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David Lambert





Teshuva and “Returning to the LORD” - Are They One and the Same?



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David Lambert





Teshuva and “Returning to the LORD” - Are They One and the Same?






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Teshuva and “Returning to the LORD” - Are They One and the Same?


Teshuva and “Returning to the LORD” - Are They One and the Same?

Photograph shows seven men, wearing prayers shawls and kippot, standing at a table reading religious text with a boy; table covered with cloth showing Star of David. c. 1901. Library of Congress

Repentance as the Paradigm for Redemption

For many of us, Deuteronomy 30:1-10 and a parallel passage in Deuteronomy 4:29-31 form a core component of what we understand to be one of the basic doctrines of Judaism, the idea of repentance, teshuva. Israel will sin and be sent into exile, where they will repent and then return to the land:

דברים ל:א וְהָיָה כִי יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה. ל:ב וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ. ל:ג וְשָׁב יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה.
Deut 30:1 When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—you will take them (והשבת) to heart amidst the various nations to which the LORD your God has banished you; 30:2 you will return (ושבת) to the LORD your God and heed His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and soul; 30:3 the LORD will restore (ושב) you and take you back; and He will bring you together again (ושב) from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.

The significance of this passage is most obvious on the national level as a statement that sets forth the program of repentance that Israel must follow if they are to be redeemed from exile. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer must have had this passage in mind when he declared (b. Sanh. 97b):

אם ישראל עושין תשובה נגאלין ואם לאו אין נגאלין.
If Israel repents, they will be redeemed, and if not, they won’t be redeemed.

In addition, it is clear that the Rabbis understood the passage as having implications for the individual as well. Thus, for example, in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, we find Deut 30:2 rendered rather freely as follows:

טוּבֵיכוֹן דְצַדִיקַיָא מָרֵי תְּתוּבָא דְכַד תְּחוֹבוּן וּתְתוּבוּן מַטְיָא תְּיוּבְתְּכוֹן עַד כּוּרְסֵי יְקָרָא דַיְיָ אֱלָהָכוֹן.
The greatest among your righteous are the penitents ([בעלי תשובה]= תתובא מרי, )for, when they sin and repent, their repentance reaches the Glorious Seat of the Lord your God.

Here, the verse is said to establish the efficacy of teshuva for the individual sinner.[1]

Rabbinic Teshuva vs. Biblical “Return to the LORD”

Do these common interpretations accord with what might have been the original sense of Deuteronomy? Are the rabbinic concept of teshuva, commonly translated as “repentance,” and the biblical phrase “return to the LORD” really equivalent? I would like to suggest that some important differences between the two have been overlooked.

To be sure, the Rabbis consistently understand them to be the same. The very term, teshuva, is, of course, a noun derived from the biblical verb, shuv, “return.” What should give us pause, however, is that the rabbinic term, teshuva, along with the verbal phrase עשה תשובה (“repenting” or “doing repentance”), is a new coinage not found in Bible itself.

Also, of interest, is that the Septuagint, an early, authoritative Greek translation of the Bible refrains from translating “return to the LORD” as “repent,” preferring to translate it literally as a form of “turning,” whereas there is evidence that later Greek translations did employ the common Greek word for “regret,” metanoia, a close equivalent to teshuva.[2] Is it possible that the Septuagint was observing an important distinction?

To begin, we need to arrive at a definition of rabbinic teshuva. Maimonides’ definition in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:2) is a useful starting point:

ומה היא התשובה? הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו, ויסירו ממחשבתו, ויגמור בלבו שלא יעשהו עוד… וכן יתנחם על שעבר.
What is teshuva? It is when the sinner abandons his (particular form of) sin, removes it from his thoughts, and determines in his heart not to do it again… and, so too, he regrets what happened in the past.

