By Jeff A. Benner
Table of Contents
Figure 1 – The English translations and the Hebrew are like two styles of restaurants
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.
Figure 2 – Image from the TV show "History Happened Here"
The above image is from the TV show "History Happened: The Dead Sea Scrolls," narrated by Leonard Nimoy. The editor of this segment recognized "lines" within the text and oriented the image to reflect this. The mistake the editor made was that he assumed our cultural perspective into the image.
In our culture, we write words on top of a line, but Hebrew was written with the words hanging down from the line. The image above is upside down.
Figure 3 – Correct orientation of the image
When we make assumption about anything, based on our own culture, we will misinterpret and mistranslate the text. There are three keys that are essential to proper Biblical interpretation; culture, language and thought.
When I first started learning Hebrew, I learned the Hebrew alphabet that can be seen in any Hebrew Bible printed today.
Figure 4 – Portion of a Modern Hebrew Bible
However, while reading our local paper in 1997 I came across the article "Evidence of Solomon's temple found."
Figure 5 – Photograph from the article, "Evidence of Solomon's temple found"
In this article was a photograph of a 3,000 year old receipt for 3 shekel's for a donation to the "House of Yahweh" by "Ashyahu the King," written on a piece of pottery fragment. What I found most interesting was that the inscription was written in Hebrew, but this Hebrew alphabet looked nothing like the Hebrew I had learned. I decided to learn this more ancient alphabet and this begun my journey into the Ancient Hebrew alphabet and language of the Bible.
Throughout the world, past and present, there are two major divisions of thought or philosophy; Western and Eastern. Eastern philosophy has its roots in the ancient past and was the predominant form of philosophy throughout the ancient world. The beginning of Western philosophy arose in the ancient Greek culture from such philosophers as Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. As the Greek culture spread, so did Western philosophy to the point that Western philosophy has become the predominant philosophy throughout the world.
The Hebrews of the Bible wrote the Bible from the perspective of Eastern philosophy, but today's readers are interpreting these writings with Western philosophy, the results being misinterpretations and mistranslations of the text. For this reason, it is essential that we learn the philosophy of the Ancient Hebrews in order to better understand the text we are reading.
The language of the Hebrews is a concrete language, meaning that it uses words that express something that can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard and all five of the senses are used when speaking, hearing, writing and reading the Hebrew language. An example of this can be found in Psalms 1:3; “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither”.
In contrast to the Eastern philosophy of a concrete language, Western philosophy uses an abstract language to express itself. An abstract word is an expression that cannot be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard. Examples of Abstract thought can be found in Psalms 103:8; “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love”. The words compassion, grace, anger and love are all abstract words, ideas that cannot be experienced by the senses. Why do we find these abstract words in a passage of concrete thinking Hebrews? Actually, these are abstract English words used to translate the original Hebrew concrete words. The translators often translate this way because the original Hebrew makes no sense when literally translated for Western thinkers.
Figure 6 – Different cultures view the same picture differently
If you were to ask a Westerner, such as from the Americas or Europe, what they see in the picture above, they would probably say "a deer." However, if you were to ask an Easterner, such as from Japan or China, what they see, they will probably say "a grove." The difference is that the Western thinker focuses in on one point, while the Eastern thinker looks at the whole of the image.
Figure 7 – An experiment demonstrating the different between Western and Eastern thought
In an extensive study on these different forms of philosophy, a wide range of people from America, Canada and Europe were asked if they thought the boy in the middle of the picture on the left was happy or sad, they all said "happy." They were then asked if they thought the boy in the middle of the picture on the right was happy or sad, they all said "happy." Then a wide range of people from Asia, including Japan and China, were asked the same questions. When asked if the boy on the left was happy or sad, they all said "happy." When they were asked if the boy on the right was happy or sad, they all said "sad."
Again, Western thinkers focus on one point, the boy in the middle. Eastern thinkers on the other hand focus on the picture as a whole and because the majority of the children in the picture on the right were sad, their answer was "sad," regardless of the smile on the boy in the middle.
The Psychology of the Ancient Hebrews is very different from our own and when we read the Bible we must learn to read it from the Hebrew's perspective rather than our own.
When we use a word like "name," we focus in on how it is written and pronounced.
I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee. (Psalm 22:23)
What does it mean to "tell someone about another's name?" Does it mean to tell others how to write or pronounce the name? From a Western perspective yes, but from a Hebraic perspective a name is much more than its pronunciation; it is the character of the individual, his ethics, workmanship, attitude, dependability, resourcefulness, compassion, honor, etc. When the Bible teaches us to "tell others the name of Yahweh," it isn't telling us to teach others how to write or pronounce it correctly; it is telling us to teach Yahweh's character.
