Language and Cultural Background

Hebrew Text

Genesis was written in a language, ancient Hebrew, that was very different from our own. In addition, it was initially written to a people whose way of thinking was significantly different from ours. As background for our study of the opening chapters of Genesis we will briefly look at some important characteristics of the Hebrew language and the Hebrew way of thinking. We will then examine the “days” of Genesis 1 that have been a focal point of much of the controversy. After looking at some additional key words in the creation account, we will conclude this section by examining the literary structure of Genesis one.

The Hebrew Language

Some of the difficulties involved in interpreting the creation account relate to the Hebrew language in which it was written [8]. First of all, Biblical Hebrew contained very few words relative to modern languages. The ancient Hebrew vocabulary was about 1% the size of modern English. It follows that most Hebrew words had several meanings. Also, it was not possible in Biblical Hebrew to express many of the nuances we find in English.

The small size of the ancient Hebrew vocabulary also means that the English words used to translate the Hebrew often have additional connotations that were not present in the original. For example, when we think of the words “earth” and “heavens” we think of a roughly spherical planet orbiting the sun in a vast universe containing many other planets and suns. However, to the original hearers, the Hebrew word for “earth” would likely have referred to the relatively flat ground surrounding them, and the word for “heavens” would likely have meant the “dome-shaped” sky they saw above. Therefore, you can see that the meaning we attach to words is greatly influenced by our culture.

When we desire accuracy in communication, we usually rely on the written word rather than the spoken word. This was not true in ancient cultures. The primary way that the scriptures were transmitted was orally. Even the written Old Testament scriptures were usually read aloud to the Israelites. The words in most languages are made up of consonants and vowels. In speech, consonants involve motion of the lips or tongue whereas vowels involve air flow deeper in the throat. The words in Biblical Hebrew consisted entirely of consonants. Of Course, vowel sounds were used in oral communication. The root words in Biblical Hebrew usually consisted of two or three consonants. To these were added prefixes and suffixes signifying gender, person, number, etc. Other letters were sometimes added to the root words to form additional (often related) words. Vowel marks were not introduced into the Hebrew language until about 150 A.D. Therefore, many words in written Hebrew corresponded to several spoken words. For example, the Hebrew word baqar consisted of the three consonants Beyt, Quph, and Resh. It could have the following meanings depending on how it was pronounced

  • baw-kar is translated as “seek” or “inquire”
  • baw-kawr' is translated as “ox”
  • bo'-ker is translated as “morning”

In Biblical Hebrew, the meaning of a word almost always depends on the context.

In addition, verbs in Biblical Hebrew do not have tenses related to time. Thus, we cannot tell from the verb itself whether the action takes place in the past, in the present, or in the future. Hebrew verbs were action related and indicated either a completed action (perfect form) or an incomplete action (imperfect form). In English, various forms of the verb “to be” (is, am, are, etc.) are used quite often. In Hebrew this verb is often omitted. For example, we might say “I am a father” or “you are clever.” The Hebrews would say the equivalent of “I father” and “you clever,” i.e., they would not use any verb at all. Hebrew does have, however, a verb hayah that means “to be” or “to exist.” Forms of this verb are used in the following scriptures:

Genesis 1:3And God said, Let there be light

Exodus 3:14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM

However, this verb is not used in many of the situations where a form of “to be” would be used in English. The Hebrew language also does not have an indefinite article “a,” but one is often inserted by the translator to make a passage read better in English. Hebrew does have the equivalent of the definite article “the.”

Some additional characteristics of the Hebrew language are that it is written from right to left and its letters are all of one case (there are no upper and lower case letters). There are no punctuation marks, although sometimes there are words that serve the same purpose. The word order is usually opposite to that of English with the verb preceding the subject. The distinction between verbs and nouns is not as great as it is in English, with related verbs and nouns often having the same root. Nouns in Hebrew are usually action related. I think you can see from these brief remarks that the Hebrew language is very different from English. This makes the task of translation and interpretation very difficult.