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Shavua Tov

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  • Daniel Botkin

Just Enough Hebrew to be Dangerous


I have said it before and I say it again: You do not need to know Hebrew (or Greek or Aramaic) to have a close walk with the Lord and to bear the fruit of the Spirit. You can be victorious and fruitful and full of the Holy Ghost without knowing a single word of Hebrew. Although it might be helpful to know a few Hebrew words like Amen, Abba, Hallelujah and Hosanna.

If you know Hebrew it can help you delve deeper into the study of some topics, so if you have an opportunity to learn some Hebrew, I highly recommend it. But a knowledge of Hebrew is not needed for a close walk with the Lord. You can even be a good Bible teacher without knowing Hebrew, if you avoid teaching on certain topics that require a knowledge of Hebrew.

When I was a new disciple in the early 1970s, I didn't know any believers who wanted to study the Hebrew language. The Christians I knew were satisfied just reading the KJV translation of the Bible. The few who did express some interest in Hebrew were satisfied just looking up an occasional Hebrew word in the lexicon of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. Even then, they usually just looked up a word for the sake of a literal definition, with no other interest except the definition.

The rise of the Messianic Jewish Movement in the 1970s and 80s caught the attention of many non-Jewish believers. The Messianic Movement has grown and expanded over the past few decades, and now there are lots of believers who have an interest in Hebrew. They are not satisfied with just the small amount of Hebrew they can learn by looking up definitions in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. This is good, because the amount of Hebrew you can learn from Strong's is minimal.

I am not criticizing Strong's nor minimizing its importance. I believe it is one of the most helpful study tools in existence, perhaps the very best tool in the world for English-speaking students of the Bible. In the mid-1970s I used my Strong's Concordance to teach myself the Hebrew alphabet and vowel marks. After I memorized these, I would practice "reading" by randomly turning to a page in the Hebrew lexicon, covering the English transliteration of a word, and trying to pronounce it. Then I would look at the transliteration to see if I had pronounced it correctly. Thus I taught myself to "read" Hebrew before I ever went to Israel. (I put "read" in quotes because without looking at the definition, I could understand only the pronunciation of the words, not their meanings.)

Strong's is a great study tool, but it cannot teach you the Hebrew language. All it can do for your Hebrew learning is teach you how to pronounce words, give you literal definitions, show you which words are primary roots and which primary root the non-primary-root words are derived from, and the different ways each word is translated into English in the Bible. Strong's cannot teach you how to understand and use the Hebrew prefixes, suffixes, and infixes that are added to words to indicate things like gender, person, number, case, and tense. It cannot teach you things like conjugation of verbs, sentence structure, idioms, and linguistic phenomena that are peculiar to the Hebrew language and do not exist in English.

If you want to seriously study the Scriptures, I strongly suggest that you use a Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. Learn to use the Hebrew and Greek lexicons, but realize the limitations. Be aware that when Strong's shows you a Hebrew verb, you are seeing only the letters that make up the root (sometimes called the radical) of the verb. You are not seeing the verb in all its possible forms, with its prefixes, suffixes, and infixes. The same is true of nouns, adjectives, and prepositions. If you are not aware of this, you can come to erroneous conclusions.

An example of an erroneous conclusion is the true story of two guys who opened a Christian bookstore. They wanted to call it "Believers' Book Store," but they wanted to use the Hebrew word for "Believers." They looked up the Hebrew word for "believe" in Strong's and saw that it is pronounced aman. So they called their store "Aman Book Store." A knowledgeable Hebrew scholar saw the sign and asked them why they called their store the "Aman Book Store."

"Because it's the Believers' Book Store," they answered. "The word aman means 'believers' in Hebrew."

They were probably thinking to themselves, This man is a Hebrew scholar? He should know that!

What these well-meaning Christians did not know is that aman is just the three-letter root of the verb "believe." The word for the plural noun "believers" is ma'aminim, and to make it possessive you would need to add the prefex l' and make it say "book store for believers."

