From Middle English obeyen, from Anglo-Norman obeir, obeier et al., Old French obeir, from Latin oboediō (also obēdiō (“to listen to, harken, usually in extended sense, obey, be subject to, serve”)), from ob- (“before, near”) + audiō (“to hear”).
Compare audient. In Latin, ob + audire would have been expected to become Classical Latin *obūdiō (compare in + claudō becoming inclūdō), but it has been theorized that the usual law court associations of the word for obeying encouraged a false archaism from ū to oe, to oboediō (compare Old Latin oinos → Classical Latin ūnus).
What is your reaction to this word?
what memories from your life come to mind when you think of obedience?
Maybe you heard this from a parent or guardian when you were young, but what about as an adult? Has anyone directed this word to you lately? Have you heard someone say, “Obey me!”
I think, if you have, that would be unusual. It would have stood out in your memory. It’s just not a word we use a lot.
In my memory, That word has always carried a negative connotation. It was only used when I did not obey... when I was in trouble. I never heard it or heard about it in any other context.… except at church.
The context in which it was used in church was, as I’m sure you know, obeying God, who, above all else, was chiefly concerned with our behavior over our experiences. The sequence of the relationship was first, believe in God, second, obey God, and third, find all the ways you are out of alignment with God’s way and fix it. Obey.
As it turns out, back in ancient Isreal, there were 613 ways to be “disobedient.”… Six hundred thirteen things that needed fixing, and here’s the kicker, there were also people who did it! They kept all the 613 laws! They were obedient. It was a lot of work to be obedient. It was the primary focus of these ultra-holy men (men, of course, were the only ones who could be holy in this way, the women were raising the kids, and there is no way to be holy doing that! ). This fact made the world pretty simple; people were divided into two groups: Obedient and Disobedient.
Then comes along this young, disruptive rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. He started telling people that unless their “obedience” EXCEEDS the level of the holiest people, they won’t be able to be in God’s presence. Can you imagine what a gut-punch that would be to someone who had been trying and trying to be obedient and constantly failing but still believing that this was the only way to be in a right relationship with God?
Wouldn’t it make you want to quit the whole thing? Quit the religion? If you knew that success would never be attained, would you want to keep trying to be obedient?
I apologize for the long setup, in all those 613 commands (the word is actually “Mitzvah”)… there is no mention of the word “obey.” There isn’t even a word for obedience in Hebrew!
The word obedience comes from the Latin word for “to harken, to serve, to hear.” The closest word in Hebrew there is to this is a far more nuanced word. It might be one of the most used words in Hebrew. It is the word “Shema.”
The word “Shema” ( which might be one of the most central words in all of scripture ) does not mean to obey, it means “to listen,” “to internalize,” “to understand,” “to respond”
I don’t know about you, but this puts it in an entirely different category for me.
For the last several weeks I have had the opportunity to work for a festival in Aspen CO centered on gathering some of the best thinkers in the world to discuss ideas on policy, science, art, spirituality, and culture. The job required that I live in Aspen for three weeks, one week preparing for the festivals and then staying to work at the festival as the production manager. Even though it was certainly challenging to be away from my family for so long, it almost functioned surprisingly as a retreat for me. The week leading up to the festival, I was given the unusual gift of time and space for walks, bike rides, sitting, and reading an actual paper book! All of this surrounded by stunning natural beauty!
I was given the space to listen and internalize the reality inside and outside of me.
The setting and the opportunity there made Shema much easier than my ordinary settings. During the festivals, even though I was running around most of the time, I was still able to hear some of the ideas that were being presented and circulating through the festival. As my work began to wind down, I was even able to sit in a few sessions and listen to the speakers, which was also a form of Shema. I was listening, ruminating, and letting these words of The Christ work on me as I discovered new ways to respond to what I heard.
More than anything else I heard the word that stuck with me was the thought that it’s easier to hear when you are taken from your ordinary life and surround by natural beauty with some unstructured time, so this is a true gift that should be appreciated, but this is not a place where you can live. Even Aspen has rush-hour traffic. No, living on the mountain-top is not all of reality. Reality also involves water bills, staff-meetings, diapers, grocery stores, and your friend’s vacation photos on Facebook. Still, there is so much that needs to be listened to in the midst of it all! God is speaking in and through everything around you. Maybe obedience is simply hearing and internalizing the message and then responding the best way you see fit! I don’t know what the specifics for you are, but I find that in almost every situation when I finally can hear and internalize the truth, the response is always gratitude. That is where everything flows from.
I’m hoping that “shema” will transform my concept of “obedience” from something that reminded me of how far from home I am to telling me how close to home I’ve always been. Responding to this reality can only do wonders for the soul and speed the healing of the world.