Reading the Bible in English and Hebrew

Updated on July 31, 2019

The Bible: English or Hebrew?

A simple stat thrown around in many Christian circles is that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. This is true in the respect that it was intended (i.e. the modern English Protestant Christian Bible), but in reality the Bible has been in more hands than most Christians would suspect. There are different versions of the Bible that contain most or all of the content found in the Protestant Bible, and a common question Christians ask is: 'Is there any value to reading these other versions of the Bible?'

Two of the mainstream forms of the Bible that differ in content from the Protestant Bible are the Catholic Bible (which contains 14 apocryphal books) and the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible (which contains the 24 books found in the Protestant Bible but is written in Hebrew). With respect to the Tanakh, the question may not be so much 'Why read the Hebrew Bible?', but 'Why aren't you reading the Hebrew Bible?'

The reason for this is because the Bible was not originally written in English. The Old Testament was translated directly from the Hebrew Tanakh, while the teachings of Jesus and the letters of the apostles - as well as the Revelation of John - were taken down in Greek. Thus, each book of the Bible was meant to be read or heard in a language other than English.

Linguistic Relativity

Linguists have identified three primary ways in which the language you speak influences the way you think:

  • The first is structure-centered. For example, variances in grammatical numbering led speakers of the Mayan language Yucatec to classify objects according to constituent material (i.e. wool), rather than geometric shape as in English traditions (i.e. circle).
  • The second is domain-centered. The Australian Aboriginal language Yimithirr uses absolute directions when dealing with spatial domain (meaning they only will give a relative location based on a cardinal direction such as north), whereas English uses relative positions (such as 'by the house').
  • The third and most interesting category is behavior-centered. In an experiment too long to be fully documented here (the source is listed in the second bullet at the bottom of this article), the American Psychological Association found that that way individuals perceived time as elapsing relative to object growth varied depending on their spoken language. In other words, two parties speaking different languages identified time measured by the change in an object (as opposed to measurable seconds passed) differently.

Differences Between English and Hebrew

The reason I bring all this up is because the original languages of the Bible and the English language are very different. English is a very categorical language that makes use of over 200,000 words; Hebrew features less than 100,000, and estimates on Ancient Greek range from 66,000-70,000,000! The reason the Jews had a comparatively small vocabulary is that the Hebrew language tends to bundle interrelated concepts into the same word (i.e. אֱלֹהִים, pronounced elohiym, translates as God, gods, godlike, angels, rulers, and judges), while English tends to differentiate between concepts. Furthermore, Jews traditionally understood that reading the Tanakh meant utilizing Pardes, a four-tiered approach to exegesis (literal, implied, conceptual, and hidden). Thus, the Bible was originally written in a language that maximized interrelated concepts and was designed to be understood not in two distinct ways (the literal or metaphorical understanding applied to English exegesis), but four interrelated ways.

The point of all this is, reading the Bible in Hebrew provides totally new insights than reading the Bible in English! Thus, reading the two translations side-by-side is the best way to fully understand God's Word.

Where to Start?

The very first thing aspiring English-Hebrew readers must do is find a way to read both translations of the Bible simultaneously. The best way I have found to do this is by using blueletterbible.com (BLB), which features Strong's Concordance and Genesius' Lexicon as well as translation and appearance notes. There are loads of other ways to access these resources - and probably a host of other resources you could use as well - but for the step-by-step picture guide I'll be using screenshots taken from BLB's website.

