In ancient Hebrew, there are two words that seem totally unrelated in meaning but nonetheless share a close linguistic connection.
Finding out why this connection exists will further illuminate one of the greatest truths at the heart of Christianity.
One of the words is baw-sar’, meaning news, or good tidings. The other is baw-sawr’, defined as flesh. As hinted at in the transliterated English, the words are very similar in spelling and sound. In fact, in the Aramaic script normally used to write biblical Hebrew, the two words are identical. One can only tell them apart by the vowel markings—which were added by later scribes. (An analogy in English might be the words dear and deer.)
The similarity in letters is not accidental. A good concordance or dictionary will tell you that the word for flesh came from the word news.
Explanations for how the two—one a very tangible reality, the other a linguistic category—came to be associated with each other vary. One author says that, in ancient Israel, the arrival of good news called for a feast of meat from an animal that had been sacrificed for the occasion. Another explanation is that meat itself is good news because it means a family will not go hungry. The connection may also come from the fact that messengers who brought news were flushed in the face, hence the association with news and flesh, according to one scholar.
However it is explained, the connection between flesh and good news seems undeniable.
In the Old Testament, this connection is not only etymological. It is also reflected in the way that the word flesh is used in some verses.
Consider Psalm 84:3,
My soul yearns and pines
for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and flesh cry out
for the living God.
This verse is rich in theological treasures. Here, the verse indicates that in desiring God we encounter him. From a New Testament perspective this makes sense: God, we are told is love. Therefore, the one who truly loves God has already experienced the divine presence in his heart.
This sense of a desire that is fulfilled in part is indicated in the above psalm as well. Though not conveyed in the English, the verbs are in the perfect tense, denoting an action already completed.
The fulfillment of desire is further indicated in the third line, in which the heart and—take note—the flesh of the believer ‘cry out.’ Such crying can have a double meaning: normally it refers to a cry of joy. Here, in context, it could also be interpreted as a cry of longing. Both cries of the flesh proclaim God. On the one hand, there is the proclamation that experiencing the presence of God brings joy. On the other, there is the proclamation that all men are made to desire God.
A similar motif of flesh calling out to God occurs in Psalm 145:21,
My mouth will speak the praises of the Lord;
all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
The notion that flesh can praise and proclaim God may help explain this line from Isaiah 40:6,
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Why would the glory of the Lord be revealed to ‘all flesh’ unless ‘flesh’ was capable of proclaiming this good news?
This inner connection between word and flesh sets us up for the New Testament, which declares that the Word of God has become flesh. As one late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Anglican bishop named Lancelot Andrewes put it in a sermon,
It will not be amiss to tell you; the word that is Hebrew for flesh the same is also Hebrew for good tidings—as we call it, the Gospel; sure, not without the Holy Spirit so dispensing. There could be no other meaning but that some incarnation, or making flesh, should be generally good news for the whole word. To let us know this good tidings is come to pass He tells us, The Word is now become flesh.
Andrewes saw a kind of fittingness to this: just as the temptations of the flesh had been at the origin of the first sin of Adam and Eve, so now also the flesh would become the source of our salvation. (This idea, that all things are recapitulated in Christ, is both very biblical and very patristic. For example, Irenaeus also saw Mary as the new Eve and the cross as the new tree from the Garden of Eden.)
The Old Testament association between flesh and word may tell us something yet further about the mission of God Incarnate.
Remember that one theory held that flesh came to be associated with good news because ancient Israelites would respond by sacrificing an animal. So also, Christ became good news for humanity through his sacrifice on the cross.
God, by becoming present to us in the flesh and dying for us in the flesh, gave humanity the greatest news it has ever received.