Let’s begin by acknowledging the obvious fact that all scripture was written by Hebrew people. Authored by God, but written by Hebrews. Something most people don’t realize is that the Hebrews are an ancient eastern oriental culture and they are very different from most other cultures in the world today in many significant ways.
The way in which the Hebrews viewed the words written in scripture is crucial as we try to interpret the meaning from their mindset in their language and culture into our language, culture and mindset today.
Unfortunately the ancient Eastern Hebrew culture is almost extinct. Even if we understood their way of thinking, we are so inundated with western thought that it takes a major paradigm shift to adjust our way of thinking to theirs.
The Ancient Hebrew Culture
The ancient Hebrews often lived as nomads in the wilderness much like the Bedouins of the Near and Middle East today. Their lifestyle revolved around their livestock which required constantly being on the move in search of green pastures for feeding.
Many people mentioned in the Bible lived this nomadic lifestyle including: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and young David before he was King. As such, they were accustomed to viewing the world around them with their 5 senses.
As we begin to understand how the Hebrew language is closely related to this nomadic lifestyle, we will see the connection between their words and culture which is often missed in western interpretation because of a lack of cultural understanding.
What happened to this ancient Hebrew thought and culture? Around 800 BC, a new culture arose to the north. This new culture began to view the world very much differently than the Hebrews. This culture was the Greeks.
Around 200 BC the Greeks began to move south causing a coming together of the Greek and Hebrew culture. This was a very turbulent time as the two vastly different cultures collided. Over the following 400 years the battle raged until finally the Greek culture won and virtually eliminated all trace of the ancient Hebrew culture.
The Greek culture then in turn influenced all following cultures including the Roman and European cultures, our own American culture and even the modern Hebrew culture in Israel today.
As 21st Century Americans with a strong Greek/Roman/European thought influence we read the Hebrew Bible as if a modern American had written it. In order to understand the ancient Hebrew culture in which the Old Testament was written, we must examine some of the differences between Hebrew and Greek thought.
Emotional Abstract vs. Factual Thought
Ancient Hebrew thought views the world through the senses using their emotions. Greek thought views the world through facts and figures.
Emotional thought is the expression of concepts and ideas in ways that can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted and/or heard. All are used when speaking, hearing, writing, and reading the Hebrew language. Abstract thought is the expression of concepts and ideas in ways that can not be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, or heard.
An example of Emotional Abstract can be found in Psalms 1:3, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither."
In this passage we have words expressing abstract thoughts, such as a tree (one who is upright, righteous), streams of water (grace, life), fruit (good character) and an unwithered leaf (prosperity).
An example of Factual Thought can be found in the following description of a pencil, "It is yellow, hexagonal in shape and about 8 inches long." A Hebrew description of the pencil would be related to its function such as, "I write words with it." Notice that the Hebrew description would include the verb "write" while the Greek description uses the adjectives "yellow" and "long." In Hebrew, verbs are used much more frequently than adjectives.
In other words, descriptions of things in Hebrew focus more on the action, emotional impact or the end result than on the actual item itself. Think of it like the difference between men and women. Men want to know the facts; women want to know the details.
For example: If a man were recalling an event of going to the store to buy something, let’s say a shirt, he would tell the story saying how far it was in miles or time, what size he needed and how much it cost. Chances are he probably already knows exactly where it is in the store and goes straight to it.
A woman will tell you what the day was like, how the drive to the store was, what she experienced along the way, what the selection of items to choose from was like and finally, how she feels emotionally about the purchase. She would probably not go straight to the shirt. She would browse and dawdle looking at, admiring and considering all the other shirts first. They call this “shopping”.
Same day, same store, same item, but they have different ways of approaching and describing the experience.
There are many Hebrewisms in the Bible that make no sense in English, Greek or Aramaic but make perfect sense in Hebrew. Here’s a good example of how our American/European culture differs from Hebrew/Oriental culture:
The Hebrews saw names and titles not only as ways to identify people, but also as descriptions of their character traits. Sound familiar? Native Americans use names the same way: Running Bull, Dancing Bear, Sitting Duck…
When we see a name such as "King David" we see the word "King" as a title and "David" as a name. In our western mind a title describes a character trait while a name is simply an identifier.
In the Hebrew language there is little distinction between titles and names. Both words, King and David, are descriptions of character traits; King is "one who reigns" while David is "one who is loved".
In the Bible, this can be clearly seen in the many names God uses to describe himself. In English, God has one name, God- which is also a title. In Hebrew, God has a multitude of names, over 70, each describing a different element of His nature. The Hebrews did not find this confusing, but rather enlightening.
We commonly identify the word "Elohiym or Eloah" as a title (God) and YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah) as a name. What we do not realize is that both of these are character traits, YHWH meaning "the one who exists".
Eloah which literally means “God” and the plural form Elohim, which means "Gods", both referring to God's power and might, the plural form referring to one God in plurality of majesty. These root words are often combined with other words to describe certain elements and characteristics of God.
Some examples of the many names of God (not a full list):
Elohay Kedem - God of the Beginning: (Deuteronomy 33:27).
Elohay Mishpat - God of Justice: (Isaiah 30:18).
Elohay Selichot - God of Forgiveness: (Nehemiah 9:17).
Elohay Marom - God of Heights: (Micah 6:6).
Elohay Mikarov - God Who Is Near: (Jeremiah 23:23).
Elohay Mauzi - God of My Strength: (Psalm 43:2).
