Shalom is the word that every seminarian who takes any Hebrew is proud that they have learned. Now, they know the word for “peace”! Little do they realize that the word shalom has a dark side; it has hidden shades of meaning that are anything but peaceful.
Yes, students quickly discover that shalom means more than absence of military or social conflict. Shalom is a word that describes wholeness (Isaiah 53:5), health (Psalm 38:3), prosperity (Psalm 35:27), and well-being (Genesis 37:14). When the Shunammite woman is asked if all is OK with her, she simply says, “Shalom” (2 Kings 4:26). When Biblical characters (and modern Israelis) meet, they ask about each other’s shalom (Exodus 18:7). In Esther 2:11, Mordecai stays close to the palace to stay informed about Esther’s shalom.
Many times the adjective form shalēm is used to refer to a heart that is “completely” or consistently “loyal” and not divided. Examples include 1 Kings 8:61, 1 Kings 11:4 (versus 1 Kings 15:14), and 2 Chronicles 15:17 and 25:2.Hezekiah pleads that he has walked before God with a “whole/complete” heart (2 Kings 20:3 = Isaiah 38:3).
Moses commands altars to be built with stones that are “whole/complete” (shelōmoth – Deuteronomy 27:6, Joshua 8:31). 2 Chronicles 8:16 – the work on the house of YHWH was “complete.” In Genesis 15:16, God says that the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet “complete.” Nehemiah 6:15 uses the verb form, “The wall was complete.” In Job 23:14, Job says that God “will complete (yashlim) what he has appointed for me.” The term “peace offerings” (shelamim) is also rendered as “offerings of well-being/wholeness.”
One landmark verse where the meaning of shalom embraces all of the above meanings is Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the shalom (welfare) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom, you will find your shalom.” In the same vein, in Job 9:4, Job asks, “Who has ever resisted [God] and prospered (or “come out OK” – wayyishlam)?”
But social justice proponents rightly point out that shalom cannot coexist with evil and injustice. Such obstacles to shalom must be eliminated. We find this meaning in the verb form of shalom. Its stative form (Qal) means “to be whole/be at peace.” In its transitive forms (Piel, Hifil, etc), it means “to establish peace” (2 Samuel 10:19). And that may include: restitution (Exodus 21:34), the repayment of debts (2 Kings 4:7), and the settling of scores (Proverbs 20:22). Ouch! Here is where we see the politically incorrect side of shalom, the dark side to which I refer. The verb form of shalom is used eleven times in Job, and six of them have to do with payback.
Who would have imagined that the shalom root would be found in this famous line? “Vengeance is mine, and shillem – recompense!” (Deuteronomy 32:35) A few verses later, we find Deuteronomy 32:41 – “I will repay (ashallem) my enemies.” But the repayment meaning is not always negative. In Isaiah 44, the verb refers to the fulfillment of God’s intentions to rebuild Jerusalem. In 2 Chronicles 5, the verb refers to Solomon “completing” his work on the Temple. The shalom verb is also a common way to express fulfillment of a vow (Psalm 65:1). In fact, the name Meshullam (used 17 times in the Hebrew Bible) is a Pual participle of the verb, a name that means “Repayment,” a name that may have been given to persons who were donated to service in the Temple as payment for a vow.
“Peace” is just one of the options by which we may translate the term shalom when we encounter it. Sometimes, it is entirely a matter of opinion whether peace, wholeness, welfare, well-being, or all of the above are being conveyed in any instance where the word is used. And yes, some of the extended meanings of the shalom root are anything but peaceful. If we really want to describe “peace” as in absence of violent conflict, we would do better to go to the root shaqat, which is used in Joshua 11:23 where the land “had rest” from war, and in 2 Kings 11:20, where the city “was quiet” after the overthrow of Athaliah. But that word might not fit in all of the wonderful scriptures where shalom is used.