This sort of erroneous conclusion is relatively harmless. It won't mislead anyone into serious doctrinal error. A mistake like this might embarrass people and set them back a few dollars for a new sign and new business cards, but it's nothing dangerous.

Other erroneous conclusions can affect people in more serious ways. Some erroneous conclusions can infect people with what I call Linguistic Superstition. Some people become familiar with several Hebrew words. They do not understand how the Hebrew language works. They do not know the rules that govern grammar, morphology, orthography, sentence structure, etc. But they have a long list of vocabulary words that they know. They also know that certain words are derived from other words. They see (or sometimes imagine) linguistic connections between certain words.

At this point, they know just enough Hebrew to be dangerous. Because they see some alleged connections between certain words, they jump to erroneous conclusions. They learn that sus means "horse," and from this they conclude that calling the Savior "Jesus" amounts to calling Him a horse. (I'm not making this up, by the way.) I tell such people, "Yes, sus means 'horse.' And shoe means 'shoe.' So if calling Him 'Jesus' amounts to calling Him a horse, then calling Him 'Yeshua' amounts to calling Him a shoe."

Or they imagine that "Jesus" (transliterated from the Greek Ieusous) has some connection to the Greek god Zeus, and that "wicked scribes" changed the Savior's name to "Jezeus" to honor Zeus. (I'm not making this one up, either.) I tell such people that if they look at the Book of Joshua in a Greek Septuagint, they will see that Jews transliterated Joshua's Hebrew name (which is the same Hebrew name the Savior had) as Iesous, the same as the New Testament Iesous/Jesus. This was around 200 years before the Savior was born, so Iesous could not have been invented by wicked scribes who wanted to replace the Savior's "true name" with the name of Zeus.

This sort of Linguistic Superstition can lead to what I call Paganism Paranoia or paganaphobia. People do not want their worship to be tainted with customs borrowed from pagan idolatry. But sometimes some people imagine that a belief or a custom comes from pagan idolatry, when in fact it does not. The imagined connection to paganism is not based on any Biblical or historical fact, it is based only and entirely on certain words having a possible linguistic connection to other words.

Here's an example. One Hanukkah a polite young man asked me if I was familiar with the Hebrew word for the shamash, the "servant" candle that is used to light the other candles on the Hanukkah menorah. I knew right away where he was headed with this question, because I know (and I correctly suspected that he knew) that shamash is spelled the same way as shemesh, the word for "sun." I knew he was going to suggest that the shamash candle has a connection to pagan worship of the sun, the shemesh.

I explained to him that even though shamash and shemesh are from the same Hebrew root, you cannot assume that the shamesh candle has some connection to pagan sun worship. The word shamash simply means "servant." You can find this definition in any standard Hebrew-English dictionary. I told him that I know of two other Hebrew words that share the SH-M-SH root. The word l'hiSHtaMeSH means "to use or utilize (something)." This is most likely why the shamash is called a shamash, because it is "used" to light the other candles.

In Hebrew the bathroom is sometimes called the beit SHiMuSH, "house of use." Are we to assume that the bathroom is really a temple of the sun god, and that using the toilet is somehow connected to pagan sun worship?

"Furthermore," I told him, "some of the same people who think the shamash candle has some connection to sun worship would accuse you of sun worship because of that round kippah on your head. They claim the kippah is borrowed from the pagan sun worship, that the kippah is a 'solar disk.' I don't believe that, but that's what some people would say."

In English we have pairs of words that are spelled the same way but can mean two entirely different things, depending on the context. Some of these words are pronounced differently. For example: He will lead the team to victory. The heavy weight is made of lead. Actors bow after the show. The hunter shot the deer with a bow and arrow. Some are pronounced the same: He drives a fast car. Jews fast on Yom Kippur. The detective tried to spot the suspect. There's a spot on my shirt. Some are even spelled and pronounced the same but have opposite meanings: The man used his axe to cleave (i.e., separate) wood. A husband and wife should cleave to (i.e., not separate from) one another.

