What is Biblical Hebrew and how is ancient Hebrew thought and concepts different to ours?
Hebrew as a written language has been around for more than 3000 years and the spoken language is a member of the North Western Semitic language group, and is related to Ugaritic, Aramaic, Phoenician and Canaanite languages, although the relationship between Hebrew and those languages has changed over the course of it’s life. The language has undergone various differences in writing style. It started as a pictorial script, where a pictograph represented a letter, but also had it’s own meaning which helps define the meaning of a word. For example, the Hebrew word for Father (“ab”) in pictographs is a picture of an ox head (meaning “strength, power“) followed by the picture of a floor plan of a tent (meaning “tent, household, family“), which presents the idea of a father being the “strength of the family“. This pictographic style is possibly the script Moses would have used to write Torah (the first 5 books of the Tanakh / Old Testament). The writing of Hebrew later become more stylised. The script we find in the vast majority of Hebrew Bibles today is actually the Aramaic script, which was adopted by the Jews for their writings after the Babylonian Exile. While the obvious connection of the original pictographs and their meanings may be somewhat hidden by the Aramaic script now used, the same meanings of the letters still apply.
The idea of Hebrew being a Semitic language makes reference to Noah’s 3 sons, particularly Shem from which the word “Semitic” is derived and his descendants are concentrated in what we now call the Middle East where the Semitic languages are the main languages spoken. The Hebrew alphabet (called the Aleph-Bet), as used in the Aramaic script is shown below [Hebrew letter first, followed by it’s name, then how it sounds]:
א – Aleph – silent (without an indicated vowel)
ב – Bet – “b”
ג – Gimel – “g”
ד – Dalet – “d”
ה – Hey – “h”
ו – Vav / Waw – “v / w”
ז – Zayin – “z”
ח – Hhet – “ch, as in Bach” but more ‘in the throat’
ט – Thet – “th”
י – Yud – “y”
כ (ך) – Kaph (final Kaph) – “k”
ל – Lamed – “l”
מ (ם) – Mem (final Mem) – “m”
נ (ן) – Nun (final Nun) – “n”
ס – Samech – “s”
ע – Ayin – silent , voiced in the pharynx (without an indicated vowel)
פ (ף) – Pey (final Pey) – “p”
צ (ץ) – Tsade (final Tsade) – “ts”
ק – Quph – “qw / k”
ר – Resh – “r”
ש – Shin – “sh / s”
ת – Tav – “t”
Biblical Hebrew (BH) employs a number of “final” consonant forms, which are only used at the end of word instead of the standard consonant form. This could be likened somewhat to the English idea of having capital letters of a different form at the start of word, except that in BH the final form is only used at the end of a word and only some consonants have “final” forms. BH has no capital letters like those used in English.
Before the 10th century BC Hebrew writing, like Phoenician, was purely consonantal and it was halfway through the 9th century BC that certain of those consonants began to also be used as ‘long vowels’. Known as ‘matres lectionis’ (latin: “mother of reading”), the consonants which began to be used as ‘long vowels’ are: Aleph (א), Hey (ה), Vav (ו) and Yud (י). These indicate the presence of a vowel (not the actual vowel itself), the vowel sounds being more or less similar to English. The full range of vowel pointing that are used in a Hebrew Bible today were introduced by the Masoretes to indicate the vowel sounds of words during the second half of the 1st millenium AD.
BH has been described as a very “concrete”, ie, not abstract, language and the words themselves generally portray something that one can experience through sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. It has been claimed, probably quite correctly, that abstract thought (ideas about things that cannot be experienced) is foreign to the ancient Hebrew mind. Often the concrete-ness of BH can be shrouded by translations of the text into other languages, particularly where the language translated into employs a lot of abstract ideas. For example, in English we have the concept of a “curse” as “appeal or prayer for evil or misfortune to befall someone or something”. To curse just means we “wish” for something bad to happen to the person we are cursing or “pronounce” a curse. To curse someone in English is very abstract. But in BH the word ‘arar, generally understood to mean “curse” in English, means to “eject saliva from the mouth, to spit upon, usually indicating spite or disrespect” – something that the person being “cursed” can experience. The BH word ‘arar is related to the BH word ‘arur, which means “saliva“. If we were to spit on an ancient Hebrew person, they would think we were cursing them because they would be experiencing the action of being spat upon and understand it to be spiteful or disrespectful.
Another way in which BH differs from English is that it is primarily concerned with the function (what something does) rather than the form (what something looks like) of something. In other words, when a Hebrew word is used, it is primarily portraying the function of the object being described not what it is supposed to look like. In BH, if something is functioning correctly it is described as “good”, ie, “functional”. But if something is not functioning as it should it is described as “bad, evil”, ie, dysfunctional. So in Genesis 1, where the creation is described as good or very good, that is primarily because it was functioning correctly and in Genesis 2:17, the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” becomes the “tree of the experience of function and dysfunction“. When the man being alone is described as “not good” (Genesis 2:18) it is suggesting the idea that the man could not perform his proper function alone. The difference between an emphasis on form or function could be described like this: If an English speaking person was to see a pencil, and was asked “what is it”, the description of it would probably concentrate what it looks like – “it is long and green color”. But in BH, it would be described as “something I write words with”. In English speaking countries we may look at an automobile and would probably immediately think about how it looked (eg, “nice looking car”), but an ancient Hebrew would consider how it could help them get to where they wanted to go (eg, “will it get me across the desert”). This difference can make it very difficult to translate from BH into English while retaining as much of the original meaning as possible, as if an object was to be translated as literally as possible from BH into English it may at times be quite offensive or unintelligable to the English reader because of the emphasis of form over function because that is how we, as English speakers, think.
In an Interlinear Bible I have at home, there are 2 English translations of the text: 1) in easily readable English format and grammar and 2) an English translation under each line of original Biblical language text following the grammar of the original language. It says this in the Preface regarding those 2 English translations:
“Both translations are word-for-word, but they are not an absolute literal representation of the Hebrew or Greek words. To begin with, no foreign language could adequately capture the fullness of expression of either Hebrew or Greek. With Hebrew particularly it is impossible to bring out in English the many shades of thought in this pictorially based language.” (The Interlinear Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, General Editor and Translator: Jay P. Green Sr).
It is probably safe to say that most Bible Scholars would also understand the problems of translation from the original Biblical languages into English. But it’s also important that the average Christian understand this difficulty of translation too as it helps us realise that the Bible was not originally written in our language and culture. When we come to understand and accept that we will see that having an understanding of the language and culture in which the Bible was written is helpful to understanding it better.