Most people in the Western world are familiar with the Bible. Often times, people have read or at least heard stories from the Bible. But how can you really understand the Bible? Learning how to really understand the Bible is something that anyone, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, can do.
The Hebrew Bible
Another name you’ll see the Hebrew Bible called is the Tanakh. The Tanakh is the holy text used by the Jewish people, just as Christians use the Christian Bible. In fact, if you are already familiar with the Christian Bible, you will recognize many of the books of the Hebrew Bible, as these are the source for the Old Testament.
This Bible is divided into three main sections: the Torah (Teachings), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings).
The Torah is also known as the Five Books of Moses: Bereshit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bemidbar (Numbers), and Devarim (Deuteronomy).
Each of the books in the Nevi’im is named for a prophet and this has three subgroups. The Former Prophets contains Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The Latter Prophets has Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The Twelve Minor Prophets is considered to be one book and contains the teachings of prophets such as Micah, Joel, Amos, and Malachi. The books in the Nevi’im are not in chronological order but they do cover the time period between when the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel up until the when the Kingdom of Judah entered into Babylonian captivity.
The Ketuvim has eleven books. The first are the poetic books, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Next is a series of short books that are read in the synagogue throughout the year, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. The last three are Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The last section is known for being the only one with significant portions written in another semitic language known as Aramaic.
Why Should I Read It?
You now know what the Hebrew Bible is, but why should you read it? The reason is a simple one, really, and that is because translations are often never as good as the original. Whether you are Jewish, Christian, or just somebody who is interested in the Bible as literature, you are missing out on much of the true meaning behind the scriptures.
Reading a translation may lead to you missing connections between words written in the text. For example, the key to understanding the origin of a person or place’s name in the Bible is often found in words that are linked together in the original Hebrew. When reading a translation, you lose the connection, oftentimes a homophonic one, between the words.
The Hebrew Bible also contains a lot of wordplay and poetic language. Much of the words chosen also have a sense of musicality to them that is lost in translation. Two words may be juxtaposed in order to make a play on words due to them having similar roots, but when you read the Bible in English, you don’t see this wordplay.
The words in the Bible came from an oral tradition; they were catchy, exciting to listen to, and easy to remember. The same cannot be said for translations.
Reading a translation can also lead to misinterpretations of the meaning behind a text. Sometimes, there is no easy translation of a word that fully encompasses all that the word means. The way a verse in the Bible is translated may lead to people believing it is about something other than what was intended. Reading the original passages, fully understanding what they are talking about, is the only way to see the true meaning behind the words.
How to Really Understand the Bible to Better Deal With Unsettling Things in It
There is no denying it: you will read things in the Hebrew Bible that you find disturbing or unsettling. You may see things done in the Bible that you consider to be immoral. How do you handle this?
You may or may not be familiar with the story of Abraham. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a test of his faith. Isaac is spared in the end when an angel appears and tells Abraham that he has passed the test and does not have to kill his son. However, some are disturbed by the initial request. How could God ask a man to kill his own son? How could God make such an immoral request?
Whether you are a person of faith or not, the answer is that God is not us. God is not human, nor is he a kind of superhuman figure that is us only better. God is God. By transcending humanity and being something else entirely, what is moral or immoral to us is not something we can attribute to God.
Another way that Jewish people deal with troubling passages in the Bible is by understanding that the course of history has rendered some of the ideas in the scripture out-of-date and relevant. Yes, Exodus does say that a man has the right to sell his daughter, but this is no longer the law of the land. If God is all-knowing, then God knew that certain pieces of scripture would fall out of favor, and since this was allowed to happen, many people do not see it as being a problem.
Overall, a great thing about the Hebrew Bible and about Judaism is that Jewish people are encouraged to question and to seek their own answers. Whatever answer helps you to overcome your own moral dilemmas with the Bible is the right answer for you.
How Hebrews Read the Bible vs. how Christians Read It
The texts in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible are mostly taken from the Hebrew Bible. The first five books of the Old Testament are the same as the five books of the Torah. There are some differences when it comes to the Nevi’im and Ketuvim portions of the Hebrew Bible.
The main difference is that the order of the books is different and some books, such as Ezra–Nehemiah, are split into multiple books in the Christian Old Testament. There are also a few additional books in the Old Testament that are not found in the canonized Hebrew Bible, though many of these were also originally written in Hebrew. The few differences aside, the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Bible are essentially the same.
This begs the question: why do Jewish people and Christian people often have completely different understandings of the Bible, even though they have the same original text?
