The Language of the Nomads

The ancient Hebrews were rovers, considering themselves foreigners wherever they roamed. This nomadic lifestyle gave them a unique perspective on life that is manifested in their written language. Their words, manner of speaking, and alphabet, reveal that the ancient Hebrews had an inspiring outlook on life. As their entire lives consisted of traveling and wandering, the shape of their language had everything to do with the journey. Their alphabet consisted of pictographs that illustrated things like the trail, the sun on the horizon, the tent, the tent peg, the foot (walking), the staff, the ox, the plow, and the seed. These individual pictures were put together in a variety of ways in order to form written words. Thus their written word, and therefore, the old testament text is rooted in their nomadic and agrarian ways. Each word not only has a definition but also tells a colorful story of the adventurous life that Abraham’s family once lived.

Today, some still say “life is a journey” or “life is an adventure”, but our cultural perspective of life’s journey is estranged from the ancient Hebrews. However, the true disciple of Christ would be more aligned to the Hebraic perspective of life’s journey. The traversing of Abraham and his family was not with the intent to arrive at any particular geographic location, but a journey with God, awaiting His spiritual promises that were yet to be manifested. This is best summarized in Hebrews 11:9-10.

“By faith he [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” 

And again, in Hebrews 11:13-16,

“These [the patriarchs] all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” 

Thus, their journey was far more extensive than the modern expression that “life is a journey”, it was a journey of faith, a journey to a spiritual home with God in Christ. For the remainder of this article, let’s explore some examples from the ancient Hebrew language to better understand their inspiring perspective on existence.

The Hebrew word for tomorrow is machar, which is from the root achar, meaning “behind, backward”. Further, their word for yesterday is temol, from the root mull, meaning “in front, in front of time”. This is completely the opposite of our perspective today. The Hebrews viewed the past as being in front of them, while the future was considered behind them. “The past is seen as ‘in front’ in ancient Hebrew thought because the past can be seen while the future is unseen and therefore behind” (Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible). From the perspective of the roving patriarchs, they could see what was in front of them on the trail, but they could not see what is behind them, thus yesterday was ahead of the trail because yesterday had been manifested to them, while tomorrow is behind them since it remains unmanifested. Likewise, when looking at the grammatical tenses in the Hebrew language we can spot another difference from our own manner of speaking. In English, we have tenses to convey time in the past, present, and future; we look at time as a progression. The Hebrews had only two grammatical tenses that either expressed something as revealed/known or unrevealed/unknown. Therefore, their language is not measured nor fixed by time, but quantified by what has been manifested versus what is yet to be manifested.

The Hebrew word for law is torah, and the original idea of the word is pointing the way for the journey. It is the word for the right direction on life’s trail. Thus, the Hebrew word for righteousness, tsaddı̂yq, means “to remain on the trail”, and one of the words for wickedness, rasha, means “to leave the trail”. The word torah has also been a point of speculation, because the Hebrew letters for torah are hey, resh, vav, and tav; the pictographs of these letters are “look, man, nail, cross”. Again, this is speculation, but it is conceivable in that the old testament law was in fact pointing the Hebrews in the direction of the man nailed to the cross.

We know that grace means favor and kindness; the Hebrew word for grace is khane, and it literally means the beauty of the family camp. The Hebrew perspective on grace is fascinating. Each individual family would have their own tent, a two-bedroom shelter of sackcloth (black goat hair). The first bedroom at the entrance of the tent is where all the males slept, and the second bedroom accessible through a doorway off the males’ quarters was where all the females slept. Each family tent was set up wall-to-wall with each other, thus making a wall of security around the whole family encampment. Khane (grace) is the word that described the beauty of such a camp. The security, protection, love, and favor among the relationships found within the family camp are incomparable.

We see then that nomadic living certainly shaped the language of the ancient Hebrews. The lens by which they viewed all physical and spiritual things goes back to the choice of Abraham to obey the Lord and lead the life of a rover until at home in the kingdom of the Son of God.

Article by Tanner Campbell.