The Hebrew word anah and is the primary scriptural word for humility. It literally means to be humbled by being made to kneel, or voluntarily kneeling.
When someone is kneeling before a conqueror or king, they are focused on that person, not themselves. This is the idea behind the scriptural concept of humility.
Secular language normally thinks of humility in terms of emphasizing one's weaknesses, or downplaying one's strengths. Neither is relevant to the scriptural concept of humility. Any definition of humility that beings, "Humility is seeing yourself as..." is wrong. Scripturally, humility is not seeing yourself at all because you are looking at God.
The word anah first appears in Genesis 15:13, describing the Israelite's future slavery in Egypt, during which they acknowledged the Egyptians as their superiors and masters.
|And he said unto Abram, "Truly know that your descendants shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall anah them four hundred years...|
Exodus 1:11-12 makes clear that there are degrees of anah, and that oppression, affliction, and slavery are characteristics of the more extreme degrees.
|Therefore they set over them taskmasters to anah them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they did anah them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And they were adread because of the children of Israel.|
Notice that in our previously cited verse God speaks of the Egyptians "bending the knees" of the Israelites for 400 years, the complete duration of their time in Egypt—most of which was not in a context of affliction or servitude. Thus being "on bent knee" requires a lack of independence and dignity, but may or may not include pain or slavery.
In Exodus 22:22-23, God instructs the Israelites to not anah any widow or orphan. These people of precarious social standing must not lose their freedom or dignity because of their status.
In Deuteronomy we read of God using the forty years in the wilderness as a time in which he did anah the Israelites (verse 8:2-3,16). This is seen as a desireable activity (Psalm 119:71).
|It is good for me that I was anah, in order to learn your statutes.|
Also see Psalm 119:75.
Another use of anah is when a man has sexual relations with a woman, to take her as his wife (or acting in adultery), since this act in that society claimed her as his property instead of her parents' (or husband's) property (Genesis 34:2, Deuteronomy 21:14, 22:24, 22:29). In this context the word still refers to a public, relational acknowledgement of mastery.
People could "bend their own knees". In Exodus 10:3, God asks Pharaoh (through Moses and Aaron) "How long will you refuse to anah yourself before me?".
Notice that "bending your own knee" is about acknowledging superiority and/or reverence. This public, relational acknowledgement is is almost opposite to the physical and private acts associated with fasting.
Nevertheless, a tradition linking these two concepts is evident as early as Psalm 35:13.
|But as for me, when they were sick my clothing was sackcloth, I did anah my soul with fasting, and my prayer returned to my own bosom.|
This tradition became firmly established by the time of Isaiah 58:5-10.
On Yom Kippur the command to "anah your soul" (Leviticus 16:29-31 and 23:27-32, Numbers 29:7) is now interpreted as a command to fast and abstain from pleasures.
Similarly, Numbers 30 mentions a vow an individual could make to eesar ("bind") and anah his or her soul. This involved voluntarily assuming an obligation to reach a state of heightened spiritual awareness or innocence. Again, traditionally this involves fasting and abstaining from pleasures.
Proverbs 22:4 teaches that anah (conjugated anavah in that verse) produces fear and reverance towards God. Isaiah 66:2 teaches that God responds to a person whose spirit has anah. Numbers 12:3 tells us Moses was the most anav (humble, of bent knee) man on earth.
During the first century, one of the main issues dividing the different sects of Judaism was what needed to be done to earn the arrival of the messiah. Some sects believed all the Jewish people needed to demonstrate certain kinds or amounts of humility and obedience. Other sects believed they should withdraw from the larger Jewish community to live as a distinct group with specific kinds of humility and obedience. All believed that the messiah, after arriving, would exalt himself and the Jewish people.
Yeshua entered this theologically charged atmosphere with a different answer: the arrival of messiah is an unearned gift by the grace of God, and he came (this time) not to exalt himself or the Jewish people but to give freedom from slavery to sin to the humble.
It was not a new idea that only the humble would enter God's Kingdom (Psalm 37:11, Matthew 5:5 and 18:4), nor that God forgives the humble (Psalm 76:9 and 149:4, Luke 18:14) or will lift them up (Psalm 147:6, Matthew 23:12, First Peter 5:6). But all the first century Jewish sects were taken by surprise when God's Kingdom arrived before people were properly humble.
Yeshua experienced anah from God (Isaiah 53:4-7) as well as demonstrating an attitude of anah before God (Philippians 2:8). A humble focus on God, as from bent knees, is still appropriate for entering God's Kingdom, truly repenting to experiencing forgiveness, and being used by God.
Is it also sometimes proper for believers to "anah their soul" as in Numbers 30:13—to abstain from certain pleasures to increase our ability to pray. First Corinthians 7:4-5 discusses one example of how this practice is still valid.
How else do we practice humility, as individuals or as a community of Yeshua's disciples? Yeshua modeled several worthy behaviors that are central to Jewish life (both first-century and modern day) and can be taught by a congregation through discussion and example:
Christian culture has other ways to practice humility. Perhaps the most well known is the habit in Eastern Orthodox culture to "practice the presence of God" by continually repeating that faith's Jesus Prayer very quietly. The most similar verse of scripture, quite appropriate for any follower of Yeshua wanting to try this exercise in humility, is Psalm 41:5(4).
רפאה נפשי כי חטאתי|
Adonai, chan-aynee, r'fa-ah naf-shee, kee (ah-nee) chata-tee.
Adonai, be gracious unto me. Heal my soul, for I have sinned.