By Roy B. Blizzard
Our passage in translation for today is an extremely difficult passage for the non-Hebrew speaker. It is the passage in Matthew 5:21-22.
 Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
What is Jesus saying? What does it mean by "…whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire?"
It was a popular idea several years ago in certain circles that Jesus spoke Aramaic and that the New Testament was originally composed in Aramaic. This idea was promulgated mainly by a gentleman by the name of George M. Lamsa. Mr. Lamsa happened to be a personal acquaintance and had, on occasion, attended seminars I conducted in San Antonio where he lived at the time. He was a fine gentleman and I respected him greatly for the monumental amount of work that he had done with little formal training.
Mr. Lamsa, in addition to his translations, wrote a book, Idioms of the Bible Explained, a Key to the Original Gospel. The book was published by Harper and Rowe. I do not mean to take anything away at all of the intelligence and integrity of Mr. Lamsa, but most of what he says in his book is terribly in error. For example; in his treatment on this passage (on page 94), is as follows:
But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be guilty to the council: And whosoever shall say, thou effeminate one shall be doomed to hell fire. (Matthew 5:22 literal translation from Aramaic)
Then Mr. Lamsa goes on to explain "Raca in Aramaic means to spit in one’s face. In the East," Mr. Lamsa continued, "spitting in each other’s face is done very frequently during the business hours and the times persons enter into heated arguments. When a merchant and his prospective customer disagree in their bargaining they generally spit in each other’s face."
Such a translation and commentary forces me to question how well the late Mr. Lamsa knew Aramaic. In both Aramaic and Hebrew the word, Raca, is a word of derision meaning empty headed. We would say the person is stupid or an idiot or extremely dumb – beware. When translated literally from the Hebrew, the passage reads:
Everyone that is angry with his brother without cause is liable to the bet din or local congregational court. Everyone that says to his brother you are an empty-headed idiot is liable to the Sanhedrin and everyone that says "you are a fool" (in Hebrew Naval) is liable for the fire of gehenna.
In order to understand the passage, notice the increasing order and severity of both the crime and the punishment. The one that is angry with his brother will be brought before the local congregational court for judgment. Remember, every congregation had its own court of law which judged certain transgressions. However, whoever slandered a brother would be brought before a higher court, namely the Sanhedrin, for judgment as cases of liable or slander could be judged only by the higher court.
But whoever called a brother a "Naval" was in danger of eternal judgment. What is a Naval and why was this transgression so heinous. In Everyman’s Talmud by Abraham Cohen published by Schocken Books, paperback edition, page 3, we read:
Whether atheism in the sense of the dogmatic denial of God’s existence was accepted by anybody in biblical and rabbinic times is doubtful. But both in the Bible and the Talmud, the concern was with the practical atheist who conducted his life as though he would never be held to account for his deeds. In biblical literature, the statement there is no God is made by the Naval, i.e., the morally corrupt person who, while acknowledging the existence of a creator, refused to believe that he was at all interested in the actions of his creatures. His counterpart in the Talmud is the apikoros or epicurean who likewise denies the fundamental principle of religion (Baba Batra 16b) by his abdominal conduct. The Rabbis define the atheist as one who affirmed there is no judgment and no judge (Genesis Rabbi XXVI.6) in the universe irrespective of his disbelief in the existence of God.
What is the naval? In Psalms 53, we read:
- The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.
- God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.
- Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
- Have the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread: they have not called upon God.
Notice the character of the individual. The wicked does only abominable deeds and is rejected by God. When one says those things of another brother, he is in essence pronouncing judgment. He has usurped a place and a position of judgment that belongs only to God. In doing so, he is placing himself in danger of eternal judgment. Perhaps the moral here is that only God knows the true heart and intent of a man and it ill behooves us to stand in judgment of one another.