Maimonides’ portrayal of teshuva—quite close to the rabbinic usage, I believe—focuses strikingly on its qualities as a mental act. That makes “repentance,” in fact, an excellent definition of the rabbinic concept, teshuva.[3]

The question then is how to understand the biblical phrase, “(re)turn to the LORD.” Biblical scholars nearly unanimously have understood it as a metaphor, suggesting that it really means: “return to covenantal obedience.” This has the odd result of simply switching out God in the phrase, “to the LORD,” with the abstraction, “to covenantal obedience.”[4] One late biblical formulation does indeed change the phrase to mean precisely that:

נחמיה ט:כט וַתָּעַד בָּהֶם לַהֲשִׁיבָם אֶל תּוֹרָתֶךָ…
Neh 9:29 You warned them to turn them back to Your torah

But that compels us to consider the question: if that is the intention of the phrase, why is that not made explicit in the earlier standard formulations?[5] Clearly, there is reason to consider whether the standard covenantal explanation is, in fact, the right one.

Development of the Phrase “Return to the LORD”

A three-fold development in the history of the phrase’s use impacts both our understanding of the passages in Deuteronomy, as well as the history of teshuva as a concept.

Petition (Early Prophets)

Among the eighth century prophets, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, the phrase was used frequently, not in a context of “covenantal obedience,” but rather one of appeal or petition. Thus, “returning” or, perhaps better, “turning aside,” “to the LORD” is seen as the natural and necessary response to affliction in Amos 4:8-11.

עמוס ד:ח וְנָעוּ שְׁתַּיִם שָׁלֹשׁ עָרִים אֶל עִיר אַחַת לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם וְלֹא יִשְׂבָּעוּ
Amos 4:8 So two or three towns would wander to a single town to drink water, but their thirst would not be slaked.
— וְלֹא שַׁבְתֶּם עָדַי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
— Yet you did not turn to Me declares YHWH.
ד:ט הִכֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם בַּשִּׁדָּפוֹן וּבַיֵּרָקוֹן הַרְבּוֹת גַּנּוֹתֵיכֶם וְכַרְמֵיכֶם וּתְאֵנֵיכֶם וְזֵיתֵיכֶם יֹאכַל הַגָּזָם
4:9 I scourged you with blight and mildew; repeatedly your gardens and vineyards, your fig trees and olive trees were devoured by locusts.
— וְלֹא שַׁבְתֶּם עָדַי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
— Yet you did not turn to Me declares YHWH.
ד:י שִׁלַּחְתִּי בָכֶם דֶּבֶר בְּדֶרֶךְ מִצְרַיִם הָרַגְתִּי בַחֶרֶב בַּחוּרֵיכֶם עִם שְׁבִי סוּסֵיכֶם וָאַעֲלֶה בְּאֹשׁ מַחֲנֵיכֶם וּבְאַפְּכֶם
4:10 I sent against you pestilence in the manner of Egypt; I slew your young men with the sword, together with your captured horses, and I made the stench of your armies rise in your very nostrils.
— וְלֹא שַׁבְתֶּם עָדַי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
— Yet you did not turn to Me declares YHWH.
י:יא הָפַכְתִּי בָכֶם כְּמַהְפֵּכַת אֱלֹהִים אֶת סְדֹם וְאֶת עֲמֹרָה וַתִּהְיוּ כְּאוּד מֻצָּל מִשְּׂרֵפָה
10:11 I have wrought destruction among you As when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah; You have become like a brand plucked from burning.
— וְלֹא שַׁבְתֶּם עָדַי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
— Yet you did not turn to Me declares YHWH.

In other words, if you believe that Israel’s god is the one bringing a given affliction, then you appeal to that god to stop. What’s at stake is not so much obedience or morality as much as recognition: beseeching the god of Israel to remedy an affliction establishes that it is that god who is responsible for your trouble.

