A History of Hebrew:
Its Language and Philosophy
By Jeff A. Benner
Table of Contents
Figure 1 – Modern Hebrew text of the Bible
The Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament by Christians and the Tanakh by Jews, is an Ancient Near Eastern text, which was written millennia ago within a time and culture that is vastly different from our own. The author's perspectives on life and the world around them are steeped with their own traditions, lifestyles, manners and thoughts. When reading and studying this text we cannot interject our own cultural perspectives into the text, to do so would bring about interpretations and conclusions that are far removed from the authors intended meaning.
Let's take the concepts of the past and the future to demonstrate how important it is to recognize that Biblical concepts are sometimes the opposite of our own. We perceive of the past as behind us and the future as before us. The Hebrew word for yesterday, the past, is תמול (temol) and the word for tomorrow, the future, is מחר (mahhar). Temol comes from a root that means "to be in front" while mahhar comes from a root that means "to be behind." And therefore in Hebraic thought the past is in front of you and the future is behind you. Why did the Ancient Hebrews perceive of time in this way? Because the past is known, it is laid out in front of you to see, while the future is not known and is therefore hidden behind you.
Figure 2 – A portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Caves
We will be examining the Hebrew alphabet, language, philosophy and culture to uncover the evidence that supports a perspective of these ancient Near Eastern texts that is very different from the way they are normally perceived and we will dig into the deeper meanings of these texts from an ancient perspective.
א ב ג ד ה ו ז ח ט י כ ל מ נ ס ע פ צ ק ר ש ת
The mention of the Hebrew alphabet brings to mind the Hebrew letters that are familiar to many today that are used in Torah scrolls, Hebrew Bibles and even in Modern Hebrew Books and Newspapers. However, history suggests that these Hebrew letters are not the same Hebrew letters used in antiquity.
In 1854, Thomas Hartwell wrote; "The present Hebrew Characters, or Letters, are twenty two in number, and of a square form: but the antiquity of these letters is a point that has been most severely contested by many learned men."
Figure 3 – Judean Half Shekel (Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)
Hartwell continues: "But the most decisive confirmation of this point is to be found in ancient Hebrew coins, which were struck before the [Babylonian] captivity, and even engraven on all of them are manifestly the same with the modern Samaritan" 
Figure 4 – A group of Samaritans, c. 1900
The Samaritans are, according to themselves, the descendants of the Northern Tribes of Israel that were not sent into Assyrian captivity, and have continuously resided in the land of Israel.
Figure 5 – The Samaritan Torah Scroll
The Torah Scroll of the Samaritans use an alphabet that is very different from the one used on Jewish Torah Scrolls. According to the Samaritans themselves and Hebrew scholars, this alphabet is the original "Old Hebrew" alphabet.
Even as far back as 1691, this connection between the Samaritan and the "Old" Hebrew alphabets was made by Henry Dodwell; "[the Samaritans] still preserve [the Pentateuch] in the Old Hebrew characters."
Humphrey Prideaux also writes in 1799; "And these five books [of the Samaritans] still have among them, written in the old Hebrew or Phoenician character, which was in use among them before the Babylonish captivity, and in which both these and all other scriptures were written, till Ezra transcribed them into that of the Chaldeans."
This same theory is presented in the 1831 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana; "During the Babylonish captivity , they received from the Chaldees the square character in common use; and in the time Ezra, the old Hebrew manuscripts were copied in Chaldee characters."
Figure 6 – A portion of the Aleppo Codex
The Hebrew Torah (Pentateuch) was originally written with an alphabet similar to that of the Samaritans, but after the Exile in Babylon it was transcribed with the Chaldean square alphabet, which was still used 1,000 years ago for the Aleppo Codex and is still used today in modern Hebrew.
Figure 7 – A portion of a text from a Phoenician inscription
While Prideaux noted that the Old Hebrew alphabet was the same as the Samaritan alphabet, he also pointed out that it is identical to the Phoenician alphabet. When we compare the letters of these three alphabets, we can see this similarity.
Figure 8 – The letter "beyt" in Old Hebrew, Samaritan and Phoenician
This is the letter beyt in the Old Hebrew.. the Samaritan… and the Phoenician. Note the close similarity of each. Also note the similarities of the letter hey in each of these alphabets.
The 1831 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana also makes this connection between the Phoenician, Samaritan and Hebrew alphabets; "[the Hebrews] written characters were the same as the Phoenician, to which the letters of the Samaritan manuscripts approach the nearest."
The Phoenicians lived north of the land of Israel centered around the Biblical cities of Sidon and Tyre, in modern day Lebanon, between the 16th and 3rd Century BC.
The Phoenicians shared the same alphabet with the Hebrews and the Samaritans. It was also evident that the Phoenicians and Hebrews spoke the same language as the "Foreign Quarterly Review" wrote in its 1838 publication; "The learned world had almost universally allowed that the Phoenician language was, with few exceptions, identical with the Hebrew"
While the origins of the Old Hebrew alphabet was widely accepted, this theory was based on a limited amount of evidence as the "Foreign quarterly review" points out; "What is left [of Phoenician] consists of a few inscriptions and coins…"
Figure 9 – Sarcophagus found in Sidon with Phoenician inscription
The first major discovery connecting the Phoenician alphabet and language with Hebrew occurred on January 19th, 1855, when Turkish laborers accidently uncovered an ancient sarcophagus in Sidon, a Phoenician city. On this sarcophagus was a lengthy inscription written in the Phoenician alphabet and language, which was found to be identical to Hebrew with only a few exceptions.
Figure 10 – Meshe Stele inscription
The Meshe Stele, also called the Moabite Stone, was discovered in 1868 in the Biblical city of Dibon, the capital of the Moabites. The inscription was written with the same letters as the Phoenician, old Hebrew and Samaritan and it was discovered that Moabite language was also the same as Hebrew with some minor variations.
