According to Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10; cf. Ps 111:10). The Hebrew word for “fear” (יראה; yirah) is common in Israel’s Scriptures, but it raises questions for English readers: Does this maxim encourage people to be “afraid” of God? If so, how does being scared lead to wisdom? What did the ancient Israelites mean when they referred to “fear”? The various connotations of “fear” in the Bible illustrate an important lesson: words only have meaning in context. Therefore, in order to ascertain the implication of a given word, the reader must consult the surrounding context. Sometimes יראה (fear) expresses fright; in other contexts, “fear” denotes reverence, respect, or even realization.
When Bible readers ask about the meaning of a Hebrew word, they might assume that there’s a single and semantically stable answer. However, the definitions of words do not function this simply in any language; instead, the same word can have two disparate meanings depending on its context. For example, we could say, “The view from her balcony overlooks the park.” Alternatively, we could note, “He always overlooks important details.” In these instances, “overlooks” carries different meanings that depend on the words around it. The same can be said of the Hebrew ירא (yare; “to fear”).
Psalm 23 offers a well-known example of ירא (yare) in the sense of visceral dread, but the psalmist asserts that God’s presence obviates such fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear (ירא; yare) no evil, for you are with me” (Ps 23:4). In this case, the prayer describes the looming threat of the “shadow of death” (צלמות; tsalmavet), but asserts that divine imminence produces confidence in the face of fear. The psalmist could have used several other words to convey “fear” or “dread” as, for instance, God does in conversation with Noah after the flood: “The fear (מורא; mora’) and dread (חת; hat) of you shall be upon every animal of the land and upon every bird of the sky” (Gen 9:2). Alternatively, the psalm could have employed other words for fear, as Moses does with reference to God’s enemies: “Terror (אימה; emah) and fear (פחד; pahad) fall upon them because of the greatness of your arm” (Exod 15:16). There is no single word for “fear” in Hebrew, and the various terms can have multiple meanings; thus, we need the contexts of the words in order to determine their significance.
Returning to Proverbs, the idea that “fear” of God leads to wisdom appears in the context of being receptive to instruction: “Give to a wise person and they will get wiser; teach a righteous person and they will add [to their] learning. The fear (יראה; yirah) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge (דעת; da’at) of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov 9:9-10). Here, the word for “fear” parallels the word “knowledge,” which shows that יראה (fear) in this context has nothing to do with being afraid; rather, “fear” means “awareness” or “realization.” In Proverbs 9:10, “fear of the Lord” is another way of saying “knowledge of God.” Indeed, when the Lord appears to human beings, God is quick to say, “Do not fear” (על תירא; al tira’; e.g., Gen 15:1; Jgs 6:23; cf. Lk 1:30). In these instances, the Lord does not encourage a fearful response to the divine presence, but rather a spirit of respect, reverence, and receptivity.