The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews — it isn’t unforgiveness

posted by Rebecca

First posted on  Reblogged on A Cry for Justice.


plant rootsHebrews 12:15 is one of the most often preached-on passages of Scripture to tell victims and survivors of abuse that their primary—and perhaps only—problem is unforgiveness. Here it is:

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;

that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble,

and by it many become defiled;

People are told that their continuing to be troubled by their abuse is evidence of a “root of bitterness” in their lives, which will defile others.

So . . . how can we avoid being like the sermonizers and writers who simply assume that the “root of bitterness” there is unforgiveness? How can we figure out what it really is?

We can do this by looking at the Old Testament passage it’s referring to, by looking at the grammar, and by looking at the context.

The Old Testament allusion

Throughout church history, commentators have pretty much universally acknowledged that the Hebrews author was here alluding to a passage from the Old Testament. After all, Hebrews is full of quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. It was written to the Hebrew Christians—those people who had been converted from the faith of their fathers to faith in Christ. The book was written in part to show them more clearly how the New Covenant fulfilled the Old and far surpassed the Old. It was written to show them that Jesus is Better, so don’t give up when things are hard.

Throughout the New Testament, when a writer quotes or alludes to a passage from the Old Testament, studying that passage can often shed more light on what he’s saying. In this case, Deuteronomy 29:18-19 also refers to metaphorical roots and bitterness:

“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; lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit [in the KJV it’s “gall and wormwood,” which suggest not only bad taste, but poison], one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness [twisted obstinance] of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.”[1]

In this passage the root bearing “poisonous and bitter” fruit is not the feeling of bitterness. Rather, it is an individual, an actual person (or persons), in the midst of the congregation who produces something bitter. This person is one who

(1) turns away from the Lord God to other gods,

(2) blesses [exalts] himself in his heart (essentially treating himself like a god), and

(3) thinks he will be safe, even though he walks in the twisted obstinance of his heart.

This description has nothing to do with unforgiveness. The poison Moses warned against (the literal meaning of the term), the poison that could potentially infect the people of God was aperson who would turn to his own way, following a false god, exalting his own self, and thinking himself untouchable.

Unless this person was rooted out, it would result in the people being “swept away,” causing them agony and grief (the “bitterness” that is found throughout the Old Testament).

The grammar

This passage has invariably been presented as if it is addressed to individuals: “You” (individually) should check for that root of bitterness in your (individual) heart.

But that’s not the way it is. It’s addressed to the group, which is important, because the root of bitterness is a person within the group. (By the way, it’s easy for the non-Greek-scholar to see if a “you” in a passage is addressed to an individual or a group by looking at the King James Version. One of the brilliant things those translators did was to use “you” when the Greek pronoun was plural and “thee” or “thou” when the Greek pronoun was singular. That makes it a no-brainer to discern which the writer was talking about.)

There is no hint here of a directive to an individual. Anyway, the entire book of Hebrews was written to a group—the Hebrew Christians. That is who the writer is still addressing in this brief passage.

The context in the book

First, the immediate context.

Hebrews 12:15-17

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;

that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble,

and by it many become defiled;[2]

that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.

For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing,

he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

The immediate context of the “root of bitterness” is a description of Esau: as the writer of Hebrews describes, he was a fornicator and profane person. Not only did he marry women from idolatrous nations (a source of bitterness—agony and grief—for Isaac and Rebekah, as Genesis 26:34-35 says), but also he despised his inheritance and instead wanted to fulfill his own fleshly desires.

Here in the Hebrews reference to Esau, you can see echoes of the Deuteronomy passage:

(1) turning away from the Lord God to other gods,

(2) exalting himself in his heart (essentially treating himself like a god), and

(3) thinking he would be safe, even though he walked in the twisted obstinance of his heart.

So this passage is saying . . .

If fornicators and profane people who despise the inheritance of Christ are allowed to have ascendency among the people of God, this will poison the congregation, and many will be defiled.

 (You think that doesn’t happen? Perhaps you’d be surprised.)