Figure 11 – The Siloam Inscription
The Siloam Inscription, discovered in 1880, is written on the wall of Hezekiah's tunnel, which connects Gihon spring to the Pool of Siloam in East Jerusalem. This Hebrew inscription was written in the same style as the Phoenician and Moabite inscriptions.
Figure 12 – The Gezer Calendar
During the excavation of the city of Gezer, 30 miles from Jerusalem, a limestone tablet was discovered in 1908 with a Hebrew inscription written in the old Hebrew alphabet.
Figure 13 – A Lachish Ostracon
In 1935 eighteen ostraca (broken pottery fragments) were discovered in the ancient city of Lachish with Hebrew writing in the old Hebrew alphabet.
Figure 14 – An Ammonite inscription
In 1966 an inscription was discovered in Amman Jordan with an Ammonite inscription whose alphabet and language was also similar to Phoenician and Hebrew.
Figure 15 – The Tel Dan Inscription
The Tel-Dan Stele, discovered in northern Israel in 1993, is an Aramaic inscription using the same old Hebrew script. This inscription also revealed another amazing fact.
Figure 16 – The phrases "king of Israel" (top) and "house of David" (bottom).
The inscription includes the phrase מלך ישראל (melek yisrael) meaning "king of Israel" and the line below reads בית דוד (beyt david) meaning "house of david." These phrases are extra-Biblical evidence confirming the existence of not only the nation of Israel, but also king David.
Figure 17 – The Greek Alphabet on ancient inscription
The old-Hebrew alphabet, also called paleo-Hebrew, was adopted by the Greeks around the 12th century BC.
Figure 18 – The first five letters of the Old Hebrew alphabet
The first five letters of the Hebrew alphabet are aleph, beyt, gimel, dalet and hey. These same letters, adopted by the Greeks, became the alpha, beta, gamma, delta and E-psilon (meaning simple E).
Figure 19 – The first five letters of the Old Greek alphabet
While Hebrew is usually written from right to left, Greek was written left to right and the orientation of the letters were reversed.
Figure 20 – The Modern Greek alphabet
Over the centuries, these ancient Greek letters evolved into their modern Greek forms.
Figure 21 – The Modern Roman alphabet
Our English alphabet is Roman, and because the Romans adopted the Greek alphabet, we are able to see our own modern English alphabet in these ancient Hebrew turned Greek letters, the A, B, C, D and E.
As previously mentioned, the old Hebrew alphabet was used by all Semitic peoples including the Arameans (also called the Chaldeans), but evolved independently from the Hebrew.
Figure 22 – 5th Century B.C. Hebrew (Aramaic) alphabet
By the 5th century B.C., the time of the Israelites captivity in Aramea (or Babylon), it no longer resembled the old Hebrew it came from and it is this Aramaic "square" script that Israel adopted during their captivity.
Figure 23 – The modern Hebrew (Aramaic) alphabet
This old Aramaic alphabet, now being used by the Israelites, continued to evolve into the modern letters we are familiar with today.
By the end of the 19th century, the translation of the Semitic alphabet was well established. The only mystery was the origin of this alphabet as mentioned in "A Compendius and Complete Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament" published in 1886.
"א, (aleph), The first letter in the Hebrew alphabet… Its nameאלף (aleph) is fromאלף (eleph) meaning a yoke-beast, ox or heifer; and it's oldest figure probably pictured a bovine head."
The 1922 "New Larned History for Ready Reference, Reading and Research," in its entry for the letter "A," also notes the suspected origins of the Hebrew alphabet. "A, the initial letter of the English and almost all other alphabets… The Phoenicians called the letter "aleph" seemingly because of the resemblance of the character to the head of an ox. Although nothing is known with any degree of certainty concerning the ultimate origin of this letter.”
What the editors of the "New Larned History" did not know, was that this mystery was solved just a few years earlier by Sir William Flinders Petrie.
In 1905, a new discovery in the Sinai Peninsula changed the world's perception of the origins of this Semitic alphabet.
Figure 24 – Flinders Petrie
Flinders Petrie, a renowned Egyptologist and pioneer in modern archeology, discovered inscriptions of previously unknown symbols at Serabit el-Khadim.
Figure 25 – Ancient inscription from Serabit El-Khadim
Dr. Alan H. Gardiner, Another renowned Egyptologist, studied these inscriptions in detail. He discovered that these Sinaitic inscriptions consisted of a total of thirty-two symbols. Because of the limited number of symbols Dr. Gardiner determined that this was an alphabet.
Gardiner was then able to easily identify this Sinaitic alphabet as Semitic because of the pictographic nature of this alphabet. The name of each Hebrew letter is a Hebrew word with meaning.
The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is called the aleph, a Hebrew word meaning "ox," The tenth letter is called the yud or yad meaning "hand" and the sixteenth letter is the ayin, a word meaning "eye."
Figure 26 – Ancient Sinaitic letters
Dr. Gardiner found that the letters in these ancient Sinaitic inscriptions were pictures of the very names of the Hebrew letters. The image of an ox head (left) was the letter aleph, the image of the hand (center) was the letter yad and the image of an eye (right) was the letter ayin.
This relationship between the pictograph and the names of the Semitic letters, Dr. Gardiner proposed, proved that this was the precursor to the previously known Phoenician/Old Hebrew alphabet.
Figure 27 – The L'Balt inscription
Once it was determined that the new script was Semitic, Dr. Gardiner, in 1916, was able to translate a portion of one inscription. This inscription includes the letters lamed, beyt, ayin, lamed and tav, which form the Semitic word לבעלת (l'balt), meaning "to the lady."