First, plug in the verse or chapter you want to read. I've chosen 1 Samuel 2:31. Next to the verse you're reading, select the large blue button labeled 'Tools'. You should see a screen like this appear:

For those of you that don't know this passage, a man of God has appeared to Eli the Priest, condemning him for allowing the sins of his sons Hophni and Phinehas to go unpunished. I think it's interested that this man quotes God as saying "I will cut your arm off" - what did He mean by that? To learn more, I'm going to click on the number next to 'thine arm' (the 'Tools' section next to each verse breaks things down so you can see each individual word used in the sentence); these are Strong's numbers and will lead you to an in-depth exposition of whatever word you choose. In this case, the number is H2220; clicking on it will bring up the following screen:

On this screen I will scroll down a little bit (note: I'd highly encourage you to follow along on your own computer for this section, so you can see all this for yourself!), bringing up the following sections:

  • [Bible Version (I use KJV)] Translation Count. This tells you the various English words your version of the Bible translates this Hebrew word into, as well as how many times each translation occurs.
  • Outline of Biblical Usage. This tells you the ways in which the Biblical authors originally used this word.
  • Strong's Definitions. This gives background and grammatical information on the Hebrew word, as well as its root and the derived definition. I would always recommend exploring roots when available by clicking on the hyperlink: this will only help expand your understanding of how the word is used. Remember, one Hebrew word usually packs the meaning of 4-10 English words, and some really important words like טוֹב (tov) carry over 40 English meanings!
  • Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon. This section offers alternative definitions based on Biblical context. Understanding everything that's written there isn't always easy, but it's usually worth reading the full entry if you can muddle through it.
  • Finally, you'll arrive at the section Concordance Results Using [Bible version]. This section lists every other verse of the Bible the word appears in, which is hugely helpful for gathering contextual understanding. This is particularly helpful when trying to apply the Law of First Mention (see sources below).

From examining all the resources available to me on this page, I'm able to gain a much fuller understanding of the verse. The word זְרוֹעַ (zerowa, translated as 'arm' in 1 Samuel 2:31) can be understood as a symbol of power. Eli, as a High Priest, has a considerable amount of influence in his culture, but God moves to take this away from him in in remonstration for his sins. In 1 Samuel 3:2, Eli goes blind - in fact, by using the same techniques in that verse as I did in this one, I found that not only Eli's eyes but his mental and spiritual faculties grew dim, so that he could no longer see God. His power was truly taken away from him.

Now, let's use these techniques to unpack some other verses.

Genesis 9:4-6

Let's say you're reading Genesis 9:4-6, where God seemingly goes off on a crazy tangent about blood. In that chapter Noah and his family have at last gotten off the ark, and in verses 1-3 God gives them his blessing. But then he goes on to say you cannot eat meat still infused with blood; in fact, if you do so, your life will be forfeit and will be collected for God by whatever man or beast you next meet - even if it is your own brother. God then says that whoever sheds man's blood shall have his blood shed by a man, for man is the image of God. Then in verse seven God basically tells the presumably horror-stricken to make sure they have a bunch of children. Then he establishes his covenant with them!

To the untrained eye, verses 4-6 make God seem like he has a violent fit of ADHD. But if we start by exploring verse 4, things start to become a little clearer. The first thing you should see when you hit the 'Tools' button there is the word נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh). This word might not mean anything to you right now, but as you get into the habit of reading Hebrew you'll start to recognize this as one of those 'buzzwords' - like the word tov I mentioned earlier. Essentially, your nephesh is the very essence of who you are: it's your soul, your spirit, your life. The fact that the word דָּם (dam: blood) is used in conjunction with nephesh here should give us a clue as to what's really going on in these verses. Next, click on the Strong's number next to אָכַל (akal: eat). You'll see that the word can mean 'to eat', but also carries idea of destroying or devouring something. Lastly, click on the Strong's number next to dam. If you scroll down to Concordance results, you'll see that the first time this word is used is when Cain kills Abel.

These clues tell us a lot about the message God is trying to convey to Noah's family. Life is not meant to be taken lightly, as Cain took Abel's. In Genesis 9:3 God told Noah and his family that they could eat the flesh of animals (previously He had told Adam and Eve that fruits and vegetation would be their 'meat'), but He warns them very strongly against taking life thoughtlessly or to no purpose. He then issues a verdict: whoever pours out the blood of a man in this way will be slain, for mankind bears the image of God Himself, and striking down or devouring that image is a grave offense.

