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TitleThe Language of the Old Testament
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1973
AuthorsRasmussen, Ellis T.
Issue Number2
Date PublishedFebruary 1973
KeywordsLanguage - Hebrew; Poetry; Scripture Study

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The Language of the Old Testament

By Ellis T. Rasmussen

Professor of Ancient Scripture
Brigham Young University

Have you ever had trouble with a biblical phrase, wishing you knew exactly what it meant? Or have you wished there were some keys to unlock the significance you felt must be hiding in the imagery of an Old Testament expression?

Well, there are some keys! The most important ones, of course, are scriptural. As Paul, Nephi, and other scripture writers have indicated, things of the spirit are known through the Spirit, and matters of prophecy are made plain to those who are filled with the spirit of prophecy. (See 1 Cor. 2:11 and 2 Ne. 25:1–4.)

There are other keys to interpretation that are intellectual, involving the intricate arts of languages. In the case of the Old Testament, the need is to know something of Hebrew, for the Lord gave revelations to the prophets of old “after the manner of their language,” just as he has given them to his servants in this dispensation.

However, it is not necessary to be fully conversant in Hebrew to become aware of some of the features, or keys, of the language. Once we recognize these keys, we are on the way to a greater appreciation of the Hebraic imagery and therefore a better understanding of the scriptures.

The writers of the Hebrew Old Testament employed all the arts of their language. Hebrew prophets prophesied in their own special symbolic manner. The recorders penned their chronicles using picturesque idioms, and the poets wrote heartfelt phrases in their special types of balanced parallelism.

For instance, everyone who knows and loves the twenty-third Psalm knows that the Lord is not actually a shepherd and we are not actually sheep. But we recognize what the Psalmist meant by the green pastures, the still waters, the rod and staff, and the overflowing cup.

Likewise, almost anyone can conceive what Isaiah meant by his lament over Jerusalem that “the faithful city” had become “an harlot.” (Isa. 1:21.) And it isn’t difficult to guess that the Lord was condemning idolatry when he marveled that his people had forsaken the “fountain of living water” in exchange for man-made cisterns that were not capable of holding water. (Jer. 2:13.)

In English, we call these figures of speech metaphors. Hebrew writers loved them and used them abundantly long before we named them. They express a concise concept just as well as a parable expresses a more complicated idea. Watch for them and enjoy them in the Bible.

Similarly graphic are Hebrew similes, whose meanings are not too difficult to discern even in translation. If Isaiah says the Messiah will grow up “as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground,” we know he meant that he would have a lowly, inauspicious, earthly birth and beginning. (Isa. 53:2.)

Or if the Psalmist yearned for the refreshing Spirit of God like the “hart panteth after the water brooks,” it is obvious how dearly he valued being in the presence of the Lord. (Ps. 42:1.)

There are other pictures, as when the prophet foresees the coming of the herald of the kingdom and exclaims, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, … that publisheth salvation.” (Isa. 52:7.)

And when the servants of the Lord are prophetically urged to put on the power and authority of God’s priesthood again, they are summoned thus in Isaiah’s language: “Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem.” (Isa. 52:1.)

Sometimes modern revelation helps us be sure of the meaning of such a passage. In this instance we have received the interpretation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 113:8. [D&C 113:8]

A type of play on words in Hebrew that is more difficult to appreciate without a good Bible dictionary is that which is involved with proper names in the Old Testament. Virtually all the names of people and places can be translated and have interesting significance. Check a Bible dictionary for the names of the sons of Jacob, for instance, and note the reflection of the hopes, gratitude, or other feelings of either or both parents as their children were born.

Places were often named for some event, even as is done in many of our cultures today. In Joshua’s book, for example, a certain disobedient soldier brought “trouble” upon all of Israel’s army. When he was apprehended, trouble fell on him. Naturally the place where this happened was called “trouble” —Achor, or the Vale of Grief. (Josh. 7:26.)