Figure 28 – The Wadi El-Hhol inscription (Photograph by John Melzian of the West Semitic Research Project)
In 1999, John and Deborah Darnell were surveying ancient travel routes in the deserts of southern Egypt when they came upon another set of inscriptions very similar to the Sinaitic inscriptions found by Petrie.
The inscriptions discovered in the past century and a half, have been accurately dated through the advances of archeology. The original Semitic alphabet with its pictographic letters can be divided into three periods; Early, Middle and Late.
The early Semitic alphabet existed between the 20th and 12th centuries B.C. However, note that the 20th century date is based on the oldest inscriptions found thus far and it is possible that future discoveries may push the date of the Semitic alphabet back even farther into history. To date, the Wadi El-Hhol inscriptions found in southern Egypt, are the oldest Semitic inscriptions found and date to between the 19th and 20th centuries B.C. The Sinaitic inscriptions from the Sinai peninsula date to about the 15th century B.C.
The middle Semitic alphabet, the Phoenician and old Hebrew, was in use between the 12th and 4th century B.C. The Gezer calendar, Mesha Stele, Siloam inscription, the Lachish inscription and the Phoenician sarcophagus date to this time period.
The late Semitic alphabet, the square Aramaic script, was in use between 4th century BC and into modern times with the modern Hebrew alphabet that is used to this day. The majority of the scrolls from the Dead Sea Caves is written in the late Semitic script and date to between the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. A few of the scrolls found in the dead sea caves, such as the Leviticus scroll, uses the middle Semitic script showing that the script did not fall out of use completely.
Figure 29 – Text from a Modern Hebrew Bible
The late Semitic script continued to be used for the works of the Talmud, the Masoretic Hebrew Bible as well the printed Hebrew Bibles of today.
Like a tree with its roots, trunk, branches and leaves, the Hebrew language is a system of roots and words, where one word and its meaning is the foundation to a number of other words whose spelling and meaning are related back to that one root.
As an example, the root מלך (M-L-K) means "rule." This root can be used as a verb meaning to rule, or as a noun meaning a ruler, or king. Other nouns are created out of this root by adding other letters. By adding the letter ה (H) to the end of the root, the word מלכה (malkah) is formed, which is a female ruler, a queen. By adding a ו (U) to this feminine noun, the word מלוכה (malukhah) is formed meaning "royalty." By adding the letters ות (UT) to the end of the root, the noun מלכות (malkut) is formed meaning the area ruled by the ruler, the kingdom.
By studying the relationship between words and their roots we can better understand the meanings of these words within their original context. Let's take 3 English words found in English translations of the Bible: Maiden, Eternity and Secret. These three words are, from our interpretation, three much unrelated words. But let us examine the Hebrew words behind these translations: עלמה (almah), עולם (olam) and תעלמה (te'almah).
Figure 30 – The Hebrew triliteral root A-L-M
Each of these words share the same three letters: ע (ayin),ל (lamed) and מ (mem) . Each of these words are related as they come from the same root A-L-M. Rather than perceiving them as different and independent words, we need to recognize that there meanings are related. By interpreting these words in context of their root relationship, we are able to uncover their original meanings.
The root עלם (A-L-M) literally means beyond the horizon, that hazy distance that is difficult to see. By extension it means to be out of sight, hidden from view. עלמה (almah) is the young woman that is hidden away (protected) in the home. עולם (olam) is a place or time that is in the far distance and is hidden to us. תעלמה (te'almah) is something that is hidden away.
Besides being able to find the common meaning in different words of the same root, we are also able to distinguish between different meanings of words that come from different roots. For instance, there are two Hebrew words translated as "moon." One is ירח (yere'ahh), which comes from a root meaning "to follow a prescribed path" and is therefore used for the motion of the moon. The other is לבנה (lavanah), which comes from a root meaning "to be white" and is therefore used for its bright appearance.
When we ignore the Hebraic definitions of the words in the Bible we miss much of what the text is attempting to tell us.
All Hebrew linguists recognize that most Hebrew words are derived from a triliteral (or three letter) root. However, there are some linguists who have suggested that these triliteral roots are themselves derived out of a Biliteral (or two letter) root.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark, in his book Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, records and organizes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentaries of the Bible which relate to the Hebrew language. Rabbi Clark stated; "The second major analytical tool in the Hirsch system we will call Gradational Variants. This involves five special consonants: א (aleph), ה (hey), ו (waw), י (yud) and נ (nun). These consonants play a special role with respect to roots whose third consonant is identical with the second… The new root form does not change the basic meaning of the original root, but adds some nuances of meaning."
Figure 31 – The Hebrew biliteral root Ts-R
Rabbi Clark then provides many of examples of these "Gradational Variants" including; the triliteral root צרר (tsarar), which means "forcing, constraining, oppressing." As mentioned, the second and third consonants are identical, the letter ר (resh). The Gradiant Variants of צרר )tsarar) are; נצר (natsar) - guarding or protecting; יצר (yatsar) - forming or creating; צור (tsur) - fencing or enclosing.
Figure 32 – The Hebrew biliteral root R-D
The meaning of the triliteral root רדד (radad) is a "flattening down or submitting totally." The Gradiant Variants are; רדה (radah) - ruling over or having dominion over; ירד (yarad) - going down; רוד (rud) – humbling.
Wilhelm Gesenius, one of the greatest Hebrew scholars of all time, wrote in his book Gesenius Hebrew Grammar, "..a large number of triliteral stems really point to a biliteral base, which may be properly called a root, since it forms the starting-point for several triliteral modifications of the same fundamental idea."