John 3:16

Does this technique work with New Testament verses too? You bet! Things look a little different when you dive into Greek words than when you're exploring Hebrew words, but the process is more or less the same. John 3:16 is a great starting point to get your feet wet with some Greek.

First, let's dispel a common mis-translation that occurs in this passage. Click on the Strong's number next to κόσμος (kosmos: translated here as 'world' or 'earth') - you'll notice that Strong's numbers in the New Testament start with a G (for Greek) rather than with an H (for Hebrew). The first thing you'll probably notice when you click on the number is that there's a whole section of the page dedicated to various inflections of kosmos. This won't be the case for every Greek word you explore, but it should pop up for most of them and can be a nice way to see the different ways words are contextually used. As you scroll down, you'll see all the familiar boxes from when we were exploring the Old Testament, with the exception that Thayer's Lexicon has replaced Gesenius'. After you've finished looking around, focus on the various definitions of kosmos. You'll quickly see that this isn't just about God loving the world - kosmos is the Greek word for everything! Jesus died for all of Creation - the whole universe - not just Earthlings. I say this with the hope that, if there is other life out there amongst the stars, we can recognize that they are saved by His love too.

John 3:16 is also home to one of the Greek 'buzzwords' - yes, the Greek language has those too. The word is ζωή (zoe: translated here as life). I won't define it for you here: this is your chance to test your skills and develop your own understanding of things! But the point is, this verse doesn't just clarify that we'll have everlasting life if we confess to believe in Jesus - it describes the wonderful and perfect kind of life we'll get to have.

Sources

  • Structure-centered: Lucy, John A. (1992b), Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Domain-centered: Levinson, Stephen C. (1996), "Language and Space", Annual Review of Anthropology, 25: 353–82.
  • Behavioral-centered: https://www.popsci.com/language-time-perception/#page-3
  • Pardes: http://www.yashanet.com/studies/revstudy/pardes.htm
  • The Law of First Mention: https://www.gotquestions.org/law-of-first-mention.html

Questions & Answers

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      • ScottishSoccerSmith profile imageAUTHOR

        Caleb Kapsner 

        5 months ago from Minneapolis, MN

        Thank you both for your kind words! Reading the Bible in multiple languages has been something I've been passionate about for some time now and it's a blessing to know I'm not the only one.

        I may have something interesting to add to your point, RT: the Hebrew system of Pardes that I mentioned only briefly in the above article reserves one of its tiers of understanding for exactly the kind of prayer you're talking about. In other words, the ancient Jews recognized that even if they were able to grasp every angle of the literal, contextual, and metaphorical meaning of every verse in the Bible, there would still be an element of knowledge missing. The fourth tier of Pardes, 'sud', necessitates prayer and partnership with God, so that He can mark His understanding of and will for the Text on our hearts.

        Thank you both again for your comments!

      • profile image

        RTalloni 

        5 months ago

        Such an interesting read. Thanks for including useful tips on using the BLB website. It is a wonderful thing that Scripture will prove itself (tearing down the human habit of picking and choosing passages to suit our thinking). We see it is even more so when we begin grasping what the original languages can teach us about what we read today.

        Knowing that in spite of attempts to destroy it, God has preserved His Word is an amazing realization. It's so important to have an understanding that the differences in Hebrew, Greek, and English all play into understanding it, but the most important thing is to humbly pray as we read His Word, asking Him for wisdom and insight to understand and apply it.

      • Jason Capp profile image

        Jason Reid Capp 

        5 months ago from Tokyo, Japan

        Really great article, Caleb! I know a decent amount of Hebrew, but I spent most of my time in college and outside college studying New Testament Greek, which I also highly recommend.

        Learning the tongues, nuance, and expressions of the Bible help bring it into a whole different light. I wish more people were excited about studying these languages for themselves, but to each their own.

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