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The Hebrew language and Messianic prophecies

Published: 17 October 2005; edited and republished 8 March 2008 (GMT+10)

From José Torres, who asked for answers to a particularly aggressive Jewish anti-Christian flaunting his alleged knowledge of Hebrew. Dr Jonathan Sarfati, himself a Hebrew Christian or Messianic Jew, responds below.

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I went to Paltalk to visit Christian chat rooms,

They can be a timewaster, alas, if they are populated by aggressive anti-Christians, and even worse when WFJs (Wimps For Jesus) hamstring the few Christians who are prepared to use the biblical challenge-riposte method in following the Apostle Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 10:4–5. There is a place for straight talking, but unlike our opponents, we must always act with integrity, not using deceit or gutter tactics to win arguments.

and when I visited one in particular I was greeted hostilely by a Jewish person that had (at the very least) little regard for Christians—if not outright hatred.

He should read books like America’s Real War by Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin. The South-African born Lapin now lives in America, and he argues that Jews have prospered most in America not in spite of but because of its strong Christian heritage. He regards the greatest threat to Jews as not Christianity but secularism. Lapin is appalled by the anti-Christian bigotry that emanates from what passes for many Jewish organizations, which promote liberalism more than Judaism.

Apparently, he was a Hebrew scholar lying in ambush to lambaste an unsuspecting Christian.

Or an amateur Christ-hater trying to bluff and bluster Christians.

I tried to extricate myself of the conversation without exacerbating the situation and grieving the Holy Spirit. It took a lot of restraint to not engage in or return the insults and name-calling he hurled at me whenever I didn’t blindly and uncritically accept his viewpoint.

Most commendable, although again please check out the biblical challenge-riposte method.

He took umbrage at the notion that I would “arrogantly” challenge or question any point he made—after all, who am I to question a Hebrew scholar?

If you can cite a superior Hebrew scholar in support, as below, then who is he to deny you the right to question him? And isn’t it just the epitome of arrogance to put oneself above being questioned?

I must confess that to some degree he is correct—who am I to question the opinions of someone speaking in his native tongue.

However, even native Israelis don’t necessarily know the fine points of biblical Hebrew, any more than a native English speaker like me necessarily knows the fine points of Shakespeare or Chaucer.

[Update: ‘Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann argues that his mother tongue is not the language of Isaiah, but a semi-engineered hybrid language based on Yiddish, Hebrew and other languages, and should be called “Israeli”.’ See ‘Why The Language Of Israelis Should Not Be Called Modern Hebrew…’ part 1 and part 2, July 2005.]

However, I know one doesn’t have to be a Hebrew scholar to know certain things about the OT; and I know there are many Jewish believers who are trusting in Christ for their salvation—therefore somebody has to be wrong.

Like me, or Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum of Ariel Ministries. See his excellent book Messianic Christology, Ariel Ministries, 1998, which we stock (see below).

The reason that I’m writing specifically is that I have some questions that deal with the Hebrew language that was raised primarily during that conversation. Please help me with these issues if you have the time:

I recall an article in “Messianic Perspectives” in the Sept–Oct 2001 issue that taught about the difference between echad, and yachid especially with respect to the Jewish Shema (Deut 6:4). Rabbi Joseph Azriel used this verse to demonstrate the Godhead by denoting that the term “one,” or echad refers to a compound entity.

This is correct.

The Hebrew scholar dutiful derided me for having the temerity to call the book “Deuteronomy.”

What, he insisted on Devarim (דְּבָרִים)? But then how many people would understand you? Dr Fruchtenbaum is happy to use the standard English names for the biblical books.

Then he proceeded to outright deny the aforementioned argument regarding echad. First, he claimed that the proper spellings should be rendered yahid and ehad.

