To some extent, yes, but it wouldn’t be very useful. We know that English words can have several meanings or can be used in various ways. Similarly, Hebrew words may also have multiple meanings, and they may not overlap the English meanings at all. In fact, since the whole Hebrew thought process is different, sometimes it might even take several English sentences to explain one Hebrew word. Also, just as the sentence structure is often different in other languages, it could be very difficult to read and understand if English words were directly substituted for Hebrew words in a sentence. So, for all intents and purposes, the practical answer is ‘no.’
A Strong’s Concordance indexes every word in the King James Bible to a Strong’s number. Then, by looking up that number in the dictionary in the back of the book, you can find the Hebrew word and its English meanings. If your Bible is a different translation, you must be especially careful to ensure that you are referencing the exact English word that was used in the KJ version.
Since Eastern and Western thought processes are different, the meaning of words tends to be different also, making it extremely difficult to create accurate word for word translations. Translators attempt to choose words that are as similar as possible, but they quite often don’t agree on what those words mean. Over time, as languages age, the accepted meaning of many common words changes also. An example would be that 100 years ago was known as the Gay 20’s yet it had nothing to do with sexual orientation of the people involved.
The first concern one should have in understanding a language is the context in which the writer wrote the word and in which the reader or hearer received the word. To assume that the meaning of a word used 2500 years ago, in a cultural setting that was nomadic and agrarian, would have the same meaning as it does today in a modern urban setting would be short sighted at best. It has been said that a text taken out of context is simply a pretext! The same holds true for a text taken in a context that didn’t even exist at its writing.
The first rule of discovery in Ancient /Paleo Hebrew is Context, Context, and Context.
As an example, the English language is learned phonetically. For instance, when we see the word “cat” in English we put together the sounds of each letter for the word that helps us envision a small furry animal that is our pet. The “c” has no meaning by itself, nor does the “a”, or the “t”.
Not so in the Paleo Hebrew pictographic learning. Each picture letter in a word has a meaning that would be easily recognizable by an ancient Bedouin. The sum of the meanings of the letters would reveal the meaning of the word.
Our website has videos and worksheets explaining how to break down and understand different words to assist in understanding the process.
A definition is the generally accepted meaning(s) of a word based on the general usage of that word. This can apply to pictorially based words as well as phonetically based words. The functional meaning of a word is that perspective that the word projects based on the combining of the pictographs that comprise the word with the context within which the word is used. Functional meaning is based on the physical message of a person, place, thing, or action each letter projects and can therefore not only speak to a natural meaning but to a spiritual principle or precept as well.
Culture is everything to the Paleo Hebrew language. Each pictograph conveys a thought based on the cultural perception of the picture. Modern perceptions would easily distort the readers understanding of a word based on the lack of ancient cultural experience.
Within some limits, yes, one could twist the meaning of a word to suit their desires, either out of ignorance or to fulfill an agenda. That is why it is so important to attempt to understand the letters and words in the context of the time and people where it was used. It is not a perfect or easy task for a 21th century English speaking person in a modern land of abundance to fully understand the meaning of ancient writings. That is why it is critical that we study the ancient times and understand the Hebraisms that are so very different from our Western thought processes.
Rather than pursue a different or more accurate definition or a deeper or mystical meaning of a Hebrew word, Paleo / Ancient Hebrew’s greatest asset is to assist the student in more clearly determining the “functional meaning” of the word. The scriptural principle that enhances this process is that, first comes the natural and then comes the spiritual. In other words, once the natural message(s) of the individual pictograph is known then the “functional meaning” of that word picture finds its value. This process is interdependent on the reader knowing the message conveyed by the individual pictographs in their cultural context. In contrast, English as well as most Western language systems are phonetic in design using a memory system of shapes and sounds to form words that are phonetically memorized but have little if any embedded meaning in the individual letters. An excellent example of these differences is found in the word “dog”. In English D – o – g is simply three individual shapes with no inherent meaning. In Ancient / Paleo pictographs, the Hebrew for dog is K – l – b, or Kalev. Its functional meaning is “all heart”. Anyone that has spent time with “man’s best friend” knows that a dog’s nature is “all heart”!
Additionally, it should be noted that the growth of Modern Hebrew, dictated by the need for new words with no Biblical background, has accelerated the pressure to use phonetic practices to create new Hebrew words without the underlying meanings prevalent in Ancient / Paleo Hebrew.
Just like in English where words can have several meanings, it all about context. How is it used, where is it used, who is using it, etc. The more we study the ways and times of the people who wrote the letters, the better we understand what they were trying to communicate using the letters.
While the study of Paleo Hebrew is not new, it is enjoying a resurgence of interest with new sources of information available on the internet nearly every day. Frank Seekins’ book Hebrew Word Pictures
and Jeff Benner’s book Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible
and his website, www.ancient-hebrew.org
are some of the best tools to start a study. Numerous videos are available on YouTube. Check out our own Word Study page to see writings and videos by Pastor Jim Woodard.
Only a few original documents from the time period where Paleo Hebrew was prevalent remain or have been discovered:
- The Zayit Stone contains the earliest known inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew script and has been dated to the 10th Century BC. While not technically a document, it is inscribed with a complete abecedary, basically a listing of the letters of the alphabet.
- The Siloam Inscription, 8th Century BC, indicates that King Hezekiah closed up the waters of the Gihon Springs and had the water diverted through an underground tunnel to the Pool of Siloam. The inscription records the construction of the tunnel.
- Another find is the Ketef Hinnom scrolls. These two tiny silver scrolls (about 1 inch long) were found in burial caves. It took experts three years to unroll and discover the priestly blessing in Paleo Hebrew. The scrolls are believed to pre-date the Dead Sea scrolls by about four centuries.
- The Samaritans of Israel still use a unique form of Paleo Hebrew in their religious and worship practices.
We think the Paleo is initially much simpler because it is easier to associate the pictorial letters with their meaning. Writing and understanding a few hundred Paleo words is rather intuitive and gives a great foundation for the language. Once you get beyond that initial study, communicating using the Modern is probably necessary.
The earliest Paleo Hebrew inscriptions dated about 1000BC were nearly identical to the earliest Phoenician alphabet carvings. Over the next several hundred years, regional characteristics began to separate the script into different national alphabets (all within 100-200 miles), including Israelite, Samaritan, Moabite, Edomite, Phoenician, and Old Aramaic. Even within those smaller regions, the script also changed due to the writing medium changes, i.e. chiseled stone, clay, papyrus, etc.
The explanations and products on our website occasionally use some of the regional variants that help demonstrate the functional meanings of the words depicted.
During and after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC, most of the Hebrew writings started using Aramaic lettering and became, over time, very similar to the Arabic style.