ARTICLES

Volume 1 - Issue 3

Shalom: content for a slogan

By David Gillett

‘Shalom’: what do we mean?

‘ “All speak today of peace—we too,” the statement often rings in our ears … “Leave me in peace,” says the person who wants to have his rest. “Have peace in your heart,” says the other who does not concern himself for the evil world. “Peace to all men who are of good will”—but not to the others who are of evil will. “Peace to the houses—not to the palaces,” demand others. “There is peace only on the side of capitalism”—some say. “With Communism the only way one can relate is with weapons in one’s hand,” say others. The more earnestly we hear all the voices, the more we recognize that it is not enough merely to praise peace, to extol readiness for peace, and to bless every speech of peace.’1

Here Jürgen Moltmann expresses well both the urgent desire for peace in our world and the confusion people feel in their search for it. It is a cry which many in the church are trying to take very seriously. How can we approach our mission in such a way that we speak relevantly to this most basic felt need of modern man? A very influential answer, that has gained wide acceptance during the last decade, is the idea that ‘the goal of mission is the establishment of shalom’.

This view of mission has within it a deeply humane, loving and practical concern for the plight of real people (not always a mark of the Christian’s attitude to the world), but at the same time it has a fundamental flaw. The danger with this very widely accepted definition of mission is that an Old Testament concept is turned into a slogan. From the standpoint of Old Testament theology and semantics this use of shalom is so imprecise, confused and selective that it is highly misleading. What makes the situation of even greater concern is the fact that, if a word is used long enough, people tend to accept that it is being used correctly. Consequently some evangelicals are now beginning to use shalom in this way, accepting it as biblically accurate.

I believe that shalom has a valid and necessary place in any biblical understanding of salvation and mission; the urgent need, therefore, is to rescue it from further devaluation as an all-embracing slogan which is either misleading or almost contentless.

Only half a meaning

The following extracts from Dialogue with the World by J. G. Davies2 illustrate some of the basic presuppositions behind this use of shalom.

Shalom is a social happening, an event in interpersonal relations. It can therefore never be reduced to a simple formula; it has to be found and worked out in actual situations. The goal towards which God is working, i.e. the ultimate end of his mission, is the establishment of shalom, and this involves the realization of the full potentialities of all creation and its ultimate reconciliation and unity in Christ.

‘If the goal of mission is the establishment of shalom, we are required to enter into partnership with God in history to renew society. When the Freedom Workers go to prison in the southern states of the USA because of their part in the struggle for civil rights, they are participating in mission and seeking to erect signs of shalom.’

The first and fundamental error is a careless approach to the use of an Old Testament word. There is a failure to treat the word shalom seriously. It is wrenched out of context and the various root meanings which it can have in different contexts are used as the authoritative and collective sense of the word in the Old Testament. This reveals a simplistic etymology and a naive approach to Old Testament study. ‘The task of a word study is to follow the development and the change of meaning, not in artificial isolation from the life of Israel, but within the larger framework of the history of the institution.’3 Von Rad4 notes two further cautions in the study of shalom. As it has so many variant meanings, one can use only verses in which the meaning of shalom is obvious from the immediate context. There are also many other passages where the thought of shalom is central but where the word itself does not occur; these also need to be studied. Von Rad’s experience of the difficulties in tackling the meaning of shalom should make anyone extremely cautious and thorough before using the word to express one of the central tenets of a theology. ‘It has a certain inner impreciseness, so that the translator who has no such many-sided term at his command is often at a loss to know whether in these passages, since shālôm is a gift of God’s grace to his restored people, he should use the more concrete “well-being”, the more obvious “peace”, or the theologically more comprehensive “salvation”.’5 The richness of an Old Testament word consists not in the conglomerate of several meanings from differing contexts but in a careful study which differentiates the various contexts (historical, theological, and literary) in which the word occurs.

This imprecise and over-general use of shalom in its this-world-orientated sense6 means that the content of mission is often seen exclusively in terms of social and political change. Not only is this a theology based on partial meanings of Old Testament words selected according to certain doctrinal presuppositions, but it also claims to be a Christian theology while failing to take account of the fulfilment and particularity which the concept of ‘peace’ receives in the person of Christ.

