Hebrew word study: shuv – return, repent

As we enter the Jewish season of High Holy Days, the words “return,” “repentance,” and “turn back” are paramount.

By Dr. Theresa Newell

It is a good time to examine the Hebrew word shuv, which carries all of these meanings and implies movement from one thing or place to another. There is a further, deeper meaningto repent or turn back to God. This can mean to return to the beginnings–to God Himself.  

 In searching out the meaning of Hebrew words of the Bible, it is best to find where this word first appears and what the meaning tells us. Shuv first appears in the Bible in Genesis 3:19. Adam and Eve had rebelled against God. The sentence against Adam (whose names comes from adamah, the ground) is this:

“By the sweat of your brow
You will eat your food
Until you return (shuv) to the ground (adamah)
Since from it you were taken;
For dust (adamah) you are and
To dust (adamah) you will return (shuv).”

desert road

Adam began as dust, and he will now, due to his disobedience, return to the substance from which he came. Death thus became the ultimate enemy of adamic mankind. However, we learn the essence of “returning to the beginning of things” from this example. 

Shuv in its various forms appears over a thousand times in the Old Testament, especially in Jeremiah and Psalms. In some instances, the word simply means a person returns from the place he had left. For example, God said to Jacob, “Go back (shuv) to the land of your fathers” (Gen 31:3), or in Deuteronomy 3:20 Moses said, “Each of you may go back (shuv) to the possession I have given you.”  

But this ubiquitous word of scripture also calls for the children of God to leave their idolatrous ways and to return to him once again, usually followed by a promise from God that he would then restore them to himself and his full blessing. “When you and your children return (shuv) to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul . . . then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you” (Deut 31:2, 3). 

Many times, God speaks through the prophets calling his people to return. “Return (shuv), faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding” (Jer 3:22). God speaks of his plan to return his people to their land as in Jeremiah 30:3: “I will return (shuv) my people back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their forefathers to possess.” God spoke similar words through the prophet Hosea: 

“Return (shuv), O Israel, to the LORD your God. 
Your sins have been your downfall!
I will heal their waywardness
And love them freely,
For my anger has turned away (shuv) from them” (Hos 14:1, 4).

This promise is repeated numerous times using both meanings of shuv – a promise of physical return to the land and restoration to himself as in Jeremiah 33:7, 8. It is amazing that God not only calls the Jewish people to return to him, but he promises to return to them when they hear, obey and return to the Creator and Father God and to their Messiah Yeshua!  

The Hebrew word teshuvah, “repentance,” is from this same root. Do you see s-h-u-v in the center of the word? When one has sinned against God or neighbor, one must turn again to God and ask his forgiveness. This is teshuvah. Maimonides, the great rabbi of the Middle Ages, wrote that there were three parts to teshuvah: confession, regret and a vow not to repeat the sin. In addition, Maimonides taught that if one sins against one’s neighbor by theft or slander, one must also provide restitution and ask for (and hopefully receive) forgiveness of the one sinned against (cf. Lev 6:1-7, Num 5:5-8). 

The message of the Gospels is the same: 

 John came baptizing . . . and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), and his prophetic call was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 3:2). Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). 

The hope which the Cross of Jesus, the second Adam, brings is that in Jesus we can return/repent from our sin and trespasses and come all the way back to God, the Creator and Beginner of all things. The Bible calls us to shuv continually – to turn again, to repent of our rebellion against our loving God and to be reconciled to him and our neighbors. 

Photo credit: LUMO Project via FreeBibleImages.org

John baptizes a repentant woman

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