The Language of the Bible

by | Oct 15, 2012 | 2012, Musings | 0 comments

Since 1526 when Tyndale’s NT was printed in English, there have been about 900 English translations of the Bible. That statistic might make some of us think that God actually wrote in English. But of course, that is not true. The Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, with a little Aramaic thrown in and the New Testament was penned in Greek.

I mention the languages of the scriptures because I saw a copy of the Gezer Calendar the other day and it fascinated me. This small piece of limestone (about 4 inches by 3 inches) was actually a student’s science notebook that listed seasons and other agricultural activities. It is currently held in the Istanbul Archeological Museum and it is the oldest example of classic Hebrew that we have.

That language is so interesting. It contains only 22 letters and as a consonantal language, it does not include any vowels. It is written right to left and does not employ any capitals. And, it does not use verb tenses as we know them. Amazingly, I am told that it contains a relatively small vocabulary. The entire classical Hebrew vocabulary would compare with about 25% of Shakespeare’s words. And it would only constitute about 1% of the standard Oxford dictionary of modern English.

I also think it is remarkable that God chose Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT. Hebrew is pictorial in character. Reading the OT is a lot like watching a movie. “Scenes” roll by leaving an impression that evokes the emotion and feeling tone of the situation. Greek on the other hand is a very precise language. It is the language of lawyers. With the doctrines of the NT being so specific, the language needs to have multiple verb tenses and an extensive vocabulary in order to convey the intent of NT theology.

All of which made me think about a specific Hebrew term that you and I ought to consider this week. It is “shalom.” Most of us can quickly assert that this term means “peace.” But the Hebrew language suggests a much fuller interpretation.

In Numbers 6:24-26, Moses is told to speak a blessing upon the children of Israel. It is a comprehensive blessing that covers one’s physical and emotional needs. Literally, the “peace” sought from God is meant to attend to all our complex human needs.

A modern Jew might ask you “Mah shalomkah” but he is asking much more than “how are you doing?” He is asking “How is your well being? Is there peace at the core of your soul?”

Today if you find yourself in a situation that is troubling; consider the encouragement Jesus left us with in John 14. He used that same Hebrew word “shalom” to comfort all our hearts.

“Shalom/Peace I leave with you, my shalom/ peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

By His Grace and for His Glory,
Sherry L. Worel


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