What Is Right? Life on the Straight and Level

What Is Right? Life on the Straight and Level March 8, 2018

To call anything or anyone is “crooked,” we first have to know what a straight line is. The Hebrew Bible has a word for it, used in some very famous verses: “There is a way that seems right to a person.” “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

The Hebrew concept of being “upright,” doing what is “right,” the opposite of crookedness, is expressed by the word yashar. From this word, we get the name of a lost book quoted twice in the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13, 2 Samuel 1:18), the “Book of the Upright,” which is evidently used as one of the multiple sources for the Hebrew historical books.

What Is Right? Straight and Level
Twenty-three miles of absolutely straight and level highway on Us Highway 20 east of Burns, Oregon. Photo: Catherine Hobson.

Permeating the uses of yashar (both verb and adjective), and the related noun mesharīm, are the ideas of “straight” and “level.” We can clearly see this in the way the Greek translates this word as eutheis or “straight” in Psalm 7:10. Mesharīm (used nineteen times in the Hebrew Bible) is a synonym of tzedeq (righteousness) and mishpat (justice). In the Psalms, “equity” is a good way to express the levelness intended here: God is the one who judges the peoples with mesharīm (Psalm 9:8, 58:1, 75:3, 96:10, 98:9, 99:4). If anyone wants to find equality in the Bible, they should look for it here. Also, in Proverbs 23:31 and Song of Solomon 7:9, mesharīm is used adverbially to describe wine that goes down “smoothly.”

Also related to yashar is the noun mīshor, which means a flat land, a plain or plateau. In 1 Kings 20:23, the Arameans believe that Israel’s God is a god of the hills, but can be defeated if they fight him on the mīshor. Here the meaning of straightness or levelness in this root is most clear.

The intensive and causative verb forms of the y-sh-r root often mean “to make straight”, as in Psalm 5:8, “Make thy way straight;” Proverbs 3:6, “[God] will make straight your paths;” and Isaiah 40:3, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” In 1 Samuel 6:12, the oxen “go straight” to Israelite territory carrying the ark of God. And in numerous passages (Judges 14:3, 14:7; 1 Samuel 18:20, 18:26; 2 Samuel 17:4; 1 Kings 9:12; 2 Chronicles 30:4), this verb means to “be pleasing”, i.e. straight or “right” in one’s eyes.

Which brings us to our third meaning, conveyed by the adjective form (119 times) that is often used as a noun. Yashar is a synonym of tzaddīq (righteous), and goes with tōb (good) and tam (blameless – Job 1:1, 1:8, 2:3). Possibly the most common use of yashar is to denote what is “right” or “upright.” A classic verse where it is used this way is Judges 21:25, where Israel without a king was such a mess that everyone did what was “right” in their own eyes.  Another classic verse is Proverbs 14:12 (= 16:25), where there is a way that seems “right” to a person, but its end is the way to death. Ecclesiastes 7:29 says that God originally made humans “upright.”  Twelve times in Kings and ten times in Chronicles, we are told that a king did what was “right” (versus “evil”). Those who are “upright” are spoken of 25 times in Psalms and 25 times in Proverbs, not counting the expression “upright of heart” (seven times in Psalms).

Less common, but perfectly logical, meanings for yashar include 2 Chronicles 29:34, where the Levites were more “conscientious” (upright) than the priests in purifying themselves for the Passover. In 2 Kings 10:3, Jehu tells the capital city of Samaria to choose someone “qualified” (the “right” person) to reign in place of their dead king.

Our final two examples echo more of the straight/levelness contained in the meaning of yashar. In Jeremiah 31:9, we are told of a “straight/level” path/way in which people will not stumble. And in Micah 3:9, the prophet speaks of those who pervert/make crooked all yasharah: straightness, levelness, equity, or simply “what is right”.

There are many words for what is good, righteous, or just in the Hebrew Bible. The yashar root carries with it a clear sense of what is straight and level, to a world with plenty of crookedness to go around, a world where everyone does what is “right/straight/level” in their own eyes.

Look out for the God who is holding the plumb line! God may have a different idea of what is “right” than we may kid ourselves into thinking.

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