Hebrew likewise has words that can have two entirely different meanings. For example, Y-R-' can mean "see" or "fear." The word D-B-R can mean "speak" or "pestilence." The word M-TS-H, matzah, usually means "unleavened bread," but it can also mean "contention, strife, quarrel." Hebrew, like English, even has words with opposing meanings spelled with the same letters. For example, the word K-D-SH can mean "holy" or "male temple prostitute." But that did not stop the inspired Prophets from using this word K-D-SH to proclaim the holiness of God, because the Prophets of old were not infected with Linguistic Superstition like some of today's pseudo-prophets of paganism paranoia.

Here's another error made by some teachers who know just enough Hebrew to be dangerous. There are many Hebrew words that have a wide variety of meanings. Sometimes the different meanings are unrelated, as shown by the examples in the previous paragraphs. Other times the different meanings are related. That is, they are meanings that are similar or otherwise somehow connected, but are not exactly the same. For example, the S-F-R root is used to form words with the following meanings: "tell," "count," "story," "number," "book," "literature," "library," "librarian," "scribe." It's not difficult to see how these things are all somewhat related. (The S-F-R root is also used to make the words for "scissors," "barber," and "get a haircut." Don't ask me how that happened, because I don't know know.)

Words with a wide variety of meanings often have a primary meaning (like "tell" in the case of S-F-R) and secondary meanings that are more precise than the broad, general meaning (like "count," i.e., tell the number of).

When the word carries a secondary, more precisely defined meaning, that meaning is determined by two things. First, by the immediate context, i.e., by the way the word is used in that particular Bible passage. Second, by the overall context of the entire Bible, i.e., by what the rest of the Bible says about the topic.

Sometimes pseudo-scholars will rattle off a definition of a Hebrew word to prove their point, but they are rattling off the wrong definition for the word as it is used in that context. Sometimes they go a step further and stretch the definition beyond its actual meaning. And if the listeners do not know at least as much Hebrew as the pseudo-scholar, they are easily convinced to embrace the error.

Just remember this. If a teacher is trying to make a point that contradicts plain statements that appear in other parts of the Bible, be careful what you believe. Don't be impressed by someone's ability to look up a word in a Hebrew lexicon and read a definition. Anyone who can read can do that.

From time to time new fads arise in Messianic circles, complete with impressive-sounding buzz words to describe the latest pop theology. About 20 years ago some people were all abuzz about the "Bible Codes." It was claimed that secret prophetic messages were embedded in the Hebrew text of the Bible, and that these messages could be decoded by means of ELS (Equidistant Letter Sequencing). By taking a line of text and combining letters that are the same distance from each other (whether forward, backward, up, or down, or even diagonally like in a word search puzzle), all sorts of "previously hidden information" was allegedly revealed. It was claimed that important historical events of the past were actually predicted in the "Bible Codes."

When critics debunked this methodology by using ELS to show "predictions" of events which should have happened but now could not happen because the date predicted by ELS was past, the ELS proponents responded by saying that the secret messages were not definite predictions of what must happen, they were only warnings of what might happen if man does not do something to thwart the event. If the event did not happen as the ELS predicted, then obviously man did something to thwart it. It was a very clever, convenient loophole.

I recall reading an article during the ELS craze by one critic who used ELS to produce statements and predictions from a Hebrew translation of Moby-Dick. I suspect there are people out there who still believe that ELS is a legitimate way to get information from the Bible. Sorry, but I don't buy it. I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, but when ELS produces the same kind of results from Moby-Dick as it does from the Bible, something smells fishy. (I know, whales like Moby-Dick are mammals, not fish, but whales live among fish, so it's still a good pun.)

I don't hear much about ELS anymore. Now the latest buzz word is "Hebrew Word Pictures," a phrase probably taken from a book with that title. The book was written by Frank Seekins and published in 1994. It is spiral bound and filled with corny clip art and corny conclusions, and absolutely no information about the author except that he has a wife named Sally.