Objecting to the exact form of transliterations is the ultimate in pettiness. There are often several ways to approximate a letter from one alphabet into one from a different alphabet. E.g. sometimes the Greek υ (upsilon) is rendered u and other times as y; the χ (chi) is sometimes ch and sometimes kh. And in Russian, the name of one of my chess opponents Спaсский can be rendered Spassky or Spasski, and sometimes hyperliterally Spasskii.

This reminds me of a certain person who has taken on a new career in his dotage as the darling of the anti-theistic religionists for writing tedious pedantry against the intelligent design movement for an atheistic publishing house. One criticism of a progressive creationist’s admittedly bad use of Hebrew was transliterating certain vowels with a caret (ô, û). But this is the normal way of indicating use of the Hebrew letter waw or vav (ו) as a back vowel in the Hebrew (holem and shurek respectively)—the technical term is mater lectionis (plural matres lectionis).

In this case, the Hebrew letter is ח (chet) which is pronounced like the guttural ch in the Scots loch and German Bach, so it certainly is often transliterated ch. This is indeed the letter in echad (אֶחָד) and yachid (יְחִידֶ). Sometimes it is transliterated as an h with a dot underneath. The plain h is usually reserved for the letter ה (he), which is softer.

Then he claimed that yahid refers to the word “one,”

Yachid emphasizes only, alone, as in the phrase ‘only son’ several times (e.g. Genesis 22:2).

and ehad refers to the number “1”. He totally rejected the concept of a compound entity.

He is wrong, as analysis of its uses will show. Fruchtenbaum points out:

  • Genesis 2:24, where the two, man and woman, become one (echad) flesh
  • Ezra 2:64, where the whole assembly was as one (echad)
  • Ezekiel 37:17 where two sticks are combined to form one (echad)

There is also Genesis 1:9, where the waters (plural) are gathered into one (echad) place. Indeed, Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 12th C) substituted yachid for echad in his Thirteen Articles of Faith, although Deuteronomy 6:4, the famous Shema, uses echad. See also this feedback response showing that Rabbi Sha’ul (the Apostle Paul) applied ‘one Lord’ to Christ, including Him in the divine identity. The article Who really is the God of Genesis? from Creation 27(3), June 2005 is also instructive on this point. The article Testing the Trinitarian ‘hypothesis’ … in the Old Testament provides more detail on what echad means.

Finally, he used Gen 1:5 to “prove” his point—Yom Echad—which he translated as “AGE ONE.”

Note here is more proof that echad means composite unity—here, the evening and morning are combined as one day, as Fruchtenbaum shows. However, there is no basis for translating a numbered day with a morning and evening as an age, as we have often pointed out. Dr Ting Wang, lecturer in biblical Hebrew at Stanford University, says:

In Genesis 1, yôm comes with “evening and morning”, and is modified by a number. So it’s obvious that the Hebrew text is describing a 24-hour day—the exegetical burden of proof rests crushingly upon those who view otherwise (notice too that in Jeremiah 33:17–22, God’s covenant with the day and the night, so that both will come at the appointed time, is as unalterable as the promise that a son of David will reign).
Naturally this lead to a debate regarding the word yom, which I defended should be properly translated as “day” by its context and plain reading. I explained that every other place in scripture which contained the combination of yom and certain qualifiers such as numbers, or morning and evening, etc., universally rendered yom as a normal day. Moreover, I alleged that God’s creative week formed the basis of the Jewish Sabbath—6 days of work plus 1 day of rest.

Yes, the causal connection is unambiguous.

Finally, I believe that there is nothing in the context that compels or necessitates rendering “yom” as “age”—especially when there are other words Moses could have used that would have clearly ended ALL doubt if he had genuinely intended to demonstrate the notion of a period of indefinite time.