Figure 33 – The Hebrew biliteral root K-R
Gesenius then cites the following example; "The biliteral root כר (K-R) is the root of כרר (K-R-R), אכר (A-K-R), כור (K-W-R) and כרה (K-R-H), each being related to the idea of "digging." Another example he provides is the biliteral root דך (D-K), the root of דכא (D-K-A), דכך (D-K-K), דוך (D-W-K) and דכה (D-K-H), each being related to the idea of "striking" or "breaking."
Edward Horowitz states in his book How the Hebrew Language Grew, "Scholars are fairly convinced that back of these three lettered roots lie old primitive two-lettered syllables. These two-lettered syllables represent some simple primitive action or thing. It does seem quite clear that there existed a bi-literal or two-letter base for many, if not most, of our three lettered roots."
Figure 34 – The Hebrew biliteral root G-Z
Horowitz then provides the following roots, גוז (G-W-Z), גזר (G-Z-R), גזע (G-Z-A), גזז (G-Z-Z) and גזה (G-Z-H), each meaning to "cut," and all coming from the root גז (GZ) meaning. Horowitz noted, "Do not be surprised if so many of these comparatively few two-lettered roots mean to cut, to split, to slit, or slice. After all, everything that primitive man did in the way of making a living for himself and his family in some way or other involved a cutting action."
When we wish to find the definition of an English word we go to a dictionary. While this is also true with Hebrew words, there are additional methods of determining the meaning of a Hebrew word. One such method, which has been previously demonstrated, is to examine its roots which provide additional insight into that word.
Another method is to examine the meaning of the letters used to write that word. Each biliteral, or parent, root is composed of two letters and these two letters in themselves provide meaning to the word.
Figure 35 – The bilateral root A-B
The Hebrew word אב (av) is spelled with two Hebrew letters, the א (aleph) and the (beyt). In Hebrew, the word "aleph" means "ox" and the original pictograph of this letter is an image of an ox head, which represents the idea of "strength." The beyt, a Hebrew word meaning "tent" or "home," is an image of a tent, the home. When the meaning of these two letters are combined we have the "the strength of the tent" and is descriptive of the tent poles which provide strength to the tent. As the beyt can also represent the home, this word also means "the strength of the home," and is the Hebrew word for "father."
Figure 36 – The bilateral root B-N
The Hebrew word בן (ben) is spelled beyt-nun. In the original pictographic script the letter beyt is, as we mentioned, an image of the home. The letter nun, a Hebrew word meaning "continue," in its original pictographic script is an image of a "seed," and represents the idea of "continuing" as the seed continues the next generation. When these two letters are combined we have the "the home continues" and is descriptive of a "son," the one who continues the home.
Figure 37 – The bilateral root A-M
The Hebrew word אם (eym) is spelled aleph-mem. In the original pictographic script the letter aleph is the ox head representing "strength." The Hebrew letter ם (mem), a word meaning "water" in Hebrew, is an image of "water." When combined these two letters mean "strong water" which is "glue" and is the Hebrew word for "mother," the one who is the "glue" of the family.
Figure 38 – The bilateral root A-L
The Hebrew word אל (el) is spelled aleph-lamed. The aleph, the picture of an ox, represents strength and the Lamed is a picture of a shepherd staff representing "authority." These letters form the Hebrew word meaning the "the strong authority" and is the Hebrew word for God.
Both Hebrew and Aramaic were spoken during the Old Testament period, Hebrew in the Near East and Aramaic in the Middle East. While Aramaic survived as a living language to the present day, Hebrew at some point ceased to be the language of the Hebrews, but this point of time has been strongly debated for many years.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, in its first edition in 1958, stated; "[Hebrew]ceased to be a spoken language around the fourth century B.C."
This belief has been, and still is, the pervading theory concerning the end of the use of the Hebrew language. However, over the last half of the 20th Century, textual and archeological evidence has revised this theory.
Figure 39 – Bar Kochba letter from 135 A.D.
One of the most compelling evidences for the continued use of Hebrew into the 2nd Century A.D. is General Simon Bar Kockba's letters, dating to 135 A.D., which he wrote during the second Jewish revolt against Rome.
Because of the evidence, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, in its third edition in 1997 now, states; "[Hebrew] continued to be used as a spoken and written language in the New Testament period".
The Jewish revolt of 135 A.D. ended in failure and initiated the Diaspora, or dispersion of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. It is at this time that Hebrew ceased to be the language of the Hebrew people.
Figure 40 – A Torah Scroll
However, the Hebrew language did survive in a religious setting, being used in Synagogues and Yeshivas for learning and teaching Torah and Talmud.
Figure 41 – Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, c. 1912
In the late 19th A.D. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda began a revival of the Hebrew language as a living language for the Jewish people in Israel and when the state of Israel was established as an independent nation in 1948, Hebrew became the official language and, once again, Hebrew became the native language of the Hebrew people.
Benjamin Lee Whorf stated, in what has become known as the Whorf hypothesis, that; "language is not simply a way of voicing ideas, but is the very thing which shapes those ideas." An example of this is how one perceives of time. In our modern western culture we view time in the sense of the past, present and future, a fixed and measurable progression time.
Figure 42 – A Hopi Indian, c. 1910
Other cultures, such as the Hopi Indians of North America, do not share this same perspective of time. To the Hopis, there is what "is" (manifested) and what "is not yet" (unmanifested). Interestingly, the Ancient Hebrews had a similar view of time. Like the Hopi language, the Ancient Hebrew language does not use past, present and future tenses for verbs. Instead they use two tenses, one for a complete action (manifested) and one for an incomplete action (unmanifested).
An individual, whose native language is Hopi, views time from the Hopi perspective, but if he is required to adopt English he learns the English perspective of time. During the late 1800s, the United States forced the Native Americans to adopt the English language and when a Hopi no longer functions within his native language, the original cultural perspectives, such as time, is lost and replaced with the modern western perspective of time. This same shift in perspectives can be seen throughout the Ancient Hebrew vocabulary.
