Several years ago, I remember hearing an interview on National Public Radio about the complexity and nuances of the English language. While we have many synonyms in our language, words that can be used interchangeably, most of these synonyms are actually words with very specific meanings and are not as interchangeable as we may first think.
I ran into such a pair of words in this week’s readings. We often think of the words bravery and courage as meaning basically the same thing. But they do not mean the same thing. What is the difference between bravery and courage? The difference can be seen in the etymology of the two words.
The roots of the word bravery come from the Italian bravo which means brave or bold but originally meant savage or wild. Courage, though, traces its roots back to the Latin, cor, meaning heart. From this we can discern that bravery means to act with a certain abandon, while courage means to act with a certain inner strength.
This morning we have heard a piercing and imaginative reading from the prophet Ezekiel. This reading vibrantly portrays courage rather than bravery. Perhaps some background will illustrate this for us.
Ezekiel was a prophet during a period known as the Babylonian Exile. It was a time when the Israelites had been defeated and taken as captive exiles into Babylon. They had not only lost their motherland, but they had been left bereft of their Temple and the heart of their sense of what was holy in their approach to God.
They were no longer able to worship their God in the sacred ways they had inherited from their ancestors.
This was a particularly low ebb in biblical history. The morale, hope and expectations of the Jews were at a significantly low point. In this time of darkness, Ezekiel delivered today’s message of hope. God would bring Israel into new life and restore her once again.
But this is a passage of courage, not of bravery. There is no sense of recklessness in this passage. There is no sense of wild feats or risks being taken. Instead the message is one to encourage the exiled Jews to take heart, to take courage in the future, for God will act.
There are two important Hebrew words that recur in this passage that are well worth our consideration. These two words define this passage as one of courage rather than bravery.
The first word is prophesy. We most often hear the word prophesy and think of prediction. But the Old Testament understanding of prophecy has little to do with the foretelling of future events. Instead, prophecy is the forth-telling of God’s action and power. Prophecy is never so much concerned about the historical events that will bring about God’s will. It is more concerned with speaking of God’s will.
Ezekiel’s prophecy was one of challenge and encouragement. It was to engender courage and hope in the future rather than to predict that a bunch of skeletons would be reconfigured into an army. What God was speaking through Ezekiel was not a prediction, it was a promise; and it was a promise that was to bring hope and vision and encouragement to the Jews in exile. Encouragement, the embodiment of courage, was the point of Ezekiel’s prophecy.
Which brings us to the second word that we should consider this morning. Notice that after the bones had reassembled and sinews had formed on them, the Scriptures note that there was no breath in them.
We then hear God call Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath that it may bring life to the bodies. The breath that Ezekiel commanded was more than the wind, it was more than air. In the Hebrew it is the breath of life. But it is also more than the breath of life, more than mere animation.
The word for breath in Hebrew can mean spirit, strength, warrior, and, yes, courage. Ezekiel was calling forth not just life for those dry bones, but courage as well. This passage is one that is steeped in courage, comfort, hope, strength.
There is a distinct difference in bravery and courage. Though, at times, our faith may call us to act with bravery, we are always called to be of good courage. Bravery may be when we toss caution to the wind, choosing to step out of faith rather than logic. But bravery rests upon courage, that abiding sense that God is faithful and, therefore, we can be faithful, too.
The good news in today’s Old Testament reading is that we follow a faithful God. Whether we are at home or in exile, whether we face crisis or celebration, whether we are we feel estranged or embraced, we can find hope that God is calling us to have courage, to take heart, and find ourselves always in the heart of God.
© 2020, Tom Thoeni