In 1958 I left the East Coast for Pasadena, not because of the idyllic California weather, but to study the Bible at Fuller Theological Seminary, the pioneering young graduate school that was part of “New Evangelicalism,” a refreshing spiritual movement associated with the evangelism of Billy Graham, the campus ministries of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the writings of some prominent authors who were stretching to make the gospel more relevant to young people in the twentieth century. I was excited to discover more about the Bible, and Fuller promised to give me the tools so that I could study the Scripture, in depth, on my own throughout my life. I’ve never regretted that decision.
One of the most important aspects of my Fuller training was that I was required to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written. In my first year I studied Greek, the language of the New Testament. That was pretty easy for me, since I had Latin in high school, and those two languages are quite similar, both in vocabulary and grammatical structure. It was fascinating to read the Gospels and Epistles in the language of the earliest believers. However, since English had emerged from the same Indo-European family of languages, I didn’t feel that knowledge of Greek opened to me much new understanding of the familiar Biblical texts.
BUT HEBREW! That was another story. As I was learning how the Hebrew language works, I felt like I was stepping out of a space ship on another planet. Hebrew is rooted in the family of Semitic languages, which seem to have a very different way of seeing reality and expressing our interaction with it. There is much less attention to connective words, prepositions, prefixes and suffixes. Important words lay next to one another, and it’s up to the speaker and hearer to understand, by intuition, how they relate to each another. And any one of these key words seems to be more than just a word, but rather embraces a whole concept or idea. For instance, there’s no adequate way to translate shalom into English. We use the word “peace,” but shalom has many dimensions and layers that “peace” doesn’t express. The same is true of chesed, which we translate as “loving-kindness” or steadfast love,” and nephesh, which we translate as either “soul” or “person.” The Hebrew words are much bigger than their English translations.
In short, I fell in love with Hebrew. Most of my friends didn’t understand this; it was pretty much my personal journey. I took other Semitic languages, Old Babylonian, Arabic, Modern Hebrew. Then I became a teaching assistant for Beginning Hebrew. My thirst to become better acquainted with the Hebrew language continued after graduation from seminary. By God’s grace, the first church I pastored was in a community that was seventy-five percent Jewish, and the Rabbi invited me to sit in on a weekly Advanced Hebrew class he taught for his most serious young people. This meant that all my early sermons based on Old Testament passages were prepared out of an intimate involvement in the original language.
All of this is to tell you that our current preaching series through the Old Testament has a special meaning for me. Pastor Connie has also studied Hebrew, though probably without my fanaticism. We’re hoping that the way we’re approaching this, focusing on an entire Book each Sunday, and using one or two representative passages to try to communicate that Book’s “flavor,” is true to the spirit of the original Hebrew words. Greek speaks with commas, colons and semicolons. Hebrew speaks with exclamation points. We hope you feel that bold, insistent rhythm through our sermons and that this brings you to a more profound appreciation for the God of the Old Testament.
— Pastor George Van Alstine