An brief introduction to the Hebrew language. The Bible is in Hebrew. An easy language. The depth and range of Hebrew words. For more see our correspondence course Biblical Hebrew made easy.

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Hebrew fragment: Deuteronomy 6.4 - the Shema

AN INTRODUCTION TO HEBREW

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A Hebrew Bible

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Many people fail to recognise the fact that the Bible is a Hebrew book compiled over 1500 years or more. One reason for the diverse and often divergent Bible translations and paraphrases is that Hebrew is such a deep and graphic
"the Bible is a Hebrew book"
language and with a worldview unlike our own in the West that we cannot contain a 'full' translation and interpretation in just one English translation. The alternative is either an armful of versions and commentaries or to learn to read it in its original language. Just imagine being able to read the Biblical text as Moses received it, as Josiah and Ezra recovered it, and as Jesus read it.

Qumran: Habakkuk commentary

An Easy Language

Biblical Hebrew has a very small vocabulary (about a quarter of the size of that used by Shakespeare and approximately 1% of the 660,000+ words contained in the Oxford English Dictionary). Of these, many only occur once or are proper names and can be safely looked up when the need arises. Hebrew has no formal recognisable cases (like Greek, Latin or German, with their nominative, accusative, genitive, dative etc.) and very simple word order which can be rearranged for emphasis. Although reading right to left this aspect of Hebrew learning is quickly mastered. The alphabet has just 22 letters - all consonants and all one case. The additional vowel marks above and below the consonants are not needed for advanced reading and after all were not added until some 5-6 centuries after the New Testament era. Each Hebrew letter actually represents an early pictographic symbol, e.g., Beth (as in Bethlehem - 'house of bread') was an image of a house or tent and so also the letter name itself is the Hebrew word for 'house'.

Familiar Words

A number of Hebrew words are already familiar to most people as they have come to us through Biblical English. For instance: amen, hallelujah, adonai, cherubim and seraphim. Many of the Biblical Hebrew names are common words, such as Adam which means 'ruddy, red', Noah which means 'rest', Seth means 'appointed' and David which means 'beloved'. Many people know the traditional Hebrew greeting shalom which in fact is far more than 'hello' or 'peace' but contains a whole word picture of 'health, welfare, aid and friendship'.

What's in a Word?

Qumran: Isaiah 61 One of the most important words and concepts in Scripture is that of 'the Word' itself. It forms the opening thought of John's Gospel in the New Testament which echoes the thought and structure of the opening passage of Genesis. Genesis opens with:

"In [the] beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . ."

Whilst John draws attention to this by writing:

"In [the] beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in [the] beginning with God. All things were made by him . . ."

Thus the Word is closely associated with creative activity. In Isaiah 55.11 the 'word' goes out of God's mouth, just as His breath/Spirit does. In fact both the word for Spirit and the word for mouth derive from verbs meaning to blow, puff or exhale. Both Spirit and Word are associated with creation in Genesis 1 ("The Spirit of God was brooding . . ."; "And God said, let there be . . . "). The significance of Isaiah 55.11 is that the 'word' never returns void ('empty', a different word but one with similar meaning to 'void' in Genesis 1.2), it always accomplishes (Hebrew: 'sh 'to make or create', used in Genesis 1) its purpose. Now these are key meanings of the actual Hebrew word for 'word', but here described in several sentences.

In other words, dbhr means both the 'word' itself and its accompanying creative 'act'. It occurs over 1400 times in Scripture and is translated by 85 different English words in the KJV (Its root verb, dbhar, occurs over 1100 times and required 45 different English words). This reinforces the need to know the underlying Hebrew text and language as misinterpretations can easily be made based upon different English words whilst the same Hebrew word can be behind all of them. Dbhr can also be translated by 'power', 'purpose', 'book', 'provision', 'reason', 'work', 'matter', 'thing', 'cause' or 'commandment' (e.g., the 10 commandments), it could be a written report, single utterance, whole book, or prophetic message.

Thus there is no distinction as has sometimes between made in the Greek between logos and rhema words of God. For instance, in the Greek Old Testament the Word (logos) heals those bitten by the serpent whilst the Word (rhema) preserves those that believe.

The Word was not just spoken it contained the power to fulfil. When the prophet heard a Word from the Lord it contained the driving force to impel its delivery. Jeremiah (20.9) could not restrain the Word any longer, but had to let it out. Just as the New Testament describes it the Word is alive and active, creative and explosive. It also was life to its hearers (Deuteronomy 32.46-47 and Jesus' words in John 6.63,68).


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Hebrew alphabet