Why Study Hebrew?

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The Importance of Studying Hebrew

by Dr. Daniel Botkin

Years ago, I read a quote from a Hebrew poet. (I think it was Hayim Naliman Bialik.) The poet stated that reading the Bible in any language other than the original Hebrew is like kissing a beautiful woman with a veil between your face and hers. In other words, reading a translation of the Bible is better than nothing, but it isn’t nearly as wonderful as reading it in Hebrew, with the linguistic veil removed.

Even anti-Semites like Martin Luther have recognized the importance of Hebrew: “If I were younger I would want to learn this language,” Luther wrote, “because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it.” (Pinchas Lapide, Hebrew in the Church, p. x) “Many Bible verses take on new meaning when you know them in the original languages,” writes Richard Wurmbrand. “At least pastors and priests should be required to know these. When people of different nationalities love each other, they usually learn one another’s language. Why do the children of God, especially those who are cultured, not learn the original languages of the Bible?” (If Prison Walls Could Speak, p.95)

Wurmbrand is right. If I were married to a foreign woman, I would soon grow tired of communicating with her through a third party, regardless of how well the third party could translate. I would be very thankful for the translator for as long as he was needed, but I think I would eventually become frustrated and maybe even a little jealous. I wish she could understand my words as they come from me, I would think. When she expresses delight at the words the translator speaks to her it almost seams like she loves the translator instead of me. I would get my wife enrolled in an English class as soon as possible.

Nehemiah knew the importance of preserving the knowledge of Hebrew. When the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem after seventy years of captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah made this observation: "In those days also I saw Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab. And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God" (Neh. 13:23-25). Nehemiah was quite a zealot for the Hebrew language. Maybe we should go into churches and try Nehemiah’s method of encouraging God’s people to learn Hebrew.

There have also been zealots for the Hebrew language in more recent history. The most notable was Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the man responsible for reviving Hebrew as a spoken language and establishing it as the official language of the modern state of Israel. A couple hundred years before Ben Yehudah, there were many excellent Christian Hebraisits such as Cotton Mather, William Bradford, and other early American settlers. A Hebrew oration was delivered every year at Harvard’s commencement until 1817. In the early years of our nation, when anti-British sentiments were high, many colonists wanted to use some language other than English as the national language for the newly-formed United States of America. One of the languages seriously considered was Hebrew. It makes a person wonder how the course of history, might have been different if the resolution had been adopted.

What are some things that a Bible reader misses by reading only a translation? For one thing, there are many plays on words throughout the Bible. One of the first examples of a play on words is in the story of the creation of Eve. Adam said, She shall be called Woman [ishah] because she was taken out of Man [ish] (Gen. 2:23). Adam had seen female animals, but this was the first time he had seen a female ish. This newly-formed creature resembled Adam, but it was obvious that she was female. So Adam added the feminine suffix -ah to ish. Another possible explanation: When Adam awoke from his sleep and saw the woman standing before him, perhaps he thought it was another man, and said, “Ish?” and then as the woman came into focus, “Ahhh!” (This explanation is not to be taken seriously of course.)

Another play on words can be seen when Adam names the woman “Eve”: And Adam called his wife’s name Eve [Chavah, “living; life-giver”], because she was the mother of all living [chai] (Gen. 3:20). Similar plays on words can be seen in the namings of Cain, Seth, Noah, Isaac, and the twelve sons of Jacob, and, of course, at the naming of the Messiah: "...thou shalt call His name Yeshua [salvation]: for He shall save (yoshia) His people from their sins" (Matt. 1.21, Hebrew translation).

Another feature in the Hebrew of the Bible is the concept of word origins and the relationship of words to one another. Sometimes this is similar to a play on words. Man (adam) was created from the dust of the ground (adamah). In the transliteration we can see that adam is taken out of adamah. Contained in the word adam is dam, the Hebrew word for “blood,” reminding us that the life of Adam is in his blood.

Here is an example of word origin: Why was Abraham the first person to be called “a Hebrew” (ivri)? The first place the word ivri/Hebrew occurs is in Gen. 14:13, where the phrase “Abram the Hebrew” appears, with no explanation of what a “Hebrew” is. Some people suggest Abram was called a Hebrew because he was a descendant of Eber (Gen. 11:14), and this is a possibility. Another possibility, though, is found in the meaning of the ayin-beit-resh (three Hebrew letters) root of ivri. The word means “to cross over” (a river or a street, e.g.). This is exactly what Abram did. He “crossed over” in a figurative, spiritual sense when he abandoned polytheism and embraced monotheism. The Jews who translated the Septuagint used the Greek phrase Abram to perate, “Abram the passer”) in this verse. In other places they used the Greek word Ebraios to translate ivri/Hebrew. Knowing all this helps us to identity more closely with our father Abraham. We are all “Hebrews” in a figurative sense if we have “crossed over” from the kingdom of sin and darkness into the kingdom of righteousness and light. Like our father Abraham, we are all “passers” as we pass through this world, looking for “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10).

