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Tuesday, October 6, 2015


With my pastor's direction and instruction I have begun studying Biblical Hebrew. I have found language, and learning foreign languages, very fascinating since I was young. I can't claim to be fluently bilingual yet or anything like that, but I thoroughly enjoyed several years of Spanish in high school, and even enjoyed tinkering a tiny bit with Arabic and with New Testament Greek. But I intend to make a fairly thorough, ongoing study of Biblical Hebrew for the sake of biblical and theological studies. There's really no way to become conversant in advanced theological material without getting to know the original languages, so Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, here I come!

I want to share some thoughts I have had recently related to the original language of the Bible, specifically Hebrew. I also want to share some thoughts eventually regarding my experience trying to learn the language. But that will probably be another post. In this post I want to reflect on and give my opinion about the question of whether ancient Hebrew should be regarded as intrinsically uniquely or "mystically" privileged, in light of its use by God in the inspiration of the Old Testament Scriptures.

My answer in brief is that I do not believe it is intrinsically privileged, in its ability to be used by God to communicate truth about Himself or about the world, or as a "more direct route" to eternal truth than translations of it. Let me give a couple of reasons why I don't think this is the case.

1) As I defended in my previous post, God, in order to relate Himself to creatures and successfully reveal His character to us, has "condescended" in creation, providence, and especially in covenant relationship, taking upon Himself ad extra attributes of His creation without sacrificing His essential deity (quintessentially in Christ's taking on a human nature without ceasing to be the eternal and divine Son of God). Nothing in created reality is identical with God's essential divine character, because it could never be; it is limited, finite, historical, and in flux, while He is unlimited, infinite, unbound by time, and "unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth" (WSC). Therefore in order to relate with and communicate to mere creatures, God has "stooped," "lisping" as a mother to her children (as Calvin expressed it), in ways that we can comprehend.

The expressions of God to us in limited human language are not untrue, but are given for us as creatures to know in a dependent, reflective way as divine image-bearers. Moreover, the things God tells us about Himself in limited human language are in fact literally true of God in terms of His voluntary condescension to relate with us; they simply do not convey comprehensively His infinite majesty--and we could not comprehend such if they did! God's knowledge and being are original and infinite; our knowledge is derivative and image-like; and God establishes the connection fully by "coming down" to us to literally fit our "image" categories--just without abandoning the fuller realities of His infinite divine nature!

Christ is, as always, the ultimate example. Let's focus on the idea of human language as we consider Christ. The eternal Son of God, with no vocal chords or birth into a particular human family speaking a certain language in eternity past, nevertheless took on human flesh, was born of the virgin Mary in 1st century Palestine, and grew up speaking likely both Aramaic and Greek, and knowing some ancient Hebrew as well. At such point He was not emptied of His mysterious, divine communication with the Father in some heavenly "language" unknown to us (see how our language is stretched to the breaking point here!); rather He added to Himself, contingently, the human realities of cultural and linguistic situatedness.

It seems to me no different with the condescension of the "angel of the LORD" in the oldest recorded redemptive history, or in the inspiration and inscripturation of the Old Testament in (mostly) Hebrew. God made use of human-historical realities (by His plan, of course, not haphazardly) and by His infinite wisdom and power "translated" the eternal truths we needed to know in such a fashion that the ancient Israelites were able to apprehend them sufficiently to believe and obey.

2) The empirical failure of the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--the linguistic theory that language fully limits and determines cognitive categories--in studies since the 1980's shows that language should not be understood as a mental "straight jacket." The importance of this for the question under consideration is just to underline the fact that even in human terms God was not "restricted" to the use of the Hebrew language in order to convey the meaning of the truths He desired to communicate. In theory other languages could have been fully adequate for the expression of His will. This is also a strong theological-linguistic justification of Bible translation (as if a missional impulse weren't enough in itself).

I do want to make one clarification, though. In terms of our Reformed confession of inerrancy, the doctrine applies strictly only to the original manuscripts, in the original languages (see WCF 1.8). Derivatively, all faithful transmissions and translations of those lost autographs are also inerrant. But what of this technical distinction in light of everything I've said above denying the intrinsic uniqueness of Hebrew as a divine means of communication?

First, I think there is a major distinction between the ability of God to communicate effectively to human beings through different languages, and the fact that God inspired the Old Testament in mostly ancient Hebrew. While Hebrew has no intrinsic divine uniqueness, there is a sense in which it has received a kind of divine privilege in being used in Holy Scripture.

I don't mean that people who used to go around speaking that language sounded more beautiful than others because they spoke it, or were understood more clearly, or that the words "tasted" better on their lips. What I mean is simply that because God as a matter of fact chose to inspire the Hebrew Scriptures in the ancient Hebrew tongue, the semantic range of the Hebrew wordings and cognitive categories of the syntax and grammar have unique authority in our biblical interpretation and therefore should have an effect on the whole of our worldview.

This becomes a bit of a balancing counterpoint to the point above about the propriety and sufficiency of translations of Scripture into other languages. If the final court of appeals is always to the original manuscripts in the original languages, so far as we can reconstruct them (quite far), and if semantic ranges and syntactic/grammatical thought patterns always differ in some degree between languages (and they do), then all the world must in some sense become, to a certain degree cognitively "Hebraicized!" And pastors of new churches all over the world should eventually, if possible, become at least somewhat familiar with the original languages so that they can teach the Word of God as accurately as possible.

None of this threatens the (godly aspects of) unique cultural trappings of various people groups in terms of the way in which they express the faith. If God overcame the divine-human, subject-object barrier by "translating" Himself into "image" without sacrificing His essential "I AM" nature, various human cultures need not abandon their unique cultural-linguistic heritage whole-sale in adopting the uniquely privileged (extrinsically, by God's decree) categories of biblical Hebrew thought!

This reminds me of the statement of Jesus that "Salvation is from the Jews" in John 4, and Paul's assertion that the "oracles of God" (speaking specifically of the OT Scriptures and covenant-historical privileges) belong to Israel. As it is God's character to do, in bringing diverse things together, glorifying Himself by imaging the Trinitarian nature of His eternal existence, He is able to bring not only divine and human "language" together and reveal Himself, but also to, by the Spirit, unite peoples of diverse human languages together in the language of mutual love and service.

The redemptive-historical solution to the Tower of Babel "scattering-judgment" was not the reduction of human languages back to one language, but rather the ingathering of the people of God and the filling of them with the Spirit on Pentecost, to speak in diverse languages, though united in Christ.

Likewise the Messiah came as a 1st century 2nd-Temple Jew, and yet peoples from every ethnic background are called into His fellowship. And these people must learn certain aspects of ancient Jewish faith (namely, the principles of the OT).

Praise the God of the One and Many!