I kicked off our word study for REST on Instagram earlier this week, looking at the very first occurrence of the word in Scripture (hint: it’s not what you might think!). It’s a story that encourages us to invite God into our day. Right there in the midst of the hustle and the chores. When the breakfast dishes are still in the sink as dinner time nears. When emails need answering and deadlines need met. When social media demands more of you than you really have to offer. It’s asking God to sit awhile with us while we finish our work. And talking to Him throughout it.
Today, we’re going to look at a more topographical list. We’re going to study the most popular Hebrew word. The one that’s used most consistently out of the 25 renditions for rest in the Old Testament.
Nûwach. The word is actually used 64 times, and 55 of them are translated in the KJV as rest. And it’s used in a wide variety of applications. Both literally and figuratively. Transitively and intransitively (meaning that it may or may not need a direct object to complete its meaning). It’s also used causatively (i.e. it causes something to happen). If I’m being honest, these nitty-gritty language words give me a headache. But they are also the very important keys that unlock the depth of truth in His Word. So I press through. And google the definitions as I go. And this is what I discovered about nûwach:
It speaks of resting the soles of your feet – Joshua 3:13
Like the priests did in the book of Joshua. When the soles of their feet rested in the swollen, rushing river that was extra full from that rainy season. Their feet touched down in the water. And then they stayed there. While God stopped the flow of the water 20 miles upstream. And they waited for it to trickle down to them.
It speaks of locusts resting on the land – Exodus 10:13
And the ark resting on the mountains of Ararat in Genesis 8:4. And the ark of the covenant resting after searching out a resting place for the people in Numbers 10:33-36. And the Spirit of the LORD resting upon the people so that they prophesied one chapter later.
It speaks of the Sabbath day rest – Exodus 20:11
And it also speaks of the people resting from their enemies round about in Esther 9:22.
It speaks of wisdom – Proverbs 14:33
Specifically, wisdom rests at home in an understanding heart.
It speaks of a blessing- Ezekiel 44:30
Particularly, the blessing that rests on the house of the person who gives firstfruits to the LORD.
It speaks of the rest God gives – Joshua 1:13, 15
Nûwach speaks of the Levitical priests depositing their most holy garments – worn only in the inner court of the tabernacle – away for safekeeping (Ezekiel 42:14). Of laying things up and laying them out before the LORD (Deuteronomy 26:10). Of leaving people alone and undisturbed (or not, as the case may be) (Esther 3:8). But the one that piqued my interest? The one that fit the kind of rest I’m searching for?
It’s part of the very first definition of the word – the qal stem if you’re paying attention to those things. Meaning: it’s a simple action. In active voice. The most basic definition from which all the other meanings we just ran through above are derived. And in it’s simplest form, nûwach means:
To rest, to sit down, to set oneself down anywhere to take a rest – the original idea lies in respiring, drawing breath.
That’s the kind of rest I was looking for. The kind that sits down for a minute like Abraham was doing in the doorway of his tent that time that God showed up. And then Abraham hustled to meet Him. That’s the kind of rest I want. That’s the kind of hustle I want. But the Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon had an even more specific example of the type of rest nûwach describes. It pulls from the Arabic rendition of the word:
to kneel down as a camel, or a place where camels lie down
What is it about camels specifically? I thought. Why are they so special? I started googling. And digging around. And doing some research. And I came across a book from 1875. In it was a description about camels resting:
Some writers claim that the resting posture of the camel is a thing taught him by his master for his own convenience. … We are aware that a camel has to be trained to kneel down or rise up at the word of command. … But we have never seen a camel resting otherwise, whether old or young, not even the newborn foal.*
The author went on to describe domesticated elephants that are trained to kneel first, and then lie down (the same way camels do). But, in the wild? They take their rest leaning against a tree. Never truly lying down, unless they are sleeping. It’s an interesting thought – the idea that camels are trained to lie down when they rest. Forced to, even. By tying ropes around legs and pulling down necks and applying downward pressure on hindquarters. A posture of rest that comes about only by training.
The Arabic-English Lexicon takes it one step further, explaining that the place that camels do lie down once they are trained? By the water. For the purpose of drinking.
And all at once, the words of Psalm 23 came flooding into my mind:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters, He restores my soul.
The thing about camels? They can endure the desert. And withstand scorching temperatures. And survive upwards of ten days without water in the hot desert. They can walk 30 miles a day, carrying 800 pounds on their backs for several days in a row without needing a break. They are strong. Perfectly capable. And entirely dependable of bearing burdens in the most extreme circumstances.
Isn’t that how we feel as women today? The Jill-of-all-trades that wears many hats and juggles marriage, career, and motherhood simultaneously. Striving to be that Proverbs 31 woman that can do it all without asking for help. To check off the list without taking a breath. To be intimate with our husbands, intentional with our physical children, and influential to our spiritual ones. And all the while, sky-rocketing our way to the top as a driven, failure-is-not-an-option, I-am-my-own-boss, the-world-is-my-oyster, 21st century woman. It ain’t no thang.
But just because we are strong. And perfectly capable. And entirely dependable. It doesn’t mean that a little bit of time to sit down and take a breath is detrimental. Or shows weakness. And it doesn’t mean that the momentum we’ve worked so hard for will suddenly be interrupted. Camels were created to be resilient. But somewhere along the way, a camel herdsman decided that training his animal to rest was in both of their best interests. That his camel might be that much more effective at what it was created to do.
Friends, let’s allow God to be our herdsman. To lead us beside the still waters. To train us to lie down.
And in case you’re like me, and need the actual tie-back to Psalm 23, and not just a vague “this reminds me of” phrase, here’s a little word-nerd life line: the Hebrew word used for “still” or “quiet” waters in verse 2? It’s one of the 25 Hebrew words for rest. And rather than simply typing out the literal translation, I’ve turned it into a prayer.
LORD, You are my herdsman. And there is nothing that I am lacking. I am perfectly capable of getting through my day. And chasing my dream. And being successful at anything I put my mind to, as long as I put my mind to it. LORD, interrupt me. Force me to lie down in pastures of tender grass. Lead me to a watering-place by quiet, restful waters. To be refreshed. That I can be the most effective woman, wife, mother, and friend. Give me rest at the resting-place waters. And train me to build this forced-rest into my day. If only for a few minutes. To breathe. And respire. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
* Rev. Henry J. Van-Lennep, D.D. Bible Lands: Their Modern Customs & Manners Illustrative of Scripture, 1875.