Hebrew Myths 101
Hebrew Myths 101
And Some Beautiful Secrets From the Language of the Bible
by Shani Ferguson
Learning a foreign language can be challenging, especially if you don’t have a native of that language to interact with on a daily basis. That’s why the locals in any given country find it endearing when someone from a different culture takes the time to learn their language. Learning a people’s language is a way of showing you care about them.
Some people study ancient foreign languages, such as Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek, because they desire further insight into the Bible’s message. It is in essence saying, “I care about God’s message to mankind and want to understand it as best as I can.” However, studying an ancient, unspoken language is tedious, and we like to quip that most people learn just enough to get confused.
Perhaps this is why it’s not uncommon for people to come ask us about a Hebrew word they heard a preacher analyze and the meaning he came up with after rummaging through concordances and commentaries. While the conclusions the preachers reach generally aren’t too crazy or farfetched, sometimes the point of the verse is missed entirely because the attempted language analysis is done incorrectly. The solution to this, however, is not to require one to spend the next decade getting a PhD in Semitic languages. As a native Hebrew speaker, I offer a few basic principles in regards to the Hebrew language that can help you wade through the waters of popular teachings and what you’ll usually encounter in a Hebrew-enhanced sermon. To keep it simple and easy to remember, I’ve narrowed it down to three main categories: 1. The original Hebrew root, 2. The ‘God-allows’ tense, and 3. Ancient culture and habits.
THE BEAUTY OF HEBREW
Before delving into the specifics of where Hebrew parsing gets off, there should be some credibility given to the idea that Hebrew, like other languages, has unique and beautiful aspects to it that are too complex to translate in one word. Reading any text in a language other than the authored language can result in something “getting lost in the translation.”
Take a simple example of the name of the great I AM, who was and is and is to come – Yahweh (הוהי). Did you know that this name in Hebrew is a combination of the words “was”, “is” and “is to come” all wrapped into one word?
Or consider the more complex example of the word “God.” As we know from Scripture, there is only one true living God. Therefore, the word “God” in English is singular. When the word “God” is listed in the plural form “gods”, it is referencing “false gods” or “idols” (elim or elelim). However, the Hebrew word used for the one and only “God” is Elohim. What makes this word fascinating is that Elohim has the standard plural ending of -im. It’s a plural word referring to a single item. There’s no other word quite like it in the Hebrew language.
God’s name being in plural form is one of the first indicators in Scripture of the mystery of God’s plural form of Father, Son and Holy Spirit while maintaining a singular identity. The concept is furthered in the story of creation in Genesis when God says, “Let us make man in our image.” He clearly wasn’t speaking to any other angelic being since we are not made in the image of angels, nor did the angels have any direct role in creating us.
In the famous verse and declaration, “Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” the word for “one” is the same word used to describe a husband and wife being “one” – two beings in a single unit. The verse doesn’t say God is “singular” (yachid) but rather “one” (echad). In essence, “one” means “unified”. It is the same phrasing Yeshua uses when He declares, “I and the Father are one.”
If you translated God’s name Elohim into English as “Gods”, the depth of this concept simply would not be understood properly. It would sound like there are multiple deities. Left with this dilemma, translators felt it was more important to translate the singular identity of God over the plural form of God’s makeup. Only if you read this in Hebrew, would you be able to enjoy both aspects of the word.
However, not every word is a deep mystery. Sometimes the word for “tree” just means a large plant on the side of the road, and “house” just refers to a structure made of stone and mortar.
The Original Hebrew Root
Hebrew is a root-based language with words built on 3- and 4-letter roots. From these roots, families of words branch out like in a tree diagram. These families of words are usually similar in concept and meaning to each other.
The idea behind discussing root words in many sermons is that if you study the root word, you can gain deeper understanding into the original intended meaning. For example, the root word for “walk” will branch out to words like “go,” “travel,” and even “gears” (for a car or bike). You can thus conclude from studying the root word for walk that these words are about movement or getting from one place to another. Generally speaking, the words on the “tree” have a conceptual connection with the root. However, this is not always the case. This is where most word studies hit a snag.
Hebrew is a rich language, and for those who know it well, there are definite depths that can be explored. But for those who don’t know the language, the problem behind this method is that even though the language is based upon root words, like in a real tree the root can look very different than the flowers that blossom from the leaves on the tree.
A simple example is found in the Hebrew root S.F.R. (ר.פ.ס). These letters can form the word safar (he counted). If the same letters are pronounced sefer, the word means “book.” The same root branches to words like mispar (number), and mesaper (narrator) – all of which are conceptually connected to each other. However, continue exploring the root and its tree and you find the word sapar, which can mean “hairdresser.” So, while the word mispar (number) seems to be connected to the root safar (he counted), incorrectly using the similar concept method could result in teaching that when Moses counted the children of Israel in the desert, he also cut their hair.
