The ‘root of bitterness’ of Hebrews 12:15 – what or who was it?

Also, some notes on bitter things mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

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In the epistle to the Hebrews (Jewish saints), we find this passage:

Hebrews 12:14 Pursue peace with all, and holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord: 15 watching lest there be any one who lacks the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and many be defiled by it; 16 lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright; 17 for ye know that also afterwards, desiring to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, (for he found no place for repentance) although he sought it earnestly with tears. (DBY, highlighting added)

Apparently, some have claimed that the words “root of bitterness” in that passage refer to people who have a “wrong attitude” towards some church or preacher. But, let us face the facts: The apostle was not talking about people of the 21st century, not to mention churches. He wrote those words as a warning to certain Jewish saints, people of the first century, in regard to things and persons in their day and age.

However, there is a lesson that can be learned from that passage, even for people of our day.

This article takes a closer look at the “root of bitterness” of Hebrews 12:15. Among other things, it will be shown that there is also an inheritance and a promised land in the picture. In that connection, it will be considered why the apostle mentioned Esau. Further, there are some notes on bitter things which are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

A note: Here it is assumed that the epistle to the Hebrews was written by the apostle Paul, or dictated by him and written down by one of his companions.

In certain Old Testament passages, bitterness is connected to falling away from the Lord.

An example of this is found it Deuteronomy 29 which records a warning that was given to the ancient Israelites, concerning “a root bearing bitterness or wormwood” (Deuteronomy 29:18, NKJV).

In that verse, the Greek text of the Septuagint version (LXX) has rhiza, “root”, and pikria, “bitterness” – the same words as in the Greek text of Hebrews 12:15 which is the object of this study.

There was more in the picture:

The provocation or ‘embitterment’.

In the speech which is recorded in the above-mentioned Deuteronomy 29, Moses was warning the Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land. Their parents had rejected their inheritance, the Promised Land, and not only that – they had rejected even the Lord who was about to take them there: They had said, “let’s appoint a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4, HCSB). [a] Because of this, they were never allowed to enter the Promised Land. Those were the people “who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert”, Hebrews 3:17, HCSB. (For details, see Numbers 13 and 14.)

That was indeed a case of falling away from the Lord. In the Greek text of Hebrews 3:15, that event is called tô parapikrasmô, “the embitterment”.

It is true that those things were connected to the ancient Israelites in the days of Moses. But, there was a lesson in that, even for the saints, in the first century. And so, the apostle Paul warned the Jewish saints against “bitter roots” and “embitterment”. In other words, he warned them about things and persons that could cause them to fall away from the Lord Jesus. More: Even in their case, there was a Promised Land in the picture.

a Cf. Jeremiah 2:18–19, “why take the road to Egypt” […] “it is an evil and bitter thing that you have forsaken the Lord your God” (NKJV).

Hebrews 3, the embitterment, and the matter regarding a Promised Land.

The Greek text of Hebrews 3:8, 15 and 16 contains bitterness-related words, the noun parapikrasmos, “embitterment”, and the verb parapikrainô, “to make bitter”. Those verses refer to the above-mentioned event when the Israelites rejected both the Promised Land as well as the Lord who was about to take them there.

That event is mentioned even in Psalms 95:8 with its context.

Psalms 95:8 you should not harden your hearts as in the embittering, according to the day of the test in the wilderness (ABP)

In the Septuagint version, that verse contains the word parapikrasmos, “embitterment”. And again, that word is found also in the Greek text of this New Testament passage (where the apostle was citing parts of Psalms 95):

Hebrews 3:7 Wherefore, – according as saith the Holy Spirit – To-day if unto his voice ye would hearken, do not 8 harden your hearts, – as in the embitterment, in the day of testing in the desert, 9 When your fathers tested by proving, And saw my works forty years. […] 15 So long as it is said – To-day, if, unto his voice, ye would hearken, do not harden your hearts, – as in the embitterment. 16 For, who, though they heard, caused embitterment? Nay, indeed! did not all who came forth out of Egypt through Moses? 17 But with whom was he sore vexed forty years? Was it not with them who sinned, whose dead bodies fell in the desert? (EB, highlighting added)

Verses 8 and 15, “embitterment” – the Greek text has ôs en tô parapikrasmô, “as in the embitterment”, cited from Psalms 95:8 (94:8) where the Septuagint (LXX) has the same wording. In Hebrews 3:16 where the above-quoted EB has “caused embitterment”, the Greek NT text has the verb parapikrainô, from pikrainô which meant “to make bitter”.

