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The Bible in Modern Hebrew

Category Articles
Date January 4, 2008

Why a Translation from Hebrew to Hebrew?

Spoken Hebrew differs from biblical Hebrew far more than Shakespeare’s English differs from the English of today. Biblical Hebrew speaks of a large woman (2 Kings 4:8) to indicate a woman of influence. Hosea (8:4) speaks of Israel’s idolatry: ‘With their silver and gold, they make idols for themselves to their own destruction.’ The term he uses for idols means, in the Hebrew of today, nervous, implying that, with their silver and gold, Israel made God nervous, and that such action was bound to result in their destruction.

(2 Kings 10:22) means parrot today but most likely originally referred to a species of monkeys. Leviticus 23:40 informs the people of Israel to use the boughs of goodly trees (KJV), the foliage of beautiful trees (NASV), or choice fruit from the trees (NIV) in their celebration of Tabernacles, but the term in Modern Hebrew refers to the fruit of citrus trees. In biblical Israel there were no citrus trees, and citrus does not bear fruit (except for the inedible Citron).

There are many such instances in which a Modern Hebrew reader is liable to think he understands the Scriptures when the meaning is, in fact, beyond him. Rather than allowing the loss of biblical Hebrew words whose meaning is unknown, Modern Hebrew accorded them new meanings. Ezekiel 1:27, in the New International Version, speaks of a brilliant light surrounding the glorious figure on the throne. The NASV translates brilliance and the KJV brightness. The Hebrew term is Chashmal, the meaning of which nobody can determine. Modern Hebrew has utilized this term to indicate electricity.

Some 80% of Modern Hebrew’s words come from the Scriptures. However, the two differ in their syntax and in their use of times, so much so that translators often differ widely whether they should render the text in past, present or future tenses. Isaiah 60:2 is rendered in the present tense by the NIV and in the past by the KJV and the NASB.

Sometimes it is not clear from the text who is the subject or the object of the verb, if the subject is single or multiple, or if the first, second or third person should be employed. Hebrew uses different conjugations for male and female, but biblical Hebrew is inconsistent, so that males are at times referred to in female terms and vice versa, rendering the text less than readily understandable. The difficulties facing a modern reader often blur the message.

It is a privilege to read the Scriptures in Hebrew. A knowledge of Hebrew enables a reader to recognize the relationship between man (Adam) and the earth (adamah), or to note the relationship between the Hebrew name of our Lord (Yeshua) and the salvation he brings (yeshua), so that the angel’s instructions to Mary (‘you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’, Matt. 1:21) make sense. An acquaintance with biblical geography, topography and climates is also a real help – so long as the reader does not assume that the topography and climate of Israel today are identical to those of Bible times.

To understand the Scriptures, we must invest time and effort studying. The differences between biblical and spoken Hebrew are obstacles that need to be overcome. When Jospeh Klausner, famed Professor of Hebrew Literature in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wanted to read the book of Job, he admitted he could not understand the original and, to get at the message of the book, was forced to use a (Christian) translation into French!

To overcome this difficulty, and to encourage Israelis to find interest in the Bible, HaGefen Publishing decided to undertake the translation of the whole Bible into Modern Hebrew. In the course of time, this project was transferred to Choshen Publications, the publishing arm of Grace and Truth Christian Congregation. Most of the financial support for this project comes from Patmos International in Finland, with regular help from EDI in Germany and periodic contributions from other sources.

Our translation is not intended to replace the Masoretic text commonly used in Israel, but to help understand that text. It is our desire to encourage and assist Israelis to read the Bible and understand it for themselves. Our translation is, therefore, studiously non-tendentious.

How is the Translation Done?

Shoshi translates from the Masoretic text. She first reads the book a number of times, studies its historical background, literary characteristics, message and relationship to other biblical texts. Then she creates a draft, utilizing Jewish and Christian commentaries and linguistic aids. When in doubt, translational options are indicated, with linguistic or literary comment to attach.

