The Wisdom of Hebrew Words

Hebrew LettersI love Hebrew words. I can’t count the number of times that learning a definition has deepened my understanding of not just one Bible passage, but many.

Recently I’ve posted a couple examples to show you what I mean. In the article “Does God Forget Sins?” I explain how the words for “remember” and “forget” can help us unravel a theological knot about God’s omniscience. And in “Shema: To Hear is to Obey,” I explain that the same verb that is used for “hearing” also means “obeying.” Suddenly Jesus’ words about “having ears to hear” make more sense.

The Hebrew verbs for “remembering” and “hearing” have something in common – they seem to us to be only activities that occur in our minds, but in Hebrew they encompass physical actions too. This is actually common to many verbs that seem to be strictly cerebral activities.

In Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, I explain that many verbs in Hebrew that we think of as only mental activities often encompass their expected physical result:

– To “remember” can mean “to act on someone’s behalf.” In Genesis 8:1 it says that “God remembered Noah and dried up the flood waters.” But God didn’t just wake up one morning and suddenly recall that an ark was out bobbing around somewhere. He “remembered” Noah by coming to his rescue.

– To “know” another person is to have a relationship with them, to care about them, even to be intimate with them. When Adam “knew” Eve, she conceived Cain (Genesis 4:1).

bereshit-bigHebrew verbs stress action and effect, rather than just mental activity. This isn’t unique to Hebrew. Lorrie Anderson, a New Testament translator in Peru, searched for months to find a word for “believe” in the Candoshi language. No direct equivalent existed for that all-important term in Bible translation. What she finally discovered was that “hear” in that language also can mean “believe” and also “obey.” Anderson writes,

The question, “Don’t you hear His Word?” in Candoshi means “Don’t you believe-obey His Word?” In their way of thinking, if you “hear” you believe what you hear, and if you believe, you obey. These are not separate ideas as in English.

She and other Bible translators share the same observation. They often struggle to find words for mental activities that we see as all-important, but simply don’t exist in indigenous languages where thought is tied to its expected outcome.

Part of why this seems strange to us is because of our Western perspective. Many of our Greek cultural ancestors, including Plato, considered the mental world all-important and physical reality worthless. As a result, our culture tends to exalt our intellect as critical and discount our actions. Some of us Christians even see actions as “dead works” that are irrelevant, even opposed to faith.

The logic of Hebrew (and other languages) realizes that an action should result from what is in our minds. If you “remember” someone, you will act on their behalf. If you “hear” someone, you will obey their words. If you “know” someone, you will have a close relationship with them. Hebrew realizes that the longest twelve inches that your faith has to move is from your head to your heart. And once your faith makes that move, it naturally comes out through your hands and feet.


If you’re curious to learn more, check out my latest Bible study, 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know.

Also, see my older book Listening to the Language of the Bible which has dozens of devotional articles about Hebrew words and ideas.


4 Responses to “The Wisdom of Hebrew Words”

  1. 1
    Jason Dillingham|February 8, 2013

    Thanks for sharing these Lois. This idea of hearing = obeying seems to be true in the Greek language as well. The best example that I have seen in scripture of this concept is in Romans 5:19…

    For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (Romans 5:19 KJV)

    The word translated disobedience is “parakoia” which translates “hear beside” and carries the meaning of inattentive listening. And the word obedience is “hupakoia” which translates “hear under” and carries the idea of listening in submission.

    When I read that passage with this in mind it brings a great comfort knowing I can rest and trust He makes me righteous by faith in Jesus’ obedience (attentive listening).

    Thanks again for your books & website.

  2. 2
    Lois Tverberg|February 8, 2013

    Thank you, Jason for your feedback and your insightful comment. Here and in some other places Paul uses Greek verbs based on “hearing” to describe obedience.

    As I read more about akouo (“hear” in Greek), I see that while it can connote obedience the NT and Greek OT, it rarely has this sense in classical Greek writing. It generally means “hear, listen” or maybe “pay attention to” but not actually “obey.”

    The reason that New Testament Greek is more Hebraic than Greek is otherwise is because the biblical writers were expressing Hebraic ideas in Greek words. You see this elsewhere too. Like the word for “walk,” paripateo, often means “live” in the NT. (As in 1 John 2:6, “…we must walk as He walked.”) But outside of the Bible, it simply means “walk.” In the New Testament it carries a Hebraic connotation that it normally doesn’t have.

  3. 3
    Chuck Adkinson|May 15, 2013

    i think my!! eyes were opened when i first heard Ray Vaanderlan….i mean wow! then i truly started to see the BIBILE in a whole new light,in its jewish context.If we would only grasp that,i believe the BIBLE wouldnt really be so hard to understand,understanding its a jewish documen…meaning its got that context & culture..your 1st book brought tears to my eyes,THE HOLY SPIRIT showed me SOO MUCH in that book,then i applied it to the BIBLE…and it just TRULY CAME ALIVE to me

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|May 16, 2013

    Thanks for sharing, Chuck.