Ministers of God’s Word are expected to know the languages in which God’s Word was originally written, Hebrew and Greek, with some Aramaic. But often those who have previously studied Hebrew and Greek allow their knowledge of the languages to slip away, as the pressures of ministry reshape priorities and commitments. In their new book, Adam J. Howell, Robert L. Plummer, and Benjamin L. Merkle seek to give readers the motivation and accountability to continue growing in their understanding of Hebrew.
When people think of a textbook on the biblical languages, they stereotype it as filled with declensions, grammar rules, and worksheets. How is this book different?
This book was designed as a personal trainer for Hebrew. Everyone knows you should exercise, but most people don’t go to the gym. However, if they hire a trainer, then they have someone who tells them, “You need to do this. You need to do that.” The trainer encourages them not to stop when it’s difficult, and the trainer also gives them a plan for making progress. In a way, this book is a paperback personal trainer for biblical languages.
You reference the “law of the harvest” as a motivating factor for learning Hebrew. What is it and how does it drive our study?
When it comes to the original languages, we have to focus on the long game. In our culture, we want things fast. We assume we can finish everything we need for the languages in two semesters. But understanding the biblical languages is a lifelong journey. I’m hoping we can convince people of this. Even if you only get the minimal semesters, there’s plenty more to know, learn, and love about the original languages. For most people, it will take many years to reach a level of enjoyment. So the “law of the harvest” is this: the diligent work of planting and watering must happen now, and the payoff may not come until later. So, long for the harvest days when you can sit down and open up your Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament and read them with love and great joy.
Luther said: “If through our neglect we let the languages go, we shall lose the gospel.” Why do you think our perception of the original languages’ importance has shifted today?
I can speak to Hebrew particularly. One reason is that people are intimidated by it. I tell my students that Hebrew is more intimidating than it is hard. The script is entirely foreign to us, and you read it backward when compared to most of our native languages. Second, positive advances in translation techniques have led some to assume the original languages are unnecessary. Thank- fully, we do have good English translations, but this doesn’t cancel the value of learning the languages. Finally, there’s an undercurrent in our culture: we don’t want to do difficult things like learning Hebrew.
It’s a lot easier for someone to waste time on YouTube videos or spend hours skimming through Instagram and Facebook than it is to work on learning Hebrew and Greek. But when you think about how many thousands of hours we spend on trivial and unimportant matters, it’s shocking. We need to be challenged by this uncomfortable truth: we do what we love. We must be careful to reinforce our love for God’s Word rather than trivial things.
How would you encourage someone who has fallen away from studying the original languages?
It can be done. A lot of people think they’ve fallen too far from their previous studies. Pride may even get in the way and they’ll start thinking “It’s not worth starting with the alphabet again.” To that person, I would say: you can do it, and it’s worth it.
Seeing people successfully return can be a great motivation. I’ve personally seen many people come back successfully with less ability and more years on them than the person reading this interview. Success in returning to the biblical languages is not a matter of raw intellectual ability; it’s a matter of desire and strategy. Hebrew for Life gives you the strategy. If you choose to read it, you already have a desire—one the book will fan into flames. The future is bright for the person who has enough motivation to read a book like this.