The poetry of the Prophets is another area of Scripture that is greatly enhanced by some knowledge of Hebrew. Anyone who has studied both foreign languages and poetry knows that poetry loses some of its impact when it is translated into another language. This is true of pose, too, but even more so with poetry. And many of the Prophets’ writings are written in poetic form. Here are a few examples that I ran across while studying Isaiah in Hebrew:

… He [Yahweh] looked for judgment (mishpat), but behold oppression (mispach) , for righteonsness (tsedakah) , but behold a cry (tse’akah) (5:7)

… For it is a day of trouble (mehumah) , and of treading down (mevusah) and of perplexity (mevuchah) (22:5)

… Fear (pachad) , and the pit (pachat), and the snare (pach) are upon thee (24:17).

… precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little
    tsav la-tsav, tsav la-tsav
    kav la-kav, kav la-kav
    ze’ir sham, ze’ir sham
(28:10)

Another feature of Hebrew is the use of acrostics. Several Psalms (and Lamentations and the “virtuous woman” passage of Proverbs 31) are written in such a way that the first verse begins with the letter aleph, the second with the letter beit, the third with the letter gimel, and so on. Psalm 119 has groups of eight verses for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

A knowledge of Hebrew also allows a reader to see different levels of meaning in the Scriptures. When Isaiah says of the wicked dead that “their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched,” the word translated “their fire” is isham, a word formed by combining “fire” (esh) and the possessive “their” suffix, -m. This is how possessives are formed in Biblical Hebrew, so “their fire” is an accurate translation. But the word … can just as accurately be read as asham (“guilt”) is not removed. Their guilt provides the fuel for their fire.

Learning Hebrew idioms can help a reader to better understand the Bible. An idiom is a combination of words that has a meaning which cannot be understood by simply knowing the meaning of each individual word. In English we have hundreds of idioms, such as “That’s a horse of a different color” or “That really hit the spot!” These statements have nothing to do with horses and colors or hitting and spots. Students learning a foreign language must learn idioms as complete units, one at a time. It’s not enough to just know the definitions of the individual words. My seven years’ experience teaching English to foreign students has made me very aware of the importance of learning idioms. If students try to understand an idiom by looking up the definitions of the individual words, they will not get an accurate understanding of what the writer or speaker is trying to communicate. This is as true of Hebrew as it is of English. A Strong’s concordance is fine for understanding individual words, but it will not be of much help if you are dealing with an idiom.

One example of a Hebrew idiom is baruch ha-ba, translated literally as “blessed is he that comes”. In Hebrew this idiom simply means “welcome”. When I lived in Israel, the road leading up to Jerusalem had shrubbery trimmed in the shape of Hebrew letters, proclaiming baruchim ha-baim liyrushalayim, “Welcome to Jerusalem.” When the Messiah lamented over Jerusalem He said, “Ye shall not see Me henceforth, til ye say, “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23:39). In other words, He will not return until Jerusalem welcomes Him as their Messiah.

Perhaps the most important benefit of studying Hebrew is the benefit of having the mind renewed. The student of Hebrew begins to develop Hebraic thought patterns, and a Hebrew-based Biblical world view gradually replaces the Greek-based non-Biblical world view that most Western people have. Marvin Wilson discusses “The Contour of Hebrew Thought” in his book Our Father Abraham. Of course the mind can be renewed quite a bit by extensive reading of the Old Testament in a literal word-for-word translation such as the King James Version,[1] where the Hebraic word order and sentence structure are retained to some extent.

So, how does a person learn Hebrew? The best way, of course, is to go to Israel and spend a few months in an ulpan, where students attend intensive Hebrew language classes full time. This is how I learned. During my two years in Israel, I spent a total of ten months in ulpan, attending classes five hours a day, five days a week.

If someone is serious about studying Hebrew, I strongly recommend going to Israel and enrolling in full-time language classes there. After about three months in ulpan, I was able to read and understand some of the simpler texts of the Bible, in spite of the differences between modern and Biblical Hebrew. I later studied Biblical Hebrew independently, and taught a class. I have retained my knowledge of the language by further independent study and by teaching Hebrew to others.

Not everyone can go to Israel long enough to study Hebrew, of course. Some large cities (in the New York area, especially) offer courses, as do some colleges and universities. There are many “teach yourself” courses with tapes, videos, and computer programs. These are better than nothing, but cannot compare to learning in a classroom setting. The person who can learn a foreign language without the help of a real live flesh and blood teacher is a very rare individual.

Perhaps in the future our congregation here in Peoria will be blessed with our own facilities and be able to offer short-term, full-time intensive classes here in Illinois. I would love to see us obtain property with enough space for classrooms and live-in dormitories to house students who want to come here and study for a month, two months, three months, whatever. Please pray with us about this possibility.


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This article appeared in Messianic Home magazine, Spring 1999,
and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

For more information call 615-683-6104 or write:

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   1. I personally prefer the Complete Jewish Bible as a better translation of the English Bible, as it retains the original Hebrew/Jewish forms of thought from the original language. My personal opinion is that the King James is an extremely poor, and often intentionally antisemitic, translation. ~ Ari [RETURN]

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