I do not know who Frank Seekins is, and I do not wish to insult him. He is probably a very likeable brother. But in his book he writes the following: "I am not asking you to believe what my studies have proven to me." So I'm going to take Frank up on his offer and respectfully disagree with him about his "Hebrew Word Pictures" (HWPs).

What are HWPs? Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is associated with a word that sounds the same as or similar to the name of the letter. Thus, the letter aleph stands for ox (eleph), beit stands for house (bayit), gimel stands for camel (gamal), dalet stands for door (delet), etc.

This in itself is not fiction. I have a book I bought in Israel in 1981, Roots, by Mordecai Kamrat and Edwin Samuel, published by Kiryat-Sefer Ltd. in Jerusalem, 1981. This book lists the words associated with each Hebrew letter, as Frank Seekins does (though in the case of some letters, Kamrat and Samuel differ from Seekins as to which words should be associated with which letters).

So the concept of a letter standing for a particular word is not in itself fanciful fiction. But what some Messianics do with this information results in some very far-fetched fanciful fiction. Because each letter stands for a particular word, people imagine that the "real" or "hidden" or "deeper" definition of a word must be discovered by combining the meanings of all the words that the letters represent. For example, the word sefer simply means "book" to normal Hebrew-speaking people. But to some Messianics who know just enough Hebrew to be dangerous, the "secret mystical meaning" can only be seen by combining the three words that are represented by the three letters that spell sefer.

There are two major problems with this approach. First, it ignores or minimizes the plain, simple definition of the word as Hebrew speakers would understand it in Biblical times or in modern times.

Second, and most importantly, it does not work with most Hebrew words. To arrive at a HWP definition for sefer ("book"), you have to combine the words twist + mouth + head (according to Seekins' decoder chart) or fish + mouth + head (according to Kamrat and Samuel's book.) How does the combination of these three words result in the idea of a "book"?

Na'al, which to normal Hebrew-speaking people means "shoe," would be a combination of fish + eye + goad. So according to HWPs, we are supposed to believe that fish + eye + goad = shoe. Maybe you see a shoe in the sum of these three words, but I sure don't. And I have a fairly good imagination. If you don't believe I do, go online and look at some of my artwork.

To further demonstrate the folly of this approach, here are some other Hebrew words that I just randomly chose, along with the words from Seekins' decoder chart:

Daniel ("my judge is God") = door + fish + hand + ox + goad.

Beged ("garment") = house + camel + door.

Chalon ("window") = fence + goad + peg + fish.

Eretz ("earth") = ox + head + fish hook.

Kiseh ("chair") = palm (of hand) + twist + behold.

Rats ("run") = head + fish hook.

Ruach ("spirit") = head + peg + fence.

Shemesh ("sun") = tooth + water + tooth.

Zamar ("sing") = weapon + water + head.

I could list many more examples. Even someone with a very wild imagination and a high degree of gullibility would have to really stretch things to make a connection between the plain, simple definitions of these words and the combinations of the HWPs. Of course it can be done, but it is fanciful, far-fetched fiction. Theologians call this kind of approach bad hermeneutics. Or, to be more specific, eisegesis (reading something into the text that is simply not there). It is sloppy pseudo-scholarship.

In the introduction of their book Roots, Kamrat and Samuel write: "We must warn you that etymology is a dangerous science." Then they let the reader know that many of the alleged Hebrew word associations are based not on the sound scholarship of philologists, but on "folklore and mythology." Too many Messianics are swallowing ideas that are derived from folklore and mythology. The fact that it is Hebrew folklore and mythology does not make it any more reliable than Greek or Roman folklore and mythology.

Much of the misinformation that is taught by the just-enough-Hebrew-to-be-dangerous crowd is relatively harmless. But I have seen some teaching that I consider blasphemous, or at least bordering on blasphemy. I am referring to a teaching I read about 20 years ago in a newsletter published by a non-Jewish congregational leader who calls himself a "rabbi." In his article, he said that the reason Satan hates Israel so much is because Satan used to be the Bride of Yahweh, but Yahweh divorced Satan and took a new Bride, Israel. So Satan, as the jealous ex-wife of Yahweh, afflicts the new Bride, Israel.

