If you were given the choice of a fast food meal or one from a 5 star restaurant, which one would you chose? Both restaurants provide food, but I think most people would choose the 5 star restaurant as it provides, better food and a better atmosphere than a fast food restaurant. This same analogy can be used for the Hebrew Bible. Reading an English translation of the Bible is like the fast food restaurant; you may still get fed, but doesn’t have the same impact as the Hebrew text. Even if one doesn’t know Hebrew, much can be learned by understanding Hebraic concepts.
4,000 year old Inscription was found in the land of Israel and is composed of two letters written in the ancient pictographic Hebrew script. The letter at the top of the inscription is the aleph and is a picture of an ox head representing strength. Below that is the letter lamed and is a picture of a shepherd staff representing authority. When these pictographs are combined the word “el” is formed meaning “the strong one of authority.”
The Hebrew Bible (called the Tenack by Jews and the Old Testament by Christians) was originally written in this pictographic Hebrew script (as well as a modified form usually referred to as Paleo-Hebrew) by Hebrews whose language and culture were very different from our own. Because of this, it is through the study of the ancient Hebrew alphabet, language and culture we can better understand the Biblical texts.
The Ancient Hebrew Alphabet
The Ancient Hebrew language was written with 22 letters, each written with a picture, such as an ox, tent, foot or a door. These pictographic letters are more than just sound identifiers, but also have a meaning. The best way to demonstrate the benefit of understanding the meanings of each pictograph is by looking at some Hebrew prefixes. The Hebrew language commonly uses five Hebrew letters for prefixes to provide additional information. Let us look at how these prefixes work and how the pictographs of the prefixes aid in their definitions. In each example below we will use the Hebrew word erets (Strong’s #776), meaning land, and add the prefix before it.
The most basic Hebrew root words are formed by linking two Hebrew letters together and can be used as nouns or verbs. Because each letter has a meaning, the meaning of these letters will assist in providing the Hebraic meaning of a word. Below are a few examples of nouns and verbs whose meanings can be closely connected to the meanings of the letters contained within these words.
The Ancient Hebrew Language
The Hebrew Bible was written by Hebrews 2,500 to 3,500 years ago, whose culture and lifestyle were very different than our own. When we read the Word of God as a 20th Century American, our culture and lifestyle often influence our interpretation of the words and phrases.
The word rain is a good example of how culture can influence one’s view of a word. To a bride and groom preparing for an outdoor wedding, the news of rain has a negative meaning, but to the farmer in the middle of a drought, the same word has a positive meaning. For many of us, rain means a spoiled picnic but to the ancient Hebrews, rain meant life, for without it their nomadic life would end. Without a cultural understanding of the words in the Bible, much is missed or overlooked.
A language is closely tied to the culture of those who speak the language. In the case of the Hebrews who were a nomadic people of the Near East, their language is closely connected to their nomadic culture. Each Hebrew word describes an action that can be seen in the nomadic journeys of the Hebrews through the wilderness.
All modern day translations of the Bible are written from a very westernized perspective and have erased the original Hebraic, Eastern, perspective of the original words in the text. Once the Hebraicness of the text is restored, a common theme can be found throughout the Bible rising to the surface – our nomadic migration through the wilderness of life.
It is simply assumed by most people that everyone everywhere thinks in pretty much the same manner. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the thinking processes of different cultures are as different as day is from night. In this web site we will be examining Hebrew words and ideas so that we can better understand how the mind of the Hebrew works. Understanding how the Ancient Hebrew thought is crucial in proper Biblical understanding. If we are to interpret the Biblical text according to our way of thinking then the interpretation will be contaminated with modern Greco-Roman thinking.
In my many years of research into the language of the Bible I have discovered three keys to proper interpretation of the words and ideas within the text. They’ll be covered in the next post.