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We all know the truth that "suffering produces perseverance" and other Christian virtues (Rom 5:3), but at the same time we know people who have experienced suffering or sickness (which are treated as quite different categories in Scripture) and have become bitter rather than better due to the experience. Bitterness, to be sure, is no Christian virtue, even if it is at times overlooked in people of faith (see Ruth 1:20-21 for the example of Naomi). It is not addressed directly in Scripture, except possibly in this one verse, Hebrews 12:15. Yet this text still raises a number of issues. What is a "bitter root"? Does it have anything to do with the vice of bitterness? Why is it connected to missing "the grace of God"? And how does it "defile many"?
A frequent interpretation of this verse is that it simply warns against bitterness or "bitter root judgments." Since the term "bitter" appears in the verse and all of us know individuals who have for one reason or another become bitter, such an interpretation sounds reasonable. The verse, then, would rightly point out that such attitudes (and the judgments of others that flow from them, like poison seeping out of a festering wound) can injure those who hold them, blocking these people from the many good things God has for them. In addition, it can injure the whole Christian community, infecting it with a fractious negativity and smearing the character of its leaders. Such observations have been made by most pastoral leaders. The question is whether the author has these observations in mind.
The answer to that question must be no. The context of the passage in Hebrews 12 is that of holding on to the faith despite difficulties. Where commitment has grown weak, it is to be strengthened; the "lame" in the community are to be healed; "level paths" are to be made for their feet (Heb 12:12-13). The "level paths" (from Prov 4:26) are the ways of holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14). Having called for a firm commitment, the author continues with a series of warnings. Esau, an irreligious man, had an inheritance and lost it, being unable afterward to regain what he had so lightly sold. Israel was disciplined severely at Mount Sinai for their disobedience, but the Christians to whom Hebrews is addressed have come to an even more glorious place and therefore will be so much more severely disciplined if they reject God. What might they be in danger of rejecting? They might reject the message of the author, who is calling for them to hold fast to Christ and not abandon him in apostasy.
The phrase "bitter root" is an Old Testament allusion, for it is very similar to a phrase in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version normally quoted by the author of Hebrews. In Deuteronomy 29:18 we read, "Make sure there is no [person] among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison." By comparing the two con-texts, we see the point the author is making. To miss or fall short of the "grace of God" is the equivalent of turning away from the Lord in the Old Testament. Simply put, it means apostasy, a failure to commit oneself to God's grace. Such an apostate is a "bitter root" or, to use the Old Testament phrase, a "root that produces bitter poison." Just as one apostate in Israel could influence many neighbors to serve gods other than Yahweh, so one apostate among these Christians could lead others to forsake their faith. This, then, is the meaning of the text within its context.
Bitterness is not good. It is, in fact, a form of anger (that is, a nursed anger that has been allowed to smolder within), a topic about which the New Testament has much to say (see Gal 5:20; Jas 1:19). It can also be a characteristic of jealousy, which is condemned in James 3:14. Thus, if bitterness is broken downinto its root vices, one will discover that Scripture has a lot to say about it. But this passage is not about bitterness; it is about apostasy. If bitterness is not good, apostasy is devastating. It means missing the grace of God and coming into judgment before the God who is "a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29).
See Peter H. Davids, "Sickness and Suffering in the New Testament," in C. Peter Wagner and F. Douglas Pennoyer, eds., Wrestling with Dark Angels (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1990), pp. 215-37.
While the biblical Esau was not, strictly speaking, a fornicator, he did marry Hittite wives (Gen 26:34-35), which is commented upon negatively. Both intermarriage with non-Hebrew people and the use of temple prostitutes connected fornication to apostasy, the serving of other gods. In extrabiblical traditions both Esau and his wives are viewed as sexually immoral: see Jubilees 25:1, 8; Palestinian Targum on Genesis 25:29; Genesis Rabba 70d, 72a; Exodus Rabba 116a. Whatever the connection (or lack of it) to Esau, the author is clearly against all sexual misconduct (Heb 13:4).