Hebrew writing by a skilled Sofer (scribe).

Hebrew Words Matter

Hebrew writing by a skilled Sofer (scribe).

I get that not everyone wants to study Hebrew. I mean, an alphabet to learn. Most people quail even at the thought of getting started. Twenty-two little letters and ten vowels can scare the שְׁאוֹל [Sheol] out of you. I know.

My Story, Learning Hebrew

My own story about learning Hebrew goes back to when I was in Bible college. I grew up agnostic/atheist in a non-religious family. In college I discovered three things my sophomore year: the Bible, C.S. Lewis, and Jesus.

A week later I discovered that Jesus was Jewish and his mother called him Yeshua.

I didn’t know what to do with that information, but it made me doubt Christianity had the answers. I couldn’t grasp how a religious group of people could so completely dismiss the Judaism of its founder and leading light.

I won’t tell that entire story now, but I say all that to get to this. I ended up on a path of confusion. Christianity, specifically evangelicalism, beat out my better instincts. For a time I was persuaded that Jews needed to become Christians, but that they could practice Jewish culture in some limited ways.

What does that have to do with Hebrew? I started studying it so I could be more effective in “winning Jewish souls.” It was the same motive that led me to concentrate on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) both in Bible college and in my graduate work (an M.T.S. from Emory University in 1998 — my thesis was on the Elisha narratives).

A few funny facts about my early Hebrew study. My professor was John Walton, an epic scholar of the Hebrew Bible. He graded strictly based on excellence. He gave A’s only to people who knocked him out of his chair. In Hebrew, I made a C both semesters (to be fair, I did get A’s in a few of his other classes, such as Wisdom Literature).

Yeah, I was a C student in Hebrew. That’s not the only funny thing.

When I used to be in Southern Baptist and evangelical circles with pastors, my Hebrew learning was a matter of pride. Though they attend seminary, my experience is that Southern Baptist pastors rarely retain any Greek or Hebrew knowledge. I am at a loss how they can forget it all so quickly as soon as they get jobs in churches.

I remember chuckling when a pastor at a big convention would try to use a Hebrew word, which they generally derived from Strong’s Concordance. They would almost always mispronounce words, such as making an English “ch” sound for words like “chesed” (the “ch” in that transliteration of hesed חֶסֶד is a soft k sound).

But it was soon my turn to be the fool. I joined Messianic Jewish circles and found I was the least educated of my peers. My Hebrew knowledge, which seemed so impressive before, was suddenly terribly inadequate. Fortunately, no one was as smug and superior toward me about it as I had been to others.

Do Hebrew Words Make a Difference?

In one of my most read and commented on articles, one I have gone over with scores of Hebrew students, I said this about the word חֶסֶד [hesed, pronounced khesed]:

Hesed should be a word on your lips, whether you know Hebrew or not. For Jews it should be as easy as saying Shabbat or shalom. For Christians it should be as easy as saying agape or ekklesia. Sometimes spelled chesed or khesed, it is pronounced KHE-sed (the e’s are short as in “bed” — kh is a sound made in the throat in between a k and an h — accent is on the first syllable). It is used 297 times in the Bible.

How important is the word hesed? In the book of Ruth, during an evil time in the land, a small group of people filled the world with a story of grace that resounds 3,000 years later still. That story is about an unlikely group of people who brought Messiah down from heaven with a chain of acts of hesed.

You don’t believe me? Get a Hebrew Bible and look at the last word in the book of Ruth. I’ll save you the time. It is “David.” Rabbi Zeira (one of the classic sages) asked why Ruth was in the Bible when it does not directly give any commandments. His answer?

To teach us how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness [hesed].

It was in my study of Ruth, a book I go through with all of my Hebrew students, more than 40 or 50 in the past eight years, that I found several Hebrew word studies to be indispensable to my faith.

Tikvah תִקְוָה has become a favorite. It is related to the idea of a cord. So in the story of Rahab and the spies, during the days of Joshua, the word for the red cord she tied in the window so they could save her, comes from tikvah. It is also related to the word “future,” as in Proverbs 23:18, “Surely there is a future and your hope will not be cut off.”

Hope is a cord that attaches us to God and the future good he promises. We are experts at cutting that cord or refusing to rely on it. God is a master of reattaching us. (I have an article about tikvah that spells this all out in depth).

And in Ruth I also discovered the word for “chance” מִקְרֶה mikreh. When Ruth went out gleaning, she did not know to go to Boaz because he was a relative of Elimelech. Rather, “her chance chanced upon the field of Boaz.” To put it in better English, “she lucked upon the field of Boaz.”

What a happy chance! Messiah came into the world because a Moabitess’s luck was with her one day as she sought bread.

Yes, Hebrew words matter.