Quite so, as shown in How long were the days of Genesis 1? and Genesis according to evolution. A common word for an age is ‘olam (עולם), or the Greek equivalent aion (αἰῶν), from which we derive the word eon. Dr Wang points out:

One of the most familiar passages in the Hebrew Bible is found in Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, the “God makes all things beautiful in his time” passage. In Hebrew, two words for “time” appear. The passage begins “There is a season (זְמָן zeman) for everything, and a time (עֵת ‘et) for every activity under heaven: a time (עֵת) to be born and a time (עֵת) to die, a time (עֵת) to plant and a time (עֵת) to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal … ,” and so on. Whereas זְמָן is only used in the later books Esther, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, (עֵת) is used throughout Scripture, and would be an appropriate term to communicate an indefinite period of time, though most likely used without a number.
After some requisite scolding he proceeded to reject all of my arguments and ridiculed my lame understanding of Hebrew and claimed that anyone that really knows Hebrew would never translate yom as “day” in that context. I found that interesting because your website came to the exact opposite conclusion. Then he proceeded to call me arrogant for allegedly attempting to correct his knowledge of Hebrew.

Does he really claim to know more than Josephus; the Jewish scholars of the middle ages; Dr Andrew Steinmann, Associate Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University, Illinois; Dr Ting Wang as above; James Barr, Oriel Professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Oxford University; Dr Robert McCabe, Professor of Old Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park; Dr Robert Boyd, Ph.D. in Hebraic and Cognate Studies, Associate Professor of Bible at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California; … ? All affirm that Genesis teaches creation in six normal-length days, while the day-age theory is indefensible.

There are some Jews who are against this, of course, even the ostensibly Orthodox Rabbi Nosson Slifkin. But he is the Jewish equivalent of alleged evangelicals who promote theistic evolution. A few exceptions do not undermine the overwhelming support for literal days throughout both Jewish and Church history.

He denied that Prov 30:4 spoke of God having a Son.

Let’s see, the verse says:

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?

Obviously the answer is God. Then the verse continues:

What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
Surely you know!

This clearly states that God does have a son, and uses the usual Hebrew word ben. And God’s name יהוה (YHVH, the Lord) had been revealed to man by this stage. But at this stage of God’s progressive revelation, no one could know the Son’s name, which is the point of the writer’s irony, “Surely you know!”

(Then he called me an idiot for claiming His Son was Jesus.)

Does he have a better candidate?

Another Jew (non-Christian) made the point that the word translated as “pierced” in Isa 53 should be properly rendered as “mauled.”

Are you sure you’re not referring to Zec 12:10?

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

The word translated ‘pierced’ is דקר (daqar), which means thrust through. And note that the speaker in this verse is יהוה God Himself, who states that he himself was the one pierced. This was fulfilled at the crucifixion when a Roman soldier stabbed Jesus in the side with a spear (John 19:31–37). The Talmud affirms that the Messiah is in view here (Succah 52a).

He went on to allege that Christians have doctored scripture or mistranslated many verses to support our theology.

It’s the other way round. Many Christians appealed to the Septuagint, which was a translation into Greek made about 250 BC, traditionally made by 72 rabbis, 6 from each of the 12 tribes (Latin septuaginta = 70). Messianic Christology documents traditional rabbinic interpretations of the Messianic prophecies. This includes an appendix showing that Isaiah 53 was regarded as Messianic by most Jewish works throughout history. They include the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel (ad 1st century), Babylonian Talmud, the Musaf prayer of Rabbi Eliezer Kalir (7th C) Bereshith Rabbah of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan (11th C). After the revisionist Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), a grape grower living in 11th C northern France, proposed that the suffering servant was Israel, Maimonides and Rabbi Moshe Kohen Ibn Crispin (14th C) strongly affirmed that Isaiah 53 pointed to the Messiah.

I pray that I may humbly grow in God’s grace and come to a better understanding of His Word that I may come to know the Lord Jesus Christ in a deeper, life-transforming way. I pray that I do not intentionally or unwittingly offend anyone and turn them away from God’s truth.

I pray that this response has helped.

Best regards in Yeshua Hamashiach
Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D.

Published: 3 February 2006

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
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Christianity for Skeptics
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Christianity for Skeptics
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