On the basis of such a fundamental hermeneutical leap, shalom can then be used (as it is in the first extract from J. G. Davies above) as the basis for a universalism quite out of keeping with the New Testament doctrine of salvation. The consequence of thus bypassing the fulfilment of the Old in the New effectively means that shalom is ‘secularized’—wrenched out of the context of salvation history. To summarize, the process is to take part of an Old Testament concept and treat it as the full biblical truth; the result is a view of the church’s mission as a socio-political task which fits easily alongside the this-worldly, near-utopian universalism characteristic of this view of mission.7

To be fair to an Old Testament concept

Etymologically, shalom is a multi-coloured word. The root meaning is ‘to be whole, uninjured, undivided’, and it is used in an enormous variety of ways from describing everyday things of domestic life to the most profound religious expectations. At its most basic it describes general well-being, a wholly satisfactory condition (Gn. 15:15; 26:29; Ex. 18:23; Jdg. 19:20; 1 Sa. 16:5; 2 Sa. 18:28; Is. 55:12; Je. 34:5; etc.). It is used of bodily health (Ps. 38:3; 73:3; Is. 57:18f.),8 as a greeting (Gn. 29:6; 43:27; 1 Sa. 6:14f.), and as a word of salvation (Is. 54:10; 60:17; Je. 29:11; Ezk. 34:25).

When we consider shalom not only as a word but as a theological concept, we become aware of marked historical developments in usage and meaning at several points. Bearing this process in mind, the following can be isolated as the main features of shalom.

a. Shalom is a positive concept

Originally it had nothing to do with the passive or the negative. It described peace between friends, it signified that everything was as it should be (Ex. 18:23): if you have shalom, then you have everything. In essence, therefore, shalom did not mean ‘absence of war’, and this negative meaning never became central in Hebrew thought. In the great days of fighting Israel, shalom meant victory in war, the positive goal of the conflict for Yahweh. Gideon’s words to the men of Penuel are a far cry from the passive quiescent understanding we have of peace: ‘When I come again in peace, I will break down this tower’ (Jdg. 8:9). When this older concept of the fighting Israel faded away, the absence of war was seen as part of the eschatological hope (e.g. Is. 2:4) but shalom never became identified with the negative idea.

b. Shalom is a communal concept

There are more passages where shalom is used of groups than of individuals, and we are therefore justified in concluding that, at heart, peace has to do with community with others (e.g. Ps. 29:11). ‘Peace means total harmony within the community. It is founded upon order and permeated by God’s blessing, and hence makes it possible for men to develop and increase, free and unhindered on every side.’9 Shalom, therefore, denotes a relationship rather than a state, and thus we find it connected with the idea of covenant (Nu. 25:12; Dt. 29:19; Is. 54:10; Ezk. 34:25; 37:26).

c. Shalom is a religious concept

At source, shalom is a gift of Yahweh and its religious use is foundational and primary. (In as far as it is used as a purely non-religious term, von Rad considers this a later development.) It is not surprising therefore to read that one of the names of the Messiah is Shalom (Is. 9:6). But to say that shalom is a religious concept is emphatically not to say that it is essentially ‘spiritual’. ‘When we consider the rich possibilities of shālôm in the OT we are struck by the negative fact that there is no specific text in which it denotes the specifically spiritual attitude of inward peace.’10 Tranquillity of mind is not the essential concept of religious peace that it is popularly thought to be. It is one of the positive gains of the modern slogan that it has rescued shalom, peace, from the realms of pietism and quietism where it had slumbered so long and so unjustifiably.

d. Shalom is conditional

At its most forthright, ‘There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked’ (Is. 48:22). Shalom is not an indiscriminate gift of Yahweh; he consciously withholds peace if the people are disobedient or rebellious (Is. 48:18), and, conversely, when righteousness is present, shalom will follow (Is. 32:16f.; Ps. 72:7). The recurring mistake for the Israelite was to assume that shalom was his irrespective of his behaviour: ‘Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations, … one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I have shalom, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” This would lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike’ (Dt. 29:1ff.).

It is therefore quite illegitimate to use shalom as part of any progressive, universalistic view of mission and world history. Throughout the Old Testament shalom again and again occurs in the context of righteousness and judgment (Pss. 34:14; 37:37; 85:10; Is. 60:17; Zc. 8:16). Justice means a right reciprocal relationship between man and man and between man and God. Consequently shalom involves a right relationship in both dimensions, and if we are aiming at only one of these then what we achieve will not be shalom, but the false hope of the faithless Israelite.

e. Shalom is an eschatological-salvation concept

Hebrew thought recognizes that shalom is the ideal state achieved only in the final age. Their hope of this future shalom included peace in the animal realm (Is. 11:6–8), peace among men as individuals (Is. 11:9), and peace among the nations (Is. 2:2–4). Although shalom is God’s gift now, its fullness is still firmly in the future.

In this respect shalom expresses the central thought of salvation in the Old Testament. We see the positive emphasis of shalom in the word yāša‘ (to save) which ‘denotes general health, physical and spiritual, rather than actual separation from a particular enemy or danger.’11 The connection with justice which we have seen with shalom is also present in the word yāša‘: ‘It is in a situation of injustice, and in particular unjust oppression of the chosen people, that a môšîa‘ is needed.’12 And both words fit into the same eschatological hope that expects physical, spiritual, and social wholeness. It is thus quite appropriate to describe the goal of mission as shalom as this is expressive of the central expectation of salvation as it develops in the Old Testament—but it is an expectation that time and time again is fulfilled in part only in the succeeding events of Israel’s history.

It was indeed one of the major tasks of the prophets to defend the eschatological dimension of salvation from the desire of many to make it a this-worldly expectation to be fulfilled completely in the here and now; this is seen in their attempt to distinguish between the true and false promises of peace (1 Ki. 22:5–18). Particularly in the case of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the question ‘What is shalom?’ was the central point at issue between them and the false prophets (Je. 6:14; 28:9; Ezk. 13:8–16; also Mi. 3:5ff.). The false prophets did not proclaim peace as the final eschatological goal but as a present political possibility for Israel; they believed that all problems would be solved to the advantage of Israel so that they could live in a peace and prosperity guaranteed by Yahweh. They failed to see judgment in the present situation, and they were blind to the symbolism of the eschatological hope of salvation, interpreting everything as material blessing for the present. When today people fail to read the message of judgment in the present situation they inevitably fail to see much of the significance of biblical eschatology. ‘The world’s destiny, to him who has hope, is an absolute future of peace. But this may not and cannot be anticipated, only more and more closely approached.’13

Together, these five strands form the Old Testament concept of shalom, with its two distinctive features—a positive broadness and inclusiveness together with an eschatological particularity. Both of these aspects find fulfilment in the New Testament, but before we arrive at that we must note the channels through which the New Testament received the Hebrew concept.

Shalom in Greek and rabbinic thought14

The Septuagint uses more than twenty terms to translate shalom, but eirēnē is by far the most common; and inevitably the meaning of the more limited Greek word influenced their understanding of the Old Testament concept of shalom. In Greek, eirēnē meant, essentially, absence of war; it was seen as an interlude in an everlasting state of hostilities, and their more negative or passive concept of peace is reflected in the New Testament, At one point Paul uses peace in the freer sense of tranquillity of mind (Rom. 15:13). But by far the greater transforming influence is found in the rabbinic use of shalom. These concepts in particular affect the New Testament understanding of peace.

(i) The rabbinic emphasis is on peace as opposed to strife between individuals, rather than between nations. The absence of peace between individuals in society becomes an even greater danger than idolatry. This emphasis is largely expressed in the New Testament as the love which should be seen between individual Christians in the church. Thus the distinctive New Testament concept of agapē takes on part of the area covered by shalom in the Old Testament.

(ii) Rabbinic literature develops the new idea of the relationship between man and God as being one of conflict and hostility. This enmity needs to become shalom. This new dimension injected into shalom means that, in the New Testament, the Godward dimension of the relationship of shalom is emphasized more than it was in the Old Testament.

(iii) Peace in the messianic age is specifically limited to concord in Israel. This is reflected in the New Testament teaching that alongside the expectation of peace the believer can expect bitter enmity outside the Christian community. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Mt. 10:34). ‘I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (Jn. 16:33).

