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)

This article takes a closer look at that “root of bitterness”. 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 that 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.

Another note: Apparently, some have claimed that the words “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 refer to people who have a “bad attitude” towards some church or preacher. But, let us face the facts: The apostle was not talking about people of the 21st century. 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.

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

Numbers 13 and 14 record how the ancient Israelites rejected the Promised Land and fell away from the Lord. They said, “let us select a leader and return to Egypt”, Numbers 14:4, NKJV. In the Greek text of Hebrews 3:15, that event in the Arabian desert is called tô parapikrasmô, “the embitterment”. It led to that those who had provoked the Lord by turning away from him, were never allowed to enter the Promised Land. Their “bodies fell in the desert”, Hebrews 3:17. In other words: The whole nation had to stay in the desert until the provokers had died. Only their children were taken to the Promised Land, forty years later.

Deuteronomy 29 records an event after that forty-year desert sojourn. At that time, the Lord was about to take those provokers’ children to their inheritance, the Promised Land. They were warned that they were not to fall away from the Lord. Such falling away was connected to “a root bearing bitterness or wormwood”, Deuteronomy 29:18, NKJV. In that passage, 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.

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. [a] That is why the apostle Paul warned the Jewish saints  (“Hebrews”) against “roots of bitterness” 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 In this article, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.

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, from pikrainô which meant “to make bitter”. Those verses refer to the in Numbers 13 and 14 recorded event when the ancient 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.

Psalms 95:6 O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. 7 For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if you will hear his voice, 8 Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: 9 When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work.10 Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: 11 To whom I swore in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest. (AKJV, note sign added)

Verse 8: Where the above-quoted AKJV has “provocation”, the ancient Greek-language Septuagint version (LXX) has parapikrasmos, “embitterment”. And again, that word is found also in the Greek text of Hebrews 12:15, and also in Hebrews 3:8 and 15 which are connected to Psalms 95:8–11 and refer to the in Numbers 13 and 14 recorded event which led to that the ancient Israelites who had turned their backs on the Lord were not allowed to enter their rest and inheritance, the Promised Land. (That is what the words “I swore in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” in Psalms 95:11 refer to.)

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 Greek-language Septuagint version 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”.

The apostle was simply urging the Jewish saints (“Hebrews”) not to turn their backs on the Lord Jesus and the heavenly Promised Land where He was taking them. They were not to be as stupid as their ancestors who rejected the earthly Promised Land and the Lord who was taking them there, and said “let us select a leader and return to Egypt”, Numbers 14:4, NKJV. (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 12:15–16, root of bitterness, Esau, fornication and defilement.

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: Verse 16 notes that Esau did not care about his birthright but sold it, as is recoded in 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 those ancient Israelites and their earthly promised land, and the situation of the saints whom the Lord was taking to the better, heavenly Land. Already people of old knew about that heavenly land and looked forward to it. We read:

Hebrews 11:14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been remembering that land they came from, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But they now aspire to a better land—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (HCSB)

Again: The apostle was urging the Jewish saints (“Hebrews”) not to reject the Lord Jesus and the heavenly land where He was taking them. They were not allow any “root of bitterness” (agitator, deceiver) to cause them to turn their backs on Jesus and that land. (The articles rxa102.htm and rba041.htm have more on the saints’ heavenly inheritance and Promised Land.)

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 in that kind of context used in the Greek-language 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 verse 16.

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 call Esau 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 Hebrews 12 with certainty, but it appears that the “roots of bitterness” whom the apostle warned about were wicked persons, deceivers who might cause the saints to turn their backs on Jesus (who was taking them to the heavenly Promised Land). Compare that with the ancient Israelites who rejected the Lord (who was taking them to the earthly Promised Land) – those “who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert”, Hebrews 3:17.

The article rxa102.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.

b The word “Messiah” is a transcription of the old Hebrew ha-Mashiyach which meant “the Anointed”. In the Greek language that became ho Christos, whence “Christ”. (The makers of the LXX, the Septuagint version, used the Greek adjective christos as a translation of the Hebrew mashiyach.) The article roa021.htm has some notes on the pseudochristoi and antichristoi (false messiahs, false christs, false anointed ones), the religious deceivers whom Jesus and the apostle John warned about.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. Please also link to this site. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/contents.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. → rsa091.htm

On the King James version. The story behind king James’ bible, including the men who were involved in producing it. → rsa031.htm

Hebrews 4:9, the sabbatismos or rest which the saints were to enter – a clarification of its actual nature. → rxa102.htm

What does the Bible say about Heaven? Were the saints to go there? What about others? What does it look like, in Heaven? → rba041.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. → roa021.htm

The meaning of the words Christ and Messiah and the name Jesus. Also, some notes on the word “Christian” in the New Testament. → rga071.htm

Jesus warned about false prophets, deceivers and deception. He said that many would be deceived. → roa091.htm

The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → rga062.htm

Matthew 16:18, “I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it”. What and where is the ekklêsia or assembly which Jesus said he would form? Is it an earthly religious organisation as some claim, or something else? → raa012.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → rsa061.htm

On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → rsa072.htm

What does the Bible say about religious titles, such as “apostle”, “bishop”, “evangelist”, “father”, “pastor” and so on? → raa081.htm

Easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. → rga021.htm 


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