Figure 43 – A tsiytsiyt
In Numbers 15:38 we read; "Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, make tsiytsiyt on the corners of your garment." The Hebrew word ציצית (tsiytsiyt) is a noun derived from the word ציץ (tsiyts).
Figure 44 – A blossom
A ציץ (tsiyts) is the "blossom" of a tree, which in time will become a fruit. The tsiytsiyt then is a blossom, not in appearance, but in function. The function of the tsiytsiyt is to be a reminder to the wearer to produce fruit, fruit being the observance of the commands, as stated in verse 39, "remember the commandments," the teachings of God, which according to Psalm 1:2,3, is like producing fruit.
Therefore, the word tsiytsiyt carries with it a cultural perspective which connects the blossoms of a tree with the performance of a commandment.
This "concrete" Hebrew language continued to function as the Jewish people's native language until their removal from the land after the Bar Kockba revolt in 135 AD, at which time they were dispersed into many different nations. While the Jewish people continued to use the Hebrew language from then until now, it was relegated to their religious lives alone. The language of the people around them, quite often this was Greek, was adopted as the language for everyday use. At this point, Greek becomes the influential language in their life and their perspectives of words and ideas are now determined by this dominant language.
The Hebrew word tsiytsiyt is now translated into the Greek word κρασπεδον, meaning "a decorative fringe or thread." No longer is the tsiytsiyt attached to the idea of a "blossom," but instead simply as a "fringe." This same shift in perception occurred each time a new language was adopted, whether it was Spanish, German or English.
Figure 45 – Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948
In 1948 Israel became a Jewish state and with that, Hebrew once again became the everyday language of the Jewish people. While the language had been resurrected, the original cultural perspective of that language had disappeared long ago and the Western influence on that language survived. Therefore, a tsiytsiyt, in the mind of modern Orthodox Jews, is still a decorative fringe and no longer functionally related to a blossom.
This same change can be seen throughout the Hebrew language. For example, the Hebrew word תורה (torah), which in the original Hebrew language meant a "journey," now in the Modern Hebrew language means "doctrine." A כוהן (kohen), in the original language meant a base of the community, but in the Modern Hebrew language means a "religious priest." The word קדוש (qadosh), which originally meant special, now in the modern language means "holy."
Figure 46 – Bedouins
The Ancient Hebrews were nomadic agriculturalists who migrated from pasture to pasture, watering hole to watering hole. Their entire lives were spent in the wilderness and this lifestyle had a significant effect on their language.
Some Hebrew words are obviously related to this agricultural lifestyle. For example, The Hebrew word אוהל (ohel) is a tent, רועה (ro'eh) is a shepherd, and קציר (qatsir) is a harvest. Besides these obvious agricultural words, many other words, which we would not relate to agriculture, are in fact rooted in some aspect of the Nomadic culture. For instance, the Hebrew word חן (hhen), usually translated as "grace," is related to an "oasis," a place of beauty, rest and comfort. Derived out of the word hhen come the words מחנה (mahhaneh) meaning "camp," often pitched at an oasis.
Other Biblical words, which have lost their original agricultural meanings include; תורה (torah), which is usually translated as "law," but literally means the "journey," מצוה (mitzvah), usually translated as "command," but literally means the "directions for the journey," צדיק (tsadiyq), usually translated "righteous," but literally means "traveling the path," and רשע (rasha), usually translated as "wicked," but literally means "lost from the path."
Figure 47 – Ancient philosophers, Plato (left) and Confucius (right)
Throughout the world there are two major branches of Philosophy, Western and Eastern. Western Philosophy has its beginnings in the sixth century B.C. in Greece with such philosophers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Eastern Philosophy has its roots in the ancient past and was the philosophy of all ancient cultures of the Far East (including China and Japan), Middle East (Including India and Babylon) and Near East (including Egypt and Israel).
While there are many differences between the Western and Eastern schools of thought, one of the major differences is the use of abstracts and concretes.
Figure 48 – Concrete (left) and abstract (right) art
Just as artwork may be created in the concrete or the abstract, words can also be created in the concrete or the abstract. A concrete word, idea or concept is something that can be perceived by the five senses. It can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched. An abstract is something that cannot be perceived by the five senses.
As the Bible was written from an Eastern philosophical perspective, it is important that we recognize that we cannot interpret it through our own Western philosophy. To do so, would place a meaning and interpretation that may not be that of the original authors.
Thorleif Boman's monumental work, Hebrew thought compared with Greek, states; "The thinking of the Old Testament is primitive and hence can be compared only with the thinking of other primitive peoples and not with thinking as advanced as Plato's or Bergson's."
Victor H. Matthews explains how the culture of the Hebrews can be studied in his book, Manners and Customs of the Bible." One of the joys of studying the Bible is attempting to reconstruct the manners and customs of the peoples of ancient times. The gulf of thousands of years can be bridged, at least in part, by insights into their everyday life. These can be garnered through the close examination of the biblical narratives and through the use of comparative written and physical remains from other ancient civilizations."
George Adam Smith said; "..the Hebrews were mainly a doing and feeling people. Thus their language has few abstract terms. Rather, "Hebrew may be called primarily a language of the senses. The words originally expressed concrete or material things and movements or actions which struck the senses or started the emotions. Only secondarily and in metaphor could they be used to denote abstract or metaphysical ideas."