A language is always closely connected to the culture of the people using that language. This is not only true for different languages, but for different cultures using the same language. We can never assume people from one culture will always understand a people from another culture in the same way.
Figure 8 – The results of rain
Take for example the word "rain." In an agricultural community, "rain" takes on a much different nuance than in an urban setting.
Figure 9 – A goat hair tent of the Bedouin, modern day nomads of the Near East
[He] stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in. (Isaiah 40:22)
The above passage from Isaiah is making an analogy between the heavens and a tent. In order to properly understand this analogy, one must understand the unique quality of the tents of the Ancient Hebrews. These tents were generally from woven black goat hair. When sitting inside the tent, it is very dark, but pin holes of light can be seen coming through the panels and appear like the stars of the night sky. When it rains, the hair fibers swell and seal the tent and the pin holes of light disappear, just as they do when the clouds come, blocking the view of the stars. When an Ancient Hebrew looks up at the night sky he sees God's tent over him, in the same way his tent covers over and protects his family.
In America, a biscuit is a soft raised bread, while in England it is a small hard flat cake, what we call in America a cracker or cookie. When an American orders his first cup of coffee in Europe, he may be shocked at what he is given and surprised at the small size of the coffee cup and the extreme potency of the coffee.
This is not only true for the many cultures of today, but even more so when we are translating ideas and concepts from an Ancient culture to a modern one. We know today that a star a giant ball of gas burning at millions of degrees, but ancient man did not have this understanding and we cannot use our modern definition of a star for an ancient peoples understanding of what a star is.
What do all of the words, astronaut, astrology, astronomy, asteroid, starlet, starfish, stellar and asterisk have in common? They are all related to "stars" and each of these words is derived out of the ancient Greek word "aster," meaning "star." These same types of connections between words can be found in the Hebrew language, however, from our modern Western perspective, the connections between the words may not be as apparent? We may understand the connection between hot and sun, but would we connect these two words with bag, cheese, crave and shake? Most likely not, but someone from the ancient Near East, the land of the Bible, most certainly would have.
Figure 10 – Bedouin making cheese from a Goat skin bag
Cheese, a craved delicacy of the ancient Near East, was made by placing the milk of a sheep or goat in a bag made from the skin of a sheep or goat. The bag is then hung out in the heat of the sun, and shaken. The skins of sheep and goats have a natural enzyme that is released when heated and shaken that separates the whey (water) from the curds (cheese).
As we have demonstrated each of these words are culturally related, but in addition, they are all etymologically related as they each come from the same root word חם (hham), meaning "hot."
חם hham Hot
חמה hham’mah Sun
חמת hhey’met Skin-bag
חמה hhem’ah Cheese
חמד hha’mad To Crave
חמס hha’mas To Shake
Each Hebrew word is related in meaning to other words, and these words are themselves related in meaning to other words and roots. By studying related words and their histories, we can better define them within their original context.
The just shall live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)
The English word "faith," is defined as "confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof," but this is not the meaning of the Hebrew word אמונה (emunah), which the King James Version translates as "faith." The root of emunah is אמן (aman) meaning to be "firm." Emunah means "steady" in the sense of firmness and is in fact translated this way in the King James Version in the following passage.
...And Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. (Exodus 17:12)
English definitions to Biblical words will not suffice for interpreting the words of the Bible. If we assume the English definition of "faith" to the Bible, we are going to misinterpret it. From a Hebraic perspective, Habakkuk 2:4 should be interpreted as "the just shall live by their steadiness."
Figure 11 – An oak tree and a ram
In our minds we would never relate an oak tree to a ram or view them as the same. The reason being is that we relate to features and appearances. However, the Hebrews relate to the function and in the case of the oak and the ram, they function in the same way. An oak tree is a very hard wood and the horns and skull of a ram are equally as hard. For this reason, the Hebrew word איל (ayil) is used for a ram (see Genesis 22:13) and an oak (see Isaiah 1:29).
This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. (Genesis 6:15)
From our Modern Western mindset, we assume that this passage is describing the "appearance" of the ark. But this is not so, the dimensions are not given to tell us what it "looked like," but instead to tell us that it is very large as it is going to hold a large number of animals.
Another example of differing cultural perspectives is how different cultures perceive time. In our modern Western world we view the past as behind us and the future as ahead of us. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for "yesterday" (the past) is תמול (temol), which comes from the root מול (mul) meaning "in front." The Biblical Hebrew word for "tomorrow" (the future) is מחר (mahher), which comes from the root אחר (ahher) meaning "in back." Therefore, from a Biblical Hebrew perspective, the past is in front and the future is behind. We see time from the perspective of passing through it. As we have walked through the past, we see it as behind us and the future, which we have not yet walked in, is in front of us. The Hebrews saw time from the perspective of observance. The past is known and therefore can be seen (in front of the observer), but the future is not known and therefore cannot be seen (behind the observer).
