Q&A: If you really want to understand the Old Testament, should you read it in ancient Hebrew?

You can get most of the gist of the Hebrew Bible without knowing biblical Hebrew, but you would lose out on many subtleties—such as:

  • The meaning of names
  • Hebrew cognates (related words)
  • The brevity of biblical Hebrew
  • Poetic structures

In detail:

The meaning of names

This is a fairly critical loss, because in ancient times, a person’s name was highly significant, often encapsulating who they were, or how they were regarded. Key examples (apart from those provided by Isaac Mayer):

  • Adam (in Hebrew, Adam) because he was made from soil (adamah)
  • Abram became Abraham by the insertion of the Lord’s abbreviated name H in his name
  • Jacob (ya’aqov) because he was born holding onto the heel (aqev) of his twin brother Esau. Years later, after wrestling with an angel all night, he received the honorific Yisrael, meaning “Wrestled with God”

In some cases, the name is deliberately corrupted, as a mark of derision, e.g. Baal Zvul (the God of Ekron), referred to as Ba’al Zvuv (“Lord of the Fly”)—an insult that is completely lost in his translated name, Beelzebub.

But there are other aspects that are lost, as well, such as:

Hebrew cognates and wordplay

This is related to the meaning of names aspect. Hebrew, like other Semitic languages, is based on three-consonant roots, which in different configurations produce related, but distinct, meanings. These are all lost in translation; to illustrate and appreciate these in an accessible manner, without the intimidating distraction of the Square Hebrew script, here is a SimHebrew (Simulated Hebrew) representation of the words:

  • Thus, the root r-a-w (resh-aleph-shin) gives rise to the word raw (pron. rosh), meaning “head” or “top”; brawit (bereshit—“In the beginning”—Gen. 1:1); and rawon (rishon = “first”).
  • Similarly, from root w-b-t (shin-bet-tav) we get viwbot (vayishbot = “and he rested”), and wbt (shavat – Gen. 2:1: “rested”), and, of course, wbt (shabbatthe Sabbath).

The brevity of biblical Hebrew

Due to its use of implicit vowelling, prefixes and suffixes for prepositions and possessive forms, and generally its highly poetic nature, biblical Hebrew is far more succinct than English or other European languages. A typical example is I Kings 20: the English

Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off

(sixteen words) is only four words in Hebrew:

al-ithll kgr cmptk

(phonetically: al yithalal ḥoger kimephate’aḥ):

To illustrate it in the context of the entire passage (I Kings 20:7–11):

Poetic features of the Hebrew

Poetic features of the Hebrew are also usually lost in translation. A classic example is the first half of Ecclesiastes 7:1. In English (KJV), it is:

A good name is better than precious ointment

But in Hebrew, it is

‘tob wm, mwmn ‘tob

(phon.: tov shem mishemen tov), which clearly reveals the alliteration and the symmetrical structure of the phrase.

Mistranslations of the Hebrew

Last but not least, there are outright mistranslations. Egregious examples such as the commandment Lo tirtzaḥ = “Thou shalt not murder”) as “Thou shalt not kill”, and almah as “virgin” instead of “young woman”, are well known. But there many others, lesser known ones. Some are minor, such as:

  • Prov. 31:10: veraḥoq mipninim mikhrah as “for her price is far above rubies” (King James v.) instead of the correct “for her price is far above pearls

—but some are more significant misreadings, which are sometimes tendentious e.g.:

  • Ps. 8:5: vateḥasréhu me’at me’elohim as
    “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels
    instead of the correct
    “For thou hast made him a little lower than God
  • Ecclesiastes 7:3: tov ka’as misḥoq as
    “Sorrow is better than laughter
    instead of
    Vexation is better than tomfoolery
  • Ezekiel 14:10: ka’avon hadoresh, ka’avon hanavi yihiyeh as
    “the punishment of the prophet shall be even as the punishment of him that seeketh unto him”
    instead of
    “the transgression of the prophet shall be even as the transgression of him that seeketh unto him.”

Mastering Hebrew to this level takes some effort, however, so the real question is: how important is it to you to gain this level of understanding?

3 thoughts on “Q&A: If you really want to understand the Old Testament, should you read it in ancient Hebrew?

  1. Your explanations are great. Although I knew about the three letter roots, I didn’t realize the extent of the deliberate mistranslations. Talk about changing the meaning. I myself get frustrated with many of the translations in Sim Shalom. I know enough about Hebrew to know something is not right. Thanks for the insights.


  2. Here’s an example I came across recently: There is a word play in Isaiah5:7, he waited for משׁפת (mishpat) and behold משׁפה (mishpah), for צדקה (tsedekah) and behold צעקה (ts`aqah).

    My rendering so far: and he waited for lessons in judgment, and behold, lesions, for justice, and behold, an outcry.

    I have stretched judgment to lessons in judgment to rhyme with lesions. Can you imagine variations on justice/righteousness and outcry?

    It’s great to see your posts and your questions, Jonathan. And to answer the question: Yes, of course, but it is easier said than done. It took me 2 to 3 months to get through my first Psalm. Now I can read several verses a day, but that is 1! years after starting. But I started late at age 60. It is worth while for uncountable reasons: language, history, theology, paying attention, and so on and on.

    Liked by 1 person

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