4 Tips for Reading the Book of Proverbs in Biblical Hebrew

By Meg Rusick, Marketing & Communications Manager

Even for those who know ancient Hebrew well, the book of Proverbs can be a difficult one to read. Its short and pithy sayings are at best mysterious, and at worst confusing. It doesn’t always seem to follow a logical stream of consciousness, and at times seems to contradict itself. And yet, we keep returning to it. Because in the midst of this mysterious and enigmatic book, there is the lure of timeless wisdom and poetry that invites us in for closer reflection and deeper understanding.

Jonathan G. Kline’s most recent project, A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew, was created to help us engage with the biblical text with confidence and understanding. Each page includes one verse for the day with glosses for each word, parsing for verbs, and an English translation two pages later. It’s truly a unique hybrid between a Hebrew vocabulary book and a personal devotional. (It should be noted that this is intended for readers who have a basic understanding of Biblical Hebrew.)

IMG_6892 (2)

Kline says in the Introduction,

“I offer this book in friendship to you, the reader, and with the hope that as you work through the proverbs it contains you will grow in wisdom and humility and that you will develop a more profound love for truth and a more expansive compassion for others—especially the poor, the needy, and the oppressed, who are continually mentioned in these pages. May we all seek to deepen these essential character traits in ourselves and in each other, which are so vital for the flourishing of our families, our communities, and our world.”

And so with Kline’s A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew on my desk as a guide, I thought I’d pass along…

4 TIPS FOR READING THE BOOK OF PROVERBS IN THE ORIGINAL HEBREW:

  • Meditate on one Proverb a day.
    • Yes, they’re easy to read quickly. But don’t. Kline’s advice heeds, “The Proverbs…from ancient Israel are best appreciated and internalized by savoring them slowly and in small quantities.
  • Don’t always read the verses in canonical order.
    • This bit of advice is intended to help us brush up on vocabulary, leading to a deeper understanding of the text. Kline writes in the preface, “The verses in this book are presented not in canonical order but rather according to the number of times the words they contain appear in Proverbs 10:1-22:16. That is to say, the verses with the highest number of infrequently occurring words are located at the end. The result of this organizational scheme is that you will continue to encounter the same words over and over as you make your way through the book, with the more frequently occurring ones fronted in the early pages to help you master the vocabulary.
  • Ruminate on the various translation options for certain words.
    • “When translating aphoristic poetry, there is often more than one legitimate or helpful way to render a given word. Therefore, for many of the Hebrew words in this book, I have provided more than one gloss…in order to give you a sense of the possible meanings or nuances that I believe may be in view in the verse in question, leaving you to ponder and judge their relative value for the context.”
  • Spend time with the Hebrew before you read the English translation.
    • To make sure you don’t undermine your own work translating the verses, try to refrain from reading the English translation until you’ve had a chance to truly study the Hebrew. In this book, the English translation for each Hebrew verse is not revealed until two pages later. Kline explains in the preface: “Since I do not wish to bias or influence your initial reading of the text by means of my own translation, I have placed each translation not at the bottom of the page for each day’s Hebrew verse, but rather two pages thereafter, so that you will always need to consciously decide to turn the page if you wish to see my translation.”

Putting it into practice, here is a sample page for Day 1 of A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew:

P-A-D

And Kline’s translation, two pages later reads, “He who attains insight loves himself; he who safeguards understanding obtains virtue.” Proverbs 19:8

What do YOU do to brush up on your biblical Hebrew? Any insights into how reading the Proverbs in their original Hebrew illuminated the text for you? Let us know in the comments!


Meg Rusick is Marketing & Communications Manager at Hendrickson Publishers. She lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and baby daughter, and loves hiking, reading, and being outside as much as possible.

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