Modern Commentary

Torah & Spirit
Family Life






The Fear of God


People are often confused by the the concept of fearing God.  They think that God requires that people actually be afraid of Him, which is far from the truth.  Most of this confusion is due to a poor choice of words used by the English translators of the TaNaKh.  

Of the ten nouns and eight verbs that are regularly translated in English as "fear," "to fear,"  and "to be afraid," two are commonly used in the TaNaKh and they both spring from the triliteral root yod-resh-alef (the noun being yir’a/mora’ and the verb yare’).  The fundamental and original idea expressed by these terms covers a semantic range from mild uneasiness to bold terror, depending on the object of the fear and the circumstances surrounding the experience. This is the same kind of reaction as could be elicited from any encounter that was surprising, unusual, threatening, or overwhelming.  The basic feeling being communicated by this word is perhaps best expressed, inclusively, as "overwhelming".  In time, "fear" of God, or of divine manifestations, developed a theological signification attested to throughout the TaNaKh. While the normal meaning of fear as dread or terror is retained in the theological use of the terms, a special nuance of reverential awe or worshipful respect becomes the dominant notion.  In talking, therefore, about yir’at YHWH (the "fear" of God), a more accurate way of referring to what we are talking about is the awe of YHWH. 

Awe of YHWH or of His manifestations appears either in the abstract, where the mere idea of YHWH creates awe, or in particular situations where YHWH interacts with man. Examples of the latter are Israel’s awe of YHWH following the Exodus (Exod 14:31). More common by far are the reactions of awe by YHWH’s people as they come to understand who He is, and reflect on what He has done for them.

Awe as a response to God and His deeds is so important an aspect of Torah life that Awe actually occurs as an epithet of YHWH. The Torah sees the awe of YHWH as a stimulus to obedience: to awe God is to do His will, which is to follow Torah. This association appears most prominently in Deuteronomy, where to serve YHWH is evidence of a proper recognition of his rulership, as expressed in awe. 

Awe of God lies at the heart of successful living. The book of Mishlei (Proverbs) makes it clear that the awe of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom, an awe equated with the "knowledge of the Holy One" (Prov 9:10; 1:7; Psalm 111:10). To be in awe of God is to know him and to know him is to be in awe of him. 

Awe expresses itself in praise to YHWH (Psalm 22:23); it results in the enjoyment of benefits and blessings at His hand (Psalm 34:9; 103:11, 13, 17); the ability to rest in peace and security (Psalm 112:7-8); and the lengthening of days (Prov 10:27; 19:23).