In Hosea, “returning to the LORD” appears parallel to verbs of seeking like בקש (see Hos 5:15-6:1, 7:10), which also indicates a process of appeal, most likely in a cultic context. The people must seek God in his place:

ה:טו אֵלֵךְ אָשׁוּבָה אֶל מְקוֹמִי עַד אֲשֶׁר יֶאְשְׁמוּ וּבִקְשׁוּ פָנָי בַּצַּר לָהֶם יְשַׁחֲרֻנְנִי. ו:א לְכוּ וְנָשׁוּבָה אֶל יְ־הוָה כִּי הוּא טָרָף וְיִרְפָּאֵנוּ יַךְ וְיַחְבְּשֵׁנוּ.
Hos 5:15 And I will return to My abode till they realize their guilt. In their distress, they will seek Me And beg for My favor. 6:1 “Come, let us turn to YHWH: He attacked, and He can heal us; He wounded, and He can bind us up.
ז:י וְעָנָה גְאוֹן יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָנָיו וְלֹא שָׁבוּ אֶל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא בִקְשֻׁהוּ בְּכָל זֹאת.
7:10 Though Israel’s pride has been humbled before his very eyes, they have not turned to their God YHWH; they have not sought Him in spite of everything.

In particular, in Hosea, “turning to the LORD” is juxtaposed with going to other nations to seek help.

הושע יא:ה לֹא יָשׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וְאַשּׁוּר הוּא מַלְכּוֹ כִּי מֵאֲנוּ לָשׁוּב.
Hos 11:5 No! They return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria is their king. Because they refuse to turn [to the LORD].[6]

Again, the problem is one of recognition, turning to the true source of power, “I am the one who redeems them” (Hos 7:13), rather than moral renewal or obedience per se.

Isaiah uses the phrase similarly. One day the Egyptians will establish an altar to Israel’s god in their land:

ישעיה יט:כב וְנָגַף יְ־הוָה אֶת מִצְרַיִם נָגֹף וְרָפוֹא וְשָׁבוּ עַד יְ־הוָה וְנֶעְתַּר לָהֶם וּרְפָאָם.
Isa 19:22 YHWH will afflict and then heal the Egyptians, when they turn to YHWH, he will respond to their entreaties and heal them.

This “turn” does not appear to be any “return to covenantal obedience,” but rather a process of appeal. This is a more literal sense of “turn” in keeping with the personal quality of the phrase; the people are meant to approach God for help in a site dedicated to His name.

Restoration of Relationship (Jeremiah)

Jeremiah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries employs the metaphor of Israel as God’s wife of child. In this connection, he uses the phrase in reference to returning to a prior, familial relationship:

ירמיה ג:ח וָאֵרֶא כִּי עַל כָּל אֹדוֹת אֲשֶׁר נִאֲפָה מְשֻׁבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׁלַּחְתִּיהָ וָאֶתֵּן אֶת סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻתֶיהָ אֵלֶיהָ וְלֹא יָרְאָה בֹּגֵדָה יְהוּדָה אֲחוֹתָהּ וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתִּזֶן גַּם הִיא… ג:י וְגַם בְּכָל זֹאת לֹאשָׁבָה אֵלַי בָּגוֹדָה אֲחוֹתָהּ יְהוּדָה…
Jer 3:8 I noted: Because Rebel Israel had committed adultery, I cast her off and handed her a bill of divorce; yet her sister, Faithless Judah, was not afraid—see too went and whored… 3:10 and after all that, her sister, Faithless Judah, did not return to Me…
ירמיה ג:כב שׁוּבוּ בָּנִים שׁוֹבָבִים אֶרְפָּה מְשׁוּבֹתֵיכֶם…
Jer 3:22 Come back, wayward children, I will undo your backsliding!…[7]

This is not so much a demand for moral renewal or obedience, anything like “repentance,” as much as an invitation to reinitiate a prior relationship. Israel has strayed away from its deity, represented by husband or father, by worshipping others, but has an opportunity to return and once again enter into a relationship of worship with the Israelite deity. The connection to worship of “return to the LORD” is preserved, but it is extended by Jeremiah from a decision to appeal to the deity in particular circumstances to a broader practice of worship, an overall relationship.

