WHY CHRISTIANS SHOULD STUDY HEBREW
As a homeschooling parent, your time is precious. You have limited time in your school day and you want to use it efficiently so that your child has every spiritual and academic advantage in life. How does Hebrew fit into that picture? How is it relevant to your child? Below you will find an extensive treatment of this subject, but here are seven points supporting Hebrew in the Christian home.
- Every Christian is a priest who through the Son has direct access to the Father. Every priest traditionally studies the languages of the Bible (Hebrew and Greek) in college/seminary. Therefore, every Christian child should be educated as a priest and should study those same biblical languages.
- Learning Hebrew is easy and fun for children! Parents do not need to know the language because there are resources (reviewed on this site) for independent study. Just one hour of the school day (what we at the Christian Language Center call “Language Hour”) dedicated to the sacred languages can develop proficiency in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
- Children who study Hebrew score much better on the Reading and Writing portions of the SAT than their peers who study other languages—except Latin (Hebrew 549/548, Greek 546/538, Latin 560/546, Spanish 500/492, French 524/516.) 2010 SAT data from http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/2010-total-group-profile-report-cbs.pdf
- The great heroes of the faith were also great students of the three languages (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.) It is no accident that St. Jerome, Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wycliffe, and C.S. Lewis were all versed in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. It is also no accident that the brilliant founders of the American Republic were also fluent in Latin and studied Greek and Hebrew at the university level (at the time of America’s founding, universities did not offer electives as they do today: the curriculum was prescribed and universally it included Greek and Hebrew at its core. Fluency in Latin was a prerequisite for admission to any college.) If you dedicated your entire school day only to the study Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (leaving out entirely the study of history, math, science, and English as independent subjects), you would be teaching your child in the same style and tradition as the greatest minds in Christian history. I am not advocating abandoning other subjects, but rather making the study of the three languages central.
- Above the cross Pontius Pilate used the three sacred languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, to testify (inadvertently) to the world the identity of Christ: And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS (Luke 23:38).
- Jesus spoke in Hebrew to Paul on the Damascus Road: And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So I said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 26:14-15). Paul himself preached in Hebrew: So when he [the Roman commander] had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, saying, “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.” And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent (Acts 21:40-22:2).
- Jesus knew Hebrew… so should you! He quoted extensively from the Hebrew Scriptures and used the Hebrew blessings. We should imitate our Lord and Savior by pursuing the knowledge of Hebrew as well.
Hebrew: Language of the Old Testament and the Cross
Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament scriptures. It is an inspired language. It is the language through which God chose to make His first written revelations known to man. It is called “the Holy Tongue” or “The Holy Language” (Lashon HaKodesh). Abraham, with whom God established His covenant, is called “Abram the Hebrew,” from whom the language derived its name (Gn. 14:13; the derivation of the word “Hebrew” itself is uncertain and is still debated by scholars). When Moses came down from the mountain, he carried the law written in the Hebrew tongue. David wrote the Psalms in Hebrew, and the rhythmic cadences of the language create the music of his songs. When Nehemiah began rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, he cursed those Jews who had let their children forget Hebrew (Neh. 13:24). Jesus knew the Hebrew of the scriptures, and quoted it as he debated the religious leaders of His day. Even the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are considered holy.
Contemporary Jewish children continue to learn the Hebrew of the Old Testament, just as Jesus, Paul, David, Moses, and Abraham did. They learn Hebrew so that they can read the Scriptures in the language in which God delivered them. They learn Hebrew so that they may sing the Psalms the way that David wrote them. They learn Hebrew in order to recite the Torah in the synagogue in the holy language of the Lord.
The Jews have translations of the Tanakh, the Hebrew word for the Old Testament, yet they continue to study the original holy language of God. Some orthodox Jews refuse to use Hebrew at all colloquially, saving it strictly for religious purposes. Should this language be reserved for Jewish use, a spiritual heritage for Jewish children alone? Aren’t contemporary Christians the spiritual descendants of Abraham? Are we not children of the Jewish carpenter Jesus? As Jesus said, God could raise descendants of Abraham from the stones of the earth, and indeed, Jesus built his church upon the rock and raised new children of Abraham from it. We are the descendants of Abraham. We are, therefore, Hebrews, inheritors of the promises, spiritual Israel, children of the Messiah. Hebrew is one of our holy languages.
As a Christian parent, I believe it is my primary duty to teach my children the truths of God’s word. Nothing is more important than this. In my children’s school day, the Bible should occupy the central position. It should receive the first attention of the day, and more time should be dedicated to its study than to any other subject. Part of this attention should involve the study of the original languages of the Bible. One of those languages is Hebrew. Therefore, every day I am convicted that my kids should spend some time studying Hebrew.
I do not know Hebrew. I was not raised with Hebrew. I did not study Hebrew in college. I was convicted to learn Hebrew after college, when I took my first Hebrew class from an online seminary. Since then I have studied Hebrew in a rather haphazard fashion. With my children I saw an opportunity to instill a love for this holy language at an age when they were so open to learning.
PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS
If a priest in the temple of God did not know the sacrificial law of Moses, if he did not know which part of the lamb belonged to God and which to the priests, and if he did not know even how to read the law of God, what kind of a priest would he be? The law and the prophets were written in the Hebrew language. Today, in seminaries across the nation, prospective pastors are studying Hebrew and Greek in order to better understand the scriptures and communicate them to their congregations. But across the country, fathers, as priests in their own homes, often neglect reading the Bible even in the language of their own children, let alone in the languages God used to communicate with man originally.
