26 May 2008

Hebrew, the Heatbeat of the Bible

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Culture, Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching

Language is the key to any culture. A person can read about Americans all they want to, they can write papers on us and even books … these books may be helpful and enlightening to some extent. But until a person actually learns “American,” they do not understand how Americans think … and how they think shapes what they think.

Three-fourths of the Bible is written in a language called Hebrew. A few passages are written in Aramaic which is also a semitic language closely related to Hebrew. The NT is written in Greek (with a smattering of Latin words here and there) that is also shaped by the Hebraic background of the authors, principally through the LXX. The great Reformer, and translator of the Bible, Martin Luther once wrote,

The Hebrew language is the best language of all, with the richest vocabulary … If I were younger I would want to learn this language, because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it. For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from the downstream pool.

The culture, the worldview, that is showcased in Hebrew is decidedly different than that displayed in classical Hellenistic thought (and by extension much of Enlightenment thinking). Hebrew is dynamic, energetic and “earthy.” The implications of this are immense if we are to let the Bible itself tell us what is “biblical” or what is “spiritual.” So Hebrew is a language of the “senses” – that is life. Abstract thought is conveyed through the concrete. Here are some examples of a rather literal translation in a few places … In Hebrew we:

– “lift up the eyes” rather than “look” (Gen 22.4)
– “burn in one’s nostrils” rather than “be angry” (Ex 4.14)
– “unstop someone’s ears” rather than “reveal something” (Ruth 4.4)
– become “stiff-necked” rather than “stubborn” (2 Chron 30.8)
– “gird up [our] loins” rather than “get ready/brace yourself” (Jer 1.17)

These are just a few examples of what Hebrew really is like. Further, God in Hebrew is never an abstraction but described with vivid “earthy” language. The Hebrews know nothing of this dichotomy of spirit and body that moderns, influenced by Plato, subscribe too. The word “soul” used in the Hebrew Bible (nephesh) as in “my soul thirts for you O God …” (Ps 42.2) does not refer to some inner unseen part of the person but is rather a way of referring to oneself … “why are you so downcast Bobby Valentine.” The psalmist is longing for God, not just an immaterial unseen part of him.

If we want to get into the culture of the Bible we have to immerse ourselves in the thought and language of the Bible. We have to let the blood of the Hebrew language flow through our veins as we hear Paul, John, the Revelator and most of all Jesus.

The Greek of the NT is not Plato’s Greek. We have to embrace the contour of Hebraic thought … no not everyone will learn Hebrew. But we can so immerse ourselves in the Story that we see that what is said in the “New Testament” really does flow out of the “Old Testament.” There is no theme, not one, in the New Testament whose source is not in the Hebrew Bible. If the source is in the Hebrew Bible then the source also shapes what is meant and how it is to be understood.

And for those reasons I think Genesis does in fact belong at the head of the Christian canon and not Plato’s Timaeus. πŸ™‚

19 Responses to “Hebrew, the Heatbeat of the Bible”

  1. Steve Puckett Says:

    I have to say that there is no Hebrew experience like the Jack Lewis Hebrew experience. For our first year readings class we all practically memorized the book of Genesis. The only way to survive was bow your head and humble your heart. But the rigor of those days served most of us well.


  2. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Last September, about 12 people showed up for the first meeting of an Elementary Biblical Hebrew course. Within the next few weeks four of them will complete their walk through the first-year grammar by Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright. I’m really proud of these students. We’ve had a good time and have learned a lot. Thanks for this post, Bobby.

  3. Matthew Says:

    I am thankful for those who know Hebrew well. But my year and a half of Hebrew was super hard. But you are right, the language makes the point so powerfully.

  4. Adam Gonnerman Says:

    I’ve never studied Hebrew, and desperately need to work on Greek again. For the meantime, I get quite a bit of benefit out of Robert Alter’s “Five Books of Moses.” http://tinyurl.com/437br4 More conservative readers will be put off, I believe, by some of the translator’s comments. The translation and explanation of word meanings and word play is excellent, though.

    And yes, I like the more “liberal” comments as well.


