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.
This 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 refered 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 name of this letter is Beyt and has a "b" sound. This letter is a picture of a nomadic tent such as would have been used by the ancient Hebrews and represents what is inside the tent - the family. The meaning of this letter can be tent or within. When this letter is placed in front of the word erets the word be'erets is formed and means "within a land."
The Waw has a "w" sound (called the vav in modern Hebrew with a "v" sound) and is a picture of a peg or nail which is used to secure or add things together. This letter is used to mean "and" in the sense of adding. When this letter is prefixed to the word erets the word we'erets is formed meaning "and a land."
The Hey has a "h" sound and is a picture of a man with his arms raised up, shouting and pointing at a great site as if to say "behold, look at that". This letter is used to mean "the" in the sense of pointing to something of importance. When this letter is prefixed to the word erets the word ha'erets is formed meaning "the land."
The Lamed has a "l" sound and is a picture of a sheperd staff which was used to direct the sheep toward a particular direction, such as that of water or pasture. This letter is used to mean "toward" and when prefixed to the word erets the word le'erets is formed meaning "toward a land."
The Mem has a "m" sound and is a picture of a water. This letter can also mean the flowing water of man and animals, the blood. Blood is passed from one generation to another and can therefore mean "from." When this letter is prefixed to the word erets the word me'erets is formed meaning "from a land."
The Ancient Hebrew Vocabulary
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 first letter is the (aleph - A), a picture of an ox. As the ox is strong, the letter also has the meaning of strong. The second letter, (bet - B), is the picture of the tent or house where the family resides. When combined these letters form the noun AB meaning "the strength of the house" and represents the "father."
The first letter is the (aleph - A), a picture of an ox. As the ox is strong, the letter also has the meaning of strong. The second letter, (mem - M) representing water. The two letters give us the meaning of "strong water." The Hebrews made glue by boiling animal skins in water. As the skin broke down, a sticky thick liquid formed at the surface of the water. This thick liquid was removed and used as a binding agent - "strong water". This is the Hebrew noun AM meaning "mother", the one who "binds" the family together.
The first letter is the (bet - B), a picture of a tent or house. The second letter, (nun - N) is the picture of a seed. The seed is a new generation of life that will grow and produce a new generation therefore, this letter can mean "to continue." When combined these two letters form the word BeN meaning "to continue the house" and is the Hebrew noun for a "son."
The first letter is the (aleph - A), a picture of an ox. As the ox is strong, the letter also has the meaning of strong. The second letter, (hhet - Hh), is the picture of a tent wall. The wall is a wall of protection which protects what is inside from what is outside. When combined these letters form the noun AHh meaning "the strong wall" and represents the "brother" as the protector of the family.
The first letter is the (lamed - L), a picture of a staff. The second letter, (kaph - K), is the picture of the palm of the hand. When the staff is placed in the palm one is going to go walk. The verb LaK means to walk or to go.
The first letter is the (resh - R), a picture of the head of a man. The second letter, (dalet - D), is the picture of the tent door. The roof of the nomad's tent was low and one needed to stoop down to enter or exit through the dooway and the verb RaD means to go down.
The first letter is the (ayin - A), a picture of an eye representing the idea of experience. The second letter, (lamed - L), is the picture of a staff but also represents a yoke as the staff on the shoulders. When combined, these two letters form the word AL meaning to experience the yoke and as the yoke is lifted up onto the shoulders this verb means to go up. When used as a noun this same two letter root means a yoke.
The first letter is the (quph - Q) and is a picture of the rising or setting sun at the horizon meaning to come together, or gather, from the gathering of the light at the horizon. The second letter, (hhet - Hh), is the picture of a wall which separates. Combined, these two letters form the word QaHh meaning to gather what is separated, to take.
The first letter is the (shin - Sh), a picture of the teeth meaning to press. The second letter, (beyt - B), is the picture of the tent or home. Combined, these two letters form the word ShaB representing a pressing to the tent and means to return.
The first letter is the (quph - Q) and is a picture of the rising or setting sun at the horizon meaning to come together, or gather, from the gathering of the light at the horizon. The second letter, (resh- R), is the picture of the head of a man. Combined, these two letters form the word QaR, a gathering of men, and means to meet or call out.
The first letter is the (dalet - D) and is a picture of the tent door, used for going back and forth. The second letter, (ayin - A), is the picture of the eye. Combined, these two letters form the word DA, the going back and forth movement of the eye in the sense of taking it all in and means to "know."
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.
The Hebrew language, as is the case with every language, is closely tied to the culture the speakers and writers belong to. When reading the Bible, whether in Hebrew, English or any other language, it is essential that it be read through the eyes and mind of the Hebrew culture and not one's own culture. To illustrate this lets look at Isaiah 40:22.
