Hebrew 101: Mistakes Pastors Make in the Pulpit (1)

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In my experience, 8 out of 10 seminary students and graduates prefer Koine Greek to biblical Hebrew. Why? Perhaps reading from right to left is a bit disorienting? Maybe some of the Hebrew letters resemble each other too closely? Perchance it is the gutturals, sibilants, glides, and dentals that are audibly less appealing when compared to Greek? Could it be the later inserted vowel points that cause some bewilderment? Whatever the case, for many, biblical Hebrew is not the language of choice. That is further evidenced by the number of ministers who have articulated that their understanding of Hebrew has greatly diminished since their seminary career, though they can still discern Koine Greek with some clarity. As a result, some ministers may be able to recite the Hebrew alphabet with a little help, but overall, their only source of learning, if I can call it that, is Bible software and commentaries. One wonders, however, how commentaries can be of any help if they do not know, with some level of depth, biblical Hebrew?

If I may be transparent, languages are hard for me. I was not the student in seminary who always received high grades on the language exams. I had to study twice as long and twice as hard to produce any fruit. I still admire several of my peers (e.g., Christian Locatell and Nick Brennan) who, with less effort, have an amazing grasp of the biblical languages. Again, that is not me. Thus, my journey toward a PhD in Hebrew is a slow one; nevertheless, it has been, and will continue to be, a beneficial one.

Despite my difficulties in the biblical languages, particularly Hebrew, I have learned a tremendous amount in my studies. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know and how large the linguistic field is. Nonetheless, as I continue to grow in my field of study, I want to share it with others, particularly pastors. Listening to between 6-8 sermons per week, I have noticed mistakes ministers make, with regard to Hebrew, that can be avoided with a bit more clarity of speech from the pulpit and further study. 

We will start with an extremely minor mistake: the use of the emphatic category.

When a word (e.g., a noun or adjective) is repeated in a phrase, it is true that, at times, those words are repeated for emphasis. Consider Isaiah 6. When the prophet, or soon-to-be, was caught up into heaven, he heard the angels cry aloud, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of armies..." (Isa. 6:3). (We will talk about the use of the tetragrammaton later). The LORD, as you have undoubtedly heard, is a thrice holy God (cf. Rev. 4:8). The repetition signifies the intensity of his holiness. Put differently, those words are repeated for emphasis (c.f., Exodus 3:4; 1 Sam. 3:10; some clauses using infinitive absolutes).

Unfortunately, some pastors overstate their case. I have heard numerous ministers, from the pulpit, say, "Anytime you see a word repeated, the authors are trying to emphasize their point." Really? Anytime? No, not anytime. To make such a claim, therefore, is to lead the congregation astray. Of course this mistake should not be likened to an improper view of justification; nevertheless, since we desire to accurately preach God's word, which requires ministers to explain it well, this should not be something we say.

Waltke and O'Connor suggest, "Singular nouns may be repeated with a short span for a variety of purposes, to express distribution, diversity, or emphasis" (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 115). Consider Genesis 39:10; Deuteronomy 4:2; 1 Chronicles 9:27, 12:34. (See also, A Biblical Hebrew Grammar by van der Merwe, Naude, and Kroeze, for additional reading on the emphatic category, p. 336). Nouns may also be repeated to signify specificity. If I say, "Please buy me a burger, burger," the repetition demonstrates that I am desirous of a certain type of burger; I have not repeated the words for emphasis. 

It is clear, therefore, that the emphatic category is not the only reason words are repeated in the Hebrew Bible. As I shared, this is a minor mistake. With a little bit of additional study and greater clarity from the pulpit, this mistake can be avoided. There are greater ones, however. We will turn to those at a later time.
Posted January 6, 2015 @ 8:22 AM by Leon Brown
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