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Hebrew in a Nutshell

Think of the word, sin. Just a three letter word, quite unfashionable, even among many Christians today. What does it make you think of? It's perceived as a negative word, best summarised by the numerous similes (or cop-outs) used as a substitute for it by trendy preachers or embarrassed Christians, words such as peccadillo, offense, transgression, failing, wrongdoing, crime or misdemeanour. But, what about the word itself, that vowel sandwich of a word? If you were meeting this word for the first time, would there be anything about the word itself, all three letters of it, that would give you an idea of its meaning? The answer is simple. It is a resounding "no". The English language doesn't offer such a service.

Hebrew is very different. It is a pictorial and evocative language, it speaks through its own structure. The usual Hebrew word for "sin" also has three letters (consonants actually) and transliterates as chatha. Its usual meaning is to "miss the mark". So a Jew living in Biblical times would see this word and a picture would immediately form in his mind, of an arrow speeding towards a target, but never hitting it. A mundane word or idea has been used to express a spiritual concept. This is Hebrew thinking in action, bringing the spiritual down to Earth. By missing the mark, the idea is expressed that mortal man always seems to fall short of the mark that God sets for him. That is the idea of sin.

There are a few other Hebrew words used for "sin". Each of them provides a picture of their meaning. The word 'avah is to be bent or crooked, amal evokes the idea of trouble and toil and 'avar means to cross over, translated as a transgression. These words are all used in different circumstances in the Hebrew Scriptures, but always in the general context of "sin". The word used in each case would indicate a special subtlety in its use that would be picked up by the reader.

Another word that a little Hebrew knowledge can shed some light on, is Torah. This is a most misunderstood word by Christians today, who usually translate it as "law" or, should I say "LAW", the unyielding, stifling, restrictive Old Testament concept that we are all thankfully free from now. This is a nonsense and I will explain why. But, first, we need to know a little about Biblical Hebrew root words.

The thing about Hebrew in the Bible is that it is basically a string of consonants, the vowels came many centuries later. So, unless the ancient Jews spoke in a guttural rasp, reminiscent of deconstructed Vulcan (a la Star Trek), which would have needed constant lubrication to avoid throat seizure, they would have added vowels and created words that would be totally alien to the modern Hebrew speaker. We know the consonants, as they were written down, but as the vowels have been lost, we can never be absolutely sure how to pronounce the words. So the Masoretes, the scholars who added the vowels in the Ninth Century AD and onwards, were basically just using informed guesswork!

That leaves us with just consonants, when we look at the original Biblical Hebrew text. Scholars and sages have studied this text and conjured up the words out of this string of consonants, giving us the Old Testament we know and love. What they found is that most of these words are variations of a number of three letter root words, from which common meanings can be extracted. Basically, if you can gain an understanding of these root words, then the Hebrew Scriptures can really start to open up for you and the patterns of God's wisdom will instruct and delight you. Of course I am not speaking from experience here, I am no Hebrew scholar. We are fellow travellers on this particular path, my friend!

The word Torah comes from a three letter root word, yarah (remember, root words don't have vowels, so the actual word is yrh). This word means to throw something, or shoot something, like an arrow from a bow. It also alludes to a finger pointing something out. Another connected word is moreh (mrh), which refers to the person doing the throwing or shooting, or the person doing the pointing out. A moreh, in Hebrew understanding, could therefore be an archer shooting an arrow, or a teacher pointing out something. By slightly adjusting this root word (an acceptable practice in Hebrew, not a fudge!), we arrive at torah (trh), which is what is shot out by the archer, or what is taught by the teacher. In other words, we have an arrow or a teaching. So Torah can mean teaching and this is illustrated in this verse from Proverbs.

My son, do not forget my teaching (torah), but keep my commands in your heart, (Proverbs 3:1)

But we can go further in our understanding here. Remember, the principle of the mundane illustrating the spiritual. Our word Torah also means an arrow shooting at a target. So here we have the sense of the Torah being a teaching that has a direction and a purpose. To fulfil the Torah is to "hit the target" or "hit the mark". Wait a minute (I hear you say) ... where have I heard this before? Of course, we have already covered the Hebrew word, chatha, meaning "sin", which conjured up the picture of "missing the mark".

So this brief introduction to Biblical Hebrew has given us a mental picture of the Torah, the instructions given by God through Moses to Israel, as arrows aimed at a target, representing God's direction for us. But these arrows are not always going to hit the target, because of the sin in the lives of the people.

Steve Maltz
January 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again)

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