In Genesis 12:1, God commanded Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. It is because of the call of Abram (Abraham) to the land of Canaan that nearly all the Old Testament (except 268 verses) was written in the Hebrew language. Abraham’s native tongue, in “Ur of the Chaldees,” was certainly not Hebrew. Abraham probably spoke multiple major languages of the Ancient Near East; for details, see my post on Ur of the Chaldees. Abraham did not begin his life among Canaanites, but he was called by God to leave his homeland and move to the land of Canaan. There were several closely related dialects of the ancient Canaanite language, one of which was Hebrew.[1] Because Hebrew was the language of Canaan, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their sons adopted this language as their own. Their land was Canaan, not Mesopotamia or Egypt. When the Hebrews settled in Goshen, they purposefully retained the Canaanite language, and were able to do so because they lived in separation from the Egyptians. As God gave His Word to Abraham’s chosen seed in Jacob, He gave it in their language, which was Canaan’s language. Thus, it is ultimately because of God’s call to Abraham that nearly all biblical revelation before the coming Christ was written in Hebrew.

The name “Hebrew” is not used in the Old Testament to describe Israel’s language. What we call “Hebrew” is called “Jewish” (יְהוּדִי) six times in the Old Testament (2 Kgs 18:26, 28; 2 Chr 32:18; Neh 13:24; Isa 36:11, 13). In the New Testament, “Hebrew” (Ἑβραΐς or Ἑβραϊστί) is normally used to refer to Aramaic, but twice designates the language we today call Hebrew (Rev 9:11; 16:16).

Hebrew is an offshoot of the Proto-Semitic tongue that was probably the language spoken by Adam. The form of Semitic preserved in the Hebrew tongue[2] includes such features as the following: (1) As with other Semitic languages, Hebrew features a basic three-letter (triliteral) consonantal root for each word. (2) This triliteral root system allowed Hebrew to be written in a consonantal script, without vowels, accents or punctuation. Unlike Greek, however, Hebrew has always marked word divisions (by spaces, dots, or vertical lines). (3) Hebrew is a highly inflected language; that is, various forms of verbs, nouns, and adjectives are formed by internal changes to the basic consonantal form of the word, such as by altering vowels, doubling consonants, or adding prefixes, suffixes, or infixes. (4) There are few parts of speech; most concepts are expressed merely through the use of nouns and verbs. Nouns in construct often substitute for adjectives (e.g., “worthless men” are called “sons of worthlessness”). Prepositions and conjunctions are used frequently, of course, but a very limited number are used for a wide range of English ones. (5) As in all Semitic languages, Hebrew has a number of frequently occurring gutteral sounds and emphatic consonants. Many of these sounds are eliminated in modern Hebrew, which is influenced by the sounds of the German language. (6) Biblical Hebrew has only two verb tenses, perfect and imperfect. (7) All Semitic languages once had three numbers for verbs, nouns, and adjectives (singular, dual, and plural) and two genders (masculine and feminine). The dual form is latent in biblical Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew remained incredibly uniform and stable throughout the thousand years from Moses to Malachi. There are only subtle variations in writing style, grammar, and vocabulary in the corpus of biblical Hebrew. This is quite different from the New Testament, wherein each author has a very distinctive writing style and grammatical peculiarities. The lack of variation among Hebrew writers occurs because Semitic grammar and idiom tend to be more rigidly fixed than in other language families.

The Hebrew language is beautiful, and rich in metaphor. Like other Semitic languages, Hebrew has a relatively simple vocabulary, and likes to use body parts or other concrete terms to express abstract concepts that English speakers would communicate using adjectival or adverbial modifiers or technical terms. This adds much color to the language and communicates graphic pictures, allowing the reader to form a more concrete idea of the actions described. For example, a variety of organs are used to refer to one’s innermost person: “heart,” “kidneys,” “liver,” and “bowels.” Where English would use the word “stubborn,” Hebrew would say “hard of neck.” Where English would say “with tremendous power,” Hebrew might say “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” For “settled,” Hebrew could have “pitched his tent”; for “looked up,” “lifted up his eyes”; for “miserable,” “bitter of soul”; for “before,” “to the face of”; for “burned up,” “burnt with fire”; for “killed,” “smote with the mouth (edge) of the sword”; for “the Israelites,” “the sons of Israel”; for “she irritated her,” “she caused her to thunder” (1 Sam 1:6); for “left,” “lifted up his feet” or “took his journey” or “went forth”; for “by means of,” “by the hand of,” etc. Many Hebrew idioms are altered to a more “English” form of expression in Bible translations, especially modern ones—but at the loss of the richness of the language. However, some Hebraisms have actually become English idioms through their translation in the King James Version (e.g., “the skin of my teeth,” Job 19:20). Hebrew is actually a very easy language to translate literally because of its simple vocabulary and forms of expression. Few words and expressions cannot be given an exact equivalent in the receptor language. Ironically, it is much more difficult to make a “dynamic equivalent” translation of the Old Testament than it is to make a literal translation. When the Old Testament is translated literally, there is very little loss of meaning, style, or rhythm from the original Hebrew.