One reason is because Christians also have the New Testament. Christians often see the Old Testament as being the first part of a story that continues on and reaches its end in the New Testament. The Old Testament shows loss of innocence and original sin, tales of disobedience, disaster, and suffering. The story of Eve eating the apple is a key story.
The Old Testament also lists many rules that Christian do not adhere to, such as the dietary rules that Jewish people continue to follow. The Christian Bible then continues on in the New Testament, where all of this suffering is brought to and end with the birth and eventual death of Jesus Christ. The Messiah saves people, despite any disobedience, and also frees people from many of the rules listed in the Old Testament. For Christians, the Bible is about the salvation of humanity.
The Jewish people do not read the Bible in this way. Eve eating the apple and humanity needing to be saved is not a key theme. Rather, the people and the land play a larger part in the Jewish understanding of the Bible. One of the most important stories is that of Abraham, who is the patriarch of the Nation of Israel.
There is also no overarching theme or story. The Hebrew Bible is a series of stories that provide guidance on how to serve God and live a good life. Salvation is not an important theme and Jewish people do not have an understanding of Heaven as Christians do. The Bible is more about how to live under a covenant with God as the Chosen People.
Learning to Read Hebrew
So you’ve decided to learn Hebrew. Great! There are few things you should know before you begin your study.
The first is that Hebrew is written right-to-left. If you are an English speaker, this is different than what you are used to, as English is written left-to-right. This goes for the text on the page and the entire book itself. If you’ve ever studied other languages that are written this way, like Japanese, you’ll be used to this. Even if you haven’t, you’ll be able to get the hang of reading right-to-left quickly.
The next thing you’ll need to know, if you don’t already, is that the Hebrew alphabet is different than the Latin alphabet used to write languages like English, Spanish, German, etc. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, all of which are consonants because Hebrew was originally written with no vowels.
Hebrew not having vowels is another thing that can trip students up. People who are fluent do not need vowels in order to know how to pronounce the written words. A series of dots and dashes were eventually added to help show the vowels in written Hebrew but you can still expect to see texts, especially Biblical texts, written without any diacritics to mark the vowels.
Where to Learn How to Read Hebrew
Of course, in order to read the Hebrew Bible, one has to know Biblical Hebrew. If you don’t already know the language, a good way to learn it is by taking a course online from the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies. They are partnered with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which is one of the top Biblical institutes in the world.
All the courses are developed by biblical scholars who have years of experience and a deep understanding of the Hebrew language. They offer courses in Biblical languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. They also offer courses in Bible Studies and Jewish Studies. This is a fully online school and students love that they can learn the languages of the Bible from the comfort of their own homes.
How to Really Understand the Bible: Hebrew Language Courses to Take
The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies has five courses in Biblical Hebrew, ranging from beginner to expert. Each course lasts about 9 months and you can expect to spend two hours per week studying. If you need college credit, many of the courses worth 3 credits from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In the first course, you will start off by learning the alphabet. You will also learn the symbols used to mark vowels. You’ll also learn basic word structure and start learning nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. You will use stories like that of the Tower of Babel and passages from Ruth in order to learn.
The second course starts with the story of Jonah. You’ll learn grammatical concepts like the imperative and participles and come to know many of the types of Hebrew verbs. When reading Jonah, you’ll also learn about some of the language used in the story to connect it to other parts of the Hebrew Bible.
In the third course you’ll learn how to use a Hebrew lexicon to look up unfamiliar words. You’ll also read more stories, such as David and Goliath. While reading the stories, you’ll learn more verbs and also go through some lessons that are more focused on explicit grammatical instruction of said verbs.
In the advanced Biblical Hebrew course, you’ll read Biblical poetry. You will learn about concepts like parallelism that are frequently used in the poetic verses and this will help you in your understanding of the Bible when reading it. You’ll learn about other poetic structures like sound pairs and alliteration as well. There are some grammar lessons related to verbs as well.
The expert Biblical Hebrew course includes some history lessons. You’ll learn about the origins of Hebrew, vowel shifts, and go through the different periods of the Hebrew language. You’ll also continue to read stories and poetry, such as the Song of Deborah. This course is less about grammatical lessons and more about using everything you have learned in order to read Biblical texts and have a deeper understanding of them.
Gain a Deeper Understanding
As you can see, learning to read the Hebrew Bible is a vital part of truly understanding the stories and themes found within the Bible. The original text contains language and themes that just aren’t found in many translations. It may require some hard word and dedication but once you learn how to really understand the Bible, you’ll find it all worth it.