A Hebrew Practice Exercise: Jeremiah 31:3-4

A friend asked what Jeremiah 31:3-4 looks like in Hebrew. I thought these might be good verses to look up in the lexicon, to practice translation and analysis.

Following is my attempt. Remember, I am also a student. I am learning every day.

I encourage you to make your own attempt. Enjoy writing out the words in Hebrew, looking them up in the lexicon, parsing the verbs (I know that takes time, but it is great practice), writing your translation using the lexicon, and comparing your translation with prominent Bible translations.

Keep It Simple

If doing all of those steps seems overwhelming (and it might if you are just beginning), start with just one step using one Hebrew word.

Anything you can do to practice biblical Hebrew will help you grow in your understanding of the language and gain a deeper appreciation of the scriptures.

Even if you look up one word in the lexicon today, and identify the consonants and vowels, that activity will help you get better at Hebrew.

Jeremiah 31:3-4 in Hebrew

This is how Jeremiah 31:3-4 is written in the Hebrew Bible:

Verse 3

מֵרָחוֹק יְהוָה נִרְאָה לִי וְאַהְַבַת עוֹלָם אְַהַבְתִּיך עַל־כֵּן מְשַׁכְתִּיך חָסֶד

Verse 4

עוֹד אֶבְנֵך וְנִבְנֵית בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹד תַּעְדִּי תֻפַּיִך וְיָצָאת בִּמְחוֹל מְשַׂחְַקִים

Steps for Translating with the Lexicon

1. Begin with prayer. Invite God to help you and to open the scriptures to you. He knows biblical Hebrew, and He knows the meaning of His words that He has written for His people. He knows how to impart that understanding to you, along with an appreciation for the language of His scriptures.

2. Look up each word in the lexicon, one at a time. Remember to read the verse from right to left. Whenever you come to a verb, be sure to look up the three-consonant root in whatever way you were taught. That’s how you will find the verb in the lexicon – by its root.

3. Remember that sometimes pronouns and prepositions are attached to words. The lexicon will help you with that.

4. Give a literal, wooden-sounding translation first, making the best choices according to the lexicon. If you know how to parse Hebrew verbs, write your parsing in parentheses after each verb. This will help with your learning.

5. Write down any questions that come up, even if you don’t yet know the answers. Asking questions is part of the learning process. (If you have taken my class, you can ask me your questions, even if I don’t know the answer. We’ll figure it out together, or we will present it to the Lord for later learning.)

6. After you finish your wooden translation, give a smoother translation in English.

7. Then compare your translation with some major Bible translations, like the NRSV, NIV, and NASB. Why do you think they made the translation decisions they made for these verses? How does looking at each of these translations (including your own) help you better understand these verses?

My Translation Attempt

Jeremiah 31, Verse 3

מֵרָחוֹק יְהוָה נִרְאָה לִי וְאַהְַבַת עוֹלָם אְַהַבְתִּיך עַל־כֵּן מְשַׁכְתִּיך חָסֶד

Wooden Translation

From afar off [or from of old] YHWH (personal name of God) has appeared (Niphal Perfect 3ms רָאָה) to me, and with God’s love for His people, of the forever kind, [He has said], “I have loved you [with divine love] (Qal Perfect 1cs אָהַב), therefore [because of that] (causal use of עַל with כֵּן) I have prolonged [kept long, extended] to you [by love] (Qal Perfect 1cs מָשַׁך) [redemptive] lovingkindness.

Smoother Translation

From afar off, YHWH has appeared to me, and with His forever love for His people, He has said, “I have loved you with divine love, and because of that love, I have long extended lovingkindness to you.”

Jeremiah 31, Verse 4

עוֹד אֶבְנֵך וְנִבְנֵית בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹד תַּעְדִּי תֻפַּיִך וְיָצָאת בִּמְחוֹל מְשַׂחְַקִים

Wooden Translation

Again I will build you (Qal Imperfect 1cs בָּנָה) and you will be rebuilt (Niphal Perfect 2fs בָּנָה), virgin of Israel (construct noun relationship). Again you will deck yourself [with ornaments] (Qal Imperfect 2fs עָדָה) with your timbrels and you will go forth (Qal Perfect 2fs יָצָא) in the dance of the ones who make merry (Piel Participle mp שָׂחַק).

Smoother Translation

Again, I will build you, and you will be rebuilt, virgin of Israel. Again, you will adorn yourself with your timbrels, and you will go forth in the dance of those who make merry.

Remember, I am a student too. Mine is just an example, a practice exercise like yours. I am learning, as you are. My translations might not be right, or even close! They are simply part of my ongoing learning process. I offer this example to inspire you to do your own practice translations.

Study the Major Translations

Be sure and compare your Hebrew translations with authoritative translations of the Bible. I recommend looking at NRSV, NIV, and NASB. These are close enough to the original Hebrew to be useful in this process, but they also will provide a good variety for you to study. (Other translations may be theologically sound, but they may be so far different from the original Hebrew that they won’t help you in this process.)

Where your personal translations differ from the major translations (and where their translations differ from each other), try and see what might account for the differences. What decisions did they make, and why do you think they made them?

Study a Word or Phrase in the Larger Context

You might have noticed there is a question in verse 3 of whether to translate לִי as “to me” (literal) or “to him” or “to us.” The decision depends on how verse 2 is translated – the major translations each treat this differently. Take a look at how the NRSV, NIV, and NASB treat verses 2-3, and you will see why there is not agreement on לִי.

This should not be a source of frustration. Rather, this “puzzle” should draw us more deeply into the scriptures, reading these verses in the context of Jeremiah 31 as a whole, and of the book of Jeremiah as a whole, to gain a deeper understanding. We may never agree on the best English translation of לִי in verse 3. But any time spent studying Jeremiah 31 will be so beneficial to all of us.

Worth the Time and Effort

I know this kind of Hebrew translation exercise takes time. It is worth the effort. The more you practice, the less time it will take. But don’t rush the process. Spend this time with God. You will be glad you did.

This kind of practice will help you to have a deeper appreciation for and understanding of biblical Hebrew and of God’s Word. Keep at it. May God bless your study and your learning of biblical Hebrew.

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.