What is the Benefit of Greek & Hebrew?

Some say reading in Greek and Hebrew versus reading in English is like the difference between watching a show in color versus black and white. Others might say something like 2D versus 3D. I don’t think these are the best way to describe the experience. Reading in Greek and Hebrew slows me down and helps me rummage around in the text and reflect. For me, that’s the core idea. It gives me something to do.

I’m asking and answering this question as someone who initially learned the languages to read and teach Scripture. I’m going to write more about other benefits and things that flow from this rummaging and slow down, but in this post I just want to lay the foundation. How many times have you sat down to prepare to teach or preach and you read your passage and think, “Ok, now what?” If you are reading in the original languages you have so many different resources and tools to explore, and I’m thinking primarily about lexicons and concordances. If you don’t regularly read and work with the original languages, all you can do is skim the surface of an entry in BDAG or HALOT. Exploring contemporary literature, figures of speech, the metaphors used in your passage, looking at a words full range of meaning and determining which meaning is relevant for your passage — these are things you can actually engage in yourself if you can read the language.

But in my opinion, those things are not the primary benefit of the original language slow down. The real benefit comes in your day-to-day reading. It’s about stripping away the familiarity of your natural language and lingering over the original words. Especially for the first few years of reading, you have to decipher every word and phrase, and the fog never really lifts. Sure, after a few years, you may be able to read one or two or four chapters in an hour, but it’s still not English. You’re moving slower, and when I do this, I find that I make connections with other portions of scripture that I wouldn’t make otherwise. With certain phrases come flashes of other stories or scenes, and my imagination takes off. This sort of reading isn’t about exegesis. It’s about rummaging. It’s about trying to step through the wardrobe into the real world of God’s presence.

Genesis 12 & the Exodus

In a sense, Genesis 12 foreshadows the Exodus. After Abram got Sarai to agree to lie about her relationship with him, they entered Egypt. As expected, she is taken into Pharaoh’s palace, and as expected:

12:16 – It went well for Abram. He gained flocks and cattle, male and female servants, donkeys, and camels.

God strikes Pharaoh and his people, and then at the end of the chapter:

12:20 – Pharaoh commanded his men concerning Abram, and they sent him out with his wife and all his possessions.

Through human compromise and sin and because of the broken world — famine, in this case — the people of God go down to Egypt, and through trickery, they plunder the Egyptians.

Hebrew text

Hebrew Just Takes Longer

Compared to Greek, I think it takes about twice as long to make it through the elementary grammar phase of learning biblical Hebrew. This is discouraging for many students. I know it was for me. If you are struggling with first or second year Hebrew, just know that this is normal — you’re OK.

Why is Hebrew so much more difficult? Morphology. Think about how much time you spent on morphology in your Greek classes compared to Hebrew. Some spend an entire year on Hebrew morphology before moving on to syntax. Others have a more balanced approach, but all spend more time on Hebrew morphology than Greek.

If you are at least halfway open to the idea that our approach to teaching Hebrew might be skewed, check out William P. Griffin’s essay “Killing a Dead Language: A Case against Emphasizing Vowel Points when Teaching Biblical Hebrew.” Why do so many give up on Hebrew? Griffin answers,

We are not teaching one language, but two; if we emphasize the accents, make that two and a half. We demand that our students understand and replicate an elaborate cellophane overlay that is more complicated than the language it attempts to clarify.

Griffin has written a grammar that de-emphasizes the vowel points, Hebrew for Reading Comprehension. I could not find a print copy online, but the grammar is sold by Logos and Griffin has a website devoted to it where you can check out some samples. I don’t know if this is the answer or not, but I am intrigued.

I was never able to master all the morphological rules for weak verbs though I certainly gave it my best effort. I have multiple notecards for every chapter of Fuller’s grammar, and I think I’ve gone through the book from cover to cover three times. It just doesn’t stick, and I’m OK with this. I can read Hebrew, and if I need to look up some rule on weak verbs, I know where to turn.

If you struggle with Hebrew, grace and peace to you. Don’t listen to that little voice coming from your skewed grammatical conscience that says, “You can’t start reading your Hebrew Bible if you can’t recite all the rules for germinate verbs. That’s cheating!” Read. Keep at it, and know that you aren’t alone. Hebrew just takes longer, and the fog doesn’t start to lift until you start reading.

Bible Odyssey: What is the Oldest Bible?

I wrote an article for Bible Odyssey answering this question.

Bible Odyssey is an online initiative of SBL intended to communicate the results of scholarship to a popular audience.

The article is a response to several user questions related to the issue of “oldest Bible.” I tried to explain that the answer depends on what one means by “oldest” (materially? textually?) and by “Bible” (a bound book? Protestant? Catholic?).

On the bottom right of the page there is also a related links section where I provide links to a few of the manuscripts and editions mentioned in the article.

Check it out.

HB in the DSS using Accordance 11

Here is a video showing how you can use the INFER-search to find direct or indirect references to the Hebrew Bible in the DSS. The steps are the same as those listed yesterday for the NT in the Didache post. There is audio in this one. Steps:

  1. Open a tagged Hebrew Bible, limit your search as you would like, type an asterisk and press ENTER to find all the words in the range you prefer.
  2. Open your non-biblical DSS and run an INFER-search. You can also right-click and use the search back feature, as I showed yesterday, but that isn’t relevant for this video since I limited it to one verse in the Hebrew Bible.