Rethinking Jesus’ words from from the Hebrew original

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Christ crucified by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

If we take the time to compare the original verse Jesus was reciting from Hebrew, a simple, but significant insight into the words of Jesus on the cross will emerge. 

The Jewish morning begins with the “Modeh Ani” (“I thank”) prayer, which expresses the worshiper’s gratitude towards the Heavenly King for returning one’s soul to him or her. The pressumption here is that the evening before the worshiper has entrusted the spirit to the Almighty for safe-keeping. Many observant Jews use the phrase in “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5) at the end of their evening prayers.

What is interesting is that this ritual includes the same verse that Jesus cried out while dying on the cross (Luke 23:46).  It is highly likely that in his agony of pain Jesus was reciting this psalm from memory as he faced the greatest challenge of his incarnate life.

We read these fitting words in Psalm 31:1-5

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

I would like to focus on the text that which was quoted in the Gospels (v. 5). How does this beautiful verse sound in Hebrew original? Is it possible that something essential about it got lost in translation? The answer is yes. Please, allow me to explain.

The Hebrew word which was translated as “I commit” is “אַפְקִיד” (pronounced afkid). This word has a meaning that is much closer to “I deposit” – which necessarily signifies a future “reclaiming” of the thing deposited. A vivid image might be that of checking in a coat at theater or restaurant, or even money into the bank, with the definite intention of getting it back. While the English word “commit” can also be used to describe giving something in with the purpose of claiming it back, at some point in the future – it might just as well mean the giving of something without stating clear intentions for the future. In Hebrew, on the other hand, the unequivocal meaning of this verse is the temporary submission of one’s spirit into the hands of God, into “His custody”, with the definite intention of receiving it back.

This of course makes perfect sense that Jesus would quote this psalm in particular, while hanging on a Roman cross.

The above discussion shows that if we take the time to compare the original verse Jesus was reciting from Hebrew, a simple, but significant insight into the words of Jesus on the cross will emerge. The words Jesus uttered were nothing less than a declaration of his great Israelite faith that as he deposits his soul into the hands of his Heavenly Father, he will surely get it back at his resurrection from the dead. What happened three days later proved that Jesus did not hope in vain.

This article originally appeared on Israel Study Center, August 17, 2017, and reposted with permission.