Hebrew is the language of the 39 books that comprise the Hebrew Old Testament. Aramaic/Syriac (Syriac/Syrian is the name given to eastern Aramaic) is the language of roughly three chapters in Ezra (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26) and six in Daniel (2:4-7:28). In the Old Testament it is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Chaldee. Aramaic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, and not to be confused with Arabic, another Semitic language now spoken by modern Arabs. Aramaic, being one of the languages of Jesus, and the language of a small portion of the Bible, is also worthy of study, but I have not included any other references to aid in its study (although I may add them at a later date.)
Before the exile, the language of Israel was Hebrew: “Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh [representative of the king of Assyria], ‘Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; and do not speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people who are on the wall.’ But the Rabshakeh said to them, ‘Has my master sent me to your master and to you to speak these words, and not to the men who sit on the wall, who will eat and drink their own waste with you?’ Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out with a loud voice in Hebrew, and spoke, saying, ‘Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria!’” (2 Kings 18:26-28; cf. Is. 36:11-13). When Nehemiah confronted the Jews of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, he says, “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people. So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves’” (Neh. 13:23-25). The “language of Judah,” as we have seen, was Hebrew, and the loss of this language through contact with foreign nations caused Nehemiah great consternation. If Nehemiah were a part of your church, he would pull out our hair upon hearing that we let our Hebrew legacy die! We must not let our children forget the language of Judah!
The New Testament also encourages the study of Hebrew. The Greek word for the Hebrew language, Hebrais, and its variant forms, occur ten times in the New Testament. These occurrences may be divided into those of clarification and those of communication. The passages of clarification give the reader of the New Testament the Hebrew word for geographic features of ancient Palestine, and these are found in John’s Gospel and the Apocalypse. The passages of communication describe an individual speaking or writing in Hebrew, and these are found in Luke and Acts.
John’s passages of clarification seem to be written for those who are not familiar with the Hebrew terms for various locations in Jerusalem. He writes, “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called inHebrew, Bethesda, having five porches” (Jn. 5:2; the emphasis in this and the following passages is mine) It is likely that here, as at 19:13 where he writes, “When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus out and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called The Pavement, but inHebrew, Gabbatha,” and at 19:17, “And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha,” that John is referring to the common language of the Hebrews at the time, namely, Aramaic, another Semitic language (i.e. descended from Noah’s son, Shem) which the people of Israel began to use after their return from the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century before Christ. This was the diplomatic language of both the Assyrian and the Persian empires, and although similar to the Hebrew of the Old Testament, it was clearly distinct from it as shown by 2 Kings 18:26 and Is. 36:11. However, in his Apocalypse, that is, the book of Revelation, John makes the same type of clarification in classical Hebrew, the language of the OT. He says, “And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon” (Rev. 9:11). Also, “And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (Rev. 16:16). Every word of the Bible is inspired by God and is written for a purpose. The Lord wrote the Hebrew meanings of various Greek words and locations in Jerusalem because the Hebrew words themselves were significant. The Jews living in Jerusalem at the time John was writing would have considered Hebrew the holy language of their scriptures, and they would have considered these words as significant. However, they were written primarily to emphasize their importance to the Greek speakers who were unfamiliar with the Hebrew of the Jews. John was showing that the Hebrew for these terms was important to know, even for a Greek (i.e. someone like us who does not know Hebrew.)
At several points in the New Testament, Hebrew is used as a means of communication, although Aramaic would have been the common dialect, Greek the diplomatic language, and Latin the language of the Romans. Nonetheless, the importance of Biblical Hebrew is shown by its use in three instances. One is when Paul preached to the Jews at the temple in Jerusalem. After they tried to kill him and the Roman commander rescued him from the mob, he returned to the crowd and addressed them. The book of Acts says, “So when he [the Roman commander] had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in theHebrew language, saying, ‘Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.’ And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent” (Acts 21:40-22:2). Previously Paul had impressed the commander with his knowledge of Greek, which earned him permission to speak, and when he addressed the crowd, his authority was increased by his use of Hebrew. Of course, this could be a reference to Aramaic, but the Greek here is the word for Hebrew, and Aramaic, being the common language of Jerusalem, probably would not have impressed the crowd as the language of the Hebrew Scriptures would. In fact, Paul’s point here is that he is a good Jew even though he believes in Jesus. He says, “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). Paul speaks to the crowd in the Hebrew of the Scriptures to show that he is a true student of the Torah, one who studied under the great Rabbi Gamaliel himself. Moreover, Paul’s conversion took place when Jesus spoke to him in Hebrew on the road to Damascus, for the Scriptures say, “And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 26:14-15). Jesus spoke to Saul/Paul in Hebrew because this was a language Paul respected, the language of the Law and the Prophets, and Jesus was showing Paul that He was the Lord of the Hebrew Bible. There is unity between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testaments. Both Testaments and languages testify to the truth of Christ. When Pilate mockingly testified to the Christ, he did not know the truth of the inscription he placed on the cross, and he did not know the significance of the languages in which he wrote it. As the gospels of John and Luke testify, “And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38). In these three words the history of the Christian Bible is encapsulated, from Hebrew Old Testament, to Greek Septuagint, to Greek New Testament, to Latin Vulgate. From these sources we trace the development of our own English Bibles.
Christian parents should not ignore the study of Hebrew with their children. It is a sacred study with many rich rewards.