These same Concrete concepts of Eastern thought can also be found in Primitive cultures that exist today who have not been influenced by our Modern Western culture. The linguist Dan Everett, discovered through his research that the primitive Pirahã tribe in the Amazon did not use abstract perspectives, but instead concrete ones. As an example, the Pirahã tribe call themselves the "straight heads" and outsiders are "crooked heads." Interestingly, the Ancient Hebrew language uses this same style of speech. A literal translation of Proverbs 14:2 reads, "One who makes his walk straight will revere Yahweh, but the one who makes his path crooked is worthless."
Everett also found that they had no concept of "left" and "right" (abstract terms of direction), but instead gave direction in relation to the surrounding topography, as in "toward the river," or "toward the jungle." Again, this is strikingly similar to the Ancient Hebrews' perspectives of direction. Exodus 38:9-13 describes the direction of the court in relationship to the four sides of the Tabernacle. The Hebrew words used for these four directions are;
נגב (negev) – meaning "The desert region" (south)
צפון (tzafon) – meaning "The unknown region" (north)
ים (yam) – meaning "The Mediterranean Sea" (west)
קדם (qedem) – meaning "the region of the rising sun" (east)
Again, the Pirahã tribe parallel's this style of thought.
Figure 49 – Hebrew manuscript, 11th C A.D. (Image courtesy of Schøyen Collection)
The original manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, which would have been written on animal skins or papyrus, have long since deteriorated and what remains today are copies from these original autographs.
In the digital age, electronic copies are perfect representations of the original. However, in ancient times, making a copy of a manuscript was much more tedious and not as precise and this allowed for human intervention or error.
Figure 50 – Silver scroll discovered in Ketef Hinnom
In a tomb at Ketef Hinnom in Israel, the oldest text of the Hebrew Bible was discovered. The text, inscribed on a silver scroll in the old Hebrew script dating to the 7th Century B.C., is the Aaronic blessing, which begins, "yeverekh'kha YHWH Vayishmarekha" (May Yahweh bless you and keep you).
Figure 51 – The Nash Papyrus
Another very old fragment of the Hebrew Bible is the Nash Papyrus, discovered in Egypt in 1898. The fragment includes the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17) and the Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 5:6-21) and is dated to the 2nd Century B.C.
Very few ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible have been found and are very rare, that is until 1947 when the discovery of a depository of scrolls in the Dead Sea Caves provided us with a library of ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.
Figure 52 – Dead Sea Cave (Photograph courtesy of Grausel)
Between 1947 and 1956, ancient scrolls and fragments of the Hebrew Bible were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea dating to the 1st Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D.
Figure 53 – Dead Sea Scroll fragment, (Photograph courtesy of Petros Koutoupis)
The manuscripts discovered in the Dead Sea Caves include; all of the Canonical Books of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of the book of Esther, non-Canonical Books such as Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit and Sirach as well as Psalms that are not part of the 150 Psalms in the Canonical Bible, and Sectarian Books such as, the Community Rule, the War Scroll, the Damascus Document and commentaries on books of the Bible.
There are several different theories on the origin of these texts.
Figure 54 – Ruins of Qumran, Israel
The predominating theory is that the scrolls were the work of a Jewish sect called the Essenes who, it is believed, resided in nearby Qumran and that the scrolls were hidden away in the caves to protect them from the advancing Roman army.
Figure 55 – Priests of Ancient Israel
Other theories for the writers of the scrolls include Early Messianics (often called Christians) or Zadokite Priests.
Figure 56 - Old Synagogue in Korazim Israel
A newer theory, is that the scrolls were from various libraries and synagogues, in Jerusalem, about 15 miles from the caves.
Figure 57 – A section of the Isaiah Scroll
The most famous of the scrolls found within the Dead Sea Caves is the Isaiah Scroll.
Figure 58 – Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display (Photograph courtesy of Berthold Werner)
While most of the scrolls are fragmented, deteriorating or incomplete, the Isaiah scroll is the only complete scroll found.
Figure 59 – Torah Scroll
The life of a scroll depends on its handling and storage, but can be in use by a community for several hundred years. Some Torah Scrolls still in use in synagogues today are over 500 years old.
The Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea Caves has been dated to around 200 B.C. Isaiah wrote his original scroll around 700 B.C. and may have been in use up until around 200 B.C. This means that is possible for the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Caves to be a copy made directly from Isaiah's original scroll.
The Isaiah scroll, as well as many other scrolls and fragments from the Dead Sea, are currently on stored and on display in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book.
Figure 60 – A page from the Aleppo Codex
Up until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest existing complete Hebrew Bible was the Aleppo codex, also called the Masoretic text, which was written in the 10th Century C.E., a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls. For centuries, this text has been the foundation for Jewish and Christian translators.
The major difference between the Aleppo Codex and the Dead Sea Scrolls is the addition of the vowel pointings in the Aleppo Codex to the Hebrew words. These pointings provide the vowel sounds that are not present in the Hebrew language and were probably inserted into the text to standardize pronunciation.
Figure 61 – The name ישראל (Israel) in a Dead Sea Scroll (left) and the Aleppo Codex (right)
The name ישראל (yis'ra'el – Israel), is spelled in Hebrew with five letters; י (yud-Y), ש (sin-S), ר (resh-R), א (aleph) and ל (lamed-L), and can be transliterated as Y-S-R-L. Only these five letters are used in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in the Aleppo codex, vowel pointings, in the form of dots and dashes are placed above and below each letter to represent the vowel sounds (i, a and e), providing the pronunciation YiSReL.
Figure 62 – A Jewish Scribe, c. 1935
While the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls were transcribed a thousand years apart, they are amazingly similar proving that the copying methods employed by the Jewish scribes over the centuries are very sophisticated and successful. However, there are some differences; some are simple variations of a reading, while others are much more complex.
Besides the addition of the vowel pointings, other changes have occurred in the Hebrew text after making copies of copies. One of the more dramatic changes is the accidental removal of whole verses.
