Why Study Hebrew Words?

Introduction

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In Answers magazine (Vol. 8, no. 2) Don Landis, founding chairman of the board for Answers in Genesis–USA, wrote an article entitled “Meaningful Words,” in which he posits that “perhaps the most basic principle of proper hermeneutics is to understand what the words themselves mean.”1 He continues with the following:

This step may seem obvious, but it is critical to those of us who hold to a literal, historical, contextual and grammatical interpretation of Scripture. Every single word was inspired and chosen by the Holy Spirit . . . . God guided the biblical writers to give us the exact words He wanted in the original manuscripts . . . . Our English Bibles are translations of copies of the originals. Nuances can be lost in the transmission process, and meanings of words can change over time. So it is important to study diligently what each word means. (emphasis added)

This is true for all of us, whether theologians, full-time ministers, pastors, Bible teachers, Sunday School teachers, home-educators, parents . . . indeed any disciples of Jesus. We all need, and hopefully desire, to get the clearest possible understanding of what the Word of God means. And, as Don Landis correctly points out, in order to do this “we must first know what the words mean.”

Paul wrote to Timothy,

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)

This “Scripture” of which he speaks—Timothy’s Bible, Paul’s Bible, and Jesus’ Bible—is the Hebrew Old Testament. Now, of course, since the end of the first century the Church has also rightly included the New Testament in the canon of inspired Scripture.

But we must not overlook the key fact that Jesus’ and Paul’s and Timothy’s understanding of Biblical concepts such as “love” and “truth,” come from the underlying Hebrew words found in the Old Testament. For instance, when the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament quote Jesus and Paul using the term ἔλεος (éleos), meaning “pity, mercy, compassion,” they would probably have in mind the rich Hebrew term חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), which incorporates love, mercy, kindness, goodness, grace, and loyalty.2

This is why Hebrew word studies can be so valuable. They can help us to better understand not only the individual words of the Old Testament, but also the background to the truths conveyed in the New Testament, which often rely on Old Testament texts or concepts. Of course, this does not mean that knowing Hebrew and Greek is necessary for Christian maturity, nor is it a guarantee for reaching a correct interpretation of the Scriptures. But for the Christian who desires to grow in knowledge of the Word of God, Hebrew word studies can be effective tools, assisting us to clarify, modify, and enrich our understanding.

It is hoped that in these series of studies we will gain a fuller understanding of key scriptural concepts, which can strengthen our stand for biblical authority in a secular world. It is also our desire that we will gain a fresh perspective of the message of the gospel, wonderfully conveyed in the rich truths of God’s inspired and dependable words.

Footnotes

  1. Don Landis defines hermeneutics as “reading and interpreting the Bible correctly.”
  2. We can be reasonably confident of this, because of the choice of Greek words used in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. ἔλεος (éleos) is by far the most common way in which the Septuagint renders the Hebrew word חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ). Furthermore, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament we can check to see which Greek words have been used to translate the Hebrew passage. For example, in Matthew 9:13 it is recorded that Jesus told the Pharisees to learn that God desires ἔλεος (éleos), “mercy,” not sacrifice. Jesus is most likely thinking of חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) here because He is quoting from Hosea 6:6 where the Hebrew word used for “mercy” is חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ). And indeed the Septuagint translation of חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) in Hosea 6:6 is ἔλεος (éleos).

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