Why study the ancient Hebrew language and culture?
By Jeff A. Benner
The Hebrew Bible was written by Hebrews between 1,500 and 500 BCE, whose culture and lifestyle were very different than our own.
When we read the Bible as a 20th Century American, our culture and lifestyle often influence our interpretation of the words and phrases of the Bible. A word such as "rain" has only one meaning, such as "the coming down of water from the clouds in the sky", ones interpretation of the word rain will be influenced by ones culture. This is true even in our own culture where the word "rain" can be interpreted differently. If the local weather station forecasts an unexpected "rain" shower for tomorrow, different people will interpret the word "rain" different ways. To the bride and groom who are prepared for an outdoor wedding tomorrow, this word has a negative meaning, but to the farmer in the middle of a drought season, the same word has a positive meaning. To the ancient Hebrew nomads the word "rain" was usually equated with "life" since without it, their very existence would not be possible.
Another example of how understanding the cultural setting is important when interpreting words is the English word dinner. To my grandparents and their generation, "dinner" (as the large meal) was eaten at noon since many lived on farms and a light "supper" was eaten in the evening. There are countless examples in our own English language of how word meanings change over time and according to the culture.
Many times our cultural influence will give a different definition to words which was not intended by the Biblical authors. For example the Bible speaks of keeping and breaking the commands of God. The words "keep" and "break" are usually interpreted as "obedience" and "disobedience". But this is not the ancient Hebraic meanings of these words.
The Hebrew word for "keep" is שמר (shamar) and literally means "to guard, protect, and cherish" while the Hebrew word for "break" is פרר (parar) and literally means "to trample underfoot". The ancient Hebrew understanding of these words is not about obedience and disobedience of his commands, but ones attitude towards them. Will you cherish his teachings or throw them on the ground and walk on them?
A people's language is very related to their culture, without an understanding of the Hebrew culture we cannot fully understand their language. To cross this cultural bridge, we need to understand the ancient Hebrew culture, lifestyle and language.
How do we study the language and culture?
Archeology uncovers ancient tools, household objects, texts and inscriptions of the ancient Hebrews and other related cultures. Anthropology studies the culture and lifestyle of the ancient people as well as modern day Bedouin nomads of the Near East whose culture and lifestyle have remained virtually the same since the days of Avraham. Linguistics study the ancient languages, including Hebrew, and other related languages which can shed light on Biblical words. The Bible, which was written by the ancient Hebrews, also teaches us much about the ancient Hebrews.
When we combine and study the material provided by these fields of study, we open the door into their culture and lifestyle which will help us to better understand their words which they have recorded in the Hebrew Bible. The purpose of this website is to teach the relationship between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew culture, which will give us a deeper understanding of Biblical words.
Many passages of the Hebrew Bible will also provide us with insights into the manners and customs of the ancient Hebrews such as Genesis chapter 18 which depicts the nomadic lifestyle of tent dwellers, hospitality customs to strangers and family and household relationships.