This is the 9th post in a series I am writing about end times prophecies in the Bible. If you would like to read the earlier posts, the series starts here.
The ancient Hebrew language was very different from its modern form. Not only was it a ‘sense-based’ language, originally, its written form was also hieroglyphic. This means the language was based in concrete terms, which to the ancient Hebrew would mean terms familiar to a semi-nomadic, agricultural society. The hieroglyphics are just a natural outflow of this ‘pictorial’ form of thinking. It also lead to a language where two letter root words were used to form the basis of an entire family of words with similar or related meanings. Naturally, there is a great deal more to the ancient Hebrew language, but the way it relates to and is connected to the lifestyle of the ancient Hebrew is what is most important to understanding Biblical prophecy.
First, we will look at the hieroglyphic nature of ancient Hebrew. The word, or pictograph for ‘strength‘ was a drawing of a bull’s head (see additional reading links below). To the Hebrew, the strongest animal he had at hand was the bull, so, naturally, to a sense-based mind, the bull would be a symbol of strength. Likewise, the word or symbol for ‘house‘ was a drawing depicting the layout of an ancient Hebrew tent. Now, even though these are words, in ancient Hebrew, they are also letters. The image of each letter implies an image, and the meaning attached to that image is understood as the meaning of the word. So, when we put the bull’s head and the tent together, we get ‘strength of the house,’ which is the Hebrew word for husband or father.
Reading right to left:
= strength = house
= husband or father
Another example would be a phrase found in the Bible, “The Lord is slow to anger.” The ancient Hebrew does not actually say this. The Hebrew word for ‘anger‘ is ‘nose.’ So the original Hebrew actually says “The Lord is slow to nose.” Now, remember what we said about ancient Hebrew being concrete, or pictorial in nature. When we get angry, we tend to breath faster and heavier, which causes our nostrils to flare. So, to the ancient Hebrew, nose (and nostril, which is related) are connected to anger. Now, let’s look at one last example:
The Hebrew words for deer and oak also hold the meaning of strength or leadership. The deer was seen as one of the strongest animals in the forest, and the oak as one of the strongest woods. So these words are often used to refer to strong leaders. Now, think about how this changes the meaning of a phrase such as:
“The voice of the Lord makes the deer to calve.”
or according to another translation:
“The voice of the Lord twists the oaks.”
What the Psalmist was actually saying is:
“The voice of the Lord makes strong leaders turn [from their ways, to the Lord’s].
So you can see how not understanding the nature of ancient Hebrew can and does cause confusion in understanding Scripture — and doubly so when trying to read prophecy.
Now, when we read modern Scripture, a lot of this has been translated for us, so we don’t run into these sort of problems nearly as often as they actually appear in the original texts. This is because others, who are familiar with the ancient Hebrew language, have translated the ancient texts so that we may better understand them. However, by trying to put things in more modern terms, these translators, as well meaning as they are, have inadvertently made it more difficult to understand the more difficult parts of Scripture. Part of the trouble is found in the way ancient Hebrew was written. Originally, Hebrew had no vowels. The reader had to use the context of the rest of the text to help them chose the correct word and then fill in the vowels mentally. Given than many words have the same spelling when the vowels are left out, this allows for mistranslations, even in the time of the original author. Throw in the problems of culture and the nature of prophetic vision and you can see how easily even the most well-meaning people can get confused while trying to put ancient Hebrew into modern terms. This is why we must study the original culture and language: so that we can better understand the subtle nuance of the original message [It is also something you teacher out there should make an effort to teach you flock].
So, what should we take away from this? Well, if nothing else, we should understand that the prophet or scribe probably has a different meaning from that of a literal interpretation. It also means that the Scriptures are not as ‘garbldie-gook‘ (as one Atheist put it to me) as many like to believe. It just means we do not understand the language, and, if we do not understand the language, we should not expect to get a clear understanding of the message. Once again, it would be like trying to explain computers to someone from the 19th Century and wondering why they do not understand. To them, you might be using English words, but they would not have the reference frame necessary to understand what you were telling them. Well, we are no different, only the time line is reversed: in our case, the ancients are trying to explain spiritual matters to a culture that has largely rejected the idea that such a thing as the Spirit world even exists.
Now that we have touched a little bit on the subject of how the ancient Hebrew language worked, the next thing we need to do is have a brief look at some of the more artistic uses of the language. This will be the subject of our next post: Hebrew poetry.
You can find the next post in this series here.
ADDITIONAL READING ON ANCIENT HEBREW LANGUAGE
AN INTERESTING NOTE ABOUT PICTORIAL HEBREW
Archeology has discovered several ancient Hebrew pictographs for the name of the Messiah. Now, they do vary a bit, but no one can make the claim that these various spellings mean they are different names. This is because all of the different spellings come from the same root word, which means that they are all related. This is the nature of Hebrew. But one of the most frequent spellings shows the pictograph for ‘behold‘ or ‘look,’ then ‘the highest man‘ then the symbols for ‘tent peg,’ which means ‘to fasten‘ or ‘nail,’ and then a letter which is literally the symbol of the cross. So, from right to left, it literally says the name of the Messiah is “Behold, the highest man, nailed to a cross.” Another related spelling for the Messiah literally reads “Behold, hand, behold, nailed.” In fact, every variation of the spelling for Messiah depicts some picture of a man or hands being nailed, often to the Hebrew letter, ‘tav‘ which looks exactly like a small case ‘t‘, or a cross. Now, keep in mind, that was written 1500+ years before Christ was crucified, and at least 750 years before crucifixion was even invented! That, my dear reader, is prophecy literally written into the very fabric of the language God’s chosen people spoke!
This should be a testimony to both Hebrew (i.e. Jew) and skeptic alike that Jesus is the Messiah, and as Messiah, He is God!