Keep in mind that the “embitterment” was the event which led to that the Israelites who were of adult age at that time, were not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Hebrews 12:16 mentions Esau.

A closer study of the above-quoted passage in Hebrews 3 brings forth a connection to Hebrews 12:15–16 which mentions bitterness and Esau. Clarification:

Hebrews 12:16 notes that Esau did not care about his birthright but sold it, see Genesis 25:29–34. A part of that matter is that Esau’s birthright could have given him the Promised Land as an inheritance. But, he did not care about that better inheritance. He sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, for a simple meal.

Hebrews 3:7–17 in its turn refers to the event in the days of Moses when the Israelites rejected their inheritance, the Promised Land. Add to that: They even rejected the Lord who was about to take them to that land.

The apostle was making an analogy, between the ancient Israelites and their earthly promised land, and the situation of the saints whom the Lord was about to take to the better Land (the one of Hebrews 11:16).

(The articles nxa100.htm and nba040.htm have some notes on the saints’ heavenly inheritance and Promised Land.)

Hebrews 12:15–16 and Esau, fornication and defilement.

Verse 15:

Hebrews 12:15 watching lest there be any one who lacks the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and many be defiled by it (DBY, highlighting added)

In the Greek text of that verse, the word for defilement is miainô. It could also refer to maidens, brides or married women being defiled by men. For examples on how the verb miainô is used in that context in the Septuagint version, see Genesis 34:5 (emianen), Numbers 5:20 (memiansai) and so on.

The apostle Paul was talking about things on the spiritual level. The saints were betrothed to Jesus and thus a part of his Bride. Paul warned them that they were in danger of becoming defiled – it appears, similar to how a bride can be defiled. Consider even this, in Paul’s letter to the saints in Corinth:

2 Corinthians 11:2 For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy. For I have espoused you to one Man, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. (MKJV)

“Pure” – the Greek text has hagnos, “pure”, “chaste”, “undefiled”. And again, Hebrews 12:15 warns against defilement. In that context, let us consider Hebrews 12:16. For, it could be that even that verse refers to falling away from the Lord.

Hebrews 12:16 lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright (DBY, highlighting added)

Why did the apostle liken Esau to a fornicator?

The Old Testament does not mention this, but Jewish tradition has it that Esau was an immoral person, and also that he lay with a virgin who was betrothed to someone else, and in that way defiled her. If that is true, then it could be that Paul mentioned Esau because of his act of defiling someone’s bride.

It is hard to interpret the Greek text of that passage with certainty, but it may be that the meaning is that the apostle was warning the Jewish saints about persons (“roots of bitterness”) who would come forth and in one way or another take Jesus’ place, just as the false messiahs whom Jesus and the apostle John warned about.

And, since the saints were betrothed to Jesus, it would have been horrible is they had begun following some other “messiah”. That would have been the same as rejecting the Lord Jesus, falling away from him. Just as the ancient Israelites who rejected the Lord (who was about to take them to the Promised Land) – those “who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert” (Hebrews 3:17).

The article nxa100.htm has more on how Psalms 95 and Hebrews 3 and 4 have a connection with the saints’ heavenly inheritance and Promised Land, and how the apostle Paul warned them about the risk of not being allowed to enter that land.

(There is another way to interpret the first part of Hebrews 12:16, but since the preceding verse mentions defilement, it appears that the above-mentioned interpretation may be correct.)

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

Hebrews 4:9, the sabbatismos or rest which the saints were to enter – a clarification of its actual nature. → nxa100.htm

What does the Bible say about Heaven? Were the saints to go there? What about others? What does it look like, in Heaven? → nba040.htm

What does the Bible say about the antichrist or antichrists? On the meaning of the words antichristos and pseudochristos in the Greek text of the New Testament. → noa020.htm

The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → nga060.htm

Matthew 16:18, “I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it”. What and where was the ekklêsia or assembly which Jesus said he would form? Was it an earthly religious organisation as some claim, or something else? → naa010.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm


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