A Word for Today: Step, Walk (Heb. Hálak)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
In the twenty-first century, private and public transport makes a significant contribution to our modern way of life. It is often therefore difficult for us to appreciate that previous generations had little in the way of such facilities. Unless they were rich, most people walked everywhere, so walking, in effect, characterized an individual’s way of life. This simple analogy captures some of the meaning of the Hebrew word hálak, which can mean to walk or to conduct one’s way of life (for good or ill). It is one of the most common terms used in the Old Testament to describe the process of life. Directly linked with this word is the Hebrew term halakhah, which forms part of the descriptive type of rabbinic interpretation of the first five books of Moses. Halakhah includes the 613 precepts or divine commandments (mitzvot), for identifiying the ‘way’ of holiness for a Jew. It attempts to work out the meaning of Leviticus chapter 19 verse 2b – ‘ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ (LXX) – and apply it to both secular and spiritual life, cp. Mic. 6. 8. This form of practical application plays an important part in all Jewish life, because it helps to explain why they do certain things. This can be illustrated by reference to the dietary laws of Judaism, and specifically the large number of regulations that govern the separation of meat and milk products. We may be surprised to learn that all these regulations are based on the interpretation of just one Old Testament text, ‘Thou shall not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk’, Exod. 23.19b! Halakhah is consequently seen as a very powerful directive for ethical conduct, because it encourages Jews to strive after holiness as reflected in God Himself. We will see later how this approach has influenced New Testament writers.
The verb hálak is used in the Old Testament to refer to walking in general, e.g., Abram walked toward the Negeb, Gen. 12. 9, or the children of Israel walked on dry ground in the middle of the Red Sea, Exod. 15. 19. On other occasions, it refers to God Himself as He walked or dwelt amongst His people, Lev. 26. 12. It is frequently applied in a figurative way to the fellowship that is enjoyed with God, expressed as walking with God or Godly living. For example, it is recorded that Enoch walked with God, Gen. 5. 22, 24, and this is later interpreted by the writer of Hebrews as meaning that he pleased God, Heb. 11. 5b.1 In other words, the way he lived his life brought pleasure to God. Similarly we could highlight Noah’s life, Gen. 6. 9, or that of the psalmist, Ps.1. 1, as exemplifying a godly walk. It was also indicative of many Old Testament kings whose lives were characterized by a desire to follow closely after God, 2 Chron. 17. 3-4, and at the same time, provide an example for others to follow, 2 Chron. 34. 2. Eugene Merrill states, ‘To fear and obey God is to live life as God intended it – life compared to a walk along a road which, though dark at times, leads to a happy end for God’s own people.’2
But just as the word hálak had a positive meaning, so it could also have a negative one in that those who failed to walk with God or regulate their lives in accordance with His word, brought themselves into condemnation with God, see Jer 32. 23. The history of Israel was catalogued by their failure to respond to the covenant that they had entered into with God on Sinai, Ps. 81.11-14. Their conquest of the Promised Land was predicated on them walking in accordance with God’s precepts, Deut. 11. 22-25, but the extent of their disobedience is clearly evident from even a cursory glance at the book of Judges.
In the Greek Old Testament (LXX), a number of words are used to describe the cycle of life with perpatèõ of major significance because of its emphasis on life being viewed as an ethical walk, see Prov. 8. 20. The English word peripatetic is derived from this Greek word, and the peripatetic teacher was a common feature of the Greco Roman world, e.g., Aristotle conducted his discussions with his students while walking around the Lyceum. Paul extrapolates the meaning of the word perpatèõ as used in the LXX when he refers figuratively to the way in which Christians should conduct their lives before God.
Believers are encouraged to walk in step with God:
- By faith, not by sight, 2 Cor. 5. 7.
- As led by the Holy Spirit, Gal, 5. 25.
- In newness of life, Rom. 6. 4.
- To please Him, Col. 1. 10.
- To fulfil their Christian calling, 1 Thess. 2. 12; Eph. 4. 1.
- To reflect the moral characteristics of the age to come, Rom. 13. 13.
The Apostle John also contributes to this agenda by a negative and positive contrast. The belief that sin is unimportant for maintaining a right relationship with God is indicated by walking or living continuously in darkness (unrighteousness), 1 John 1. 6, whereas a godly lifestyle is evident by walking continuously in the light (righteousness), 1 John 1. 7.
In terms then, walking was figuratively synonymous with lifestyle As Stephen Renn points out, ‘The unique perspective of the New Testament demonstrates that in order to live in accordance with God’s requirements and thereby please Him, one must express absolute devotion and obedience to Christ.’3 Our way of life should reflect the holiness of God. Why? Because God commands it, and it expresses His moral character, 1 Pet. 1. 15 -16. Walking suggests that practical holiness is a progressive matter. We need then to walk daily in the Spirit so that we do not gratify the desires of the flesh, Gal. 5. 16.
For further reading/study
Scott, Julius J. Jr, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament
Fishbane, Michael, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel
1. The Septuagint translates both verses as ‘And Enoch was well-pleasing to God’.
2. NIDOTTE p. 1033
3. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words p. 1024
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.