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Basic Hebrew

Where do the Hebrew words in the Old Testament come from? 

If you were God and wished to communicate Your innermost thoughts to Your people in the simplest way, what would You do? Of course, You would talk to some key people, the movers and shakers whom You could trust to get the word out. There was Adam, the first man, with whom You walked and talked. Then there were Abraham and Moses. You talked to both of them and cut covenants with them on behalf of their people. You knew that You could trust these men to convey Your words to others, but You also knew that a time would come when a more permanent, universal way would need to be found to really get the message out.

They already had a language that lasted them from Eden to Babel, a single tongue that made it easy for You to communicate with them, and them with each other. But then, of course, they messed things up at the Tower of Babel and needed to be taken down a peg or two, so You confused their language and sent them packing far and wide.

Of all the people around at that time, You had Your eye on one group, the Semites, headed by Abram and his clans. They were the ones You wanted to really communicate with so You made sure their language was going to be the very best to convey Your thoughts to the minds and hearts of mankind. And You were going to make very sure that this language would be easily understood in written form, in a very special way. This was to be a very special language, probably (though not provably) related to the same language you taught to Adam in the Garden of Eden. This language was Hebrew.

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 For God to choose (or create) Hebrew as His primary means of communicating to mankind, there had to be some unique features that marked it out as fit for purpose. Indeed there are and, rather than telling you, you will find out for yourselves as the story unfolds.

 Now, imagine you are travelling with Abram, from Haran to Canaan. You are a shepherd, though of course that’s not the word they would have used for you. They would have used this Hebrew word:

 

(ro’eh)

 

As you can see, this is made up of three letters (reading from right to left),

On a plaque outside your tent you proudly display your title, ro’eh. It wouldn’t be using those exact Hebrew letters, though, but rather an earlier form of them. It’s time for a short lesson on the history of writing.

It all started with pictures. If you wanted to express yourself (other than through speech, of course), you drew a picture. Perhaps you killed a wild beast, or your tent burnt down, or you spotted an enemy encampment. You drew a picture to represent what you were seeing or thinking. It would have been a crude drawing, just a few scratches on clay perhaps - you would hardly have access to oil paints and a canvas would you?

This was quite a limited situation. It would have been fine if you could draw pictures of everything you wanted to express, but people had neither the time nor the imagination to take it that far. Instead they combined pictures to make up words. In a sense, we had the start of an alphabet here. A small number of key pictures - such as an eye, a tent or an ox - were simplified and turned into letters and the sound of what was depicted in the picture developed into the sound of the letter. This is simpler than I have described and an example is needed. Let’s go back to the shepherd.

The Hebrew word, ro’eh, is written as  as we already saw above in modern Hebrew, with those three letters, resh, ayin and hey, reading from right to left. Each of those three letters developed over time from earlier forms - in fact each was originally a picture.

Hebrew is basically a language formed from pictures. We are going back to well before the time of Moses. The alphabet that had developed, one of the earliest in the world, is called by scholars the Proto-Canaanite alphabet. Here’s the first picture in our word, in that alphabet:

It’s plain to see that this is a picture of a head, a man’s head.

 

Here’s the second picture:

This is not quite so obvious. It’s a picture of an eye.

 

And here’s the final picture:

It’s a man with his arms lifted up. He’s looking at something, or showing or revealing something.

The word for “shepherd” was made by putting these three pictures, or letters, together (reading from right to left).

 

It doesn’t make sense until ... we use our imagination and think of a man (depicted by his head), looking (depicted by an eye) in a purposeful fashion (depicted by outstretched arms). This sort of describes what a shepherd does! It may not be neat and tidy and exact, but they didn’t have our 21st Century sophistication and logical minds. That’s the essence of Hebrew, and the Hebraic mind, as we shall see again and again in this book. It’s a way of looking at the world in a general, fuzzy and forgiving way and thinking such thoughts as, hmm ... man looks out in an important way ... that could mean a few things, but I can see a shepherd doing that ... yes, those three marks I have just made on clay mean shepherd to me, let’s go and tell others ...

The Greek mind would see this in a different way. It would ponder over those three symbols and create a discussion with others over it and just agonise for ages, like this ... there are so many different ways these pictures can be interpreted, it’s just not clear and exact enough for me. We need a set of symbols that just shout out “shepherd” and nothing else. ...

Interestingly, this Hebrew word can also be translated as pastor, which probably fits the pictures even better!

Time moved on and the early Hebrew language, which scholars call Phoenician-Old Hebrew, developed from this cruder Proto-Canaanite form. The letters started to change – into a form that more resembles what letters are meant to look like to our modern eye.

Then, at around the time of the Babylonian exile, the letters again changed, into the form that is the basis for the Hebrew in our written Scriptures. Quite a jump really and it probably didn’t happen overnight, but in incremental stages.

And this is ro’eh, the Hebrew name for shepherd. We will talk about the right-to-left business a bit later on, as well as the fact that vowels haven’t come into the picture yet (though we are including them in our pronunciations, otherwise it would all sound a bit rasping, guttural or just plain Klingon!), but suffice to say, we will discover that many words that we find in the “Old Testament” will be constructed initially from pictures.

Let’s just think about that for a moment. When we look at the English word, shepherd, we get no visual clues from the individual letters about the meaning of the word. Hebrew is a very visual language, so much so, that we can get a good idea why God chose Hebrew in the first place.

For the previous article in this series, click here.

For the next article in this series, click here.

To find out what is my favourite book of the Bible, click here.

You can reach Steve with any comments or questions at the Saltshakers Web Community website.

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