Cessation of Sin (Late Biblical)

The phrase “(re)turn (שוב)” underwent a significant transformation in later forms of biblical Hebrew, from around the Babylonian exile and on. Rather than finding the positive formulation, “return to the LORD,” we find a negative formulation—returning from— attested more frequently, as in certain later, editorial sections of the book of Kings:[8]

מלכים ב יז:יג וַיָּעַד יְ־הוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל… לֵאמֹר שֻׁבוּ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶם הָרָעִים וְשִׁמְרוּ מִצְו‍ֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי…
2 Kgs 17:13 YHWH warned Israel and Judah by every prophet… saying, “Turn away from your wicked ways and observe my commandments and my laws…”

We find the same negative formulation, for instance, in the books of Ezekiel (e.g. 18:21) and Jonah (3:8),[9] as well as in certain late parts of Jeremiah:[10]

ירמיה יח:יא …שׁוּבוּ נָא אִישׁ מִדַּרְכּוֹ הָרָעָה וְהֵיטִיבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶם וּמַעַלְלֵיכֶם
Jer 18:11 …Turn back, each of you, from your wicked ways, and mend your ways and your actions!

This formulation clearly changes the sense of shuv. Rather than “returning to God” as an act of appeal or restoration of a relationship, what we have in these later texts is a very focused concern on the necessity of returning from, namely removing wrongdoing for Israel’s midst.

Cessation of Sin vs. an Act of Teshuva

This development in the later strata of biblical Hebrew helps pave the way for a concept of teshuva as a response to sin, but is not yet identical to the rabbinic concept. For one thing, “turning away from sin” in the Bible is not so much a discrete, efficacious act, as much as a resulting state. Most significantly, in Ezekiel 18:21, for example, the “turn away from sin” does not atone, as it does in rabbinic literature. Rather, it emphasizes that one is judged and allowed to live based on one’s current state of righteousness. The wicked will die, even if they used to be righteous, the righteous will live, even if they used to be wicked—repentance as a process, as we, and the classical rabbis understand it, has no place in Ezekiel 18.

Stated differently, in biblical Hebrew, one cannot “turn away,” in the sense of repent, from a specific sin committed. “Turning away” instead refers to a broader change in state. It is not an interior process; it is not about emotional regret and a mental determination not to sin again. What’s key is not the individual’s act of repentance, but assuring that there is nothing toxic in the community’s midst.

The Deuteronomy Passages

Deut 4:29-31 and Deut 30:1-10, part of the later editorial layers of Deuteronomy,[11] should be counted among the later biblical texts that use shuv in the context of a rectification of behavior: “…you will return to the LORD your God (אלהיך ה׳ עד ושבת) and heed His voice, according to all that I command you today…” (Deut 30:2). These passages preserve the traditional positive formulation, while moving the direction of the phrase’s meaning over to the concern for legal adherence.[12] The meaning would appear to the “cessation of sin” idea: “returning to the LORD” now means listening to his commandments.[13]

That said, we should be careful not to import later connotations of teshuva developed in rabbinic literature, if we wish to interpret these passages in light of their ancient Israelite contexts. Deut 30:1-10 does not assume a nation that has “repented” of its sins in a single act of mental determination; rather its concern is to establish a nation that has effectively removed evil from its midst, Deuteronomy’s abiding concern, and so can adhere to the laws spelled out in the Deuteronomic Code, Deuteronomy 12-26. A divine “circumcision of the heart,” of the sort that comes into focus in Deut 30:1-10, provides a permanent solution to the problem of sin, thus allowing the people to be restored and to persevere in the Land.[14]


September 25, 2016


Last Updated

April 13, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. David Lambert is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) where he teaches Hebrew Bible. He received his Ph.D., M.A., and A.B. from Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He is the author of How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture.