MOSES AND MEMRA

By The Late Rev. Sam Stern

*Note: For easier reading, Bible references are at the first indent. Translations are at the second indent. Names of translators are underlined.

Onkeles Targum, which is a translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Aramaic, uses the word memra in place of the Hebrew word dabar to denote the Word of God and also God Himself. Other translators, Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel and Targum Yerushalmi, also translate the "word of God," "God," and "me" and other words as memra; thereby they indicate that they believe memra to be not just an ordinary word, but a special name of God.

An early instance of this usage deals with Moses commanding the going-forward of the ark in the wilderness and then the resting of the ark, both after he prayed to God:

And Israel saw that great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD, and his servant Moses [Exodus 14:31].

In the above verse, Onkeles translates the words "and believed the LORD" as "and believed in his memra." The Hebrew word used for LORD in the above verse is JHVH (yod, hay, vav, hay). Therefore, in his translation Onkeles equates JHVH with memra as follows:

And Israel saw the great strong hand of God, what He did to the Egyptians. They feared God and believed in His memra and in His servant Moses.

Jonathan ben Uzziel also says in regard to Exodus 14:31 that Israel believed in the memra of God, although only the words "feared the LORD" and "believed the LORD" appear in the Scripture itself. He translates this portion almost the same as Onkeles does, word for word, including "the memra of God."

Later on, as Moses began to lead the children of Israel through the wilderness toward the land of Canaan, the Bible relates their journeying with the ark of God:

And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, LORD, [JHVH], and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, O LORD [JHVH], unto the many thousands of Israel [Numbers 10:35, 36].

Jonathan ben Uzziel uses the word memra in place of God’s name Jehovah in his version of the above quoted passage to denote the Word of God:

When they took the ark to move they waited till Moses prayed, and he asked for mercy from God and said, Reveal through thy memra the strength of God’s anger, that the enemies of thy people may disperse, and their enemies may not be able to stand against you.

In verse 36, which tells of the ark stopping, Jonathan ben Uzziel continues to use the same word to mean the Word of God, or God:

And when the ark came to a stop the cloud surrounded them and they stood, and they did not rest until Moses stood in prayer and asked mercy from God and said, Do good to us as the memra of God with your mercy for thy nation of Israel. And blessed is the shekinah [restings] among them and have mercy upon thousands of the house of Jacob and ten thousands of Israel.

Targum Yerushalmi says regarding verse 35 that it is the memra of God who prevails:

When the ark was taken, Moses stood in prayer and said: Let the memra of God stand in the strength of thy army and the enemies of thy nation may run before you.

In the following, verse 36, Yerushalmi follows this usage:

When the ark rested, Moses bent his hands in prayer and said, Go back as the memra of God from thy anger and do good in thy mercy, and bless the tens of thousands of Israel.

The First Commandment

Even in the giving of the law, in the first commandment to worship the Lord, Jonathan ben Uzziel says that the memra is present. Deuteronomy 6:13 reads as follows in the Bible itself:

Thou shalt fear the LORD [JHVH], thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.

Although the actual phrase "word of the LORD" does not appear in this verse, Jonathan ben Uzziel indicates that "by his name" has the same meaning:

Ye shall be afraid in the presence of the LORD your God and Him shall ye serve, and in his memra ye shall swear in truth.

The Use of Memra in Joshua

Jonathan ben Uzziel also follows this practice in Joshua 2:12, which deals with the period after Moses died and the command of bringing the children of Israel into the Promised Land fell to Joshua. The Bible verse reads:

Now therefore, I pray you, swear unto me by the LORD [JHVH]…

Jonathan ben Uzziel translates:

Now swear unto me by the memra of God…

Jonathan ben Uzziel’ s translation indicates that he considers memra to be the same as the most holy name of God, which Jewish people are too much in awe to utter.

After Joshua made peace with the Gibeonites, the Israelites came in contact with them in their journey, but honored their pact and did not smite them. Joshua 9:19 relates that the princes said to those who murmured against this agreement that they had sworn by the LORD GOD [Jehovah Elohai]. Onkeles Targum translates as follows:

But all the princes said to all the congregation, We swore to them in the memra of God, the God of Israel, and now we cannot do any harm to them.

Memra Used in I Samuel and Psalms

Further in the Bible, in I Samuel 20:23, a covenant between Jonathan and the house of David mentions the LORD [JHVH]:

And as touching the matter which thou and I have spoken of, behold, the LORD be between thee and me forever.

Onkeles Targum, however, translates I Samuel 20:23 thus:

And the thing we spoke of, you and I, this is the memra of God between thee and me forever.

When David and Jonathan part, (end of verse 23), they refer to the covenant between them. The Bible again says:

"The LORD be between me and thee forever."

However, Targum Onkeles translates:

Said Jonathan to David, Go in peace. We both swore in the name of God to say God’s memra will be between you and me, between my sons and your sons forever.

Psalm 62:8 reads as follows:

Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us. Selah.

Onkeles translates thus, equating memra with God:

Trust in the memra at all times, ye nation of Israel, pour out your heart. The word of God will protect you forever.

Noah’s Ark

The Bible records in Genesis 9:17 that God established a covenant with Noah after the ark landed safely:

And God [Elohim] said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.

Although the words Elohim and "me" appear in the Hebrew, Onkeles translates as follows:

And God said to Noah, This is the sign which I established between my memra and between all flesh which are on the earth.

Jonathan ben Uzziel, in his comment on Genesis 9:17, uses the same key word in place of "me":

And God said to Noah, This is the sign between my memra and between all flesh.