It is he... that stretches out the heavens as a curtain
From our own culture we could conclude that this is a reference to the creation of the stars which we know to be giant balls of burning gas billions of miles from us. But, this perspective, as accurate as it may be, must be ignored and instead understood from Isaiah's perspective of the heavens. Inside the goat hair tent of the Hebrews the roof is black but the gaps between some of the fibers of the material allow for pinholes of light to penetrate through giving the appearance of stars in the black sky. For this reason, the Hebrews saw the night sky as God's tent stretched out over the world, his family.
Our modern languages are the product of a Greco-Roman world where abstract words are prolific. An abstract is a word or thought that cannot be related to one of the five senses; hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. However, each Hebrew word is related to a concrete idea, a substance of action. A good illustration of the differences is the word anger which, from a modern perspective, is an abstract idea. The Hebrew word for anger is אף aph[H:639] but literally means "a flaring of the nostrils in anger," a substance of action. In fact, the word אף aph[H:639] is also the same Hebrew word for the nose. Throughout this web site you will be challenged to cease thinking abstractly and instead open your mind to the concrete meaning of words as they were understood from an Hebraic perspective.
Hebrew thought is more concerned with function whereas we, and our Greco-Roman thought, are more concerned with appearance. When we read the Biblical text we are constantly creating a mental image of what the text is describing but the original author is not describing an image of appearance but an image of function.
and this is how you are to make it, the length of the vessel is three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.
Is this description telling us what the ark looked like? Not at all, it is describing its function by telling us that this ark is very large and capable of transporting a very large load of animals.
When keeping these three keys in mind while reading the text you will begin to approach the Bible from a Hebrew perspective rather than from the Greek perspective we have all been taught since birth.
The Hebrew Bible
There are many factors that go into a translation which are invisible and unknown to the reader of the translation. Most Bible readers assume the English translation of the Bible is an equivalent and exact representation of the original text. Because of the vast difference between the Ancient Hebrews' language and our own, as well as the differences in the two cultures, an exact translation is impossible. The difficult job of the translator is to bridge the gap between the languages and cultures. Since one can translate the Hebrew text many different ways, the translator's personal beliefs will often dictate how the text is translated. A translation of the Biblical text is a translator's interpretation of the original text based on his own theology and doctrine. This forces the reader to use the translator's understanding of the text as his foundation for the text. For this reason, readers will often compare translations, but are usually limited to Christian translations. I always recommend including a "Jewish" translation when comparing texts, as this will give a translation from a different perspective. Yes, it will be biased toward the Jewish faith, but Christian translations are biased toward the Christian faith as well. A comparison of the two translations can help to discover the bias of each.
The translator's task is compounded by the presence of words and phrases whose original meanings have been lost. In these cases, the translator will attempt to interpret the words and phrases as best as possible based on the context of the word and the translator's opinion of what the author was attempting to convey. When the reader of the translation comes across the translator's attempts at translating the difficult text, the reader almost always makes the assumption the translator has accurately translated the text. The following passage will give an example of some of the difficulties the translators face when attempting to convert the Hebrew text into an understandable English rendering.
Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. (Genesis 6:16 - RSV)
The above translation seems very clear, concise and understandable. The reader would have no problem understanding the meaning of the text and assumes this translation adequately represents the original text. Behind this translation lies the Hebrew, which must be a translator's nightmare. Below is a literal rendering of the same verse according to the Hebrew.
A light you do to an ark and to a cubit you complete it from to over it and a door of the ark in its side you put unders twenty and thirty you do.
This is not an isolated case, but occurs continually throughout the Biblical texts. In order to assist the English reader, the translator has supplied words, phrases, and even whole sentences to enable the reader to understand the text. The reader is rarely aware of the difficulties in translating a certain passage and assumes the translator has accurately translated the text.
Have you ever wanted to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language? Believe it or not, this is not an impossible goal as the Hebrew language is a fairly simple language.
Have you ever heard the expression, "Lost in the translation"? This is very true for any literary work, even the Bible itself. If you want to really "know" what the Bible says you need to learn how to read it in its original language.
In a short amount of time and a little dedication on your part you will be able to master the Hebrew language and within a short time you will be translating the Hebrew Bible for yourself rather than relying on a translator.
Just to show you how easy it is, let me introduce you to the word הָאָרֶץ (The far left word in Genesis 1:1 above). The הָ is pronounced "ha" and is commonly used as a prefix to words meaning "the". The word אָרֶץ is pronounced "arets" and means "land". Now put them together and you have הָאָרֶץ (ha-arets) meaning "the land".
Sound interesting? You can start learning to read this beautiful language today with the free lessons available here. Also, if you get stuck or have any questions along the way you can click on the "email" link at the top of any of the lessons and I will be more than willing to help you out.