Hebrew as a Tool Language

Our belief in the inspiration of the Bible makes the study of Hebrew particularly signifi­cant.

By H. E. SNIDE, Bible Instructor, Southern Junior College

The Seventh-day Adventists, who have a great work to do for God and but a short time in which to do it, there must be very practical reasons for spending our time in a certain study, whether it be Hebrew or any­thing else. Most foreign languages are studied as tools for use in some other branch of learn­ing. This is also true of Hebrew. A Seventh-day Adventist professor in the field of natural science once said that he had never studied Hebrew because the ground had been so thor­oughly covered that there was nothing new to find. But then his scientific honesty led him to volunteer the information that a friend of his who had recently begun to specialize in Biblical archeology was compelled to study Hebrew as a tool language. "So," the scientist admitted, "perhaps there is some practical value to He­brew after all."

Our belief in the inspiration of the Bible makes the study of Hebrew particularly signifi­cant. We who still believe that God "spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets," surely have every reason for learning exactly what He "spake." The converse is also true, for it is a fact that the rapidly increasing dis­belief of the Scriptures among Protestant theo­logians is definitely weakening their interest in the Biblical languages. As the last legion of the faithful in this faithless generation, we Seventh-day Adventists must grasp the falling torch of Biblical scholarship from the weaken­ing hands of apostasy, and let our light shine forth.

The inroads of infidelity make even standard lexicons unsafe at times, and we must be able to check them against actual Scriptural usage. It is not an unheard-of thing for a reference to be cited as showing the use of a word which is found to be woefully deficient in weight, or even to be capable of an entirely different meaning.

The destructive critics claim that their work can be understood only by those who know the original Biblical tongues. And those who do not read the originals, may, purely as an act of faith, deny the critical assertions, but they are in no position to disprove them. Without some knowledge of Hebrew, it is even impossible to appreciate or to use intelligently the remarkable works of such scholars as E. B. Pusey and Robert Dick Wilson. Doctor Wilson's book, "A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament," is a basic study in fundamentalist apolo­getics; yet the book can hardly be read, much less understood or appreciated, by one who has no knowledge of Hebrew.

Further Reasons Enumerated for Study

Seventh-day Adventists should be supreme in Biblical philology. First, in order to arrive at truth; second, because we have truth. For it is unavoidable that the conclusions of philolo­gists should often be affected by subjective opinions in the field of theology. In all places where the contextual meaning has a part in determining the identity of a word, where the form alone is ambiguous, one's theological ideas necessarily determine one's philological conclusions. In such cases, the purer one's theology, the more correct one's philology is likely to be. Thus, to the extent that Seventh-day Adventists surpass others in true Biblical understanding, they should surpass also in phi­lology wherever the philology is based in part upon subjective theological concepts. Such in­stances are not rare.

It may be a question of Kal (noncausative) or Hiphil (causative) in a pe-gutteral, lamed-he verb (71'.?;.0), where, in such forms as ',r.1 the spelling of both Kal and Hiphil is identical and the only determining factor is the context. (See Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, by Davidson. section 24, remark 16.) Accord­ing to "The Hebraist's Vade Mecum," this one ambiguous form occurs more than eighty times in the Old Testament. Or it may be a question of from which root a word comes, or it may be any one of many questions which are more likely to be decided aright by one who is theologically sound. Not only do Seventh-day Adventists need trained philologists, but phi­lology needs trained Seventh-day Adventists. In this, as in other things, we ought to be the head and not the tail.

It is not sufficient to depend" altogether on a lexicon. Our knowledge of the language should be adequate to enable us to check the accuracy of the lexicon if need be. Proofreaders are still fallible, and lexicons are certain to contain typographical errors. We should be able to detect them. A student at our Theological Seminary this summer reported seven such errors in "Bagster's Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon," which he found while read­ing the book of Genesis.

A woman who was in the habit of deciding on her own medicines for various real or fancied ailments, was taken to task by her physician. "But," she said, "I have a big doctor book that tells just what to take, and the dose and everything." "Yes," replied the doctor, "but some day you will die of a mis­print." We ought to know enough Hebrew not to "die of a misprint."

One of the most noticeable blessings one gains from the study of a Biblical language is the enrichment of the Scriptures, not only for didactic purposes, but for private devotional reading. Any translation is a dilution. There are shades of meaning and connotations of words which are untranslatable, and which therefore are necessarily lost in translation. In Hebrew, for instance, the intensive force of the piel and the pual is usually lost in trans­lation, and the causative idea in the hiphil and the hophal is often lost.

For example, in Genesis 32:28 where the reason is given for changing Jacob's name to Israel, the angel says, "For as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.", In the Hebrew, "and hast prevailed" is (see PDF for the Hebrew text), the hophal form, causative, passive; literally "and thou wast caused to prevail." When we recall Jacob's unregenerate and futile efforts to prevail through his own strength, and when we realize that his final triumph lay in abandoning self-assertion and relying upon the Infinite, then we find a remarkable reflection of truth in the hophal form: not "thou hast prevailed" by thine own might and prowess, as the English translation would imply, but from the Hebrew, "thou wast caused to prevail" by that eternal Power on which thou hast learned to rely. Similar ex­amples could be multiplied indefinitely.

Another advantage of a knowledge of He­brew is the added confidence it gives in expounding the Scriptures. If one has ever suffered the experience of preaching from a text as given in translation, only to be informed later that the meaning in the original would in no wise sustain the point emphasized, then he will appreciate the sense of safety and security that comes from the ability to consult the original for himself. Although one need not and should not often refer publicly to the original, yet occasionally such reference is in place, pro­vided it is not too technical and confusing.

And it is certain to become known among those for whom one labors that the pastor or the president or the Bible teacher can read He­brew, and this will add to their confidence in their minister.

Against all these advantages, the only dis­advantage that can well be imagined is the difficulty of the language. This difficulty is partly real and partly imaginary. Such diffi­culty as there is has been grossly exaggerated.

After taking two summers of Hebrew at the seminary, a student said he believed that with the same effort put forth in study, one could more quickly become able to read Hebrew than Greek, and that is probably true. Students should not be frightened with stories of the great difficulty of Biblical languages. To get a good grade in Greek or Hebrew, a student need study no harder than he would to get the same grade in French or German. Even though the ancient languages are intrinsically more difficult, yet no more hard labor is re­quired of a student for a year's work than for a modern language. The difference is that at the end of his course he may not have mastered the language quite so well.

The Biblical languages are the most practical languages that can be studied by a Seventh-day Adventist. Most of those who study Spanish, French, or German, never use those languages when their school days are over. But a knowl­edge of Biblical languages is a daily lifelong delight in the devotional reading of the Scrip­tures, in studying Sabbath school lessons and Morning Watch texts, and in preparation for giving the third angel's message to others.

The statements in the Spirit of prophecy dis­couraging the study of ancient languages will be seen, if read thoughtfully, to apply to the study of the old pagan classical literature, and do not refer to proper study of the Holy Scrip­tures in their original tongue. Our young peo­ple spend from two to eight years learning one or more foreign languages, only to abandon their knowledge unused. If the same effort were expended on Biblical languages, there would be gained in the process a profound and accurate knowledge of Scripture, and there would be acquired a tool for, the further study of Scripture—a tool which could ever be used to the glory of God.


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By H. E. SNIDE, Bible Instructor, Southern Junior College

September 1939

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