Another major difference between the modern Western view and the ancient Eastern one is how something is described. A westerner would describe a pencil in relationship to its appearance, such as long and yellow. An ancient easterner on the other hand, would describe it by its function, such as "you write with it." Notice that the western description uses adjectives, but the eastern description uses verbs. Biblical Hebrew rarely uses adjectives; instead it much more prefers to use verbs.
The Modern Hebrew alphabet looks like this;
Figure 12 – Modern Hebrew Alphabet
But in ancient times, this alphabet was written with pictures, much like Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
Figure 13 – Ancient Hebrew Alphabet
Each letter represents a sound and a concept. The first letter, (Note that Hebrew is read from right to left), is the aleph (pronounced ah-leph) and represents the "Ah" and "Eh" sounds. Aleph is a Hebrew word meaning "ox," and this letter is a picture of an ox head and represents the concept of "strength," from the strength of the ox.
The letter lamed, , is a picture of a shepherd staff and represents the sound "L" as well as the concept of "authority," from the authority of the shepherd over the flock.
When these two letters are combined, we have the Hebrew word (EL, written as אל in the Modern Hebrew alphabet), the "strong authority."
It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt. (Genesis 31:29, KJV)
This passage includes the Hebrew word EL, which in the King James Version is translated as "power." However, a better translation, based on the pictures of the word EL, would be "There is strength and authority in my hand to do you hurt."
Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth. (Genesis 14:19, KJV)
This passage also uses the same Hebrew word EL, but in the King James Version it is translated as "God." Based on the pictures of the word El, a better translation would be "Blessed be Abram of the most high strength and authority, possessor of heaven and earth." When we see the word "God" from a western perspective we see an old bearded man sitting on a throne in the clouds. When the ancient Hebrew's see the word "EL," they see the strength of an ox and the authority of a shepherd.
The following chart is the Ancient Hebrew Alphabet with each letter's name, the sound that letter represents, a description of the picture and the meaning associated with that picture.
When two letters are put together, such as with the word "EL," a two-letter, or "parent" root is formed. Below are a few more examples of common parent roots found within the Bible.
אל אל el God
אב אב av Father
אם אם em Mother
אח אח ahh Brother
בן בן ben Son
לך לך lakh Walk
רד רד radl Go Down
על על al Go Up
קח קח qahh Take
כב שב shav Return
קר קר qar Call Out
דע דע da Know
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 parent roots whose meanings can be closely connected to the meanings of the letters contained within these words.
While all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are consonants, four of them also served as vowels, much like our letter "Y," which may be a vowel like in the word "fly," or a consonant like in the word "yellow." These four letters are א (aleph), ה (hey), ו (vav) and י (yud).
When one of these vowels is placed in front, between or at the end of the parent root, a three letter or "child" root is formed and will have a meaning that is related to the meaning of its parent root.
From the parent root אל (el), meaning strength and authority, comes the child root איל (ayil), meaning a buck, the strong one of the flock. From the parent root בנ (ben), meaning son, comes the child root בנה (banah), meaning to build, through the idea that the sons build a house, literally and figuratively. From the parent root לכ (lakh), meaning walk, comes the child root הלכ (halakh), meaning a journey.
Another form of three letter, or "adopted root," is the addition of another consonant in front, between or at the end of a parent root. Below are some adopted roots derived out of the parent root פר (par), a Hebrew word meaning "bull."
פרח parahh Break forth
פרך parakh Break apart
פרס paras Break in pieces
פרק paraq Break off
פרץ parats Break open
Other words are then formed by attaching specific letters to a parent, child or adopted root.
Figure 14 – The parent root לך and its derivatives
For demonstration, let's begin with the parent root לך (lakh) meaning "walk." By adding the letter ה (h) to the front the child root הלך (halakh) is formed and also means "walk." By adding the מ (m) to the front of this child root, the noun מהלך (mahalakh) is formed and means "passage." By adding the letter ה (h) to the end of this child root, the noun הלכה (halakhah) is formed and means "custom" (a way of walking).
By adding the letter מ (m) to the front of the parent root לך (lakh), the adopted root מלך (melekh) is formed and means "king," one who walks among the people. By adding the letter ה (h) to the end of this adopted root, the noun מלכה (malkah) is formed and means "queen." By adding the letters ות (ut) to the adopted root, the noun מלכות (malkut) is formed and means "kingdom."
Once we understand how to properly interpret and define Hebrew words based on their relationships to their roots and the culture in which the words were used, we can then properly interpret Biblical passages from a Hebraic perspective.
And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:6)
Our normal understanding of the word "keep" within this verse is to "obey," however this is not the case. The Hebrew verb used here is שמר (shamar), which literally means "to guard" or "to protect."
