A Language of the Spirit

The founder of Bob's Red Mill had had crazy ideas in his time, but this took the cake.

Posted in , Jan 18, 2013

Bob Moore, founder of Bob's Red Mill natural foods

Nowadays people know me for my Bob’s Red Mill cereals and flours, stone-ground just like they did in Bible days. That’s me on the front of every package in my trademark cap and bolo tie. We’ve been in business now for 35 years, and some folks assume it’s what I always wanted to do.

But the truth is, the career that became my calling is one I stumbled upon. Literally. At the time, running a grain mill was the last thing on my mind. It was 1978, and my working days were over. At 49, I’d retired to pursue the one dream I wanted more than anything.

“The wife and I are moving to Portland, Oregon. Going to seminary,” I told the guys one Saturday morning down at the hardware store. “We want to learn Greek and Hebrew so we can read the Bible like it was originally written.”

My buddies looked at each other, confused. “You’re kidding,” one said.

“No, I’m dead serious,” I said. “I’ve wanted to do this for twenty years.”

It was as if I’d told them Charlee and I were buying his and her Ferraris. I could tell what they were thinking: Those poor Moores, having a midlife crisis.

But that wasn’t it at all. Nothing to do with my receding hairline. In fact, life was good. Our sons were grown. The mill we’d launched together a few years earlier—almost on a whim—was doing great. Well enough that I hadn’t thought twice about turning it over to them.

Not that I wasn’t sending up plenty of prayers about this new adventure we were embarking on. I knew it sounded crazy. But then I’d always been wired a little differently than most folks.

I’m the kind of guy who’s always thinking, studying, tinkering until I know everything—I mean, everything—there is to know on a subject. I have this need to understand how all the parts fit together. Ask Charlee, sometimes it feels more like a curse than a blessing.

That’s how I first got the idea that I wanted to learn Hebrew and Greek. Back then, in 1963, I was managing the JC Penney auto center in Redding, California. I was reading a fascinating book one evening after work. 

The author, an eighteenth-century scholar, said there were errors in the Bible, introduced by the men who translated it from the original Hebrew and Greek.

Hebrew, in particular, he explained, is subject to misinterpretation because the words don’t have vowels: th rdr dds thm n hs mnd. Well, I saw the problem right away.

“One wrong letter changes everything,” I told Charlee. “The entire meaning of a sentence.”

“What’s that, honey?” she said, looking up from her mystery. I explained what I’d read. “I see what you mean,” she said. “But what can we do about it?”

I chewed on that for a moment and then, it was like a lightbulb went on in my mind. “What if we learned to read Greek and Hebrew?” I said. “Then we could really study the Bible for ourselves!” She gave me a look and went back to her book, shaking her head.

I knew as well as she did: The last thing I needed was something else to take on, what with three sons to raise, the chicken coop out back to tend to (my idea), my workshop jammed with nearly finished projects (yet more of my ideas), not to mention my job.

Now, in my early thirties, I wanted to be a biblical scholar too? Why not discover a cure for cancer? Or jump to the moon?

But I couldn’t let it go. I bought a book on how to read Hebrew. For weeks I studied it, a little bit each night. But the more I read, the more confused I got. I had to find help. A teacher. That’s when I discovered the closest place that offered the classes I needed was a seminary in Portland, 400 miles away.

I couldn’t uproot my family to chase this wild dream of studying ancient languages. Still, it gnawed at me. If the Bible was God’s instruction manual, how could I be sure of the directions without reading them in the original?

“Maybe I’m just not meant to know,” I finally admitted to Charlee. It killed me to say that. But what else could I do? I put my dream on a shelf, like all those other projects I hoped to get to someday.

My whole life it seemed I’d been searching for something. What was it that God meant for me to do? Fresh out of the Army I’d gone to work at U.S. Electrical Motors, then bought a service station, did that until I got the job with JC Penney.

In 1974 I started the mill with our boys, another idea inspired by a book I read. Even though the business was successful, I felt less like I was on a journey with a destination and more like I was just jumping from one thing to the next with no earthly idea how all the pieces fit together.