Micah has a host of such expressions in his first chapter, in which he characterizes the fate of each sinful city with events appropriate to it. He portrays this fate through a rhetorical play on the actual meaning of each city’s name.

Hebrew poetry can be identified by the characteristic of parallelism. While narratives ordinarily move in simple, straightforward prose, expressions of deep feelings, divine inspiration, or prophetic anticipation commonly are written in beautifully balanced parallel phrasing. All varieties are employed, from stately, simple ones to intricately complex chiasms.

Unless you are looking for it, you might miss the poetry of Melchizedek’s blessing upon the head of Abraham:

“Blessed be Abram of the most high God,

possessor of heaven and earth:

And blessed be the most high God,

which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.”

(Gen. 14:19–20.)

Watch for similar poetry, whether a brief couplet or a longer balanced piece, in the blessings of Isaac upon Jacob (Gen. 27:28–29), Jacob upon his twelve sons (Gen. 49:1–28), or Moses upon the twelve tribes (Deut. 33).

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament is mostly poetic. The Psalms are all poetry. Job is all in poetry except for the prologue and the epilogue. The Proverbs are in typical couplets, mostly of either the synonymous or the contrasting type. And about three-fourths of the prophetic writings are in poetry.

Since in Hebrew poetry the second of two parallel phrases either repeats the meaning of the first, supplements it, or gives the opposite of it, interpretation of difficult passages may often be aided by consideration of both parts of the couplet. For example, you may not know what is meant when Amos quotes the Lord as saying, “And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,” but there is no doubt about it when you read the synonymous parallel in the next phrase. “and want of bread in all your places”: the Lord was talking about famine. (Amos 4:6.)

There is one other example we might consider, involving difficulties in translated scriptures that can often be cleared up by some understanding of the Hebrew style and vocabulary used. For example, sometimes there appears to be a contradiction in the translated version of the Bible. An example of this is a passage in 1 Samuel 15. The common English translation of verse 29 asserts, properly, that the Lord does not “repent”; yet in verse 35 it is said that he “repented” that he had made Saul king. [1 Sam. 15:29, 35]

The Hebrew word involved is niham. Its basic notation is to sigh, or breathe hard. Sighing can connote repentance, but it can also connote such things as exasperation, remorse, regret, or relief. In verse 29, therefore, it is perfectly consistent to translate “the strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.” In verse 35, however, acceptable meaning would be conveyed by rendering niham in its basic sense: “… the Lord repented [sighed] that he had made Saul king over Israel.” [1 Sam. 15:29, 35]

If you cannot turn to the original Hebrew for possible meanings, it is sometimes helpful to try other translations. It is interesting to note that the Prophet Joseph Smith recommended such possible study procedures. He said:

“Our latitude and longitude can be determined in the original Hebrew with far greater accuracy than in the English version. There is a grand distinction between the actual meaning of the prophets and the present translation.” (See Documentary History of the Church, vol, 5, pp. 339–45.)

With reference to something of value noted in another translation of a part of the Bible, he once said:

“I have an old edition of the New Testament in the Latin, Hebrew, German and Greek languages. I have been reading he German and find it to be the most nearly correct translation, and to correspond nearest to the revelations which God has given to me for the last fourteen years.” (Times and Seasons, vol. 5, p. 614.)

A simple case in point would be the English version of Genesis 1:2, which indicates that the earth was “without form, and void” after being “created.” The German translation of the original Hebrew gives it as being “empty and desolate” (leer und wüste). The book of Abraham (4:2) [Abr. 4:2] also uses the words “empty and desolate.”

Even when you can’t go to the original or to another translation, you may be sure that the Bible contains the “word of God so far as it is translated correctly” (A of F 1:8), and that the word of God in the original would contain no inconsistencies.

The conclusion of the matter is this: Our Bible, even in translation, is good, beautiful, and true, although there are occasional words and phrases that give the reader trouble. Aid in understanding these can be gained by turning to a Bible dictionary or other reference work, to another translation, or to another related scripture.