Careful adherence to the text is a priority. We make every effort to be as close to the original as possible, including the original syntax, word for word, sentence for sentence, verse by verse.

The first draft is finalized and then submitted to Baruch for editing. It then returns to Shoshi, where it is made the subject of extended editorial discussion. The resultant draft is sent to various control groups: young readers, parents, teachers and professionals in the relevant biblical and linguistic fields of expertise. Their comments are reviewed and often incorporated. Finally, the illustrations are wedded to the text.

The Illustrations

While the translation is being created, Diana is occupied with the illustrations. These are intended to inform rather than to decorate, to render the text more understandable, more vivid and more interesting. They are an important part of the project because they help the reader think in concrete terms of what he reads and to place the text in an historical context.

Diana first prepares black and white sketches, improves on them following editing, and examines every figure, every facial expression, every utensil and every architectural structure. In some cases she adds illustrations. Then she creates the final illustrations in full colour. So far over 2,000 illustrations have been created – and we’re not done yet!

Some terms are best understood through a picture. Diana has spent many hours studying how people in the various biblical periods and cultures looked, dressed, cared for their hair, what they used at meals, how they built their houses, cities, gates, and walls. She needed to learn to distinguish between Assyrian and Babylonian temples, or those in Canaan, between Egyptian, Cushite, Amorite and Hivite gods. Here too, historical accuracy is the guiding principle. So, when all is ready, we compare the illustrations with the text to ensure that the two fit; that we have not drawn a parrot but written of a monkey, or that we have not drawn shoes when the text speaks of sandals.

This amount of care is invested in an effort to provide our readers with a text that will drive them to read the Scriptures, study, understand, love and obey them.

So far we have produced two volumes – Volume One includes the five books of Moses; Volume Two includes the historical books. Volume Three includes the prophetic books and is due to be published by the end of 2007 or the very beginning of 2008.

Many encouraging responses have been received from both adults and children to the first two volumes. Many have told us they are eagerly awaiting the next volume and the completion of the project. Some have gifted their school-mates or school-teachers with copies. Such responses encourage us as we continue with the important project, although book distributors have declined to carry our translation and the daily press has refused to accept our advertisements. We have been able to air some advertisements over the radio and intend to continue such advertising to the full extent of our limited resources.

There is no imagining what could happen if the Word of God is turned loose on the people of our nation. God’s Word is alive and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword and able to pierce the depths of a human heart and transform it. Pray with us as we carry on our work, and stand with us with your support.

Preaching at Grace and Truth

Having completed the series on man and his nature, based on the Confession of Faith, we have embarked on an expository series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It has been our practice during the last few years to alternate between the twin series on the Confession and that from the Minor Prophets. But we do not want to neglect the New Testament. Therefore, having preached through Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah and Jonah, and through the Doctrines of God, the word of God, creation, providence, and man, we will devote a series to Ephesians.

Paul’s excitement over Christ, the central role that Christ has in God’s purposes and the importance of the one body of Christ for the accomplishment of those purposes will occupy our minds and hearts for the coming months.

Is Israel a Religious State?1

According to a recent poll, a mere 20% of Jews in Israel openly describe themselves as secular. Since the early 1970s, Israeli Jews’ affinity to Jewish tradition has fluctuated, but recent figures represent a low point for the secular community. In 1974, the number of those describing themselves as secular was more than 40%.

The new Democracy Index conducted by the Guttman Center at the Israel Democracy Institute is based on 1,016 interviews. It includes a breakdown along general national and cultural origins, namely Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent), Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) and Israeli-born (when both the subjects and their parents were born in Israel).

Of the latter, 85% claimed some form of religious affiliation, compared with 93% of Mizrahim and 64% of Ashkenazim. Among the Mizrahim, 56% described themselves as religious, compared with 17 percent of Ashkenazim.

The current survey reflects a link between secularism and age, education and political views. Younger people are more religious, people with academic degrees are more secular, and the secular tend to identify more with the political left.


  1. Based on an article by Yair Ettinger, Haaretz Correspondent, November 23, 2007.

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