Here is a challenging essay, written long ago by several Talbot professors, about the importance of reading the Old Testament in the original language. Two of the authors are retired (one to glory). The third, Dr. Tom Finley, is still with us. Some things never change — like the significance of Hebrew for sound OT exegesis. Some things, however, do change. Please note that the article was written for the Talbot Bulletin in the fall of 1979, before sensitivity to issues of culture and gender became part of the literary landscape. Caveat lector.
It is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in Christendom how low an estimate most churchgoers have of the Old Testament. It is felt, even when not expressed, that the Old Testament has been outdated and superseded totally by the New Testament. Add to this the traditional jocular manner in which seminarians speak of the study of the Old Testament in Hebrew, and it is not surprising how little the message of three-fourths of the Bible is understood. The general conception is that the message of the Old Testament can be adequately comprehended from the English translation. Imagine studying Shakespeare in Chinese!
There are compelling reasons why the serious student of the Word of God must come to grips with the Hebrew Old Testament. First, in our day of renewed discussion of the inerrancy of the Scriptures, it is imperative that the man of God who would speak with authority on the subject must base his arguments squarely on the original. Does any knowledgeable student of the Bible contend for the inerrancy of the English text? He would be laughed out of court. As in Reformation days when biblical doctrine was being re-forged in the heat of serious debate, the defender of the inerrancy of Scripture must speak from acquaintance with Hebrew.
Second, it must be emphasized again that destructive higher critical activity began with the Old Testament. Can anyone presume to believe that the counterattack can be lodged from anything less than constant recourse to the original? Imagine trying to refute Wellhausen and his camp from the vantage point of the English text.
Third, strong theological institutions and pulpit ministries are built on solid Old Testament foundations. Witness the seminaries across our land which are faithful to the Word, and you will find they stand solidly on the premise of the validity of the Old Testament Hebrew. On the other hand, view those who have veered from their moorings; is it not patent that they have long since abandoned the authority of the Hebrew Old Testament?
Fourth, the proliferating sects throughout the world are notorious for their misuse of the Hebrew Old Testament. Test it out on the matter of the purpose of the Law of Moses, the validity of monogamy, the curse of perversion, the second coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the earthly chosen people of God, the norms for scriptural expectation of physical healing and others.
Fifth, consensus indicates that the Apocrypha were admitted into the canon when Hebrew was so little known to guide as to the limits of the Old Testament canon. Has this not been a costly price to pay for neglect of the original Hebrew?
Sixth, a last ditch argument against study of Hebrew is that we have today so many fine translations in English. How do you determine which are fine and which are poor? On what basis do you distinguish between a paraphrase and a translation, or between a literal and a free translation?
Only the original Hebrew can lead in these vital areas.
Early in his training every seminarian must determine whether he is to be a voice for God or a mere echo. The difference is in the knowledge of the Word of God in the original language. Respect for the authority of God's inerrant word leads to an interest in penetrating as far as possible into its meaning. Word study is one area in which the student who can work with the original Hebrew is able to advance beyond the student who is limited to translations. It is rare that a one-to-one correspondence between a Hebrew term and its English translation can be found. Often the Hebrew will represent reality from a different perspective. Further, there are many nuances which can be discerned only by study in the original Hebrew. The careful exegete will examine a given word in many contexts to determine its precise meaning.
The vocabulary differences between languages are obvious. Less obvious, but in some ways even more important, are grammatical differences. People often think that the grammar of their own language is the only logical way to say something, but the structures of languages may differ significantly. It may seem surprising that the Hebrew verb has only two so-called "tenses." Actually the primary opposition is not in relation to time but in relation to the speaker's view of the action as complete or incomplete. The advanced Hebrew student learns the intricacies of a system which seems simple on the surface. Great care is required to understand something so seemingly obvious as the relationships between verbs within a passage.
One final area where Hebrew is a valuable exegetical tool is the study of literary features. Because a large portion of the Old Testament is in poetry the need to know the original language is even more acute than for the New Testament. Poetic features are notoriously difficult to translate. The Hebrews loved expressions which were striking to the ear and balanced in meaning and form. Only the student of the Hebrew Bible can appreciate fully the sample power of the statement, "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." The translation requires nine words to express the four short Hebrew words.
The message of the bumper sticker, "If you think education is expensive, you should price ignorance!" is apropos to the use of Hebrew in preaching. The preacher who can mine the riches of the Hebrew Bible in exegesis has an incalculable advantage. However, it is one thing to be able to study the lexical and syntactical details in his study but quite another thing to present the truth he has learned from his pulpit.
Some have been turned away from use of Hebrew in preaching because they have seen misuse of it. The pulpit is no place to parade technical jargon in order to impress the people with the expertise of the preacher. Rather, the preacher must use Hebrew in order to enhance appreciation of and confidence in good translations made by godly men.
Expository preaching has been the catalyst for every great revival in the history of Christianity. The basis for expository preaching has ever been and must ever be based on study of the Bible in the original. The preacher must not neglect the Hebrew; he must never treat the Bible as if it were written in English. He must preach with authority, and this authority must reside in his own certainty of what the Holy Scripture says. There is no way to gain such certainty without the study of God's Word in the original languages. A preacher who profits from such consultation finds transformation in his message indeed; he finds transformation in his life and in the life of his congregation!
This article originally appeared in the Talbot Bulletin in 1979 and was co-written by Dr. Charles Feinberg, Dr. Thomas Finley, and Dr. Richard Rigsby.