Figure 63 – A portion of Psalm 145 from the Aleppo Codex
Psalm 145 is an acrostic psalm where each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Aleppo Codex the first verse begins with the letter aleph, the second with the beyt, the third with the gimel, and so on. Verse 13 begins with the letter מ (mem-top highlighted letter), the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next verse begins with the letter ס (samech-bottom highlighted letter), the 15th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There is no verse beginning with the 14th letter נ (nun).
Figure 64 – A portion of Psalm 145 from the Dead Sea Scrolls
When we examine Psalm 145 from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find between the verse beginning with the מ (mem-top) and the verse beginning with the ס (samech-bottom), the verse beginning with the letter נ (nun-center). This verse, missing from the Aleppo Codex, and all modern Hebrew Bibles that are copied from this codex, but found in the Dead Sea Scrolls reads,נאמן אלוהים בדבריו וחסיד בכול מעשיו (God is faithful in his words, and gracious in all his deeds).
This is why Psalm 145:13 reads differently in the King James Version and the modern versions such as the Revised Standard Version. The King James Version was written prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, while the Revised Standard Version, and other modern versions, were written afterward and often incorporate what has been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
As the Jewish people began to spread out beyond Israel, they adopted the language of their new neighbors. This necessitated the need for translations of the Bible in their new languages in order for them to continue reading the Bible. While there have been many translations of the Hebrew Bible into many different languages, the three most widely used in ancient times are the Latin, Aramaic and Greek.
Figure 65 – A portion of an Aramaic Targum (Image courtesy of Schøyen Collection)
Of the many Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, there are three principle ones. Targum Onkelos is an Aramaic translation of the first five books of the Bible. It was written in the 1st Century A.D. by Onkelos, a Roman convert to Judaism. Targum Jonathon is an Aramaic translation of the Prophets. It was written in the 1st Century B.C. by Jonathon Ben Uziel, a student of Hillel the Elder, the famous Jewish teacher and religious leader.
Figure 66 - A portion of the Aramaic Peshitta
The Peshitta is an Aramaic translation of the entire Hebrew Bible that was written around the 2nd Century A.D. The Peshitta also includes an Aramaic New Testament that was written around the 5th Century A.D.
Figure 67 – A portion of the Greek Septuagint
The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, written by Jewish scholars in the 3rd Century B.C. the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, the writings and the prophets were translated by unknown translators between the 2nd and 1st Centuries B.C.
Figure 68 – A portion of the Latin Vulgate
The Latin Vulgate, consisting of the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament, was written by Jerome, a Christian priest and apologist, in the 5th Century A.D.
When the various Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin manuscripts of the Bible are compared, a process called Textual Criticism; we often find variations in how these manuscripts read.
Genesis 4:8 provides a simple example of how this process works. In the Hebrew Aleppo codex this passage reads "And Cain said to his brother Abel, and it came to pass that they were in the field and Cain rose up toward his brother Abel and killed him." Missing from this passage is what Cain said to Abel and appears to be an accidental omission on the part of a scribe. However, when we examine this passage in the Greek Septuagint translation we find the missing words; "and Cain said to his brother Abel, Let us go out into the plain, and it came to pass that they were in the plain Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him." It appears that the Septuagint is working from a Hebrew manuscript that includes Cain's speech, while the Aleppo codex is working from a Hebrew manuscript that is missing the speech.
When we compare different English translations of Deuteronomy 32:8, we find very different readings. All of the English translations begin pretty much the same; "When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the…" However, different translations have different renderings for the end of this verse.
King James Version – "…children of Israel"
Revised Standard Version – "…sons of God"
Young's Literal Translation – "…angels of God"
These differences can be solved by examining the different ancient texts to determine which one the translator was using for this verse.
Aleppo Codex - בני ישראל (children of Israel-matching the KJV)
Dead Sea Scrolls - בני אלוהים (sons of God-matching the RSV)
Greek Septuagint - aggelwn qeou (angels of God-matching the YLT)
Each of these manuscripts is copying from a Hebrew source that differs from each other. The process of textual criticism compares these various readings to make a determination of which reading is the original. The consensus among scholars is that the original reading is בני אל (sons of El). Notice that the letters in these two Hebrew words can be found within all three Hebrew versions; בני ישראל (Aleppo Codex), בני אלוהים (Dead Sea Scroll) and בני אל (Hebrew translation of the Septuagint).
Historically, the purpose of a translation was to bring the Bible to those who did not read the original language. Over the centuries there has been a shift in purpose.
Figure 69 – Bibles for sale
In December of 2006 "The New Yorker" published the article "The Good Book Business" which stated; "The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year… This is an intensely competitive business… Every year, Nelson Bible executives analyze their product line for shortcomings, scrutinize the competition's offerings, and talk with consumers, retailers, and pastors about their needs."
In short, the translating and printing of Bibles is "Big Business." In the world of consumerism, it is the producer's primary objective to offer a product that appeal to the consumer. For this reason a translation is required to conform to the buyer's expectations. If a Bible is published that does not conform to the buyers expectations, even if it is more accurate, it will not sell. For this reason, we must be willing to do our own investigations into the meaning and interpretation of the text.
Many theological discussions, teachings and debates use phrases like "The Bible says," or "God says." From a technical point of view, the problem with these statements is that it assumes the Bible was written in English, which of course we all know is not true.
The Bible does not say, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." A more accurate statement would be, "The Bible says, בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ (bereshiyt bara elohiym et hashamayim v'et ha'arets), which is often translated and interpreted as, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
While this may sound trivial, it is in fact a very important issue as many theological differences, divisions and arguments are based on faulty interpretations of the text that could easily be resolved by examining the original language of the Bible. Once the Hebrew text is recognized, its meanings and interpretations can then be discussed properly.
