There is a wonderful Yiddish word, hutzpah. It stems from the Hebrew root word hatzaf (חצף) which is a verb that means “to bare”. Perhaps the best descriptions of hutzpah are insolence, impertinence or in proper English, cheekiness because it brings out a physical aspect of what is being defined. Today its meaning often times has an aggressive, pushy or arrogant connection (i.e. not really a good thing). Hutzpah is often portrayed as a passionate, persistent, won’t quit, “in your face” type of an attitude or characteristic. Its root can also be connected with faith(fullness). 1 It is also a word used in many pieces of Jewish literature such as the Mishna, in Masechet Sota, and the Talmud. The Masechet Sota, 9:15 states that, “in the messianic period [the kingdom] hutzpah will prevail” (בעקבות משיחא חוצפא יסגא). In the Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 105a), it also is stated, “hutzpah, even against heaven, serves some good” (חוצפא אפילו כלפי שמיא מהני) and “hutzpah is dominion without a crown” (חוצפא מלכותא בלא תאגא היא).
Though we don’t find the word directly stated in the New Testament, we do find the attribute. The Scriptures as well show many places where various men “contend” with God, the Master of the Universe. Passages such as Jeremiah 20:9, “But if I say, "I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name," then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.” You can feel the intensity and the passion communicated; this takes hutzpah. Perhaps this may be considered inappropriate or politically incorrect in our twenty-first century Christian mindset of who God is and what He desires, but could we be possibly mistaken?
Abraham was an obedient man and did whatever God asked of him. Because of his obedience, God declared Abraham righteous. In Genesis 13, God tells Abram that He “will give you and your offspring forever all the land that you see”…and that He would make Abram’s “offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if one could count the dust of the earth, then your offspring could be counted.” In Genesis 15 God then speaks again and Abram in so many words demands, “where’s my kids you promised!?” Abraham displayed tremendous hutzpah. Can you imagine doing this?
We don’t know how much time lapsed after God’s promise of children, but we can tell it had been on Abram’s mind. Abram was not young to begin with and God barely had spoken when Abram blurted out his contention. There are other examples as well, but a favorite is when the Lord tells Abram He is going to destroy Sodom. Abram steps up and speaks his mind to the Lord (Genesis 17:23-25), “You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that! Won't the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Do you get what he just said? “You should do what is right God, you should know better!” Abram then goes through an elaborate bartering process for the sparing of the “righteous” (aka “Lot”- 2 Peter 2:6-9) found in Sodom. Abram is interceding and has the “guts” or huztpah to tell God “you can’t do that”.
Jacob, the grandson of Abraham had left Laban and was going to meet his brother. Here we find an interesting scene depicted. Jacob wrestled with an unknown individual for some time and when the man was not able to defeat Jacob, the man struck Jacob's hip socket. Morning was dawning and the man demanded to be let go. Even with the hip issue Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked Jacob his name, and proceeded to rename him Israel, meaning the one who “contends” or “wrestles” with God and prevails. That took some huztpah! Why does God honor this type of “contention” or hutzpah? What does God want out of us?
Elijah was a man with intense passion, or full of hutzpah. He is the mold for passionate individuals and in one sense “set the bar” for all those who would follow. Unless we put ourselves in his "sandals" and immerse ourselves in the story, it becomes just that, a story.2 When Jesus asked, "Who do people say that I am?", he was given the response that some thought he was Elijah. Why would people think that? In the mind of the Jewish people, Elijah was the model for intense passion and commitment. What does that tell us about Jesus?3
Elijah knew his Scriptures and he knew that God had said numerous times to “be careful not to let yourselves be seduced, so that you turn aside, serving other gods and worshipping them. If you do, the anger of ADONAI will blaze up against you. He will shut up the sky, so that there will be no rain. The ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly pass away from the good land ADONAI is giving you” (Deut 11:16-17). Elijah prayed in harmony with the scriptures against all the abomination that was being committed in the land of Israel and he was even attacked for this: “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, "Is that you, you destroyer of Israel?" Elijah replied, "I have not destroyed Israel, but you and your father's house have, because you have abandoned the LORD's commandments and followed the Baals (1Ki 18:17-18).
Elijah now demonstrated more hutzpah when proposing a contest of monstrous proportions between the pagan prophets and the God of Israel. He suggested that they each prepare a bull and “you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh. The God who answers with fire, He is God." All the people answered, "That sounds good.” Was this putting God to the test? Was it not Jesus who said this should not be done? Was Elijah testing or partnering with God to show the world that there was “a God in Israel” who was above all other gods (1 Kings 8:60, 1 Sam 17:46)? Elijah gave every fiber of his being to this contest. After his proposal, he climbed a huge mountain (Carmel, which is about a 2400 ft climb), harassed the prophets of Baal, built an altar with giant boulders, killed and prepared a bull, prayed and when fire came down, went down the mountain and destroyed the prophets. He then went back up the mountain and prayed, then once again, came down the mountain and ran an eighteen and a half mile marathon ahead of a horse and chariot to Jezreel. That is hutzpah.
Moses was also a good example of huztpah. He stood in front of the people when God was ready to destroy them and in essence said, “Why are you so angry at the people that you brought out of Egypt? Do you want to give the Egyptians the right to say ‘their God took them out to the mountains in order to kill them all’? Don’t do this! Change the plans that you have mind! Remember the promise that you made swearing to our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel by telling them they would have children as many as the stars in the sky, and the land was ours as an inheritance forever”. That took some serious huztpah. Was Yahweh really like this, or was he looking for some participation from Moses? Maybe God wanted this old man to use some hutzpah and thus be a reflection of His own nature of compassion that would later be further revealed in the “prophet like Moses”.4 Perhaps there is more to having a relationship with God than we realize.
The following parable that Jesus told illustrates this further. Jesus’ disciples had just asked him to teach them to pray. He proceeded to tell the following parable in Luke 11. “A man had a friend who came over at midnight with this request, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread because my friend has just come off the road to my place, and I do not have food to set before him." But from inside he answered, "Do not make it difficult for me. The door has already been barred for the night and my children are all bedded down with me. I cannot get up and supply you." I tell you, even if he will not get up and give it to him on the basis of friendship alone, on the basis of the man's undaunted persistence, he will get up and give him as much as he needs. Moreover, I say to you: Ask, and (what you need) will be given. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and you will get an opening. For everyone asking receives, the seeker finds, and the one who knocks gets entry.” The actions taught in this story are akin to much of Jesus’ message; asking, seeking, knocking.
In our way of thinking today it might seem inappropriate to question or “confront” God. However, in this parable God is the Father already in bed and because of the “undaunted persistence” (huztpah) of the “friend”, God grants his request. This is not to suggest that the parable is to be taken as the complete character of God any more than other parables.5 But this parable is clearly to be seen in context with the disciples request for Jesus to teach them how to “ask” of God.
There was a woman to whom Jesus said, “your faith has healed you”. This happened as he was in a crowded place and this woman grabbed his tassel.6 There is no doubt that her grasping at his hem/corner/tassel was an expression of her belief in Jesus as the “sun of righteousness”, but there is also the sense that her “faith” is expressed in her willingness to be shameless, persistent and not quit until she had grasped onto that for which she strove. Because of this, she was made well.
Another example is found in a meeting Jesus had with a foreign woman (Matt 15, Mark 7). She begged him to help her daughter. Jesus explains that he was sent to the house of Israel, and he does not want to overstep the mission God gave him. She falls down before him and continues to beg for help. He tells her that it is not right to give her that which is meant for another.7 She agrees but still continues to persist until he relents and helps her. Jesus commended her and said that her “faith” was great, and at this her daughter was healed. Was Jesus referring to her great theology and understanding of deep mysteries of God? How about her regular attendance of the regions synagogue? I don’t think so. If she would have quit after Jesus’ first response “I was sent to the house of Israel”; would her daughter have been healed? Or what about his second response that the “little dogs are not to be given the food intended for the children”; would her daughter have been made well? Her hutzpah, the persistent drive and passionate exercise of faithfulness to see her daughter made well is what Jesus credits this act of healing.
God desires us as His people to come to Him with persistence, confidence and passion. For what other reason would the prophet Isaiah say in relation to the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, “You, who remind the LORD, no rest for you[DON’T QUIT!]! Do not give Him rest until He establishes and makes her Jerusalem the praise of the earth” (Is 62:6-7). God wants His people to show persistence and even wrestle with Him. This is not an exercise, but merely a result of passionate people as viewed in the Scriptural story of our patriarchal forefathers. This is probably the backdrop for the statement the book of Jacob (James) gives us, “The intense prayer of the righteous is very powerful. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit” (James 5:16-18).
How badly do we want wisdom from God? How often do we ask? How much do we plead with God and remind Him of the promises He made that are left unfulfilled? How much do we know about what He promised? Are we ready to stand in the Name of Yahweh like Elijah? Do we have the hutzpah to wrestle with God?
1. For more on this, see The Parables, Jewish tradition and Christian Interpretation by Brad Young, pp. 45-65
2. John the Baptist was a man who came in the “power and spirit of Elijah”, so you can imagine what how intense and powerful of an individual he would have been.
3. Additionally, the prophet Malachi prophesied that “Elijah” would be sent “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD” (Mal 4:5). That is a good indication that Jesus stood out for his intensity and passion alone, not to mention his teaching and signs
4. Deut 18:18-19
5. Such as the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus used to support a “heaven” doctrine.
6. Matt 9:20, 14:36 The Greek word used is kraspedon that is translated hem, fringe, border where the tassels were to be sewn (Num 15:38, Deut 22:12). This is the word in the Septuagint that is translated from the Hebrew kanaph (corner, wing) which is the imagery of the prophet Malachi when he says, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings (corners, where the tassels were sewn)” Mal 4:2.