Why learn biblical Hebrew?

I teach first year Hebrew to Christian ministry trainees at Moore College. Learning Hebrew can be fun, but it also takes organisation, discipline and effort; especially for students who are learning New Testament Greek at the same time. Sometimes students in the early stages ask me whether the hard work is worth it? Why learn Hebrew in the first place anyway? Here’s my answer.

The job of a pastor-teacher is to be gripped and transformed by God’s word, and so to speak God’s word faithfully and appropriately into the various life situations of those under your care. If you are serious about devoting your life to the ministry of God’s word, you can’t afford to be shallow in your engagement with it. You need to be rapt in the depth, the richness, the insight, the surprise, the delight, the power, that comes from God’s word. Otherwise you’ll end up resorting simply to preaching and teaching a system. Systems are important, of course–whether it’s Two Ways to Live, Goldsworthy’s biblical theology, a Reformed Dogmatics, whatever–and systematic theological reflection must always undergird our preaching. But our job is not to preach our systems. Our job is to preach God’s word, in the power of God’s Spirit, into the hearts and lives of our hearers.

Learning Hebrew is a key way to do this. Learning Hebrew enables you to engage deeply and richly with three-quarters of God’s written word, in its original language.

This is a serious business.

John Newton, ex-slave trader and great evangelical pastor and teacher in 18th century England, wrote about learning Greek and Hebrew:

The original Scriptures well deserve your pains, and will richly repay them. There is doubtless a beauty, fulness, and spirit, in the originals, which the best translations do not always express. When a word or phrase admits of various senses, the translators can only preserve one; and it is not to be supposed, unless they were perfectly under the influence of the same infallible Spirit, that they should always prefer the best.

Richard Cecil (ed.), The Works of John Newton, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985 (first published London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1820), p. 143.

Yesterday I was at a pastoral ministry support conference for those in our year at Moore College (we graduated 10 years ago). I was chatting about these things with my colleague Michelle Philp, associate pastor at Crossroads Christian Church, Canberra. Michelle had some very helpful reflections on and examples of the value of Hebrew for her own ministry of God’s word; we decided to do a quick video especially for the first year Hebrew students at Moore College.

Why learn Hebrew? Interview with Michelle Philp from Lionel Windsor on Vimeo.

Yes, there are caveats. I hope these are obvious, but I’ll mention a few anyway. Of course, you need far more than just mastery of the original languages to teach God’s word; you also need the illumination of God’s Spirit and an understanding of people’s situations; and, of course, people can understand God’s word and the gospel without learning Hebrew; and, of course, there are cases of great Christian leaders who didn’t know Hebrew (or even Greek) but had a big impact; and, of course, there are special cases of people for whom learning Hebrew is just not possible. But don’t let the special cases or the marginal exceptions undermine the central point. If you have the opportunity, you should learn Hebrew.

If you need a further reason, here’s a quote from George Athas, my friend and colleague and who was also my first Hebrew teacher:

A friend of mine who pastors a congregation told me of a young man in his church who was heading off to study at a theological college. This young man approached my friend for advice on making a choice: should he study Greek when he got to college, or should he study Hebrew? My friend’s response was legendary: “Well,” he said, “when you finish college and get up into your pulpit, do you want to be wearing only your shirt, or only your pants?”

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