Why Bother Reading The Bible In Hebrew?

We here at the Israel Institute for Biblical Studies are strong advocates of the idea that to truly understand the Hebrew Bible, you need to read it in the original Hebrew. This sounds obvious, but very few people actually understand the reasoning behind this idea. Reading the words of the Hebrew prophets in translation – whether the King James Version or any of the dozens of more modern translations – is  a good start, but this can only take you so far. Once you have acquired the basic meaning of a biblical passage in English, the translation ceases to be useful. Even worse, for anyone seeking to go beyond a basic one-dimensional view of Scripture, the translated Bible is actually a hindrance. It eventually becomes a barrier between the 21st century world we live in and the authentic world of ancient Israel inhabited by the biblical prophets. In this blog post I would like to give you five reasons that reading the Hebrew Bible in the original Hebrew is crucial to grasping the deep truths found in Scripture.

The first reason to read Hebrew Bible in Hebrew is that the internal logic of the Bible is Hebrew. Many verses simply do not make sense if read in translation. This is particularly true of etiological texts, verses which explain the origin of a person’s or a places’ name in the Bible. For example, in the story of the birth of Simeon, we read:

Leah conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. Gen. 25:33

In English, there is no noticeable connection between the name Simeon and the sentiment expressed by Leah. The two halves of this verse simply do not make sense together in English. However, in Hebrew it is immediately apparent that the word “heard” (shama) is homophonically linked with the name “Simeon” (Shimon). This pattern holds true for the names of hundreds of people and places throughout the Hebrew Bible. While it is certainly possible to comprehend the connection by referring to the footnotes in an annotated Study Bible, it is much more meaningful to deeply appreciate the connection by reading the verse in Hebrew.

The second reason to read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew is more literary, that is, having to do with the aesthetics of the text. The original Hebrew Bible is overflowing with rich Hebrew musicality and wordplay. When you read the Bible in translation, you are missing out on the beauty of the Hebrew language as it was originally recited. For example, in this verse the prophet Haggai contrasts the greed of the rich landowners with the misery of the poor working classes:

You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.  Hag. 1:6

When you read these words in English, you get a basic sense of the prophet’s message, but the language does not soar. When you read the same verse in Hebrew, it is immediately apparent that Haggai was a skilled literary artist. The rhythm of the original Hebrew word mistaker is much catchier than the cumbersome English “you that earn wages.” Moreover, Haggai purposefully juxtaposes the word “to have one’s fill of drink, to be inebriated” (shakherah) from the root ŠKR (שׁכר) with the word “to earn wages” (mistaker) from the root ŚKR שׂכר. This kind of clever wordplay is central to the artistry of the Hebrew Bible, but it is totally overlooked in all translations. Remember that the Hebrew prophets did not write their own words down. They recited them publicly, and so the sound of the Hebrew words was absolutely central to the success of the prophetic message. In all probability, the words of Haggai would never have been preserved as sacred Scripture without the literary flourishes that make them so brilliant.

The third reason that it is essential to read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew concerns intertextuality, or linguistic associations within Scripture. The Hebrew words used by the prophets were intended to stimulate specific verbal associations in the minds of Hebrew-speaking audience members. However, when we read the Bible in translation, we miss these connections entirely because not every Hebrew word has a single English counterpart in all cases. For example,

He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. Mal. 4:6

The Hebrew word for “curse” in this verse is ḥerem, which is no mere malediction. In the Hebrew Bible the word ḥerem literally means “devoted to God through extermination”. The immediate association that would have come to minds of Malachi’s audience is the story of Joshua’s conquest of the Land. This is because the word ḥerem is used dozens of times in the Book of Joshua referring to a war of total annihilation where no live Canaanite prisoners were taken (Josh. 2:10). But in Joshua, the word ḥerem is translated as “utter destruction,” not “curse”. Elsewhere in the Bible, he word ḥerem can refer to objects that are given as sacrifices to God by being destroyed (Leviticus 27:28). In this case, the word is translated “an object devoted to destruction,” not “curse”. The use of the same term creates a linguistic connection between these three kinds of devotion, illustrating how intertwined bloodshed and holiness were thought to be in the days of ancient Israel. But a reader of Scripture in translation totally misses this point.

The fourth reason to return to the original Hebrew of the Bible has to do with linguistic associations outside of Scripture. In order to obtain the authentic meaning of Scripture as it was originally intended, it is crucial to set aside our modern reality and enter the world of ancient Israel. The English translation is a major obstacle here. This is because very often the English word that has been chosen to represent a Hebrew word misleads by prompting a verbal link with a modern concept which is far removed from the world of ancient Israel. For example, in his sermon on the subject of the Jerusalem Temple, Jeremiah famously asks:

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. Jer. 7:11

The phrase “den of robbers” (or “den of thieves”) is familiar to many readers of Scripture because it was quoted by Jesus as he overturned the tables of the money-changers (Mark 11:15-19). But likely the English translation is obstructing our full appreciation of the authentic meaning of this term. The “den of robbers” is not a secret back office where criminals hang around, as often seen in modern Hollywood films. In the original Hebrew, Jeremiah refers to a me’arat paritzim. This a roadside cave used for hiding by highway bandits that ambushed travelers, as seen in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Such caves can often be seen in the soft limestone cliffs that line ancient roads in the Land of Israel. The Hebrew word for “robbers” is paritzim, from the root PRẒ פרץ meaning “to break through”. These men were violent brigands who “burst out” of caves in order to attack travelers by surprise. This root is also the origin of the name of Judah and Tamar’s firstborn son, Perez, who “pushed aside” his twin brother in order to exit the womb first (Gen. 38:29).

The fifth and final reason for returning to the original Hebrew of the Bible relates to the Christian messianic interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures. For the past two millennia, a cornerstone of Christian theology has been that Jesus of Nazareth is worthy to be called the Messiah because he fulfilled numerous Hebrew prophecies. However, when we read these “Old Testament” prophecies in English translation, the means of fulfillment are not always immediately apparent. Going back to the original Hebrew often clarifies the link between the two Testaments. For example, in his famous prophecy of the suffering servant, Isaiah says:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. Isa. 53:5

In English, the word “wounded” does not give us much information. However, in the original Hebrew the word meḥolal literally means “pierced” from the root ḤLL חלל meaning “to perforate”. We can see the same word used in these verses: “pierced by the sword” (Ezek. 32:26) and “my heart is pierced within me” (Ps. 109:22). This is one of the key words which supports a Christological interpretation of the whole passage, as it is regarded as a prophecy of the piercing wounds which Jesus received on the cross. So what are you waiting for? Start your journey towards a deeper more sophisticated appreciation for the authentic riches found in Scripture by enrolling in our online Biblical Hebrew course today!

About the author

Jonathan LipnickJonathan Lipnick believes that a truly comprehensive understanding of Scripture must be capable of penetrating beneath the printed words to reveal the authentic world of the Bible: the landscapes, smells and sounds of ancient Israel. He is the dean of the faculty of Holy Land Studies at Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and is the author of the course "Exploring the Biblical Land of Israel"

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  1. Paul Kristofferson

    I have only just read this blog, but that is the joy I am finding reading the Hebrew Scriptures. Texts that I have been familiar with for many years now have a richer meaning. Not only has my understanding been enhanced, but I have developed a greater appreciation of the bible.