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A very common struggle newcomers have with Christianity is reconciling the terrifying God of the Old Testament with the loving God of the New Testament.

Most of the problem lays, in my opinion, at the word choice when translating the Hebrew transliterated word “yir’ah”.

According to my concordance “yir’ah” is used 45 times in the Old Testament, but certainly most popularly in Proverbs 9:10, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom...”

According to my dictionary, the word can be translated as “fear”; but it can also be translated as “awe”, “esteem”, or “respect”.

Since the word choice of “fear” seems to directly call Jesus a liar when he says that God loves us better than sinful parents love their children (Luke 11:12-13), why was it used in Christian translations historically?

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    It is common for children to fear their parents, since they can be spanked for misbehaving.
    – Lucian
    Jul 16 at 12:32
  • this might be better on the biblical hermeneutics site
    – depperm
    Jul 16 at 12:39
  • This could be migrated, but it would have to focus on just one verse. Are you happy to edit it to focus just on Proverbs 9:10?
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 16 at 12:53
  • This article has an interesting perspective: livingwordin3d.com/discovery/2018/08/15/… Jul 16 at 13:18
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    As good as they may be, neither of the current answers actually answers the question as to why modern translators still choose the word "fear", given that most people today will understand that in the sense of "afraid of" rather than "with respect for the power of". Perhaps this question really would be better asked on Hermeneutics.SE. Jul 17 at 14:12
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OP: "A very common struggle newcomers have with Christianity is reconciling the terrifying God of the Old Testament with the loving God of the New Testament."

The idea of fear with respect to a perception of the terrifying threat and danger from God as negative motivation is as much a Christian idea as it is Jewish. Indeed no less than Christ himself sought to motivate His disciples to proclaim boldly the gospel by reminding them of the threat of body and soul destruction in hell.

27 What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. -Matthew 10:27-28

4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! -Luke 12:4-5

And when the Hebrew writer desired to motivate Jews to not forsake the Christian life he wrote:

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. -Hebrews 10:26-31

We also have the example of Paul who tells us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12, Eph 6:5).

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. -Philippians 2:12-13

Ephesians 6:5 5 Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,

Indeed, even Paul was careful being motivated by the dreadful possibility that he, himself, would be disqualified even after all he's done.

27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. -1 Corinthians 9:27

How do we reconcile 1 John 4:18 (along with Rom 8:15 & 13:3)? I think there's a difference between being aware of the fearful consequences of not living a Christian life and expecting those dreadful consequences. Christians should always keep a humble, fearful, awareness of the consequences of leaving the way of Christ, but we should also feel secure that as we continue to follow Christ, following the narrow path, we will be preserved on that day.

With regard to Jesus being a liar. There is no such danger.

In Luke 11:12-13 it reads:

12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

The context is that if you ask for the Holy Spirit from the Father, you'll get the Holy Spirit from the Father. It says nothing about whether we should fear God.

In Conclusion: Ultimately, I believe that Christians should continue to see fear as educational and motivating. We should not live in terror, unless you realize you are not following Christ, then terror is quite rational, especially immediately followed by repentance. Barring that, we should always have a healthy awareness of the consequences of God so that we are careful to live according to Christ.

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  • That’s a very good answer. Thank you. Jul 20 at 11:01
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Why is Yir’ah translated as “fear” instead of “respect “ in Christian Bibles?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The word translated "fear" in many versions of the Bible comes from the Hebrew word Yir’ah (יִרְאָה), which has a range of meaning in the Scriptures. Sometimes it refers to the fear we feel in anticipation of some danger or pain, but it can also can mean "awe" or "reverence." In this latter sense, yirah includes the idea of wonder, amazement, mystery, astonishment, gratitude, admiration, and even worship (like the feeling you get when gazing upon his creation. The "fear of the LORD" therefore includes an overwhelming sense of the glory, worth, and beauty of the one and only Lord, our God.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever (Psalm 111:10).

The "fear of the Lord" (Yir’ah Adonai) does not denote a cringing terror of God but a reverential awe at the glory of His Presence as He daily condescends to be involved in our lives.

What is the Fear of the LORD? Does this Fear mean we are in danger of judgment when we come into His presence? Can the pictographs of the language of the garden give us any deeper understanding of what this Fear is? Will anything in this word direct us to Messiah?

There are a number of words for Fear in Hebrew but the majority of uses comes from a single root. This root is Yirah which is given a wide range of meanings but is most often translated as to fear, to be afraid, to be terrible, or to be dreadful. In a few places, it is translated awe or reverence. As we shall discover, this word is widely misunderstood.

But which is it and to what does the Fear of the LORD compel us? Do we obey YHVH because we hope to escape His wrath and discipline, or do we obey in response to the majesty and magnificence of His presence in our lives?

First of all, we should recognize how important this Fear is in our lives. Proverbs Chapter 14 verse 27 tells us that:

The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.

Not only that, but the psalmist explains this to us in Psalm 111 Verse 10:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.

This makes Fear, or Yirah, seem like something we should all aspire to achieve, but our dictionary tells us fear is an abstract distressing emotion that is aroused by danger. In fact, David writes this to us in anguish over the oppression he feels from his enemies in Psalm 55 verse 5:

Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me.

Now we come to the root of our dilemma. In 1 John chapter 4 verse 18 we find this:

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.

How can this Fear of God be a good thing when perfect love casts out this very fear? - Yirat: The Fear of the Lord

Yir’ah is in reality a form of devotion, a consciousness of the sacredness and mystery of receiving life itself from God, and essentially draws upon gratitude to God for this great gift.

Such an attitude of devotion produces wisdom and is a result of "practicing the presence of the Lord” in our daily lives. As St. James tells us, this wisdom is "first pure, then full of peace, gentleness, mercy, good fruits, and sincerity" (James 3:17).

The following articles may be of interest:

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  • This is a great answer, but I wonder if it is re-asking my question. Why are we teaching that “yir’ah” can better mean “awe” and “reverence” after someone asks, instead of using these better fits up front in our translations? Jul 20 at 10:50
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The short answer is that “fear” is such a narrow, misapplied translation that it is really a mistranslation. I wont speculate on the motives of this mistranslation.

That said, there is much to be feared in not following God. Life and sin can be brutal without a Holy attitude and a relationship with the divine.

My father read the bible some, his father much more, his father and his father and his father and his father... based their lives and societies on it. Maybe thats why our lives and societies arent working so well. We’ve been taught to laugh at and dis this great and noble tradition. And THAT is something to fear.

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  • Why is the translation narrow and misapplied. Do you agree that it is narrow and misapplied when Jesus says fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell?
    – Austin
    Jul 18 at 16:22
  • Frankly Im not convinced the Bible says God will punish anyone forever in Hell. For many reasons. First, eternal means beyond time not “in time going forever”. Secondly many smart people read it to mean that unsaved souls will be destroyed (theres even a name for this view). Further, Hell is arguably a pit where they threw dead bodies and/or a metaphor. Finally, I think theres more religious power in claiming to be a priest or other church leader and saying people will be punished forever. Not that Im going to risk it, but just tbh Im not convinced. “Mistranslation”? - I saw other replies.
    – Al Brown
    Jul 18 at 18:06
  • Ok, so when Jesus says, "fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell," there is nothing to worry about? Enduring the destruction of both body and soul is not terrifying? Yes it's true that hell can be understood as a metaphor, but a metaphor is meant to represent a real thing. What hell may be a metaphor for must in reality be something far worse than anything we currently experience as it includes both body AND soul destruction.
    – Austin
    Jul 18 at 19:06
  • Thank you for this answer, and the discussion. Jul 20 at 11:03

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