They will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. (Deuteronomy 31:20)
Similarly, our normal understanding of "break" within this verse is to "disobey," but again this is not the case. The Hebrew verb here is פרר (parar) and means "to trample underfoot."
The "keeping" or "breaking" of the commandments of God is not about obedience and disobedience; it is about one's attitude toward them. Will we guard and protect them as we would our family, or will we throw it on the ground and trample them as we would garbage?
Now that we have a basic understanding of Hebrew philosophy, vocabulary, language and the alphabet, we can now begin to interpret the Bible from an Ancient Hebrew perspective rather than from a Western one.
Most people are familiar with the English translation of the Aaronic blessing.
The LORD bless you and keep you: The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26 RSV)
Notice that many of the words in this translation are abstract; bless, keep, gracious, countenance, grant and peace. Each of the Hebrew words behind the English in this passage is filled with images that are lost when translated into the English language. When we examine each of these words from their original cultural and linguistic perspectives, the message in this passage comes alive.
Figure 15 – Camels kneeling down
The Hebrew verb ברך (Barakh, Strong's #1288) means to kneel as seen in Genesis 24:11. However, when written in the piel form, such as it is in Aaronic blessing, it means to show respect (usually translated as bless). However, as "respect" is an abstract word, we need to uncover its original concrete meaning, which we can do by examining other words related to this verb. One such related word is the noun ברך (berekh, Strong's #1288) meaning "knee." Another related Hebrew word is ברכה (berakhah, Strong's #1293) meaning a gift or present. From this we can see the concrete meaning behind the piel form of the verb barak. It is to bring a gift to another while kneeling out of respect. The extended meaning of this word is to do or give something of value to another. Elohiym "respects" us by providing for our needs and we in turn "respect" Elohiym by giving him of ourselves as his servants.
Figure 16 - Thorns
The Hebrews were a nomadic people raising livestock. It would not be uncommon for a shepherd to be out with his flock, away from the camp, over the night. In order to protect the flock, the shepherd would construct a corral of thorn bushes. The shepherd would then guard over the flock and the corral would be a hedge of protection around them. The Hebrew word for a thorn is שמיר (shamiyr, Strong's #8068) and derived from the verb שמר (shamar, Strong's #8104), which literally means to guard and protect and is the word used in the Aaronic blessing.
Figure 17 – Norman Rockwell's painting of a girl's expression
In the painting above you can "read" the faces of each of the people within the painting. The face reflects the many different moods, emotions, and thoughts of the person. The Hebrew word פנים (paniym, Strong's #6440), means "face," but is always written in the plural form (the ים suffix identifies this word as plural), reflecting this idea of multiple faces of each person. This word can also mean “presence” or the “wholeness of being” of an individual.
Figure 18 – Light brings order to chaos
The word אור (or, Strong's #215), as a noun means "light" and as a verb, as it is used here, means to "give light" or "shine" and is equated with bringing about order as light illuminates or reveals what has been dark.
Figure 19 – A nomadic camp
Most theologians will define “grace” as “unmerited favor,” but notice the abstractness of these words. The Hebrew verb translated as gracious in the Aaronic blessing is the verb חנן (hhanan, Strong's #2603) and is often paralleled with other Hebrew words meaning healing, help, being lifted up, finding refuge, strength and rescue. From a concrete Hebraic perspective this verb means to “provide protection.” Where does one run to for protection? The camp, which in Hebrew is חנה (hanah, Strong's #2583), a word related to חנן (hhanan).
Figure 20 – A meal that is set and arranged
The Hebrew verb שים (siym, Strong's #7760), literally means to "set down in a fixed and arranged place."
Figure 21 – A windmill that is "not complete."
When we hear the word peace we usually associate this to mean an absence of war or strife. However, the Hebrew word שלום (shalom, Strong's #7965) has a very different meaning. The root of this word is שלם (shalam, Strong's #7999) and is usually used in the context of making restitution. When a person has caused another to become deficient in some way, such as a loss of livestock, it is the responsibility of the person who created the deficiency to restore what has been taken, lost or stolen. The verb shalam literally means to make whole or complete. The noun shalom has the more literal meaning of being in a state of wholeness, or being without deficiency.
A Hebraic interpretation of the Aaronic Blessing
With the Hebraic understanding of each of these Hebrew words, we can better understand the true meaning of the Aaronic blessing as it was understood by the Ancient Hebrews.
YHWH will kneel before you presenting gifts and will guard you with a hedge of protection.
YHWH will illuminate the wholeness of his being toward you bringing order and he will give you comfort and sustenance.
YHWH will lift up his wholeness of being and look upon you and he will set in place all you need to be whole and complete.