Hebrew has to be God’s language

English: A stamp depicting Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,...

English: A stamp depicting Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, reviver of the Hebrew language. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was never inclined to see the King James Version of the bible as infallible nor as St. Paul’s bible, as some are inclined to believe. But, if God spoke to Moses all those words, the conversation would have been in Hebrew.

Anyway, I have always found Hebrew to be most fascinating. I learned biblical Hebrew in seminary but had no idea what modern Hebrew was like. By the way, modern Hebrew speakers make fun of our seminary Hebrew cursive form of writing.

Hearing Hebrew spoken was magical. The first modern Hebrew expression or words I heard and learned was that barukh habah and it instantly became my favorite expression. Not long after, another expression – ani lo yodea became the most useful, as it still is, for many new language learners. (Actually, the first magical word was shalom, but more on that later).

“How do you say, ‘I don’t know?’ in Hebrew?” one ulpan student asked. It is one of those questions everyone wants to ask.

“Ani lo yodea

or simply lo yodea if masculine and ani lo yoda’at or lo yoda’at if feminine”, the teacher answered without enthusiasm. “You must not use the expression in my class”. It is every teacher’s wish, of course.

This masculine and feminine thing in linguistics gets to be a challenge for a Swahili or English speaker. I had dealt with it in my New Testament Greek and in biblical Hebrew studies. It is troublesome mainly because no one has been able to explain the rationale for it, or any governing principles.

How does one determine whether a door, a window, a snake, a rat, a violin or a car is masculine or feminine? “You just have to learn them as you learn your vocabulary. And you should learn the noun with the article”.

Biblical Hebrew is a tough language, bearing in mind that it is dead. Furthermore, the text  is a copy of earlier copies which were, in turn, copies of earlier copies. Meticulous as copying was – and still is if you have noticed the laborious endeavor in Mea Shearim (about that later) – it is still a copy.

It is hard to say what the original was like. Furthermore, it was a language of religion – who knows what the common people spoke? To make matters worse, the vocabulary was in consonants only, there were no vowels. When you think about it, how do you write a sentence with consonants only?

With biblical Hebrew it is possible, the same way that everything is possible, with God.

Biblical scholars have therefore provided vowels for the text, depending on how they wanted to read a specific word or what meaning they thought the context conveyed. We should note that one vowel could render the meaning of a word one way, while a different vowel would render it another way.

I still remember when a Danish exchange student at the seminary wanted to say “God bless you” in Swahili during her farewell speech and intead of “Mungu awabariki” she said, “Mungu awabikiri”. First, the word should not have been uttered in the chapel – if anywhere at all. Secondly, hysterical laughter was uncommon in the chapel, but on that day, even the most solemn burst out in laughter.

Today there is modern Hebrew, thanks to the Zionist Movement of the nineteenth century, and especially to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived the language – or perhaps created it. He is, by right, the father of modern Hebrew.


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