Elohay Tehilati - God of My Praise: (Psalm 109:1).
Elohay Yishi - God of My Salvation: (Psalm 18:47, 25:5).
He’s also called Adonai, a title of reverence meaning Lord.
God is called El, the short form of Eloah then combined with other words for more descriptors: EL SHADDAI - God the All Sufficient: Genesis 17:1
EL ELYON - The Most High God: Genesis 14:18
If Hebrews and some Christians are okay with God being one entity having multiple names, why is there so much confusion over Jesus having multiple names?
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” Matthew 1:23 Is his name Emmanuel? No!
As a matter of fact, Jesus' name is not really Jesus... it's Joshua! In Hebrew he's named "Yeshua". Tranlated from Hebrew to English it's Joshua. We get Jesus from the Hebrew to Greek translation of "Yeshua" in Hebrew to "Jesu" in Greek. From Greek to English "Jesu" is translated "Jesus".
Why the confusion? Christian dogma. (Definition of Dogma: An established opinion, belief, or principle.) People see what they are conditioned to see, not always what’s actually there.
The key is “he shall be called”, meaning these will be his attributes. Not that Jesus is literally all those things, but he is ‘like’ those things. Just like a Native American named Running Bull is neither running nor is he really a bull, he’s a person compared to a bull for his attributes or personality. The difference between these examples is that God ACTUALLY IS all the things used to describe Him.
When the Bible speaks of taking God's name to the nations, he is not talking about the name itself but his character. The command to not take God's name in vain literally means not to represent his character in an empty or false manner. It is similar to our expression of "having a good name" which is not about the name itself but the character of the one associated with that name.
When we pray “In the name of Jesus Christ” we are praying in his good name, as his representative taking on his character and attributes. That is why we are to not take that lightly. When we say, “In the name of Jesus Christ” we darn well better be living it. To not do so is taking his name in vain. I think Jesus and God would frown upon that.
We must remember that God created us with our 5 senses and expects us to use them. What we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste has an impact on our perception of the world around us. Our faith, therefore, is not some abstract mental exercise. God meant for us to understand spiritual concepts using our physical surroundings as examples.
Some people run into problems when the word “spirit” is added to “holy”. Many good and dedicated Christians have been caught up in a dogma that is totally foreign to the Hebrew concepts of these words. In our culture, a ghost or spirit is a sentient entity.
To the Hebrews, spirit is something totally different. Though many in western culture have tried to give this word a personality and animate it, the Hebrew definition is very clear. It means wind or breath.
The Hebrew word ruahh and the Greek word pneuma hold the exact same meaning. Let’s take a look at the translations of holy spirit from the Greek “pneuma hagion”.
The Greek word pneuma comes from the root verb form pneo. Pneo means I blow, to blow, breathe or blowing wind. Basically it denotes some type of air movement regardless of its source. Its usage is commonly a current of air, a breath or a breeze. Pneuma is a noun that means wind, breath or spirit. It can be used in a sentence literally, figuratively, by analogy or metaphorically in order to convey a physical representation of a spiritual concept.
Hagion is the word translated as “holy”. Hagion is an adjective. It literally means set apart by (or for) God, holy, sacred. The fundamental core meaning of hágion is "different" – thus a temple in the 1st century was hagios ("holy") because it was different from other buildings as it was set apart for God.
Get it? One functional descriptor phrase in Greek would be translated into a long sentence in English. Since pneuma is “breath” and holy means “of God” then pneuma hagion (holy spirit) can literally be translated “The breath of God”.
Like I said, some people are caught up in Roman Catholic dogma and try to give a personality to the “sacred wind”. They say it’s a person with intellect because in 1 Corinthians 2:10 it’s written, “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.” (NASV) Only a sentient being “searches”, right?
This verse is an allegory. It’s a physical representation of a spiritual meaning through material forms; it’s a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. How else can things of the spirit be explained in physical terms that we humans can understand?
We know that pneuma means wind, or breath of God. The example used here is like a wind blowing through your home. The wind searches out every nook and cranny as high pressure seeks out the yielding low pressure areas. Eventually, all accessible areas are filled with the wind.
Air searches out all places for it to flow into. Not because it’s alive or has a will of its own, or because it’s a person but just because that is the nature of what air is and what water does. Same thing with holy spirit, it flows and it fills. “…for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.” See how it focuses on its characteristics and the end result?
Certainly much is lost in translation. Part of the problem is that most English versions rely heavily on the Septuagint rather then the actual Hebrew text. The Septuagint was an attempt to translate the concrete concepts of the Hebrew culture into the more abstract way of thinking prevalent in the Greek cultures. In some cases it is simply wrong.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any of the original Hebrew manuscripts available today for reference. All we have are copies and translations so we do the best we can with what we do have.
I hope this gives you some insight into the way the Hebrew authors of the Bible expressed their perceptions about spiritual concepts and their world around them. Next time you are reading your Bible, think of the Factual Men and Emotional Women analogy. Greeks are Factual, Hebrews are emotional. I know it’s rather broad and not perfect for every passage, but maybe it will help you expand your understanding at times. God bless you!
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About Minister Daniel Sweet:
Daniel Sweet is the founder and President of God's Word First, a four time published author on the subject of Leadership and a big fan of the Lord Jesus Christ (Yeshua Messiah). He is an avid dirt biking enthusiast who makes the bible easy for everyone to understand by using humor and fun personal stories from his own life experiences. Daniel enjoys sharing with others how to gain strength through the knowledge and truth of God’s Word.