Have you noticed the latest food trend? Growing numbers of people are into artisanal foods. They love organic cheeses and heirloom vegetables, farmer’s markets and food co-ops. They want to eat slow food, not fast food. It takes more time and effort, but it’s worth it, they say.
You know what? I’m into artisanal Bible study. As Christians, we all know that it’s important to sustain ourselves daily with the Scriptures. But time is short, so many of us do Bible study microwave-style nowadays. We gulp down a pre-packaged devotion with a few slurps of coffee before heading off to work. Is it at all surprising when it’s as bland and unmemorable as a vending machine sandwich?
There’s actually a way to spice up your study, by getting to know some of the Bible’s wise Hebrew words. They’re aromatic and savory, carrying a distinct scent of the rich, earthy depths of their ancient origins. (A sample study is attached at the end of this blog.)
Have you ever tasted fresh pita bread made by the Bedouins? It’s out of this world—chewy and hot, crispy in spots, and a little smoky from the open fire. When a veiled, wizened old woman flops a piping hot piece into your hands, you need to rip off a chunk and pass the rest on before your fingers burn. Smeared with olive oil and dried hyssop, it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.
It’s the same with Hebrew words. Out of necessity for us to read them, we’ve had to “package” them into English sen- tences, like the bagged pitas you find at the grocery store. But some of their more subtle flavors simply don’t travel well across languages and time, even if their “nutritional value” hasn’t changed. In order to taste the breadth of expression of the Bible’s ancient words, you have to travel back mentally into their original Middle Eastern setting.
Why Hebrew? Well, Hebrew is God’s heart language— the mother tongue of the Scriptures Jesus read. Hebrew is also an extremely rich, poetic language that looks at the world in very different ways than English. Grasping the depth of even a few words greatly clarifies and enriches reading, and casts new light on things that you thought you understood. You’ll see humor, irony and timeless wisdom where you passed it by before.
Often, knowing the original, fuller sense of a biblical idea will challenge and change you, as its ancient wisdom puts your life into the perspective of God’s eternal Word.
Let’s look at Hebrew words another way. Rather than being “packaged” into sentences, you could say that words themselves are packaging. Words are the luggage that we use to transport our thoughts into the minds of others.
In English, we have an enormous number of “suitcases,” words with various shades of meaning and formality. Some dictionaries put the number at 100,000, some more. But believe it or not, biblical Hebrew has only about 4000 words, a tiny fraction of the vocabulary of English.
You might wonder how Hebrew can communicate with so few words. The reason is that each “suitcase” is roomier inside—deeper, wider, more spacious. Many Hebrew words carry a wider range of meaning than the corresponding word in English. Unpacking the ideas within a Hebrew “suitcase” is often enormously helpful in Bible study.
We English speakers are used to very precise meanings, and we expect to have everything carefully defined. But Hebrew words paint scenes in broad brushstrokes, leaving the listener to discern the meaning from the context.
The prophets and biblical writers actually seemed to delight in pondering the nuances of their language. They often made wordplays based on a word’s ambiguity, deliberately invoking multiple layers of a word’s meaning.
For instance, the word ruach (roo-AKH) means “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” When God’s ruach blew through the Valley of Dry Bones to bring new life in Ezekiel 37, we see that all of its various meanings are intended.
I’ve always imagined that God chose to reveal his Word in Hebrew because the language invites us to think more deeply. As we read the Scriptures, we ask God what he is saying to us again and again.
Hebrew is helpful not just for reading the Old Testament (which was mostly written in Hebrew), but the New Testament too. Although it was written in Greek, it was composed almost entirely by Jews growing up in a Hebrew-speaking, Semitic-thinking culture. Often you hear a Hebraic “accent” even in the Greek text. Knowing more about the Hebrew way of looking at the world is helpful in reading the Scriptures from beginning to end.
Lois Tverberg has written a wonderful study available in e-book form entitled “5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know”. A sample of it is attached here (pdf). You can purchase the entire e-book (pdf) for $3.99 here. Lois is a biblical scholar, author and speaker. Women of the Word, a Christian women’s conference ministry, is blessed to have her on our speaker team. She brings great insight into understanding the Bible from its Hebraic context. This helps us to walk out biblical principles and become better disciples of Jesus.