I would like to begin this work by stating that I am a graduate student of both the Hebrew and Koine Greek languages and have attained fluency in both over the many years I have spent in formal education on these two tongues. I love both of these languages dearly and I believe that a knowledge of these languages is the greatest scholarly tool in helping teachers and readers understand the particulars and nuances of the Bible, but I do believe that many have taken the existence of these languages – Hebrew in particular – and have caused more harm for themselves than good by mystifying these audible sound waves into something they are not.
In the ten years I’ve spent in the Messianic movement, one thing is for certain: Messianics love the Hebrew language, some even believing that the Hebrew language is God’s own language and that he spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden using it. It seems as though the people who come into this walk uncover the true hidden linguistic nature of their Bibles by acknowledging the original recorded language of the Hebrew Bible and believe it to be the secret to understanding this unknown, mystical side to the God’s word. The problem with this is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Hebrew existed anywhere near the time of Adam or even the patriarchs Abraham (c1900 BCE), Isaac, and Jacob. I see so many people mystifying this language to the point of developing complete theological positions on the basis of it being the “holy language,” such as “sacred name only theology”1 or the recently-popularized “gematria theology.”2 These kinds of theologies take one’s attention from the true intent of the Bible into ideas that overtake one’s mind and can sometimes lead to conspiracies or even the marginalization of other peoples, all while standing on the conclusion that Hebrew is some kind of holy or divine language.
What I aim to do here is explain that the language we know as Hebrew is not divine, it carries no significant weight over that of any other language, and that by mystifying Hebrew, we are more so worshiping the language rather than the God of the universe.
What is the Hebrew Language?
The Bible itself never mentions its penning language by name. In fact, the language we are speaking of here has only been identified by the name “Hebrew” for about the last thousand (1000) years or so. The earliest Biblical reference to the Hebrew language names it “the language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18), which is accurate because Hebrew is the best-known form of Canaanite language to have existed.
3The family of languages of which Hebrew belongs is grouped by linguists in a phylum (classification) called Afroasiatic. The geographical range of Afroasiatic covers northern and central Africa and western Asia.
The Afroasiatic phylum has five or six members:
- Egyptian (later called Copitc, now extinct) and Berber in North Africa.
- The Chadic family (whose best-known member is Hausa) in sub-Saharan Africa
- The Cushitic-Omotic family in the Horn of Africa
- The Semitic family, which includes Arabic and Hebrew, in western Asia.
During the upheavals which rearranged the political geography of Syria-Palestine from about 1400-1200 BCE (LB II to Iron I) is most likely where the Hebrew language emerged. There are no extrabiblical sources which would suggest that Hebrew survived as a widely-written language during this time4; rather, the earliest written evidence of Hebrew comes from the archaeological period Iron IIB-C (800-586 BCE). From this time through the first century, Hebrew was subsequently replaced by the Babylonian language Aramaic, which is why most of the words of Jesus, even his dying words in Matthew 27:46, are recorded as being said in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Hebrew surely existed as a spoken language from 1400-1200 BCE, but did not exist in writing, at least in commonplace. Hebrew essentially ceased to exist as a living language in the year 200 CE during the Bar Kokhba disaster and thus became a dead language. Though Hebrew survived as a liturgical language, Hebrew is the only successful example of a revived dead language, as it was reinstated as a spoken and literacy language in the 19th century.
When the term “Hebrew” appears in the Bible (Genesis 39:14; 41:12; Exodus 2:11; John 1:9, etc.), it does not refer to a language, but rather an ethnicity. Beginning with Abulfeda – a 13th century Muslim historian – this ethnic identification is believed to have been given to those who are descendants of Eber, the ancestor of Abraham, because of the similarity between the Hebrew words for Eber (עֵבֵר)and Hebrew (עִבְרִי) itself. However, this position is rejected by essentially all biblical and Hebrew scholarship in light of the archeological and historical evidence as shown above.
From this alone, we can conclude that neither Eber nor Abraham spoke what is known as Hebrew. Yes, Abraham would become known as the father of the Hebrews throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament, but he himself was not a Hebrew nor a speaker of the Hebrew language because it did not yet even exist. Abraham most likely spoke the native language of his homeland Ur Kasdim (Genesis 11:28) and his descendants would have eventually spoken either Sumerian, Akkadian, or Elamite being that the region was controlled by each of these groups in rapid succession between 2047 BCE to 1940 BCE.
In short, it is impossible to believe that Hebrew is the holy language of God when archeology clearly points to its entire existence lasting only a mere 1000 years (800 BCE – 200 CE) before its revival in the 19th century. As much as many believers want Hebrew to be this divine tongue limited to God and his people, this is simply not the case. This language is but one of thousands of daughter languages spoken, developed, and abandoned in the history of our world. Because of this, we can say with certainty that the Hebrew language, though used by the early Israelites to pen our Bibles, carries no more significant weight than that of any other language; had Moses and the kings of Israel been from southern-African heritage, the language of the Bible would probably be some daughter language of ancient Ethiopian; the same would be true for their heritage in any other geographical region.
So where do we go from here? If Hebrew is not the divine language that we have come to believe it is, what does that mean for our Bibles? What this means is that we should stop deifying the Hebrew language and see God for who he is: the ultimate divine being that is above any and all languages that mere humans develop and speak. God – the almighty and powerful force sustaining this entire universe – simply chose to speak to a man about 4,000 years ago named Abram from Ur Kasdim, an idol-maker (Joshua 24:2) and speaker of Sumerian, Akkadian, or Elamite, and told him to leave his father’s house and follow him to a land called Canaan. This man’s descendants would eventually develop a daughter language now known as Hebrew and they used that language to write down the accounts of what happened to Abraham and his descendants as a commission from God to preserve his promise and fulfilment. This is all to say that Hebrew is simply a creation of God through the development and geographical movement of his people as they awaited the fulfillment of his promise.
Yahweh is the God of the Hebrews, but he is not a Hebrew God.
1What I mean by the quoted phrase “sacred name only theology” is a camp of beliefs that the God of the Bible has a proper name (in which I agree) and that referring to him with any language’s word that was formerly a pagan name or title is to dishonor his name and displeases him (in which I disagree).
2What I mean by the quoted phrase “gematria theology” is the popular belief that Hebrew words carry numerical values depending on the letters contained within and that words with similar or same numerical values have connections to each other.
3The bulk of the following information is taken from the work of the University of Michigan’s Professor of Linguistics, Semitics, Near Eastern Studies Gene M. Schramm in the Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 4; Doubleday, 1992.
4The Gezer Stone is an agricultural calendar from the 10th century BC inscribed in the former script of Hebrew (Paleo-Hebrew) on limestone and exists as one of the two earliest known evidence to the written Hebrew language, the second being the Zayit Stone, though many scholars believe that the Zayit Stone is written in the Phoenician Alphabet. Even in their existence, scholars affirm that Hebrew was spread orally by the common people and officials apart from the minute minority who would have been able to use this calendar or who created the inscriptions on this stone.