Similarly, the root for the word chaya can branch out to mean “life” or “animal.” Thus, the statement, “I am alive” could be easily misconstrued to mean, “I am an animal.”
A prime example of this type of faux pas is in the story of Moses when he descended from Sinai. The Bible says after his time spent with God, Moses’ face shone with a keren (ray of light). However, the word keren can also mean “horn” and apparently was translated as such in Michelangelo’s day. While Michelangelo meant no disrespect for Moses, historians erroneously thought for a time that he was anti-Semitic because he sculpted Moses with horns like the devil.
The “God Allows” Tense
I’ve often heard people try to wrap their mind around a tragedy in modern times or in the Bible by evoking what is known as the Hebrew “permissive” or “causative tense.” The idea behind this tense is simply that God does not cause bad things to happen because He is inherently good. Instead, He simply takes a figurative step back and allows them to happen.
It’s a nice concept that helps us embrace a perfect God who does no wrong; however, the concept is not an accurate one. The permissive or causative tense simply does not exist in Hebrew. Hebrew has only four tenses: past, present, future and command. For example, for the verb “open:” “I opened the door,” “I am opening the door,” “I will open the door,” and “Open the door!” There is no tense that states, “I will allow the door to be opened.”
I’m not sure where this mythical tense originated, but I can see why it is widely embraced. Of course, we know there is an evil force who is actively involved in trying to kill, steal and destroy. It’s a sobering thing to accept that God is perfect and good, yet declares Himself actively involved in blessing and cursing and in giving life and in taking it away. When God is involved in events we consider tragic, it is ultimately an act of justice, and sometimes even mercy. So, not everything bad that happens comes directly from the hand of God. I am only making the point that God can be involved in making seemingly bad things happen.
Who is this God we call good? How do we reconcile the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament as One and the same? Why does the presence of God seem like a bull in a china shop, completely annihilating Uzzah for getting too close to the Ark of the Covenant, and in the New Testament, calling children to sit on His lap?
No one promised us we would ever be able to wrap our heads around the vastness of God’s love and character. However, our wrestling through the matter should not include changing the meaning of Scripture into something that is more palatable to our sense of reason. We can find comfort in the knowledge that His goodness is beyond understanding. This is why we worship Him.
Ancient Culture and Habits
Unfortunately for us, historians who recorded life thousands of years ago did not record life as we do today on social media. There aren’t vast records of mothers’ morning routines, favorite recipes, best kid games for a rainy day or the unspoken rules of various social circles. While some ways of life have been discovered through archeology and art, details of ancient cultural traditions and habits were generally not recorded unless they were relevant to an important event. Because of this, historical context and culture are one of those parts in sermons where literally anything can be made up and very little can be verified. I’ve heard some pretty wild stories about how people supposedly behaved in ancient Jewish culture that have no basis in historical records.
On the other hand, one thing you can be sure about in regards to historical context is that all the writers of the New Testament scriptures wrote their text with the Old Testament writings in mind. In fact, when the authors were writing the various books of the New Testament, the Old Testament was the only holy book available. Yeshua (Jesus) and later His apostles taught the masses from the Old Testament because people were already familiar with these scriptures.
In conclusion, whether you’re a Hebrew scholar or can’t get much farther in Hebrew than “Shalom y’all,” remember to be gracious to others with your knowledge. I’d rather be around a humble person giving a goofy teaching on the original Hebrew than a Hebrew expert who uses his knowledge to belittle those around him who dare look up a Hebrew word. So if you hear a preacher use the “God allows tense” or “root word” method in a teaching, avoid the urge to jump up and argue. Their point in the message is usually not overtly wrong, and you can always show them an article like this one later.
When you have the opportunity to give a teaching and you want to study the ancient Hebrew, consider comparing your findings with the various English translations of the Bible. Translations like the NASB and even the Amplified version were designed to try and give you the closest meaning of each word. Other translations like the Message, NIV and New Living Translation were translated with the idea of making the overall storyline easier to follow. If neither of those are a primary concern for you and you simply wish the Bible sounded more like ancient Hebrew culture, you could try the Complete Jewish Bible translation which ops for more Jewish terminology and includes the proper pronunciation of Bible names.
Whether we study God’s Word in our own native language or in the ancient languages of the Bible’s authors, we are ultimately doing so as an expression of our love for God, His Word and His creation. As you study, I pray God will expand your understanding of His ways and instill in you a love for the Jewish people in the stories. This story began thousands of years ago but continues today, and you were created to be a part of it. His ways continue to be mysterious and His commitment to see the Jewish people through to the end of His plan is unwavering – just as His plans are for you.
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