when the translators of the Hebrew Scriptures saw one of these 7 Hebrew words (i.e., synonyms), they knew that the author meant something that one actually eats and digests.
By contrast, the English word ‘bread’ occurs 361 times in 330 verses in the KJV’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Each of the 361 instances of the English word ‘bread’ is translated from a single Hebrew word, ‘lechem’. If you believed the English translators, the Hebrew word ‘lechem’ has no other synonyms in the Hebrew! Of the 361 instances of the word ‘bread’, 28 are used in its literal sense as in ‘loaves of bread’. In other words, over 90% of the time, lechem, means something other than bread that one might actually eat.
What do we learn from this?
Most importantly we learn that where the English Bibles use ‘bread’ and ‘food’ interchangeably, the original Hebrew of the Old Testament often does not. Thus, when we read the Hebrew and encounter the word ‘lechem’ we are put on notice that the author is almost never writing about bread (or even ‘food’) per se.
In the next lesson, Part II, we’ll dive into the symbolic meaning of lechem. But, before you read Part II, please study and reflect on Deut 8:2-3 which I’ve translated as:
“And you shall remember all the way that YHWH, your God, had you go these forty years in the wilderness in order to degrade you, to test you, to know what was in your heart: [whether] you would observe His commandments or not. So, He degraded you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by lechem alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.
Now, go and study,