Your Call to Action

I know two things. You can benefit from studying it. I can teach you.

Now, it happens that right now I really need students. I mean, like I need five people to respond to this blog post within the week. But enough about me.

I can coach you in Hebrew or, if you prefer, in reading texts from the Hebrew Bible or reading theology books or reading biblical studies. I always have online students and have for the past five years or so. Many learn Hebrew with me. Some study other things.

I meet with you online via Skype or Google Video Chat.

I charge $20 per weekly half hour lesson and ask for payment for four at a time in advance.

I have seen many students succeed. They were busy just like you are. They found having a weekly coach kept them on track. They found — and my current students are finding still — that having a deeper goal in biblical study pays off in so many ways.

Just email me at Derek at TheHebrewNerd dot com.

And if Hebrew is what you want to study, you should get this: https://amzn.com/0939144158. If you want to start with biblical studies, maybe I could recommend this: https://amzn.com/0830837043.

As I post this, it is the morning of October 16. I will be camping with my children most of October 17-19. If I don’t answer your email right away, please know I will when I am back from the beautiful North Georgia mountains.

Oh, and starting October 23, the Daily Portion email list will feature a Hebrew phrase of the day and other features you won’t want to miss. To subscribe by email: http://eepurl.com/bXj2Tb

8 Comments

  1. I was actually excited to learn Hebrew from Derek. Those pesky 22 letters were knocked out by week two and after a month I was speaking it pretty well.

    Learning the native language of Yeshua made me feel more connected to the Bible. And it honestly is a little impressive when I translate Hebrew phrases to friends.

  2. I am a recovering evangelical and have known Derek for over twenty years. Having been through a denominational seminary, on staff with several churches in various teaching and leading positions, I got very comfortable with my “typical verbiage and knowledge” of scripture. Several years ago, I was introduced to the “historical Christian” faith and through that I found the value and importance of just not only knowing that Jesus was Jewish but what that meant to understanding Him and his teachings in context. Hebrew is the foundation that was missing and is actually the most crucial foundation. Derek is patient and lends his years of unfolding the historical context through his teaching of Hebrew. A must for any serious follower of Jesus.

  3. Derek’s teaching actually focused on building up my Hebrew cognates, which is a strong foundation to being able to understand anything. It’s nice to read the siddur and know what I’m praying.

    The classes were very economical.

  4. I have been studying with Derek for a few years. He has helped me to grasp the basics, be able to read, chant Torah, sing prayers and everything else that I need to lead my small interfaith community striving to rekindle our Jewish community in post-Holocaust and post-Communist Czech Republic. Our community would not exist were it not for Derek’s teaching and mentoring. He has been a gift to me personally and to our community. For the last year I have been teaching on a new Hebrew word at our Kaballat Shabbat services. Last week was teshuva (returning) and the week before yira (awe) in preparation for the High Holy days. These Hebrew word studies have enriched the spiritual lives of our community and brought us even closer as they are all learning something new together. Thank you, Derek, for your patience, excellence and inspiration!!

  5. I studied Biblical Hebrew with Derek via Skype for 2 years. He taught me how to use tools I hadn’t a clue about like the lexicon. By the end of our time together I had translated the book of Ruth. I love reading Hebrew, especially parts of the Siddur. I now study conversational Hebrew with an Israeli teacher who lives in my area. However I thank Derek for his insights into the Scriptures. Love for the language is the best recommendation one can possess. Derek has it .

  6. I’ve had the privilege of being able to study with Derek for several months. We studied Torah and mussar and some Hebrew. Derek is an excellent teacher he is very patient and is a wealth of knowledge.

  7. I studied Hebrew with Derek for about 3 yrs. I knew absolutely nothing about Biblical Hebrew when I started. While it was a challenge for my then 63-year-old brain, Derek always made class fun and interesting. I looked forward to the classes every week. I don’t think you could find a more excellent teacher – knowledgeable, encouraging and patient — even when he has to repeat a rule over and over until you learn it. Studying Biblical Hebrew has truly blessed my life – adding depth to my understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures and it has helped me in teaching Bible studies in my church. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about joining Derek’s classes to do so. It is a decision I have never regretted.

  8. I knew several years ago that I want to begin studying Hebrew in earnest. In the Messianic Jewish world, we are surrounded by Hebrew, and not knowing the puts us at a clear disadvantage. I made the decision several months ago to begin learning from Derek, and I have not been disappointed in his scholarship and ability to convey complex grammar in simply ways. I am on the verge of translating Ruth, and am thrilled to already by at this stage so early into my learning.

    There is no substitute for learning the language of the Bible, and reading from a translation will never give you the depth of meaning and potential that the original language will. While I am sorry I waited so long to commit, I am glad I chose Derek as my teacher.

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