Thursday, March 18, 2010

“Why Should I Study Hebrew?” Answered!

The Scenario

Consider one example of why the study of Hebrew can save your image as a Bible teacher and possibly your Bible study group. Imagine yourself leading the home Bible study with members of your church and you ask someone to read Hosea 7:13:

Woe unto them! for they have fled from me: destruction unto them! because they have transgressed against me: though I have redeemed them, yet they have spoken lies against me” (King James Version, KJV).


All is well until someone else notes that instead of reading though I have redeemed them (KJV), his New International Version (NIV) reads I long to redeem them. Then another member adds to the developing confusion, “Why does my version say ‘I would redeem them’” (New American Standard Bible, NASB)? It becomes instantly clear that you, the study leader, are asked to arbitrate between these different readings since the interpretation of this verse affects (1) the temporal context for the passage, (2) the interpretations attached to the differing times communicated by the versions, and (3) a practical application of the passage to those present.

The Solution

If you have a working grasp of Hebrew grammar and syntax you realize that the first issue involves the grammatical form and the meaning of the imperfect aspect of the word translated “redeem” (אֶפְדֵּם). The English past tense reading of the KJV reflects a Hebrew preterite, the imperfect verb form with the conjunction attached (technically called the waw consecutive) that focuses the time on the past. However, The Hebrew text does not contain this conjunction and therefore a modal aspect expressing the mood of the verb agrees better with the grammar, whether a mood of a desire as seen in the NIV or of a condition as found in the NASB. (For a brief review of the syntax and other options see Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 2nd edition, 33-34.)

The interpretation issue flows from the grammar and syntax analysis. The preterite reading of the text (KJV) refers the verse to the past salvation experience of Israel at the Red Sea. On the other hand, a modal translation reflects Israel’s present and future opportunity for God’s deliverance if they meet His requirements (NIV or NASB). In this latter sense, the verb פדה backs away from the soteriological (salvation-oriented) idea of “redeem” to the more general idea of “deliverance” (see Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 289).

Finally, a practical application you could present your group relates to the existing life situations instead of the past. God’s desire and ability to save from distressful circumstances should motivate one to be obedient to His requirements. You thus justify the NIV and NASB in this passage.

Of course, all of this depends upon your ability to read and interpret the Bible from the standpoint of the Hebrew text. Without this ability, you and your Bible study members float aimlessly on a sea of speculation and confusion. Unfortunately, you will not be alone!