One day I was studying the Bible and it hit me. The boys were grown. We had the money we’d put away for retirement. “Charlee,” I said, “what do you think about us going to seminary?”

The next day I called Western Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Yes, the admissions counselor said, it would be fine for us to audit a class or two a semester. He suggested we start with Greek. “I think you’ll find it easier,” he said.

Charlee and I moved to Portland, and now here we were just days away from my dream coming true. I felt like an explorer headed off in search of treasure beyond compare.

Then came the first day of class. I squeezed into my seat and looked around the classroom—into the faces of students younger than my boys. I’d worn a coat and tie, wanting to make a good impression. They were all in jeans and T-shirts.

The professor walked into the room. Even he was younger than me. I glanced at Charlee for reassurance, but her gaze was fixed on the instructor. “Turn in your Bibles to John 17:17,” he said.

I flipped to the page and my eyes searched in vain for one word I recognized. γ ασoν α το ς ν τ λ γος σ ς λ. It was definitely Greek to me. Then again it could have been Swahili for all I knew. The memory of my failed attempt to teach myself flashed through my mind.

Was this really a dream I was meant to pursue? What if too many years had gone by? What if even a professor couldn’t help me?

“Don’t worry,” the professor said. “I don’t expect you to be able to read this. Yet. But you will, in time. The key is repetition, until it becomes familiar. I recommend flash cards.”

That night Charlee and I wrote 20 Greek words on note cards. Words like sanctify and truth, commandment and righteous. We stayed up late quizzing each other. It was no use. In Greek, every word looked the same. Indecipherable. I fell into bed, defeated. What had I gotten us into?

But the next morning I woke revived. After a breakfast of Charlee’s whole-wheat pancakes we started studying again. I liked puzzling through the words, the mental challenge of it. Like a workout for the brain. Invigorating.

Slowly some of the letters began to make sense. Then a word: ψομαυδμευτ. Commandment. “That’s right!” Charlee exclaimed. My smile stretched from ear to ear. This was it. My dream. It was really happening.

In class I still felt overwhelmed, the lessons never easy no matter how hard I studied. I worried that I wasn’t keeping up. Then one day a young man sitting next to me leaned over and said: “Would it be okay if I came over tonight and studied with you? You know, you’re way ahead of us.”

“Uh, well, okay,” I said, not sure I really believed him. But he showed up right after dinner. The next night a friend came with him. Soon Charlee and I were tutoring half the class at nightly study sessions. I was actually teaching Greek? This had to be God’s doing.

Charlee and I loved being students. We’d study in the morning, go to class, take an afternoon walk, then hit the books and flash cards again with our classmates after dinner.

But the more I learned the more I realized how little I really knew. I could recognize maybe a hundred words in Greek. Read a few simple verses. But I was never going to be a biblical scholar. I hadn’t even begun to study Hebrew. I still had more questions than answers.

Where am I supposed to go from here? I asked in my prayers.

One morning I opened my Greek Bible to John 17:17, the verse our professor had us turn to the first day of class. It was amazing. The words nearly jumped off the page, as plain as day. “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”

I knew exactly what that meant. God’s word was truth. The same today as it was for the first Hebrew scribes. No translation needed. Nothing complicated. Trust in God. That was what I needed to know. What I needed to do.

It was a few days later that Charlee and I were out walking in the woods when we came across an abandoned, old-fashioned flour mill with a For Sale sign out front. It was rundown, dilapidated, a place only a committed tinkerer could love. A hidden treasure just waiting to be discovered.

Even the owner was surprised when I told him we planned to turn it into a working mill again. We painted it red. Just because I like the color. Used only whole grains, like it says in Genesis. That’s how Bob’s Red Mill was born.

Today, 2012, we have more than 300 employees and our 400-plus products are carried in stores throughout the U.S. and Canada, and in over 70 countries throughout the world.

To think that this all started with what some might consider a midlife crisis. I would say it was more like a midlife calling, the kind of wondrous thing God can lead you to when you keep your mind open.


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