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Hebrew—An Introduction to Reading the Old Testament
About this course
Lesson 10: Studying the Hebrew Bible
How to land a conclusion (step 4 of 9)
A simple principle

There is, of course, much to say on this topic of Hebrew hermeneutics—far more than can possibly be contained in a single lesson step. But at the same time, there are a few important things that must be said, particularly for people newer to the language.

Let’s start with the simple, core principle. Land on an interpretation based on the words of the text and sound reason. 

Our aim is not just to accept a conclusion because a respectable theologian interpreted it that way. Otherwise, why have you learned Hebrew?! Don’t get me wrong—we certainly should reference commentaries. But the thing that convinces us of an interpretation must not be the famous name behind the commentary notes. A commentator has a reliable interpretation if (and only if) he can show us that interpretation through sound reasoning over the very words of the text.

We also ought not to accept an interpretation simply because it is what we desire the text to mean and our new found Hebrew permits such an interpretation. Humble exegesis does not come to the text to find an interpretation that it permits, but to receive the meaning it possesses.
Why did they translate it like that?

As you begin reading the Hebrew Bible on your own, you will find yourself asking this question. And there are two ways to ask it—one of humble confusion and the other of arrogant presumption. Let our question be of the first kind!

The question of humble confusion recognizes that there is something about the verse which you are not seeing. Fair enough. You are, after all, new to Hebrew. Look for translation notes (especially in the NET Bible where the notes are extensive) or reference a commentary. It might be that the translation is based upon the LXX Greek translation due to suspected problems at that point in the Hebrew text. Or it may be that the grammar is a bit more complex that you first realized. The point is this: we ought not to reject a translation until we understand it. If we reject a translation without understanding how the translators arrived to that point, then we sadly have wandered into the realm of arrogant presumption.
Learn more!

Consider Hebrews 5:11-13 (emphasis mine).
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
As general interpretive skills (“powers of discernment”) are developed through constant practice in living out the gospel, so too are interpretive skills using the Hebrew Bible developed by consistently and humbly reading and struggling with (and living out) the text. Thus, anyone can learn to land better exegetical conclusions using the original languages, but only through much hard work. Once again, there are no short cuts.

You will find several suggestions for further study in Hebrew later in this lesson.