The larger context of this entire passage in Hebrews 12 is that of our being surrounded by great heroes of the faith (ch 11) as we run the race looking to Jesus as our Pioneer and Completer (ch 12:1-4), allowing for the disciplinary correction of the Lord (ch 12:5-14), and understanding that Mt. Zion is greater than Mt. Sinai (i.e., the New Covenant is better than the Old, ch 12:18-29).

In other words, the New Covenant people of God are being encouraged to persevere, with the foundation of their confidence in their standing in Christ. The allusion to the Old Covenant people of God reminds them that even as they seek to persevere, even then, in their very midst can arise a person who will be a “root of bitterness.”

With Esau, as with the passage in Deuteronomy, this root of bitterness is extremely important  . . . but it has nothing to do with unforgiveness.

So what exactly is the bitterness in the “root of bitterness”?

In the larger study I’m doing, I’m working on showing how there are three ways the concept of bitterness is presented in the Bible. Only one of the three is a destructive force coming from within a person, or caused by a person. It’s certainly legitimate to say that this one falls into that category.

But not because of unforgiveness.

This kind of bitterness is not a “secret root” within the hearts of individual Christians that individual Christians should constantly be searching their hearts for, or asking others to point out to them, the way so many preach.

It is a person causing destruction within a congregation by exalting himself and leading them astray.

This “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12 causes bitterness the way poison causes bitterness—it makes the people who are subject to it feel agony and grief. If the people of the congregation follow the destructive path of this person, they will experience the agony and grief of going astray, and will find the hand of the Lord against them for allowing this ungodly person to stay in their midst.


[1] Jesus may have been hinting at this Scripture when on the way to the cross. He turned to the people who were mourning and lamenting to warn them that the utter and complete destruction of their nation was coming. Then, alluding to the work of the Pharisees who had had Him assigned to death—those who thought, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart”—He said in Luke 23:31 (KJV), “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?”

[2] This clause in Hebrews, “and by it many become defiled” corresponds to the end of that passage in Deuteronomy: “This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.”

Update October 2016: For a more complete development of bitterness and the root of bitterness, see the Justice Keepers Publishing book by Rebecca, Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind


Rebecca Davis, one of the admins of BJUGrace, is the collaborating author of Tear Down This Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in Our Churches (an introduction for those who will hear) and Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church. 

3 Comments on “The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews — it isn’t unforgiveness

  1. Yes I see, Hannah had grief for not having a son. Hannah turned her grief into a gift of self sacrifice by offering her male child back to God. In return for the giving her child back to God she learned the joy giving to the glory of God. In response to letting her child go, she learned to praise God through her thoughtful prayer of thanksgiving towards God. She learned not to trust in herself or others, but rather to have faith in God.

  2. You are correct that Hebrews 12:15 is not referring to unforgiveness. The following quote taken from

    ‘This is a warning not to treat holiness lightly or to presume upon more grace.

    Therefore a “root of bitterness” is a person or a doctrine in the church which encourages people to act presumptuously and treats salvation as an automatic thing that does not require a life of vigilance in the fight of faith and the pursuit of holiness. Such a person or a doctrine defiles many and can lead to the experience of Esau who played fast and loose with his inheritance and could not repent in the end and find life.’

    However, Ephesians 4:31 does refer to bitterness as something entirely different. The translation of ‘bitterness’ here means ‘bitter hatred’. Taken from the Amplified Bible- ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor [perpetual animosity, resentment, strife, fault-finding] and slander be put away from you, along with every kind of malice [all spitefulness, verbal abuse, malevolence].’

    The following verse Eph 4:32 then talks about being tender hearted toward one another forgiving each other as Christ forgave us. So in context, this scripture is about forgiving and treating others kindly.

    There are other scriptures in the Bible that talk about the consequences of not forgiving those who have harmed us. Without Christ’s forgiveness, our destinies would look completely different. If we are to be like Christ, then forgiveness is one of the attributes of Jesus we have to master…with His help.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m familiar with the DG article and agree with it in part.

      The word “bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 and the word “bitterness” in Ephesians 4:31 are both the exact same Greek word, meaning “poison,” so we really can’t say they mean something entirely different from each other. They mean the same thing in both places. I expand on this at length in “Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind,” which you can see here:

      ~Rebecca Davis