Peace in the New Testament

Peace in the New Testament can be summarized as follows:

(i) Peace, in its widest sense, is the normal state of all things, the outward healthy state of affairs which corresponds to the will of God (1 Cor. 14:33; Mk. 5:34; Jas. 2:16; etc).

(ii) Peace refers to the eschatological salvation of the whole man which comes from God (Lk. 1:79; 2:14; 19:38, 42) and is effected through the Christ event (Eph. 2:17f.; 6:15; Heb. 13:20).

(iii) Peace is the new relationship with God which replaces the former hostility (Rom. 5:1, 10; Eph. 2:14–17).

(iv) Peace describes the ideal relationship between people (Rom. 14:17–19; 1 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 4:3; 2 Tim. 2:22; Jas. 3:18).

Shalom in Christian theology

Basically, we are justified in seeing the Old Testament concept of shalom as a legitimate expression of mission in the world because, apart from a slight readjustment of the boundaries of the word’s meaning, eirēnē in the New Testament means what shalom means in the Old Testament.

In conclusion, as we relate this study to the modern missiological debate, two factors need emphasizing.

(i) Shalom is a Christological concept. The New Testament adds very little new content to shalom but it does describe accurately its extent and location. Jesus Christ does not bring a new concept of peace; rather, he is shalom. Shalom is still ‘a social happening, an event in inter-personal relations’ but the necessary locus and centre of this is the relationship with God through Christ.

(ii) Shalom is a future eschatological hope, not a practical political possibility for the present. As the eschatological goal of our mission, shalom in all its aspects must be the model of our activity. It is the direction in which God is going; it must also be the concept which inspires our evangelistic, political and social activity. But if we replace our future eschatological hope with some mere political programme of the present we shall be false prophets in our generation. It is true that the social and political are as much part of shalom (and hence salvation) as the spiritual, but all alike are part of an eschatological expectation and therefore realizable only imperfectly in the here and now.


1 Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation (1973) p. 96.

2 Dialogue with the World (London, 1967), pp. 14, 15. J. G. Davies expresses similar views in Worship and Mission (London, 1966). His position is representative of that held by many in WCC circles since the mid-sixties and first clearly outlined in a series of papers produced by a WCC study group and published as Planning for Mission (1966), ed. Thomas Weiser.

3 B. S. Childs, Memory and Tradition in Israel (London, 1962). In the light of James Barr’s work The Semantics of Biblical Language (London, 1961) and J. F. A. Sawyer’s Semantics in Biblical Research (London, 1972), one would surely not expect to see an Old Testament word used in such a cavalier fashion as shalom often is.

4 In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, II, p. 402.

5 Op. cit., p. 405.

6 It is noteworthy that the word shalom is used rather than eirēnē, the New Testament equivalent: the former more adequately expresses the broad this-world-orientated view.

7 J. C. Hoekendijk, a former secretary of evangelism in the WCC, gives expression to the universalism typical of this approach to mission. ‘The passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Exodus for all men. Now the whole of mankind is delivered from bondage and brought into covenant with God. By the raising up of the New Man, Christ Jesus, every man has been made a member of the new mankind.’ The Church Inside Out(London, 1967) p. 19.

8 The uses of shalom to mean bodily health and to refer to salvation are at times very closely integrated (e.g.Je. 6:14). This has obvious bearing on the current debate about the place of healing within the doctrine of salvation, a debate that coincides at several points with the sociopolitical questions which surround shalom.

9 J. B. Bauer (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Biblical Theology, II (London, 1970), p. 648, art. ‘Peace’ by Heinrich Gross.

10 von Rad, op. cit. p. 406.

11 J. F. A. Sawyer, op. cit., p. 88.

12 J. F. A. Sawyer, ‘What as a môšîav‘?’, Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965), p. 478.

13 K. Rahner (ed.), Sacramentum Mundi, IV (1969), p. 382, art. ‘Peace’ by Julio Terán-Dutari.

14 See further TDNT, II, pp. 406–411.

David Gillett

David Gillett lectures in Mission and Old Testament at St. John’s College, Nottingham, England.