It should be noted that Greek and Hebrew have exactly the same communicative capabilities. Some have claimed that Greek is a superior language, meaning that it can express concepts which Hebrew cannot. This is simply not the case. There is no New Testament theological concept that cannot be communicated in the Hebrew language. Also, there is nothing about the characteristics of the Hebrew language that creates a “Hebrew mind” which thinks differently from the “Greek mind.” Jesus and most of the apostles, including Paul, probably grew up speaking both Greek and Aramaic (and possibly Hebrew), yet had only one worldview and one way of thinking.

Four thousand years ago, God called Abraham out of his native country, and into a land of promise. Because of this, almost all of biblical revelation before Christ was written in the language of the Promised Land. This is the reason why Bible scholars devote so much time and energy to studying the Hebrew language, even though the number of surviving extrabiblical Hebrew texts from the Old Testament period is miniscule in comparison with the corpus of extant texts in such languages as Egyptian, Ugaritic, Hittite, and Akkadian. Unlike Aramaic and Greek, which had universal appeal, Hebrew was a very localized language, a tongue that was spoken only in Canaan—yet its importance far transcends the limited size of that land. The reason? Hebrew is the language of the Promised Land.

The following facts about Hebrew may help an English reader understand the Old Testament text more fully:

  • Hebrew typically uses the same word for “and” and “but”; the translation of this word is the decision of the translator. The word “and” can be given a variety of other translations, such as “now,” “then,” “so,” etc.
  • Names that end in “-iah” in English represent Hebrew “-yahu” or “-yah,” which are short forms of “Yahweh” (the LORD). Thus, the last name of Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu, is “Nethaniah” in the English Bible.
  • The Hebrew word הַר can mean “mountain,” “hill,” or “hill-country.” Often translations use the word “mountain” where “hill” or “hill-country” is preferable.
  • Hebrew uses the same word for moral evil and general calamity (רַע). Older Bible translations often spoke of God bringing “evil” upon a nation, whereas newer translations usually use a word such as “calamity.”
  • “Heart” = “mind” in Hebrew; the same word is used for both (לֵבָב or לֵב), though sometimes words for other internal organs are translated as “heart” in English. This is in contrast to the English way of thinking, in which the heart and mind are thought to be totally distinct and sometimes opposed. On more than one occasion I have heard preachers make the point that the Bible uses the word “heart” in an Old Testament passage, rather than “mind,” but this is an exegetical mistake based on a lack of knowledge of the Hebrew language.

[1] We know that Hebrew is a Canaanite language because we have a written record of Phoenician and Moabite, and we can see that they are very close to Hebrew (especially Moabite). Ammonite and Edomite are preserved only in fragments, but appear to use a Canaanite script, vocabulary, and grammar. It is interesting that Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite are very closely related to Hebrew, since Ammon, Moab, and Edom are countries that were populated by Abraham’s descendants or relatives. There is also evidence within the Hebrew language that it was a Canaanite tongue: the Hebrew word for “west” is “Sea” (יָם), referring to the Mediterranean, while the word for “south” is “Negev” (נֶגֶב), referring to the desert area south of Beersheba.

Further evidence that Hebrew was the language of Canaan comes from Isaiah 19:18, which apparently calls Hebrew “the language of Canaan.” Egypt and Mesopotamian countries are represented as lands of strange tongues (Deut 28:49; Psa 81:5; 114:1; Isa 28:11; Jer 5:15), whereas the lands of Philistia, Canaan, Edom, Moab, and Ammon are never represented as such. Without exception, Israelites were able to freely converse with Canaanites without an interpreter, whereas this was not the case with other nations (cf. Gen 42:23; 2 Kgs 18:26).

[2] All Semitic languages are closely linked in a way that Indo-European languages are not. Thus, Hebrew is similar to such languages as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Arabic, Amharic, and Akkadian. However, it is closer to, say, Aramaic than it is to Akkadian. Also, modern Hebrew is closer to biblical Hebrew than modern Greek is to biblical Greek, though there are important differences.