Shalom in the Bible

by Tuvia Pollack

Unless Hebrew is your native tongue, chances are that the first Hebrew word you ever learned was “Shalom.” Shalom is the last word in the priestly blessing, the blessing found on the oldest known fragment of a biblical text.

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance on you, and give you shalom.
(Numbers 6:24-26)

As you probably know, shalom means peace, but is also used as a greeting, for both hello and goodbye. However, the first time it appears in the Bible, it’s actually connected to death!

“You shall go to your fathers in shalom, you will be buried at a good old age.” (Genesis 15:15).

Derived from “shalem” which means “whole” or “complete,” the word shalom describes a whole or fully satisfied situation. It can be either political or general, as in peace for the land or the country, but it can also be personal, as in a person’s welfare or safety. In Isaiah 45:7, God declares to be the one “forming light and creating darkness, causing shalom and creating calamity.”

In the general or political sense, God promises that if the people follow his commandments, he will grant shalom to the land that “no sword will pass through your land” in Leviticus 26:6. Psalm 29:11 also says that “God will bless his people with shalom.” In Deuteronomy 20:10 there are warfare instructions on offering an enemy city terms of shalom. We see the term as a political term of peace in numerous other instances in the Bible. Joshua 9:15, Judges 4:17 are just a few examples.

On a personal level, shalom can be a farewell, as in “go in peace.” For example, in Genesis 26:31, Exodus 4:18 or 1 Samuel 1:17. It can also be safety, as when Jacob has the dream of the ladder and says that if he “returns to my father’s house in peace (shalom), then the Lord will be my God.” (Genesis 28:21).

In Psalm 41:10 David says “The man of my shalom” in the sense “close friend” or someone one trusts.

In Genesis 29:6, Jacob asks about his uncle Laban, and whether he is well. The English says “Is it well with him?” and the shepherds answer, “It is well.” In the original Jacob says “Ha-Shalom lo?” Literally “peace to him?” and they answer with just one word, “Shalom.” We can see here how the word for peace slowly turns into a way of greeting – asking for one another’s well-being.

In Genesis 37:14 Joseph is asked to check on his brothers’ shalom, and so is David in 1 Sam 17:18. In Esther 2:11 it says that Mordecai checked on Esther’s shalom. In all these cases, the English often translates it to welfare or well-being. The Modern Hebrew expression for “how are you” nowadays is literally “what is your shalom?” In fact, there are a number of cases in the Bible where the Hebrew says “asks for someone’s shalom” and the English translates it to “greeting someone.”

The very first time we see “shalom” used as a direct word of greeting in the Bible, it is an angel who says it. In judges 6:23 the angel tells Gideon “Shalom to you, do not fear, you shall not die.” In the very next verse, Gideon builds an altar and calls it “YHVH Shalom” – the Lord is Peace. Similarly, the Messiah is declared to be the “prince of shalom” in Isaiah 9:5.

We can see how “peace” became a greeting also in 1 Samuel 16:4-5 when Samuel comes to Bethlehem to anoint David to become king, and the elders approach him trembling, wondering: “do you come in shalom?” and Samuel answers, “Shalom.”

In fact, shalom in the sense of “state of well-being” almost becomes absurd and contradictory when David asks Uriah the Hittite about the war in 2 Sam 11:7: “When Uriah came to him, David asked concerning the shalom of Joab and the shalom of the people and the shalom of the war.”

As we said, shalom is derived from “shalem” which means whole or complete. God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:16 that the iniquity of the Amorites “is not yet shalem.”

In Deuteronomy 25:15 God demands full and just weights that are “shalem,” and Solomon repeats the same in Proverbs 11:1.

In Deuteronomy 27:6 it says that the stones of the altar must be shalem – whole and uncut.

Solomon, whose very name even derives from shalom, encourages us in 1 Kings 8:61 that our hearts should be shalem with God – often translated as “wholly devoted.” Just a few chapters later, in 1 Kings 11:4, the Bible says that he himself failed. His heart was not shalem with God.

A little side-note – in Hebrew’s sister-language, Arabic, the word Salaam is equivalent to Shalom, but the word “Islam” means submission or surrender. This is because it’s a derivation carrying the same concept of wholeness or whole-heartedness as Solomon used.

The same root for wholeness or completeness is also used in the sense “payment” in many cases, and therefore both in the sense of reward, but also retribution or revenge. In Ruth 2:12, Boaz says “May the Lord yeshalem (reward) your work.” And in Deuteronomy 32:35 the Lord says “Vengeance is mine, and shilem (retribution).” In Deuteronomy 23:21 there is a command to pay – leshalem – a vow that you made to the Lord. Solomon echoes the same command in Ecclesiastes 5:3.

There was a type of offering in the tabernacle and the temple called “shlamim,” translated as “peace offerings.” The Talmud has theories that the name either comes from shalom as in peace, since it’s a sacrifice that brings peace, or from shalem as in payment, since it was a voluntary sacrifice, connected to the payment of vows.

Which peace offering is there which can truly make us shalem – whole-heartedly devoted to God, and give us true shalom? Only the one who paid the price – shilem – for our transgressions.

Isaiah 53:5 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our shalom fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed.”

“How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces shalom and brings news of happiness, who announces salvation and says to Zion, ‘your God reigns!’ ” (Isaiah 52:7)

The Greek equivalent to shalom, Eirini, was used in a similar way in the New Testament, both as a greeting and as peace. Here are some verses who all use that word, but I changed them to shalom, the way God intended it:

  • “Your faith has healed you, go in shalom.” (Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50, Luke 8:48)
  • “While they were saying these things, he himself stood in their midst and said to them ‘Shalom to you.’ ” (Luke 24:36)
  • “Glory to the God in the highest, and on earth shalom among men with whom he is pleased.” Luke 2:14
  • “Grace and shalom be with you” (the opening of most letters)
  • “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, shalom, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23
  • “Having been justified by faith, we have shalom with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
  • “Shalom I leave with you, my shalom I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” John 14:27

In the end, the ultimate shalom can only be found in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel.