How We’ve Misunderstood Bitterness

3 thoughts on “How We’ve Misunderstood Bitterness”

  1. Before listening to this podcast, I’d never given the topic of bitterness serious thought or study. However, this got me digging. Hebrews 12:15 and the “root of bitterness” is particularly interesting. As mentioned in the podcast, the author of Hebrews seems to be drawing from Deuteronomy 29:18 for this language. The ESV renders the phrase in Deuteronomy “a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit,” however, the NASB seems to more accurately reflect the Hebrew with: “a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood.” There’s two Hebrew words here, Strong’s H7219 & H3939. The first one means “a poisonous plant” or “poison” more generally. However, it’s the second, H3939, that’s interesting. It’s a specific reference to the wormwood plant (A. absinthium*). Interestingly, OT Hebrew references to “bitterness” use an entirely separate set of words; none of which are used in Deuteronomy 29:18.

    If Deuteronomy 29:18 uses the word “wormwood,” and doesn’t mention “bitterness,” then why does Hebrews 12:15 call it a “root of bitterness”? For that, we have to look to the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT in common use during the NT period. Despite multiple references to “wormwood” in the OT, the LXX never uses the Greek word for the wormwood plant, G894. G894 is only used once in the NT, in Revelation 8:11. Instead, the LXX rather inconsistently translates H3939 (“wormwood”) using several different Greek words. In the case of Deuteronomy 29:18, as well as several other places, it’s translated to G4088, one of the Greek words for “bitterness.” The writer of Hebrews was no doubt familiar with Deuteronomy 29:18 in the LXX, hence the use of G4088 (“bitterness”) in Hebrews 12:15 when referencing Deuteronomy 29:18. So not only have we misunderstood the concept of “bitterness,” the Deuteronomy 29:18 Hebrew text does not even reference the idea of root bearing bitterness, but rather a root bearing wormwood. I thought I’d share, in case someone else finds this interesting as well.


      • I’m not 100% sure I understand the question; so let me know if I’m barking up the wrong tree in my response here.

        I think you’re asking about the typological significance of wormwood in Deuteronomy; I would assume the intent was to evoke the bitter taste or mildly poisonous properties of the plant. So I wouldn’t say the LXX translators were off the mark in their translation to “bitterness,” it’s simply more of a dynamically equivalent translation of the word. However, the fact that the Hebrew word was “wormwood” makes it even more abundantly clear that the use of “bitterness” was in the sense of “Having an acrid taste,” not “Feeling resentment.” As the podcast pointed out, the context in Deuteronomy also makes the meaning clear.


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