Home » Hebrew Word Study: FEAR (YIR’AH)

Hebrew Word Study: FEAR (YIR’AH)

by Dr. Eitan Bar
3 minutes read

During my inaugural climb up the Eiffel Tower, my voyage into the vast expanse of the open ocean, and my initial experience in the heart of the Negev desert under a star-studded night sky, I was filled with a profound sense of awe and reverence. I was not scared, only felt overwhelming amazement. The grandeur of what unfolded before my eyes commanded respect. It was awe-inspiring, a sight that left me in stunned silence. This was YIR’AH.

Moses was overcome with YIRAH when he pleaded with God to witness His glory, a sight he couldn’t fully behold without risking his life. He was unable to gaze directly at God. Similarly, the Israelites were steeped in YIRAH when Moses descended from Mount Sinai.

YIRAH, or awe, relates to experiencing something that surpasses one’s abilities and comprehension. Undoubtedly, even the most courageous adventurer standing at the edge of an Olympic springboard would be hard-pressed to keep their heart from trembling.

The concept of “fearing God” may initially appear to imply being scared or afraid of God, but this isn’t the case. Instead, fearing God encapsulates a sense of awe, respect, and reverence toward God’s majesty. It’s an acknowledgment of His sovereignty over all things, being all-powerful, etc. In the Old Testament, a Hebrew root with multiple meanings is Y-R-A, which can convey different ideas depending on the context. YARE & YIR’AH are examples of Hebrew words derived from this root, meaning reverence, respect, or awe. In Genesis 22:12, it is used to describe Abraham’s respect and trust in God:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

In Proverbs 1:7, it is used to describe wisdom and knowledge:

“The fear (YIRAT) of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Here, YIR’AH represents a sense of respect and awe toward God, seeing Him as our supreme teacher. If you attend a seminary or university, you must respect its teachers. Otherwise, you probably won’t learn much.

“Fear of the Lord” might not be best understood in modern times. The Hebrew words in the Hebrew scriptures that describe what we in modern language consider “fear” are EIMAH (terror) and PACHAD (scare). These are when you are afraid for your life, fearing someone will want to hurt you or kill you. But the word being used in Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10 is a different one. Here, it means “awe” or “reverence.” In other words, wisdom begins with great respect for God, not with fearing he’ll kill you. God, indeed, is a mighty warrior. But he’s not a war hero because he can kill everyone in seconds. He’s a war hero because he’s the commander who sacrificed his life by jumping on the grenade to save those in his platoon. Understanding this truth and who God is, is the beginning of true knowledge.

In the New Testament

In the New Testament, when Paul delivered his sermon in the synagogue at Antioch, he addressed two distinct groups: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen” (Acts 13:16). It’s interesting to note that the phrase “those among you who fear God” was directed towards the “God-fearers,” Gentiles who demonstrated deep respect and reverence for God. The term “God-fearers” (or “those who fear God”) in the Book of Acts refers to Gentiles (non-Jews) who were attracted to Judaism and its teachings but had not fully converted to Judaism. These individuals attended synagogue services, followed some of the Jewish laws, and respected the God of Israel, but they did not take on the full yoke of the Law, including circumcision. For example, Acts 13:26 mentions “God-fearers”:

“Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.”

Paul doesn’t refer to people who were scared of God. On the contrary, they were drawn to Him. They admired God’s power, knew of His justice, and revered His goodness. Their fear was not one that repels but one that attracts and motivates obedience, encourages humility, and fosters a more profound, respectful relationship with God. This is the fear of God in the biblical sense, not scare.

This article was an extract from my new small book,
Lost in Translation: 15 Hebrew Words to Transform Your Christian Faith.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist