Hutzpah is a Yiddish word known to some, stemming from the Hebrew hatzaf (חצף), a verb meaning 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 connotation. 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”
In the Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 105a), it also is stated,
“hutzpah, even against heaven, serves some good”
“hutzpah is dominion without a crown”
Though we don’t find the word directly stated in the New Testament, we do find the attribute. The Hebrew Scriptures also 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 being communicated, this takes hutzpah. Perhaps it may be considered inappropriate or politically incorrect in our twenty-first century mindset of who God is and what he ultimately desires, but could we be possibly mistaken?
Abraham was an obedient man and did whatever God asked of him. Because of his obedience, he was declared righteous. In Genesis 13, Abram is told that God —
“will give you and your offspring forever all the land that you see”
and God 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. Speaking this way to God almost seems unimaginable.
The exact amount of time elapsed after God’s promise of children is unknown, but it is fairly obvious 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?”
Abram is demanding that God “do what is right” and “he 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 intercedes 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. An interesting scene is there depicted. Jacob wrestled or “contended” with an unknown individual for some time and when the man was unable to triumph, Jacob’s hip socket was struck. As morning was dawning the man demanded to be let go and 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 did/does God honor this type of “contention” or hutzpah? What does God want from his people?
Elijah, also a man with intense passion, or full of hutzpah became the mold for passionate individuals and in one sense set the bar for all those who would follow. Unless we are prepared to put ourselves in his sandals and immerse ourselves into 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 first century Jews at least, Elijah was the model for intense passion and commitment. What does that tell us about Jesus?3
Elijah knew his Scriptures (Torah) 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 worshiping them. If you do, the anger of the LORD 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 the LORD 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 (1 Ki. 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? Wasn’t it 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, 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 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 modern thought, 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 describing in a complete sense the nature or character of God any more than other parables do.5 But the context of this parable is the disciples requesting 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 or “hem.”6 There can be little 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 a 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.
Yet another example is found in Jesus’ meeting with a foreign woman (Matt 15, Mark 7). She begged him to help her daughter. Jesus explains how he was sent to the house of Israel, and 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 saying 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, or her regular attendance of a specific religious organization? I think not. 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.
The examples seem to indicate that God desires his people to come 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 passionate, persistent people who are willing to wrestle with him, giving him every ounce they have until their strength is spent. This is not an exercise but rather a result of passionate people as evidenced in the Scriptural story of our patriarchal forefathers. This is probably the backdrop for the statement the book of Jacob (James) gives,
“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. see Brad Young, The Parables, Jewish tradition and Christian Interpretation, pp. 45–65
2. John the Baptist was a man who came in the “power and spirit of Elijah.” Imagine 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). This is a good indication that Jesus stood out for his intensity and passion alone, not to mention his teaching and signs.
5. E.g. — 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, translated hem, fringe, border where the tassels were to be sewn (cf. Num. 15:38, Deut. 22:12). This is the word in the Septuagint that is translated from the Hebrew kanaph (corner, wing) containing the imagery of the prophet Malachi saying, “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings (corners, where the tassels were sewn)” Mal. 4:2.
7. Jesus is not calling this woman a dog, nor is this what this woman would have heard. Rather, he is saying each is to be given that which they were intended to receive.