As one example, the Hebrew word ראשית (reshiyt) is translated as "beginning" in Genesis 1:1 in the King James Version. But the King James Version also translates this same Hebrew word as "chief" (1 Samuel 15:21) and "principle thing" (Proverbs 4:7). The Hebrew word ראשית (reshiyt) may be interpreted as "beginning," but it's more literal meaning is "height," as in the height or beginning of an event, the height of someone in rank or the height of importance.
Rather than attempting an interpretation from the English, one should at the least be attempting to understand the text from its Hebraic origin. This can be achieved through the use of an English Bible and a Concordance, where the student is able to find the Hebrew word used in the text that lies behind the English. When using this tool, it quickly becomes evident that the English translators of the text were not very consistent in how they translated Hebrew words.
For instance, the Hebrew word נפש (nephesh) is usually translated in the KJV as soul, but also as; appetite, beast, body, breath, creature, dead, desire, ghost, heart, life, lust, man, mind, person, pleasure, self, thing and will.
The Hebrew verb נתן (N-T-N) means "to give" but is also translated with a wide variety of English words including; add, aloud, apply, appoint, ascribe, assign, avenge, bestow, bring, cast, cause, charge, come, commit, consider, count, cry, deliver, direct, distribute, do, fasten, forth, frame, get, grant, hang, have, heal, heed, lay, leave, left, lend, let, lift, make, occupy, offer, ordain, over, oversight, pay, perform, place, plant, pour, present, print, pull, put, recompense, requite, restore, send, set, shoot, show, sing, sit, slander, strike, submit, suffer, take, thrust, tie, trade, turn, utter, weep, willingly, withdrew, would, yell, and yield.
While it is true that one English word cannot translate one Hebrew word perfectly and some translational liberties are necessary, this should only be done out of necessity and the change should be noted in a footnote to aid the student with proper understanding and interpretation.
The English vocabulary and its definitions are very inadequate in conveying the meanings of Hebrew words. In the following passages, from the KJV, we find the word "teach," an English word meaning "to impart knowledge or skill through instruction."
Exodus 18:20; And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
Exodus 24:12; And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.
Deuteronomy 4:1; Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you.
Deuteronomy 4:9; Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons;
Deuteronomy 6:7; And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
Job 33:33; If not, hearken unto me: hold thy peace, and I shall teach thee wisdom.
Each use of the word "teach" in these six passages is the English translation of six different Hebrew words, each with its own unique meaning.
Exodus 24:12; ירה (yarah) – To point out the direction to go
Exodus 18:20; זהר (2094 (zahar) – To advise caution
Deuteronomy 4:1; למד (lamad) – To urge to go in a specific direction
Deuteronomy 4:9; ידע (yada) – To provide experience
Deuteronomy 6:7; שמן (shaman) – To sharpen
Job 33:33; אלף (alaph) – To show through example
The original meaning of these six Hebrew words are completely erased and lost when they are simply translated as "teach," demonstrating the need of going beyond the simple translations.
Figure 70 – English Bible (Photograph courtesy of David Ball)
When you open your Bible, recognize that it has a long and complicated history. Do we all need to be Hebrew and Greek scholars in order to read and interpret the Bible correctly? Absolutely Not. However, as I hope we have demonstrated, some independent study is required in order to read and understand the text according to the culture and philosophy of the original authors. The good news is that there are many great resources available to us today that will help in that education.
 Thomas Hartwell, An introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Pub. 1854, Page 190
 Henry Dodwell, A Discourse Concerning Sanchoniathon's Phoenician History, Pub. 1691, Page 118
 Humphrey Prideaux, The Old and New Testament connected in the history of the Jews and Neighbouring Nations, Pub. 1799, Page 431
 Encyclopedia Americana, Hebrew Language and Literature, Pub. 1831, Page 212
 Encyclopedia Americana, Hebrew Language and Literature, Pub. 1831, Page 212
 The Foreign quarterly review, Phoenician Inscriptions, Pub. 1838, Page 446
 The Foreign quarterly review, Phoenician Inscriptions, Pub. 1838, page 445
 Benjamin Davies, Edward Cushing Mitchel, A Compendius and Complete Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, Pub 1886, Page 1
 The New Larned History for Ready Reference, Reading and Research, Pub. 1922, Page 1
 The New Larned History for Ready Reference, Reading and Research: The Actual .. - Page 225
 The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures By University of Chicago. Dept. of Semitic Languages and Literatures (1919) Page 35 - the PSI proved the names of the Hebrew letters - aleph (ox) beyt (house) etc.
 The letter "mem" has two forms, ם when it appears at the end of a word, and מ when it appears anywhere else in a word.
 Rabbi Matityahu Clark, Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Pub. 2000, Page 295
 Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius Hebrew Grammar, Pub. 1910, Page 100.
 Edward Horowitz, How the Hebrew Language Grew, Pub. 1960, Page 299
 As Hebrew is written from right to left, the first letter, the aleph, is located at the right of the image above.
 "Hebrew" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, first edition (Oxford, 1958)
 "Hebrew" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition (Oxford 1997).
 Understanding the whole student, Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007, page 34.
 Thorleif Boman, Hebrew thought compared with Greek, (Westminster Press, 1970)
 Victor H. Matthews, Manners and Customs of the Bible, (Hendrickson, 1991)
 George Adam Smith, The Hebrew Genius as Exhibited in the Old Testament, (1944 P.10.)
 Dan Everett, Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge, Long Now Foundation Seminar, March 20, 2009
 This Greek phrase would be translated back into Hebrew as בני אל (sons/angels of God). The word אל (el) and אלהים (Elohiym) are both commonly translated as "God," but אל is the more primitive spelling that is commonly used among Semitic peoples for angels.