A Taste of Hebrew

I just thought I’d share a piece I wrote for the introduction of a book on Hebrew words. Enjoy.

Fresh pita bread made by the Bedouins is out of this world—chewy and hot, crispy in spots, and a little smoky from the open fire. When a veiled woman with a wizened face thrusts it piping hot into your hands, you need to rip off a piece and pass it on before your fingers burn. Smeared with olive oil and dried hyssop, it is nothing like you’ve ever tasted before.

The Bible’s Hebrew words are exactly the same way. They are aromatic and savory from the dusty, ancient land of their origin. Out of necessity for us to read them today, they’ve had to be preserved and then packaged in English sentences that are palatable to modern readers. Yet, some of their more subtle flavors simply don’t travel well across languages and time, even if their “nutritional value” hasn’t changed. In order to really experience the breadth of expression of the Bible’s original words, you have to travel back mentally into their original Middle-Eastern Jewish setting.

Hebrew is an extremely rich, poetic language that looks at the world in very different ways than English. Grasping the depth of even a few words greatly clarifies and enriches reading, and casts new light on things that you thought you understood. You’ll see humor, irony and timeless wisdom where you passed it by before. And often, knowing the original, fuller sense of a biblical idea will challenge and change you, when its ancient wisdom puts your life into the perspective of God’s eternal Word.

Surprisingly, the richness of Hebrew comes from its poverty. Because this ancient language has far fewer words than English or Greek, each word is like an over-stuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings that it must carry in order for the language to fully describe reality. Unpacking each word is a delightful exercise in seeing how the ancient authors organized ideas in very different ways than we do – when they used the same word for “work” as for “worship,” and the same word for “listen” as “obey.”

Similarly, the beautiful imagery of Hebrew comes from its lack of words as well. Largely without abstractions, the language is firmly rooted in the real world of the physical senses. Without a word for “stubborn,” it uses “stiff-necked,” evoking the picture of putting a yoke on an unwilling ox. Without the word “stingy,” it speaks of being “tight-fisted,” or of having a “bad eye”—being unable to see the needs of the person right in front of you. Living without abstract words did not prevent the Bible’s writers from expressing profound thoughts, but instead caused them to paint colorful word-pictures and tell clever parables instead.

Right now I’m working on some proposals to submit to publishers for this book and another. I’ll keep you updated!

Published in: on March 26, 2007 at 7:47 am  Comments Off on A Taste of Hebrew  
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