Every seminarian who takes any Hebrew is proud that they have learned the word shalom. They have learned that it means “peace.” But yes, they have also discovered that it means more than absence of military or social conflict. Shalom is a word that describes wholeness (Is 53:5), health (Ps 38:3), prosperity (Ps 35:27), and well-being (Gen 37:14). When the Shunammite woman is asked if all is OK with her, she simply says, “Shalom.” When Biblical characters (and modern Israelis) meet, they ask about each other’s shalom (Ex 18:7, 2 Kg 4:26). Moses commands altars to be built with stones that are “whole/complete” (shelōmoth – Deut 27:6, Josh 8:31). The term “peace offerings” (shelamim) is also rendered as “offerings of well-being/wholeness.”
One landmark verse where the meaning of shalom embraces all of the above is Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the shalom (welfare) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom, you will find your shalom.”
But social justice proponents rightly point out that shalom cannot coexist with evil and injustice. Such obstacles to shalom must be eliminated. We find this meaning in the verb form of shalom. Its stative form (Qal) means “to be whole/be at peace”. In its transitive forms (Piel, Hifil, etc), it means “to establish peace” (2 Sam 10:19). And that may include: restitution (Ex 21:34), the repayment of debts (2 Kg 4:7), and the settling of scores (Prov 20:22). Ouch! Here is where we see the politically incorrect side of shalom, the dark side to which I refer.
Who would have imagined that the shalom root would be found in this famous line? “Vengeance is mine, and shillem – recompense!” (Deut 32:35) A few verses later, we find Deuteronomy 32:41 – “I will repay (ashallem) my enemies.” But the repayment meaning is not always negative. In Isaiah 44, the verb refers to the fulfillment of God’s intentions to rebuild Jerusalem. The shalom verb is also a common way to express fulfillment of a vow (Ps 65:1). In fact, the name Meshullam (used 17x in the Hebrew Bible) is a Pual participle of the verb, a name that means “Repayment”, a name that may have been given to persons who were donated to service in the Temple as payment for a vow.
“Peace” is just one of the options by which we may translate the term shalom when we encounter it. Sometimes, it is entirely a matter of opinion whether peace, wholeness, welfare, well-being, or all of the above are being conveyed in any instance where the word is used. And yes, some of the extended meanings of the shalom root are anything but peaceful. If we really want to describe “peace” as in absence of violent conflict, we would do better to go to the root shaqat (used in Joshua 11:23 where the land “had rest” from war, and in 2 Kings 11:20, where the city “was quiet” after the overthrow of Athaliah). But that word might not fit in all of the wonderful scriptures where shalom is used.
NEXT WEEK: “Dei: It Is Necessary!”
Rev. Tom Hobson, Ph.D., is Assistant Pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (ECO), Chesterfield, MO, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?