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How Essential is Hebrew Language Study?

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I am currently reading a series of articles from 2008 Biblioteca Sacra by Bruce Waltke.  The title of the series is “Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of  Proverbs.”  It is a fascinating series that is useful both in study of Proverbs, but also in sermon preparation.  I probably will comment on several things in the series.

But Waltke makes a statement that makes me squirm a bit. 

Understanding grammar is essential if one is to be literate.  Knowledge of phonology (meaningful words) morphology (meaningful terms) and syntax (meaningful combination of terms) is the means for all discernment.  Without knowing grammar,the expositor cannot know the message.

I’m OK so far. Then he states:

Knowledge of Hebrew grammar is essential for interpreting the Book of Proverbs accurately, for its sages play with sound and sense in that language.

How essential is a knowledge of Hebrew for “accurately” understanding the Old Testament? 

The poet Hayim Nahman Bialik stated that reading the Bible in any language other than the original Hebrew is like kissing a beautiful woman with a veil between your face and hers.

If I REALLY want to lay the guilt on myself, I remember the words of Richard Wurmbrand: “When people of different nationalities love each other, they usually learn one another’s language. Why do the children of God, especially those who are cultured, not learn the original languages of the Bible?” (If Prison Walls Could Speak, p. 95)

Dr. Daniel Botkin echoed that sentiment when he said:

If I were married to a foreign woman, I would soon grow tired of communicating with her through a third party, regardless of how well the third party could translate. I would be very thankful for the translator for as long as he was needed, but I think I would eventually become frustrated and maybe even a little jealous. I wish she could understand my words as they come from me, I would think. When she expresses delight at the words the translator speaks to her, it almost seams like she loves the translator instead of me. I would get my wife enrolled in an English class as soon as possible.

I am one who deeply appreciates the importance of original languages and have made a conscious effort over the past 7-8 years to really brush up on my Greek. 

But my Greek wasn’t awful before I started brushing up.  I felt like I had a solid background with the Greek language I took with Dr. Donn Leach & Dr. Dennis Glenn at Manhattan Christian College and Dr. Beuford Bryant at Emmanuel School of Religion.  A lot more “stuck” than I realized at the time.  There was still brushing up to do, but it was easier because I had a solid background.

My Hebrew was a different story.  I had no Hebrew in my undergraduate studies and only one year in seminary.  I want to be totally respectful in what I say next, because I have total awe and respect for my Hebrew teacher, Dr. Toyoza Nakarai.  Dr. Nakarai’s personal story, his personal holiness and his professional expertise in Hebrew are awe inspiring.

But the Hebrew he taught me never took.  I have sometimes snidely said, “I took Hebrew in east Tennessee from an 80 year old Japanese man! No wonder I didn’t get it!”  But the problem was not really Dr. Nakarai. It was me.  I never could really even get a solid handle on even the alphabet, not to mention grammar!  I passed the class (I think I got a C), but that was only by the grace of God and Dr. Nakarai.

It is a lack that has nagged me for the past twenty-five plus years.  I have several Hebrew resources in my Libronix library, but have been hesitant to jump in since I still don’t feel fluent in Greek.

So, what do you think?  In your sermon preparation, have you found Hebrew to be an essential part of your tool-chest?  Or are the commentaries and Hebrew grammar tools in English sufficient?  If you have found tools that have been especially helpful to you in either learning or improving your Hebrew skills, what have they been?  Anyone willing to share?  I think there are a lot of us in the same boat!

Hebrew, Language, Old Testament

One Comments to “How Essential is Hebrew Language Study?”

  1. I too, am reading the articles. As I began preaching through Proverbs (indebted to Waltke's 2 vol commentary), I see how little Hebrew I really know. I am grateful for a master-teacher.

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