Fidelity or ’emeth’: the solid foundation for the covenant

Jesus teaches that the weightier matters of the law are judgment, mercy, and fidelity. I have been examining the Hebrew words that lie behind these inseparable covenant qualities: mishpat for judgment, chesed for mercy, and emeth for fidelity.  Today I turn my attention to emeth.

The Hebrew word emeth is sometimes translated as ‘truth’ sometimes as ‘fidelity’. The root meaning is connected with ‘solidity’.  The word ‘amen’ has the same root. So emeth (fidelity, truth) is what is solid and real, want can be counted on, what is reliable and dependable.

Set in the context of the covenant it is God and his word that are characterized by emeth – solid, reliable, dependable, what you can count on.

Through his word God reveals himself as the Creator of heaven and earth, but he proves himself by his fidelity to his promise and the working of his mighty power in delivering the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and leading them to take possession of the land promised centuries before to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

God the Creator enters into a covenant with his people Israel giving the law and a promise characterized by emeth. The people mirror God’s emeth by believing the promise and obeying the law. They will also mirror God’s emeth in their relations with each other by speaking the truth and through fidelity to their promises.

Joshua exemplifies emeth when he declares, As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Josh 24:15) The prophet Elijah summons the people to emeth on Mt. Carmel when he challenges the idolatrous people saying, How long will you go limping on two different paths? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him. (1 Ki 18:21) He then showed forth the emeth of the Lord when he called down fire upon the sacrifice. The prophet Daniel shows forth emeth when he refuses to follow the ways of his Babylonian overlords or to worship their gods.

By an act of judgment or mishpat God separates the people of Israel from Egypt, frees them from slavery, and enters into a covenant with them on Mt. Sinai. This is also an act of mercy or chesed because of the radical disproportion of power between God and Israel and the weakness and vulnerability of the people in comparison with other peoples. Nevertheless fidelity or emeth is the foundation of the covenant: God’s fidelity to himself and to the promises he had made centuries before to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For the people fidelity or emeth that mirrors God’s fidelity anchors them in God and is the source of the practice of mishpat and chesed. That means that mishpat and chesed are always defined by the reality of God and the truth of the covenant; they can never be separated from the truth of God and his covenant.

If we now return to the statement, I want mercy, not sacrifice, then we can say that God is telling his people that he wants the outward ritual sacrifices to be the expression of the self-offering of a people who practice mishpat and chesed as a way of living out their fidelity to the Lord of the Covenant.

Nevertheless, because the people proves unfaithful, judgment and mercy are lacking and their sacrifices are worthless and even offensive to God.

 However we approach sacrifice, whether as a gift of tribute to God the ruler of all or as a pledge of a sort of marital fidelity in the covenant, sacrifice in the Old Testament always fell short because of the sin and infidelity of the covenant people. So Isaiah cries out, Woe is me because I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips. (Is 6:5) And David pleads, Create a clean Heart in me O God. (Ps 51:12)

(Next week: Misphat, chesed, and emeth in the life of Jesus)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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