Introduction to The Fence of Salvation
Anyone who has studied the Bible for even an extended time has realized that there are many words and phrases that are difficult to understand. We may have posed questions such as these: “I thought that we have righteousness; then why does it say in 1 John 1:9 that we should confess our sins so that we can be cleansed from unrighteousness?” And, “If I am already redeemed, why do I have to wait until the redemption of the purchased possession as it says in Ephesians 1:14?” These and many more questions will be answered in this book by examining the Hebrew and Aramaic concepts regarding salvation.
I am using the Hebrew Old Testament and the Aramaic Peshitta text of the New Testament because they are primary sources. The Bible was written by men who spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. Yes, the transmission of the scriptures was also in Greek. But these Greek-speaking people (for example, Paul and Luke) were Jews growing up in a Hebrew/Aramaic speaking, Semitic thinking culture. Peshitta means “simple” in Aramaic. Sometime in the third century men who lived in Edessa in Syria produced a collation of the best Aramaic manuscripts available at that time, which simplified the study of the New Testament writings because there was now an accepted text. Although there are some variant readings of the Peshitta manuscripts, the text has been transmitted very consistently. That is why I consider it to be a primary source for understanding the New Testament.
Hebrew is the primary source of the books of the Old Testament. But since Aramaic is a cognate language to Hebrew there is a close tie between the Old and New Testaments. Cognate means that they are both descended from the same parent language. Sometimes that language is called the “Mesopotamian language” or Proto-Semitic. Because they have a common parent, there are many words which are very similar and only vary in spelling or pronunciation. Understanding the Hebrew and the cognate Aramaic words will give us two primary sources in order to understand the culture of the time when the various books of the Bible were written.
The fundamental structure of both Hebrew and Aramaic (like all the other Semitic languages) is very different from our western languages. In linguistics, this difference is called dynamic versus static understanding. Dynamic thinking means that there is an underlying action in the thought. Static thinking is that even a concept is stationary and can be described only with additional unrelated words. Marvin Wilson in his book, Our Father Abraham, states that “the Bible contains many Hebraisms in which abstract thoughts or immaterial conceptions are conveyed through material or physical terminology.”Applying this knowledge to concepts in the scriptures has been very enlightening to me. Because these differences are easy to understand, we as western people can gain a deeper grasp of the foundation of our faith.
In the process of studying the Hebrew Old Testament and the Aramaic Peshitta text I have learned many things about the culture and thinking of people in the land of the Bible. In the 1970’s, I took an introductory class in Aramaic using materials developed by Dr. George Lamsa, a pioneer in making known the understanding of the Aramaic language to people in the United States. This class started my lifetime adventure of studying the language of Jesus and the apostles. What excited me was how picturesque and beautifully simple the language is and the class introduced me to the idea of “word pictures.”
In English, we normally use illustrations or incidents to “paint a picture” that a listener can relate to. For example, if I were teaching about justice, I would describe an incident involving a legal case, the people involved and the verdict, to show whether the case had been handled justly.
In the Eastern Semitic languages including Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, the illustrations are built into the language itself. A root verb forms the basis for all the nouns related to that verb and it is usually an action. A simple example is one of the words for salvation. The root verb means “to give life to [something or someone].” So the word Savior means literally, “life-giver.” Understanding the actions of the root verb gives us a key that helps unlock the meaning of all the nouns built on that verb.
Western languages such as English, Spanish and German, have word families also, but many concepts do not have an action verb as a root. For example, the word “meekness” is related to the verb “to be meek or humble,” but the concept of meekness is still fairly vague. The Aramaic root verb for the noun “meekness” is “to lie down flat” or “lie down under,” which paints a clear picture of the action necessary to be meek and helps to explain the concept in a more concrete way.
Lois Tverberg, a scholar who has extensively studied Jewish culture and customs, aptly asked, “What if we could find a way to fine-tune our hearing, so that we could develop first-century Jewish ears?” In order to do so, we need to understand the words used in the Bible in their Jewish context and the best way to do that is to see the depths of the words in their original languages. As I have shared some of these insights with others, it has become apparent that “mini-explanations” of some of the key concepts of Christianity would be helpful for many people, both new believers and mature Christians.
I submit these to you not as a scholarly tome on the significance of the study of Hebrew and Aramaic in scripture, but as simple explanations from a fellow believer seeking to become more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus’ teaching, manner of speech and background (culture) were grounded in the languages of Hebrew and Aramaic and the customs of Israel. My prayer is that learning more about his way of thinking will help to open the “the eyes of your hearts…, so that you would know what is the hope of his calling and what is the wealth of the glory of his inheritance in the holy [ones]” (Ephesians 1:18).
We can gain insights into the key words of Christianity by examining the word pictures of the words and seeing their corresponding actions. Word pictures are a great way to communicate concepts.
WHAT IS A WORD PICTURE?
Each letter of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets was originally a picture of something from everyday life that became a stylized pictograph in early Semitic writing and eventually was called a letter. These are similar to the icons on computers today: small stylized pictures that are recognized easily and tell us something (like “open a file” or “copy”). Other common “pictographs” like these in our culture are found on road signs and pedestrian crossing lights.
When the pictographs (or letters) were put together, they formed words, and the original pictures behind the letters gave clear meaning to the words. Putting the meaning of the pictographs together forms a “word picture.” All the Semitic cognate languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and others) work in this way.
Let’s look at the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph and beyt. Here are the ancient pictographs:
} HHebrew ab ba (Strong’s #1)
} AAramaic ava 0b0 (LWM #2)
I have read many examples of word pictures from studies from the Internet, other books and even from the Rabbis. I have found that the best word pictures are ones which stay consistent in the use of the meaning of each pictograph. The best reference I have found for my work is Jeff Benner’s The Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible. Another key reference is Hebrew Word Pictures by Frank Seekins.
As we look at the Hebrew and Aramaic words for salvation, we will endeavor to present the material in as simple a manner as possible, so there is plenty of room for further research.
 Wilson, Our Father Abraham, p. 137.
 Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, p. 17.
 The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 3.