The Hebrew Way of Thinking

The way we interpret scripture depends a lot on the way we view the world around us (our worldview). The ancient Hebrews viewed the world much differently than we do. Worldviews are generally divided into two categories — Eastern and Western. The way that the Hebrews and other ancient cultures viewed the world would be classified as mostly “Eastern.” The “Western” way of thinking was introduced by the Greeks in the sixth century BC through the works of philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The Greek way of thinking is more abstract and less experiential. The Western or Greek way of thinking spread rapidly and is now dominant in our world. Even though the New Testament was written in Greek, the authors were primarily Hebrews and thought like Hebrews. In the following we will look brefly at how the Hebrew way of thinking differs from our own.

Dynamic vs. Static

The Greeks tended to view change as bad. Things usually deteriorate with time. Thus, they tended to view life in terms of static pictures much like a photograph taken with a camera. The Hebrews on the other hand tended to view life dynamically. They saw the future positively as an opportunity for new beginnings. In English, we make a sharp distinction between nouns and verbs. Nouns refer to persons, places, or things. Verbs refer to actions. Hebrew does not make this sharp distinction. People and things are thought of in terms of what they do. For example, the Hebrews would not think of God in terms of characteristics such as omnipotent or omnipresent. Instead, they would think of God in terms of what he is doing for them or what he has done for them, e.g. “The God who brought us out of Egypt”

The Hebrew emphasis on action can be seen in their sentence structure. We tend to place the subject before the verb. In Hebrew the order is usually the opposite with the verb preceding the subject.

Concrete vs. Abstract

The language of the Hebrews is a concrete language, meaning that it uses words that express something that can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard and all five of the senses are used when speaking , hearing, writing and reading the Hebrew language. An example of this can be found in Psalms 1:3

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither.

Greek thought deals more with abstractions and generalizations. Examples of abstract thought can be found in Psalms 103:8

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.

The terms “compassionate”, “gracious”, “anger”, and “love” represent abstract concepts that cannot be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, or heard. These terms were used by the translator to make this verse easier to understand by an English speaking reader. The Hebrew words used in this verse were more concrete. For example, the word translated as “anger” actually refers to the nose in Hebrew. Hebrews thought of anger in terms of heavy breathing and a flaring of the nostrils.

The abstract viewpoint tends to view objects and events as an observer looking on from the outside. The Hebrews tended to view these objects and events as they experience them. Thus, they were more personally involved and often expressed more emotion.

Appearance vs. Function
In Greek thought, things are described by their appearance, whereas in Hebrew thought things are described in terms of their function. For example, a Greek thinker might describe a pencil as yellow, approximately seven inches long, and having a tip at one end. A Hebrew thinker would more likely describe it by “I write with it.” Greek descriptions make heavy use of adjectives such as yellow and long. Hebrew descriptions usually involve verbs more than adjectives. If you look at the description of Noah's ark in Genesis 6 or the description of the tabernacle in Exodus 25–26, you will find that the appearance is not described, only building instructions.
Events vs. Continuous Time
Greek thinkers tend to think of time geometrically in terms of a line with the present representing a point on the line, the future in front of the present point to the right, and the past behind the point to the left. Events are then superimposed on this line. The Hebrews didn't think of time as a separate thing. They marked time by events, e.g., the time of harvest or the time God brought them out of Egypt. Time was a derivative concept to the Hebrews. Events and their relationship to each other were primary. The Hebrews didn't tend to think chronologically. In the Old Testament events were not arranged so much by their chronological sequence as by their impact or importance. An indication that Hebrews viewed time differently is the fact that they didn't have time-related verb forms (past, present, future).
Block Logic vs. Step Logic
Greek logic breaks thing down into a succession of steps where each step logically follows from the previous step. The Hebrews tended to think in terms of independent blocks of experiences. The blocks didn't necessarily have any relation to one another either logically or chronologically. This type of thinking can frequently lead to contradictions. The Hebrews didn't seem to worry much about contradictions. They believed that any contradictions were only apparent and merely illustrated our limited understanding of God's actions.
Agency vs. Natural
Science primarily deals with the law-like behavior of events rather than the agent that caused them to happen. For example, science might describe the operation of a machine without considering either the designer or the builder. However, our culture often thinks of nature as the cause of events. This way of thinking would have been completely foreign to the ancient Hebrews. In fact it would have been foreign to the early scientists such as Newton. Newton didn't think that he had explained the solar system when he came up with his laws of motion and gravitation. This law could explain why the orbits of planets were elliptical, but it said nothing about the origin of the planets and how they came to be located in their relative positions. Ancient cultures such as the Hebrews tended to view everything in terms of the supernatural. To the Hebrew God was completely in charge and they marveled at his works.
The Whole vs. The Particular

The picture below was shown to a large number of viewers from around the world. They were asked what they saw in this picture.

Deer in a grove

Those from Western, Greek thinking cultures usually said they saw a deer. Those from Eastern countries usually saw a grove. The Hebrews, like those from Eastern countries, tended to see the whole rather than the particular. The survey also showed the respondents the following pictures and were asked how they thought the boy in the center felt.

Smiling boy

Those from Western, Greek thinking cultures saw the boy as happy in both pictures. Those from Eastern countries saw the boy as happy in the left picture, but sad in the right picture. They figured he was sad in the right picture since everyone else in the picture looked sad.

Hebrew writing can be thought of as word pictures that are meant to be viewed as a whole. Ideas are often expressed using poetry and symbolism. Approximately one third of the Old Testament is poetry and even the narrative portions often use poetic type symbolsm.

As we look at the creation account in Genesis, we need to keep in mind how this narrative might have been viewed by the original audience.