  5. kingdomseeking Says:

    I took one year of graduate level Hebrew at HUGSR. I wish I would have taken more. I remember enough to know how to use the tools but certainly not enough to translate a passage (as I can do with the Greek NT). I hope to find a seminary soon where I can take more Hebrew (do I enjoy self-flagelation?).


  6. preacherman Says:

    I majored in Greek.
    I need to study more Hebrew.

  7. Stoogelover Says:

    I came out of the deep south and can speak fluent English … does that count for anything???

  8. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    I grew up and the South and I struggle mightily with English … but I speak “southern” quite well, πŸ˜‰ !!!

    Bobby V

  9. Cheryl Russell Says:

    This blog puts me in a predicament…..I have been trying to find a theology program with only one requirement: no Hebrew.

  10. Bryan Says:

    I am intrigue by the statement: Abstract thought is conveyed by the concrete. I thought of Jesus and Nicodemus, for when speaking of the new birth by the Spirit, Jesus was amazed and chided: “You are a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things.” We certainly depend upon the OT for understanding all o the NT, and especially the Holy Spirit and the new birth. The OT makes the Spirit “tangible”.

  11. Gardner Hall Says:

    I’m glad people like you with the capability of delving into such languages can share some of its flavor with those of us who haven’t been able to.

  12. Candle (C & L) Says:

    Bobby – I agree with the thrust of your comments – but I do wonder about a couple of things

    1) While you may need a lot of in depth knowledge(be immersed in) American culture, history,language,etc. to think “American” — there is still a wide diversity of American thought even among those who have been immersed in it all their lives.

    Which of those views best captures the “real” American thought?

    2) It is possible to become an American citizen with only a rudimentary understanding of all the “Americana”, is it not?

    3) If I have to have the in depth understanding of the Hebrew way of thinking in order to understand what God desires of me today — and – as you say it isn’t practical for everyone to do that, how am I to come to a knowledge of God with out depending on someone else — and how will I choose which of those someone else’s to believe?

    I have to believe that God would provide to those who seek him a means of understanding Him that doesn’t require a lifetime of immersion in an ancient culture and language —

    at the same timeI can’t use that belief as an excuse for notseeking to know him better–

    My quandry is howmuch time should I spendseeking new knowledge of God versus living the a transformed life interacting with people to show what I’ve learned so far about the love ofGodand the compassionofJesus?

    You raise goodthoughts and challengermy thinking– Keep up the goodwork.

    God Bless

  13. preacherman Says:

    I hope all is going well.
    I love your blog.
    It definately one of my favs.
    I want you to know that you and your ministry are always on my mind and prayers. I pray that God’s wonderous blessings overflow in every aspect of your life.
    You have made a huge differenc in my life by reading your post. My faith and relationship with God has grown so much over the past year and half. Thank you. I am studying Hebrew now. It is so rich and beautiful. πŸ™‚ It is definately the heart beat of the entire Bible.

  14. Frank Bellizzi Says:


    Long time, no post. Hope you’re doing alright.


    Your observations and questions are good ones.

  15. rich constant Says:

    richard constant
    if Jesus did no sin which is true
    the question becomes
    how and why could god the father curse his son
    and be righteous
    this is about gods act of cursing a man without sin.
    a man born under law

    answer is to simple

  16. Jeanne Says:

    Gee, Bobby, no post today? You couldn’t find a spare couple of hours in between laundry loads, fixing meals, and another week of Bible Camp?

    Praying for your safe return on Saturday. Glad you’re enjoying the cool mountain air while we’re all down here suffering through 110 degree heat.

    May your week be drama free!

  17. Anonymous Says:


    As others have expressed, I also am expressing a concern for you at this time. It has been more than a month since we have heard a word from you. I look for you everyday and am disappointed there are no new insightful posts on your blog. I pray that God is watching over you and that you will soon return to your anxious readers.

    In His Love,


  18. Keith Brenton Says:

    What’s the Hebrew for “I miss your thoughts”?

  19. Anonymous Says:

    The hebrew Christ.
    by claude tresmontant.

    Language in the age of the gospels.

    Eye opening book, real food for the mind.

    Franciscan herald press

    Hank Oldenhof

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