There is something very special and unique with the Hebrew language. Especially when it comes to the Bible. The ability to read the Old Testament in the original language is something I am very grateful for, and I try not to take it for granted.
This is not to say that translations are bad. Bible translations is incredibly important – we need the gospel to be accessible to as many people as possible in their heart language. But when you translate, you will inevitably lose some traits of the original language, such as poetic sound, word plays, and double meanings. In some cases a good translation will overcome this with footnotes, but it’s not the same.
I grew up in a Christian charismatic church in Sweden until I was 13. It was a very pro-Israel congregation, and they always emphasized the connection to Israel and the Jewish people.
Despite this, when I moved to Israel, learned Hebrew, and started to study the Old Testament as a subject in an Israeli school, it was as if I didn’t recognize the Bible I had grown up with. It was like a new world to explore, and it took on a much deeper meaning. It was the same stories and the same message – but somehow the atmosphere, the “vibe” and the “feel” for it were different.
It is almost impossible to share that experience, but I still want to share five Bible verses that sound so much better in Hebrew. Maybe it will give you a little glimpse into the richness of the Hebrew Bible.
- Exodus 31:6 – “I have given ability to all the skilled workers.” The beauty of this passage is completely lost in translation. The NASB retains more of the original, but makes it more convoluted to read in English. “In the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill.” In Hebrew, the word “skillful” is directly translated as “wise-hearted”, so this verse says more directly “In the heart of every wise-hearted, I have put wisdom.” See how theologically sound and poetic it is? The theme of the heart-wise-heart-wise come together so beautifully. It becomes a lot better in Hebrew. “be-Lev kol chacham-lev natati chochmah.” בלב כל חכם-לב נתתי חכמה.
- Ecclesiastes 7:1 – “A good name is better than fine perfume.” This is really a play on words, as the Hebrew words for name and for perfume are similar. It doesn’t actually say perfume, but oil. The context shows that the oil here is really some sort of ointment or perfume, so I think the NIV did a good job. Still, no one can recreate the beauty of this Hebrew word play. Just listen to how beautiful it becomes. “Tov shem mi-shemen tov.” טוב שם משמן טוב.
- Jeremiah 33:11 – “The sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom.” The word “kol” means sound or voice, but in English it has to be translated according to context. Is it a voice, a sound, a shout? The poetry of this passage lies in the reuse of the word “kol,” but since the English has to translate it as “sounds” in one instance and as “voice” in the other, it loses its poetic beauty. “Kol sasson ve-kol simcha, kol chatan ve-kol kala.” It’s a very famous phrase and you will often hear it at Jewish weddings. קול ששון וקול שמחה קול חתן וקול כלה.
- Ezekiel 18:2 “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This is a philosophic point of reference, making the point that children are punished for their parents sins. God is using Ezekiel in this passage to tell them why this saying is false. The saying is still used today when trouble arise which is rooted in mistakes from previous generations. “Avot achlu boser ve-shiney banim tikhena.” אבות אכלו בוסר ושיני בנים תקהינה.
- Song of Solomon 6:3 – “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The way English creates possession makes this beautiful poetic phrase longer, more convoluted and less poetic. Directly translated to Hebrew, it would be “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me,” but since these words are so much shorter in Hebrew, and you can create “my” just by adding an -i at the end of a word, it makes it so much shorter, sweeter, and more beautiful. It’s a verse that is often carved into wedding rings. “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li.” אני לדודי ודודי לי.
These are just a small sample of verses that are so much better in Hebrew. Some because of their poetry, some more because of how they have become a well known figure of speech, or the way they are used in Jewish culture.
If you study Hebrew, I know it’s very hard – but don’t miss out on the beauty. Look up once in a while from the verb inclinations and the accusative prepositions and enjoy this precious bonus that God has given. It’s an extra gift he offers to anyone who invests time learning the language of His people.
This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, September 5, 2020, and reposted with permission.