The Hebrew concept of being “upright,” in both its verb and adjective forms, is expressed by the word yashar. From this word, we get the name of a lost book quoted twice in the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Jashar (Josh 10:13, 2 Sam 1:18), the “Book of the Upright,” which is evidently used as one of the multiple sources for the Hebrew historical books.
Permeating the uses of yashar (both verb and adjective), and the related substantive noun mesharim, are the ideas of “straight” and “level.” Mesharim (used 19x in the Hebrew Bible) is a synonym of tzedeq (righteousness) and mishpat (justice). In the Psalms, “equity” is a good way to express the levelness intended here: God is the one who judges the peoples with mesharim (Ps 9:8, 58:1, 75:3, 96:10, 98:9, 99:4). If anyone wants to find equality in the Bible, they should look for it here. Also, in Proverbs 23:31 and Song of Solomon 7:9, mesharim is used adverbially to describe wine that goes down “smoothly.”
Also related to yashar is the noun mīshor, which means a flat land, a plain or plateau. In 1 Kings 20:23, the Arameans believe that Israel’s God is a god of the hills, but can be defeated if they fight him on the mīshor. Here the meaning of straightness or levelness in this root is most clear.
The piel and hifil verb forms of the y-sh-r root often mean “to make straight”, as in Psalm 5:8, “Make thy way straight”; Proverbs 3:6, “[God] will make straight your paths”; and Isaiah 40:3, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” In 1 Samuel 6:12, the oxen “go straight” to Israelite territory carrying the ark of God. And in numerous passages (Judg 14:3, 14:7; 1 Sam 18:20, 18:26; 2 Sam 17:4; 1 Kg 9:12; 2 Chr 30:4), this verb means to “be pleasing”, i.e. straight or “right” in one’s eyes.
Which brings us to our third meaning, carried by the adjective form (119x) that is often used as a noun. Yashar is a synonym of tzaddiq (righteous), and goes with tob (good) and tam (blameless – Job 1:1, 1:8, 2:3). Possibly the most common use of yashar is to denote what is “right” or “upright.” A classic verse where it is used this way is Judges 21:25, where everyone did what was “right” in their own eyes. Another classic verse is Proverbs 14:12 (= 16:25), where there is a way that seems “right” to a person. 12x in Kings and 10x in Chronicles, we are told that a king did what was “right” (versus “evil”). Those who are “upright” are spoken of 25x in Psalms and 25x in Proverbs, not counting the expression “upright of heart” (7x in Psalms).
Less common, but perfectly logical, meanings for yashar include 2 Chronicles 29:34, where the Levites were more “conscientious” (upright) than the priests in purifying themselves for the Passover. In 2 Kings 10:3, Samaria is told to choose someone “qualified” (the “right” person) to reign in place of their dead king.
Our final two examples echo more of the straight/levelness contained in the meaning of yashar. In Jeremiah 31:9, we are told of a “straight/level” path/way in which people will not stumble. And in Micah 3:9, we are told of those who pervert/make crooked all yasharah: straightness, levelness, equity, or simply “what is right”.
There are many words for what is good, righteous, or just in the Hebrew Bible. The yashar root carries with it a clear sense of what is straight and level, to a world with plenty of crookedness to go around, where everyone does what is “right/straight/level” in their own eyes. Look out for the One who is holding the plumb line!
NEXT WEEK: “”CHINESE IN THE BIBLE?”
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?