In addition to his translation of Genesis 9:17, Onkeles also uses memra in place of "me" in verses 12, 13 and 15 of the same chapter to mean God. Jonathan ben Uzziel also writes memra instead of God.

El Gibbor and Abraham

Genesis 17 relates how the Almighty God [El Gibbor] came to Abraham and told him he would make a covenant with him. Verse 7 reads as follows:

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

Again Jonathan ben Uzziel translates:

And I will establish my covenant between my memra and thee..

Thus, Jonathan ben Uzziel shows that God’s covenant with Noah and with Abraham was, in reality, made between them and His holy name or memra

Targum Yerushalmi, another ancient translator of the Bible into Aramaic, lends great strength to this view in Genesis 49:18 by adding his own comments to explain the meaning of the verse. Genesis 49:18 appears in a passage where Jacob blesses his sons and reads simply as follows:

I have waited for thy salvation, O LORD.

Yerushalmi, however, translates and interprets verse 18 as follows:

Our father, Jacob says, My soul does not wait for the salvation of Gideon the son of Joash, that was but temporal. And not to the redemption of Samson, which was only transitory. But for that salvation thou hast said in thy memra, to bring to the children of Israel thy salvation, my soul is waiting.

Memra Used in Isaiah

Further, Jonathan ben Uzziel uses the word memra in the writings of the greatest Jewish prophet, Isaiah, in chapters 45 and 46. In translating this prophetic book, Targum Jonathan teaches a central point in the Jewish religion at that time: that Israel can be saved only by the Word of God. Isaiah 45, for example, reads in part, as translated from the original Hebrew:

But Israel shall be saved in the LORD [JHVH] with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end [verse 17].

Jonathan ben Uzziel translates as follows:

Israel will be redeemed by the memra of God, an everlasting redemption. They will not be ashamed forever and ever.

Jonathan ben Uzziel follows the same practice in Isaiah 45:22. The verse reads in the Bible:

Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God [El], and there is none else.

Jonathan ben Uzziel writes:

Turn to my memra all dwellers on earth. I am the LORD, there is no other.

In the following verse, 23, Jonathan ben Uzziel translates "the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness" as "my memra went out in righteousness;" and in verse 24, he writes, Only in the Lord’s memra will be said justice and in the strength of his memra will they come. However, this section reads in the Bible as follows:

Surely shall one say, In the LORD have I righteousness and strength: even to him shall men come;"…

In Isaiah 46:3 the Bible reads:

Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob…

Again Jonathan ben Uzziel translates the word "me" as memra.

Memra in Hosea

Hosea 1:7, which deals with God’s mercy and salvation, says:

But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah, and will save them by the LORD their God [Jehovah Elohaym], and will not save them by bow, nor by sword, nor by battle, by horses, nor by horsemen.

Consistent with his belief that Israel will be saved by the Word of God, Jonathan ben Uzziel writes:

But I will have mercy on the house of Judah. I will have mercy on them with the memra of the LORD their God, not with the bow and the sword, with horses and carriages..

SUMMARY

In conclusion, it is clear to see that these three ancient Bible translators used the Aramaic word memra to mean God, the Word of God [translated from the Hebrew word dabar] or Me, when referring to important occasions in the life of Israel. They also translated to memra in regard to God’s covenants.

As dealt with in the article "Can Three Be One?" the godhead is composed of three equal persons. The Word of God is the second person of the godhead—Jesus Christ. This doctrine is in agreement with the Word being God, a short summary of which will be dealt with in the following subheading entitled LOGOS. 

LOGOS

The interpretation of the meaning of the words logos and memra shows that Judaism and Christianity hold some of the same theological tenets. The following study, although brief, bears out the fact that both persuasions have followers who believe that these two words mean the Word of God who is a Person.

Although the Greek word logos, which originated as a concept of the Stoics, can have different meanings, when John uses it in his gospel and epistles it takes on a distinct spiritual meaning, as in the following:

In the beginning was the word [logos] and the word was with God, and the word was God [John 1:1].

In this opening verse of the Gospel of John, logos is shown as both eternal and pre-existent. It is at the same time introduced as one with God the Father—"was God"—and also distinct from God the Father—"with God."

John also uses the word logos in his first epistle as follows:

That which was with us from the beginning… of the Word of life [1 John 1:1].

…the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost … [1 John 5:7].

Logos in the above two verses of the New Testament [B’rit Hadasheh] has the same meaning as it has in John 1:1 when context is considered.

The only major Jewish rabbi who dealt with the subject of logos was Philo Judaeus. As a Hellenist and rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Alexandria, he exerted great influence among the early Christians and also interpreted Bible teachings to his Jewish Greek contemporaries.

Philo personified the Word of God in the Psalms in the following verses:

By the word of the LORD were the heavens made...  (Psalm 33:6).

He sent his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions (Psalm107:20).

He sendeth forth his commandment upon earth: his word runneth very swiftly (Psalm 147:15).

Philo portrayed The Word or Logos as the creator, the healer and God’s Word as used in these three verses in the Psalms. The Hebrew name for "word" in the above quotations is dabar, the same word that the Targums later translated into the Aramaic memra. Philo taught that the logos was the image of God, as well as of divine man.

Another verse that Philo used to show that logos is divine is I Chronicles 21:16, which reads as follows in the Bible:

And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the LORD stand between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem...

Here Philo interprets the sword of God as logos, and taking it a step further, as God, who judges in wrath.

Needless to say, the Jewish rabbis do not look favorably on Philo and his ideas about logos. However, the early Christian church adopted his interpretations and incorporated them into their concept of the Word of God as the second person of a triune godhead.

© 2001 Dorothy Stern