Of course this means Satan must be a female, not a male, because God does not believe in nor practice same-sex "marriage." Therefore the "rabbi" teaching this nonsense had to refer to Satan as "she," not "he," because if God was married to a male Satan, that would make God look like a homosexual.

What "proof" does this "rabbi" offer to verify his claim that Satan is female? The fact that in 1998 a panel of "more than a dozen top Bible scholars" in Bonn, Germany concluded that Satan is a female (Weekly World News, 1/6/98). Apparently these "top Bible scholars" did not do much homework to prepare for this international theological conference, because one of the ministers is quoted as saying: "In Genesis, the Devil is referred to as the serpent, and in Job, as Satan. The terms 'he' and 'him' are not used." On the basis of this, the Messianic "rabbi" states, "The OT NEVER specifies Lucifer's gender" (emphasis his).

If this Messianic "rabbi" and these "top Bible scholars" had done their homework, they would have known that the Devil's male gender can be clearly seen in the Hebrew text. In the Hebrew text of Genesis 3, I can point to 15 different words that prove the serpent was male, not female. In the Hebrew text of Job 1 & 2, I can point to 24 different words that prove Satan is male, not female. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah 14, I can point to at least 12 different words that prove Lucifer is male, not female.

That's a total of 51 proofs that the Devil is male, not female. And these 51 proofs are proofs, not theories. You do not even need to be a Hebrew scholar to see these proofs. If you know enough basic beginning Hebrew to be able to recognize the masculine singular verb conjugations and the masculine singular gender indicators that are used on adjectives and prepositions, you can see in the verbs and adjectives and prepositions that the Devil is always referred to in the masculine singular form. Just one single reference to Satan in the masculine singular would be enough to prove he is male, but I can point to over 50.

I repeat: You do not need to know Hebrew to have a close walk with the Lord and to bear the fruit of the Spirit. But if a man is going to call himself a "rabbi" and teach on topics that require a basic knowledge of the Hebrew language, he had better have a basic knowledge of the Hebrew language. Otherwise he will come to erroneous conclusions and reveal his ignorance and presumption to people who know Hebrew well enough to see his glaring errors.

What we have in this Messianic Movement is a bunch of Messianic Greenhorns pretending to be Pioneers. These immature Messianic mavericks are strongly opinionated and very outspoken. They are loose cannons trying to make people think that they are knowledgeable Bible scholars with brilliant minds steeped for years in the deep things of God, when in fact they have only a general knowledge of Bible basics and a few years of experience walking in this Messianic way of life. They are like the people Paul described, people who "having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling, desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm" (1 Tim. 1:6f).

I may not be one of the original Pioneers of this Messianic Movement, but I'm no Messianic Greenhorn either. I've been diligently studying the Bible and faithfully walking with the Lord for over 50 years. I have studied Hebrew (around 1,000 classroom hours in Israel plus continued study on my own for the past 40+ years). I have taught Hebrew classes several times, and have taken college classes in Aramaic and Greek. In 1995 I started the GOE publication and planted our congregation, which I pastored until the fall of 2012 when I turned over leadership to Art Cox. Compared to some of these Messianic Greenhorns who know just enough Hebrew to be dangerous, I think I have a fair amount of knowledge and experience. I don't say this to brag, but to say that even with my knowledge and experience I do not call myself a Hebrew scholar nor a rabbi.

Some Messianic Greenhorns who like to fire off Hebrew definitions are like children playing with guns. The gun is real and the ammo is real, but because they know just enough Hebrew to be dangerous, they are aiming the wrong ammo at the wrong targets. Somebody could get hurt. If you hear some of these immature loose cannons shooting off their mouths, don't make yourself a target for their bullets. Get away from them and listen to mature teachers who are spiritually stable and humble enough to know their limitations.


| DB

 

Image: Psalm 119 by Daniel Botkin from his Psurrealistic Psalms Pseries. See all the Psalms he has painted and all his art galleries on his art website, DanielBotkin.com.

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