Joy: Day 1

Yesterday, I started my word study of “joy” by trying to form a preliminary idea of what I’m dealing with here. Check it out here if you missed. Unfortunately, as I look back at all that I learned yesterday, I realize two things. First, knowing the number of times that joy and its variants appear in Scripture really serves to tell you how significant of a theme it is in the Bible, but also how large a task it is to do a comprehensive word study such as I intend to do. And second, while it’s essential to have a baseline definition for joy, establishing that baseline for such an abstract concept as joy proves to be something like nailing Jello to a tree. We ended up with a lot of circular definitions, where the word joy is used to define itself. When I made this second realization, I must admit that I was a bit frustrated. But, undeterred, I shall press on by investigating the first appearances of joy in the Bible.

To do this, I started out by looking in a regular concordance. To be honest, though, I found myself quickly frustrated by having to look there and then flip to the passage, read, analyze, and then flip back again. Plus, as I noted yesterday when there was a difference between the number of instances of “joy” between the NIV and NASB, I was curious to see how different translations dealt with the idea. So today, I am using the excellent tools at to run a search for joy, joyful, or rejoice in each of four different versions: King James Version (KJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), New International Version (NIV), and The Amplified Bible (TAB).  To make life even easier, I’ve loaded all of these pages simultaneously in different tabs in my browser, so I can quickly switch back and forth between them. (Tabbed browsing may be one of the most revolutionary concepts in the history of computing.)

Depending on which of these four versions you use, the word “joy” appears first in three different places. Since I’m wanting to be pretty comprehensive, we’ll start with TAB in Genesis 14:19, where we read, “And he blessed him and said, Blessed (favored with blessings, made blissful, joyful) be Abram by God Most High, Possessor and Maker of heaven and earth.” The fact that this reference is in parentheses tells us that this is an instance of the amplification that TAB is named for. Essentially, TAB provides these to explain Biblical concepts. In this case, we discover that the idea of being joyful is wrapped up in Melchizedek’s blessing upon Abram. This isn’t really, in the strictest sense, an instance of “joy” in Scripture, but it may give us a hint as to the origin of true joy: God.

Discounting the Genesis 14 reference, the next time that “joy” appears in Scripture, according to the NASB, NIV, and TAB, is Genesis 31:27. The context of the verse is that Jacob has set out in search of a wife and come to the land of Ur (where Abram had come from) and the house of Laban. Laban had promised Jacob his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven years of work, but when Jacob awoke the next morning, his new father-in-law had tricked him and given him Leah instead. So Laban extorted another seven years of labor from Jacob in return for Rachel, and Jacob ended up with two wives. After working for fourteen years, Jacob had asked to leave, but Laban begged him to stay, so Jacob made a deal that all the speckled, spotted, or black sheep and goats should be his wages. Through some selective breeding and a little bit of Providence, all the sheep and goats that were born under Jacob’s care were both strong and healthy, and speckled, spotted, or black, thus making Jacob very rich by the end of chapter 30. And Laban very jealous. So Jacob gathered his family and his flocks and started out in secret for Canaan, but Laban tracked him down and, in Genesis 31:27, demanded an explanation: “Why did you flee secretly and deceive me, and did not tell me so that I might have sent you away with joy and with songs, with timbrel and with lyre” (NIV).

Each of the NIV, NASB, and TAB render this verb pretty consistently, but the KJV translates the word as “mirth.” In both cases, the idea is that of merriment and celebration. So Laban translates “joy” into a celebration. But is Laban’s idea of joy really what we’re after? I mean, the guy was pretty much a scoundrel. He had repeatedly dealt with Jacob dishonestly, and now, we have every reason to believe that the only reason he wanted Jacob to return was because, as long as Jacob was around, he would have a chance to swindle the flocks that Jacob had earned. Not to mention that Jacob had been taking care of Laban’s flocks all these years.

At the end of the day, I think Laban’s idea of joy tells us a lot about what the world thinks of joy: that it’s a big party. The only problem is that it’s all a big facade. Laban’s offer of joy was nothing more than bait to get Jacob and co. to stick around a little longer. Come back, and we’ll have a good time while I try to figure out how to con you again.

The joy that the world thinks of is an illusion. It’s a good time which distracts you from the bad things that are going on just behind the scenes. If Jacob had fallen for this, he would have gone back to Ur and we can only imagine how long he would have worked for Laban, how many tricks and schemes Laban would have used to steal Jacob’s fortune, and how history would have been changed. For instance, if Jacob didn’t come back and make peace with his brother Esau, his son Joseph wouldn’t have been sold into slavery in Egypt. Then Jacob and co. wouldn’t have moved to Egypt to survive the famine, the Israelites couldn’t have been delivered from slavery under Moses, and they wouldn’t have taken the promise land under Joshua. If they didn’t conquer the promise land, they couldn’t have been established as a nation, been exiled, and ultimately seen the birth of Jesus. Then there would be no such thing as true joy.

So the moral of the story, today, is that there are a lot of people and things out there that talk about joy without having any real idea what it is.


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