On the Beauty of Bitterness

“You sound bitter”. Bitterness tends to get a bad rap in the church, largely due to Romans 3:14, Ephesians 4:31, and Hebrews 12:15. More precisely, the bad rap is due to how the words come together in various translations to say what we think they say. Admittedly, there is the standard fare of bitterness as “the hard-heartedness that harbors resentment about the past” (Lincoln, 2017, p.274), but should we remain locked into one understanding of the term?

First, I want to deal with these passages to see if anything comes from looking at them with a little more intent. Are they simply telling us not to be discontent with the status of our lives, to be happy in disaster, positive in the face of depression, put on a happy face? Or are they dealing with something else all together?

Romans 3:14 is a direct quotation of the LXX version of Psalm 9:28 (MT, English 10:7). Romans 3:10 begins the quotation “just as it is written”, then goes on to quote the LXX. There is a slight issue in translation in the LXX however, as the Hebrew word rendered by the LXX as “bitter” (πικρια) is literally “deceit” (מרמה). But how could this happen? Is this simply interpretation, or is it a scribal error?

There is a Hebrew cognate which shares the first two consonants of “deceit” (מרמה); and that is “mar” (מר) or “mara” (מרה). This root means “bitter”, and could have influenced the translator, and in fact, Mozley (1902, 21) states as much. Put differently, it seems as though the LXX translator made a mistake here assuming מר or מרה to be the word, rather than this being an interpretive move where “bitterness” is equated with “fraud”. In still other words, the LXX either offers a bad translation here, or is working off another manuscript. If it were a different manuscript, one might expect more than just one word to be out of place or wrongly translated. In either case, this instance isn’t a straight “translation” of the Hebrew Psalm. This happens elsewhere in the LXX, e.g. Psalm 12 MT, 13 LXX where much is added that isn’t even in the Hebrew text (on this, see Tov, 1999).

To clear this up, hopefully, both of these terms come together in the story of Jacob’s deception of Isaac for the birthright of Esau. In Genesis 27:34-35, Esau hears the story his father tells him of his brother’s ruse, and cries out with a “bitter” (מרה) cry of distress, asking Isaac to bless him. Isaac replies that Jacob came in “deceit” (מרמה) and took the blessing. Here, “bitter” and “deceit” are both present together, and used in a way that they aren’t to be taken as synonyms. In short, both words were known, and with a story like Jacob and Esau as the example of their use side by side, it sort of leaves us with just one option regarding the LXX translation of the Psalm in question. That is, the translator simply made a mistake.

What this does to Paul’s use of the passage in Romans is beyond the scope of this article, but it should suffice to say that if the LXX translator made a mistake, or even if they offered an interpretive move, there is at least reason to allow for “deceit” to be in sight, rather than “bitterness”, both in Psalms and Romans. Meaning, the “wicked” in Psalms (and so, Romans) are not “harboring resentment about the past”, but rather, actively cursing, lying, and oppressing with their mouths. This seems to fit more neatly with various other proscriptions regarding cursing and the tongue throughout the Bible.

Ephesians 4:31 is a reworking of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, with the addition of πικρια in the list of “vices” being covered. In Col 3:8, Paul tells the church to “lay aside…anger, rage, wickedness, slander, abusive language…”. In Ephesians, bitterness is added to the list, which shouldn’t surprise us if Paul is largely informed by his reading of the LXX (as most suggest). In other words, if Paul leans on LXX Psalm 9 for his import of πικρια in Romans 3, why shouldn’t we assume that he’s done the same here?

But what about Hebrews 12:15 and the exhortation to be careful that no “root of bitterness” trouble us. There are a couple problems here, however, in that first, the writer of Hebrews uses the phrase “root of bitterness” as an appellative for a person in the midst of the community. Meaning, the use here is metaphorical for a person, not an attitude within yourself. In addition, BDAG notes that it is the “root that bears bitter fruit”, rather than the root itself being a bitter root.

G.W. Buchanan (1972) offers: “The “root of bitterness”…probably represents anything that led to idolatry and apostasy” (p217). Buchanan notes that the thought comes from Deuteronomy 29:18, where the idea has to do with apostasy and turning from Yahweh.

In other words, for Buchanan what the author is most likely dealing with here is something like “bitter” (=“apostate”) fruit. We know this idiom from our own time as “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch”. Then, it is the bad fruit that is being called into question in Hebrews, not the “attitude of bitterness” as we have come to use this terminology today to discuss people who we think haven’t “moved on” quickly enough from the disasters of life.

This is all well and good, but there is also a story found in the Hebrew Bible which, to employ Paul, “kicks against” the notion that bitterness is something to be avoided at all costs. That story is Naomi. We commonly call it the story of Ruth, or the story of Obed, after all, David comes through this line. But the story is just as much, if not more, about Naomi.

Naomi is the antithesis of the power of positive thinking message. Throughout the story, she is painted as someone who is not only depressed, but even goes as far as to call herself bitter (מרה), making it her name. “Call me Mara” (Ruth 1:20) is on her lips, and even more “because Shaddai has made me bitter”. In other words, Naomi says “I am what God has made me”. Discussions and debates of God’s culpability in the death her sons and husband matter little here. Naomi (lovely, pleasant) attributes the death of her children and husband to the hand of Yahweh, says Yahweh has testified (answered) against her and Shaddai has “brought calamity” upon her (1:21).

In short, Naomi, or more appropriately Mara, not only blames God for the loss of her children, she does so bitterly. So bitterly in fact, she changes her name to Ms. Bitterness. Now, in today’s culture, this sort of accusation against God might warrant the community gathering together to remind Naomi of all the times God has been faithful, remind her to focus on the positive, remind her to just smile in her depression. But, something different happens here.

There are only two places where Yahweh/Shaddai are brought into the story of Ruth. Here in ch 1, and later, in ch 4. Chapter 1 outlines the why of Naomi’s bitterness, the foundation of her change of name. Chapter 4 outlines God’s response to that bitterness, the conception of a grandson, a redeemer; in other words, the “way out” of her bitterness. In short, God’s response to Naomi’s bitterness is to reward it with a child she has the opportunity to help raise. “Are there sons in me for you?” she asks of Ruth before coming home in Chapter 1, and God answers with “No, but there is a son in Ruth for you” at the close of the story.

Bitterness against God is still an acknowledgment of God. How we handle the events of life will necessarily be unique to each of us. “Bitterness” as a means of describing someone else is too often an accusation meant to simply distance the accuser from the accused. Always in the back of our minds however, we should keep the story of Naomi handy. In it we see how God responds to the bitterness of life, by granting redemption, love, and security.

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