The catalysts for me to learn Biblical Hebrew was my experiences in reading old English Bibles, computer languages and a quotation from Martin Luther.
Why would an English speaking Christian decide to learn Biblical Hebrew (BH)? When I told some people that I had started to learn BH, some would ask “why would you want to do that”?
One of my favourite speakers is a Professor of Old Testament, who actually went to Israel to improve his understanding of BH. And a number of his presentations alude to his journey as he learned more about BH. But one of his presentations, presented to pastors, actually impressed me as the best reason to learn BH. In that presentation, he quoted Martin Luther’s opinion of the importance of the Biblical Languages. Below is an excerpt of what Luther wrote:
“In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone–the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others…. We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments…. For this reason even the apostles themselves considered it necessary to set down the New Testament and hold it fast in the Greek language, doubtless in order to preserve it for us there safe and sound as in a sacred ark. For they foresaw all that was to come, and now has come to pass; they knew that if it was left exclusively to men’s memory, wild and fearful disorder and confusion and a host of varied interpretations, fancies, and doctrines would arise in the Christian church, and that this could not be prevented and the simple folk protected unless the New Testament were set down with certainty in written language. Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish…. Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book.” (Martin Luther. 1524. “To the councilmen of all the cities in Germany that they establish and maintain Christian schools“)
Not being one to impulsively jump into a new project, I mulled over this for a while. I thought about my experiences of learning multiple computer languages (eg, BASIC, PHP, Bash, Perl) and the relative ease I had learning them. I had previously read the Old Testament of the Mathews Bible (an English Bible published in 1537) which has a very different English script, and the Geneva Bible (an English Bible published in 1560) both of which have a number of unknown (to me at least) words to modern English Bibles. As I considered the experience of reading those two Bibles I realised that in some ways reading the old English used in those Bibles was almost like learning another language!
Eventually, I felt compelled to learn BH. And I thought “why not learn another language”? And so my journey in BH began.
I must state here that I don’t believe every Christian should know how to read the Biblical languages. But having learnt Hebrew and the way that knowing Hebrew has helped me understand better the intent of the writers, I feel that it is definitely beneficial. But I must also state that it was also quite hard to learn. In many ways much harder than learning a computer programming language. At least those programming languages use English words as their commands, whereas Hebrew letter form and grammar is very different to anything I had learnt before.
Before I learnt BH, I was somewhat confused about some Biblical ideas and concepts, and I found that if I preached on a subject I was never quite sure whether what I was preaching was actually correct even though it tended to be in line with the doctrines I believed at the time. The more I learnt and started reading the Old Testament in BH, the more settled I was in my understandings and the more confident I became regarding a knowledge of what the Bible actually says.
Getting to that point of confidence was not without it’s concerns. When I started the journey of learning BH I was more than a little concerned that I might find ideas presented in the BH text that were severely at odds with what I believed. What would I do if it came to that? Would I fall back to the doctrines I had believed or would I be willing to step outside of the comfort of those doctrines and align my beliefs with what the original text says? As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of what I believed was more or less in line with BH concepts and ideas as portrayed in the Old Testament. But knowing how to read the BH text expanded on what I believed and helped be ‘tweek’ my understanding where necessary. I didn’t really need to make any major changes to what I believed in order to remain true to the BH text. Phew! A big sigh of relief!
One thing I learnt from this is that as believers of what the words of the Bible say, we need to be willing to be wrong, to have our current doctrinal position challenged, if we are to continue to grow spiritually. There have been a number of times in my life where I was challenged to consider other doctrinal viewpoints. And each time that has happened I have been able to navigate through those differences with a better understanding of the Bible as a result. While it was sometimes difficult for me to consider those doctrinal differences, the result was a better understanding of what the Bible says. In some ways it was no different to my journey learning BH. I went into learning BH with a (initially somewhat reluctant) willingness to be wrong, a willingness to at least allow my doctrines to be challenged, and the result has been that while I didn’t need to make any significant changes to my beliefs, I have been very thankful for the end result – the ability to better understand and navigate what otherw tell me about the Bible’s doctrines, and a willingness to challenge what others tell me that doesn’t line up with the original text.
Knowing BH has been very useful in understanding various Bible subjects and ideas, including:
The nature of God – “trinity” or “non-trinity”.
The nature of man compared with the nature of animals.
The “seven times” of Leviticus 26 (what some refer to as the 2520 prophecy).
Time-based prophecies in the Bible.
The nature of the atonement.
The importance of names of places and people in the Biblical narrative.
BH poetry as a kind of Thesaurus for finding synonyms.
And I’m sure there will be other subjects and ideas that will be enhanced by knowing BH.