A Few Thoughts on Biblical Hebrew from a Neophyte

I just completed a semester of Biblical Hebrew. In my lifetime, I’ve had the privilege to study 17 languages, and Biblical Hebrew was by far the most difficult.

I’m not sure why I struggled so much, but every time I looked at a sentence for translation, the first thing I did was cry! Then, I just went to work deciphering each word at a time, working backwards as Hebrew is written from right to left, until I had enough written down to try and make sense of the sentence. It reminded me of deciphering code, which should have been a fun challenge if I weren’t pressed for time and stressed about grades.

Each sentence took me about half an hour to translate. When I say “translate,” that means I gave my best rendition. It doesn’t mean I got it right. On the final exam, I noticed each sentence only took 20 minutes. That was either a sign of improvement through the semester, or a sign of the professor’s mercy in crafting the sentences. Probably a little of each.

The Biblical Hebrew words are so different from English that I had no frame of reference in memorizing meanings. I had to really stretch my imagination. For example, one word for “beneath” is pronounced something like “ta-chat.” With a little imagination, this sounds like “the cat.” My cat always used to sit beneath the table. So that’s how I remember that word. It was like that for every vocabulary word, and I got very creative with those associations of meaning.

When I was in the midst of studying for finals, I was talking with a friend about Biblical Hebrew. As we talked about the different aspects of the language, she noted that it sounded as if God had chosen the perfect language to communicate the Old Testament scriptures. I agree! Here are some of the reasons that come to mind, and I’m sure there are many others.

An ancient language like Biblical Hebrew is difficult to understand and communicate. We have only consonant clusters (three consonants in a row) and those can represent lots of different words.

The language also adds multiple sets of prefixes, suffixes, enclitics, and various other grammatical marks,  all on top of each other. This means a whole sense of meaning can be built by the marks that are added to a basic consonant cluster.

As if that weren’t hard enough, sometimes one “added letter” would swallow another one, or a consonant would simply disappear!

This is one of the main reasons it took me so long to translate a sentence. I would have to decode all of the various affixes, enclitics, and grammatical marks, not to mention guess at the missing letters, to figure out what a particular “word” really said. Often, it said a lot.

All of this means that it takes time to recognize what’s being said. Biblical Hebrew is not a “fast” language. It takes work to read a sentence, and even more work to grasp the full meaning. I dare say I rarely grasped the full meaning of anything. Mostly, I wrote translations like a toddler learning English. In fact, I would give the toddler more credit for understanding.

This means we really have to keep going to God and asking Him to help us understand the words of the Hebrew scriptures. In that regard, this was the perfect language for building relationship between people and God and among all the people.

And no, I don’t mean to suggest that the people who initially read and spoke Biblical Hebrew had the same struggle I have. After all, I’m not a native speaker. But I can tell you it is a challenging language. I know God had many reasons for giving the scriptures when and where He did. I don’t know if language was one of them. Regardless, it was certainly the perfect language to draw people closer to Him.

If God gave the Old Testament scriptures in a language like modern Italian, for example, we would have no need to seek Him for understanding. (Italian is one of the easiest and most “perfect” languages to understand because it is structured simply and beautifully with very few exceptions to the rules.)

There is also such a nuance of meaning in each word of Biblical Hebrew that we have to keep seeking God. And we have to really listen – not just with our ears and our minds, but also with our hearts. It is a language that requires active listening and intentional focus, and it especially speaks to the heart. I think today in our modern languages, unless we read and write poetry or letters to loved ones (a dying art), we are not so in tune with a “heart language” as the ancient Hebrews would have been.

Biblical Hebrew was also primarily an oral language. Words about and from God spread from person to person and were learned by recitation. This is another aspect of the language that builds community and grows heart understanding. It reminds me of Jesus’ description in the New Testament of how the kingdom of God grows and spreads like the mustard seed and the good leaven (Matthew 13:31-33).

Another aspect of Biblical Hebrew that makes it perfect as the language of the scriptures is that there is no direct verb for “to have.” There are ways of indicating possession, but the meaning sounds more like “this object comes to me,” rather than “I own/have/possess this object.”

This reminds me of how the Hebrews in the wilderness were given manna to eat. That’s just one example. When I think about a lack of “possession,” that seems to characterize the whole of God’s kingdom, up to and including the New Testament (think about Acts 2:44 and 4:32). It also allows for better understanding of our relationship with God – everything belongs to Him, and we receive only because He gives.

Finally, I was struck by how the verbs in Biblical Hebrew emphasize “aspect” over “tense.” It’s less about past, present, and future, and more about “completeness and perfection” versus “ongoing and in progress.” Doesn’t that sound like life with the Holy Spirit!

For all these reasons and more, I would have to agree with my friend that God certainly chose the perfect language through which to communicate the Old Testament scriptures.

Even though I became  frustrated and discouraged by the end of a grueling semester, I was encouraged by something our professor said on the day of our final exam. He told us we are just getting started and not to give up, not to lose heart. So I am continuing to try and read my Hebrew Bible. As difficult as it is, it is worth the investment of time, effort, and heart. Besides, for those who choose to learn and read Biblical Hebrew, we have plenty of help available from the God who breathed these words to life.

Interested in getting a taste of biblical Hebrew? There’s more to learn on my biblical Hebrew blog.

Want to jump into the basics of biblical Hebrew? Here’s a beginning biblical Hebrew course I offer online.