“Hebrew enables us to see the Old Testament from the inside instead of peering through the telescope of a version,” Leslie C. Allen wrote in an essay under the title of “Why Not Learn Hebrew?”
God revealed himself through actions in history, to men and women who were caught up in the ebb and flow of real-life events. He is the God of Israel and a God of action, not a concept, philosophy or ideal. The living God of Scripture is seen nowhere better than in the Hebrew language that describes Him in the Bible.
For example, in contrast to our modern culture that has become more of a spectator of what’s real through digital screens and entertainment, the writers of the Hebrew Bible were energetic, outdoor folk with their hands and feet getting in the dirt of life. They were fishers, farmers and tradesmen for whom the truth was not so much an idea to be contemplated, as a commitment to live a certain way and put into practice in the everyday experiences of life.
This action-centered life of the people of Israel is reflected in their language, Hebrew. In English, we normally put the noun or subject at the beginning of a sentence, and then the verb follows. “The king reigned,” for example. In Hebrew, the order is almost always reversed, and the verb comes first. “He reigned, (namely) the king.” Hebrew puts the emphasis on the action by placing the verb at the beginning of the sentence. That English translations do not usually reflect this is something we should always remember when reading the Bible. Actions are almost always emphasized.
Power of poetry
A full one-third of the Hebrew Bible is written in poetry. Hebrew poetry uses parallel lines and rhythm of thought in order to aid in memorization and make an impression. The Prophets often used word play to get their messages across and help them stick in the minds of their listeners.
We see this in examples such as: mishpat (justice) and mispah (bloodshed) Isa. 5:7, shaqed (almond tree) and shoqed (watching) Jer. 1:11-12, qayitz (ripe fruit) and qetz (time is ripe of end) Amos 8:1-2. Many more examples could be given, but one gets the “picture” that digging into the Hebrew language gives us a far greater appreciation and understanding of the true meaning of Scripture.
The Hebrew language likes to paint pictures. The authors of the Bible were not so much interested in concepts or speculations, but rather in describing what we see with our eyes. The Bible gives testimony to what God has done because that is how He is known; by what He does and His actions in real time in real life. Even the Messiah is “God dwelling amongst us,” flesh and blood living in the real world.
Faith: acting or thinking?
For many Christians with no background in the Hebrew of the Bible, understanding faith can be frustrating. For many Christian to “have faith” or “to believe” is thought of as approval of a doctrine, dogma or “belief.”
Faith for the Hebrews was different. The verb aman is one of the words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe “believe,” “trust,” or “have faith.” Aman is sometimes translated with words like “confirm,” “support,” or “make lasting.” You get the meaning when you know that in Hebrew the word for pillars, “omenot,” comes from the verb aman (2 Kgs. 18:16).
“Faithfulness” or “trust” (emunah) are more commonly used words based on aman. This reflects the Hebrew understanding of faith as stability, steadiness, or reliability. This is clearly seen in Ex. 17:12 where Aaron and Hur are described as supporting Moses’ hands in intercession for Israel: “His hands remained emunah (supported) until sundown.”
Faith, then, in Hebrew, is the capacity to remain stable (faithful) while going through unsettling circumstances. This is reflected in the crucial passage, repeated often in the New Testament, where the prophet Habakkuk uses emunah (2:4). “The righteous will live by faith.” In context, the people of Israel were facing utter destruction from enemy armies, and stability and endurance (emunah) were crucial if the people of God were to endure the coming “day of calamity” (3:16-17).
Also derived from the word aman is Amen which has been adopted into English directly from the Hebrew. When we say “amen” in worship or in prayer, we are affirming or supporting the matter. We are saying, “this is trustworthy, reliable, stable and lasting. I affirm that it is true and may God bring it to pass.”
In Hebrew, the concept of faith means more than adherence to a list of beliefs. Faith is the confidence to go through life with courage and expectation. A person of faith in the Hebrew sense is someone who steps out into life and acts according to their beliefs. Faith is a way of life based on service and obedience to God. Like Abraham, who went off into the unknown fully confident that God would meet him there.
As my all-time favorite rabbinical author Abraham Heschel has so well stated, faith requires “a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.”
I hope you have enjoyed this brief look at “Why not learn Hebrew?” There is so much more we can understand and I hope you will seriously consider the unique opportunity we are offering our faithful readers to study Hebrew with Yochi, my own favorite Hebrew/Bible teacher.