St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

"Like" us on Facebook


The Joy of Hebrew

Ancient Hebrew is a Northwest Semitic language. The written script was derived from Phoenician around the tenth century BCE. By the time of Ezra (480-440 BCE), the written script began to look as it does today, a square form called originally ketav Ashurit, or Aramaic writing. In that same period, Aramaic superseded Hebrew as the spoken and written language, and Hebrew was read only in the biblical scrolls studied by scholars. Early translations were made into Aramaic (called Targums) and the Greek Septuagint.
Hebrew is primarily a consonantal language, i.e. it lacks vowels (three letters,ה ו י yod, waw, and he, serve as “vowel letters”). Attempts to create a set of symbols to represent the vowels were made in the knowledge that future generations would need to know how to pronounce the words in the absence of persons who could pass on the tradition. Masoretic Scribes invented a system around 600 CE that remains in use today. As an aside, Hebrew is the only instance of an extinct language that was revived.
Hebrew is triconsonantal in form, i.e. the primary words consist of three consonants. Changes in tense and mood are achieved through internal vowels or prefixes and suffixes. Nouns are formed off the three basic consonants; e.g., the word for reign or kingdom מלכות (malkuth) is formed from the verb מלך (malak), to rule or be king, by the addition of a suffix.
The joy of Hebrew comes as we become aware that all words, including nouns which appear to be static, are active and alive. We are interested in knowing how Hebrew means, not simply what Hebrew means. For example, the word for kingdom implies the action of reigning, not necessarily a physical location or a geographic setting. How it means that is known through the actual circumstances; namely, Israel chooses a ruler who will exercise power over them, a ruler who is modeled on other rulers throughout the ancient Near East.
Hebrew is best translated in context; meanings change depending on context, hence it is best to comprehend them within the literature rather than as isolated units of meaning.
The Israelites were not speculative and philosophical so much as they were active and pragmatic and their language reflects this (including, some scholars say, the tri-consonantal form of the language). Hebrew is earthy, visceral, concrete and direct. The language shows signs of the earlier pictorial language Akkadian, from which it ultimately derives. It is relatively easy to see the aleph א as an ox, the beth ב as a house, or the gimel ג as a camel (the names of the letters are the words for the things depicted). In a real sense, therefore, Hebrew words are pictures representative of events or happenings rather than concepts or ideas.
“Word” in Hebrew, dabar, דבר, has the basic meaning of event rather than either script or linguistic form. The Ten Commandments are called the Ten Words in Hebrew, thus ten actions or activities to be performed by having no other Gods, or eschewed by not committing murder, theft, adultery, or false witness.
Stunningly, the word for the wilderness in which an entire generation of Israelites dies and is replaced by the next generation (with the exception of Caleb and Joshua) is midbar מדבר – as if the wilderness were the place where many words are spoken but not responded to, because they are not uttered in faith. The words in the wilderness are chatter but amount to nothing to which God can respond.
Hebrew describes the parts of our bodies not merely as organs, but as psychic states: the bowels, for example, are the seat of mercy; the word for one is the word for the other. The heart is the source of thinking and spiritual life, not only or primarily of the emotions, and the verbחשב (chashav) to think primarily means to make a plan or an activity, not to make cerebral connections. What we call double entendre are par for the course: ידע (yadha) to know, for instance, involves everything from acquaintance with someone to sexual intercourse, thus covering the spectrum of human relationships. The word amen אמן used extensively in worship in response to prayers means “reliable, firm, steadfast;” you affirm the prayer made by the one who is praying. The word for truth אמת has the same root as Amen; truth is never abstract but bears the virtue of reliability. To be true is to be dependable; to lie is to be undependable.
The forms in which we encounter Hebrew are active and bear witness to the original oral nature of the texts: the language is full of imperatives (“do this,” “do that,” “go here”) and vocatives (“O God,” “O King”). Israelite law is communicated by imperatives: “Thou shalt,” “Thou shalt not.” These laws do not rest on requirements but on relationships; they are part and parcel of the covenant into which Israel has entered with God. The other form of law is case law: “if a man’s ox falls into a pit, then…” that contains as a second element in the structure a commandment. The law was proclaimed and preached to Israel’s people, and it was administered by judges (shophetim שפטימlaw-interpreters) in the gates of the town.
To observe the Law for Israel is “to walk” in itהלך (halak). The action of walking in the Law is called halakha הלכה. Halakha becomes one of the two approaches to the corpus of Judaism in a later time; on one hand is Halakha, on the other hand is Hagada הגדה which refers to the stories and tales by which the tradition is past on. The Midrash is a large body of rabbinical material derived primary from sermons (the Hebrew word for sermon is דרשה (d’rasha). The primary collections of Midrash were compiled between the fourth and sixth centuries, but the midrashic form continues to the present day. Midrash contains both halakhic (legal) and hagadic (explanatory) matter, but it is best known for the latter. With its legends, parables, stories and creative insights, the Midrash tends to be more accessible to the average person than the Torah and Talmud.
The entire conceptualization of Law in the Christian world has been characterized by the notion of punishment and fear rather than response and love, which frame the Jewish response to the Law. Torah, the name for the first five books of the Bible and the name for the action translated as “law,” primarily means instruction. By a missed opportunity the Greek Bible translated torah תורה as nomos νομος, which indeed means injunctions or legal codes. A more accurate translation would have been Didache διδαχη, which means instruction or teaching. This mistranslation has governed the Christian concept of torah for centuries.
Turning to story, biblical narratives are brisk, concise, and any expansion beyond simple recitation is invariably meaningful. Because most of the stories are written in such a brief way, all the additions are pregnant with meaning. The significance of characters is not found in their inner thoughts – we get very few of those – but in their actions.
The expansiveness with which the narratives describe, e.g., Abraham and Jacob over against Isaac (whose key significance seems to be that “he dug his father’s wells”) indicates their centrality to the Israelite story. So it is with Moses and Deborah and David and Elijah, too. At the very beginning of kingship, Samuel warns the people in no uncertain terms (I Samuel 8:10ff.) that kings will exercise power over them rather than share power with them – a warning that falls on deaf ears, tersely described. In the King lists of the Early Prophets (I and II Kings), the criterion for judging good and bad kings lies in their adherence to or avoidance of the demands of the covenant, a clear indicator that God remains supreme despite the adoption of Kingship. Names are significant; often they represent the mature personality of those who bear them. Jacob is “the supplanter,” one who grasped the heel of his brother in the birth canal, an indication that he would supplant Esau in the family and in history.
This brief survey is offered to whet your appetite for more insights that can only be derived from study of the Hebrew language, or from attendance to good dictionaries and commentaries upon it. The effort will pay you richly in your ability to understand the Bible.

Would you like to be notified the next time we post a blog?

Sign up to receive our blog updates via email >

Leave a Response