P1 A step-by-step guide to translating and applying a Hebrew Old Testament Text: 1 Samuel 16:1-10

Introduction:                                                                                                                             When anyone first comes to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, it can be an intimidating and humbling exercise. Even after studying the language and Hebrew text for some 20 years, I still find myself scratching my head, praying, consulting grammars and lexicons. Through it all the study, translation and use of Hebrew in ministry and life is like anything else worth doing that requires three things: practice, practice and more practice!

To explain what I plan to do, in the text sample below I am simply going to walk the reader through a suggested process from the first time reading a Hebrew text through to applying the text in either a preaching situation or in everyday life.  The reader can use as much or as little of what I present as they want, and if for nothing else, it gives those interested an idea of what goes on when translating from Hebrew to English.

Due to what could be a lengthy post, I will spread the material over three posts so as to not commit information overload. I will supply the reader a translation of each verse, giving comments on each step so that all readers (whether knowing Hebrew or not) can benefit from the post. As a final thought in this introduction, I would recommend “The Reader’s Hebrew Bible” put out by Zondervan to readers who have studied or are desiring to study Hebrew .  It is a wonderful tool that enables the student to maintain their Hebrew knowledge and gives the English translation of every Hebrew word in the text that occurs 100 times or less at the bottom of each page. I use it all the time and have found it helpful and convenient.

The text that will be used for today’s post and the next two is from 1 Samuel 16:1-10, with the Hebrew Text deriving from the website: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+16%3A1-10&version=WLC.  

1). Pronounce the text outloud.                                                                                         This takes practice, but yields to you the reader a sense of what the text not only sounds like but also how it should be translated and interpreted.  Hebrew as a language and the Hebrew text itself were designed to be read and learned aloud. So in the first verse of 1 Samuel 16:1 here is how it would sound as seen in the following transliteration:

1 Samuel 16:1 וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־שְׁמוּאֵ֗ל עַד־מָתַי֙ אַתָּה֙ מִתְאַבֵּ֣ל אֶל־שָׁא֔וּל וַאֲנִ֣י מְאַסְתִּ֔יו מִמְּלֹ֖ךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מַלֵּ֨א קַרְנְךָ֜ שֶׁ֗מֶן וְלֵ֤ךְ אֶֽשְׁלָחֲךָ֙ אֶל־יִשַׁ֣י בֵּֽית־הַלַּחְמִ֔י כִּֽי־רָאִ֧יתִי בְּבָנָ֛יו לִ֖י מֶֽלֶךְ׃

1 Samuel 16:1 (author’s transliterated pronounciation) Wa   ye-meer   Yah-weh   al   She-mu-el   ad-may-ta   atah   mith-a-bel. Wa ani   m-ia-se-ti   mi-ma-lek   al   yis-ra-el   ma-la   pre-ni-ka   shi-min   wel-ke   i-sha-la-ke al-ye-shi   ba-yith   la-chem-i   ci-raiti   be-bi-ni   lee    mi-lak.

1 Samuel 16:1 (Translated) “Then Yahweh said to Samuel: ‘Why is it that you continue to grieve within yourself over Saul? I have reject his efforts in reigning as king over Israel. Thus fill your horn with oil and go, for I am sending you to Jesse at Bethlehem. For I have my eye set one one of his sons to be my King.”

2). Note the main verbs, their meaning and grammatical breakdown (i.e parsing)                                                                                                                                               As you study Hebrew, the verbs are priority, being that they carry the freight load of the sentence.  In Hebrew we may see one verb in one sentence connected to another to convey a continuous narrative. As we see here in 1 Samuel 16:2, the first word in the verse (remember Hebrew reads from right to left), reads transliterated “wa-yo-mir” and when parsed or “broke down”, is a waw consecutive imperfect, third person masculine singular of the root verb אמר (a-mar) meaning “then he said”. As in any sentence, the main verb has a subjected, stated or unstated, that is performing the action.  In this case the speaker is “Samuel”, as indicated by the second word in the text שְׁמוּאֵל֙ (Shem-u-el).

1 Samuel 16:2 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל֙ אֵ֣יךְ אֵלֵ֔ךְ וְשָׁמַ֥ע שָׁא֖וּל וַהֲרָגָ֑נִי וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֗ה עֶגְלַ֤ת בָּקָר֙ תִּקַּ֣ח בְּיָדֶ֔ךָ וְאָ֣מַרְתָּ֔ לִזְבֹּ֥חַ לַֽיהוָ֖ה בָּֽאתִי׃

1 Samuel 16:2 (translated) Then Samuel said: “How can I go? For will not Saul hear of it than attempt to kill me? Yahweh responded: “take a sacrificial ox with you and simply say “I am going to sacrifice to the Lord.”

3).  Note the grammatical or Masoretic divisions in the text as you translate

Who were the Masoretes? They were a group of Jewish scribes who lived in the early Middle Ages (roughly 5th to 9th century A.D) and worked in copying the Hebrew manuscripts.  As the Jewish people spread throughout the world, the pronounciation of the Hebrew was becoming less and less known.  For those few scribes who did know it, they devised a system of marks and squiggles called “masoretic text marks” that functioned much like our punctuation and vowels do today.

One of the most common masoretic text marks is what is called the “athnach” and it looks like small upside down “v” underneath a word. The “athnach” marks the logical division of the passage and often times we can see from where the athnach is placed where the main emphasis of the passage is placed.  In passages like 1 Samuel 16:3 below, the “athnach” is right under the third word from the right בַּזָּ֑בַח (ba-ze-vakh = to the altar or sacrifice). As the reader can note, the logical division of the passage is placing all of the weight on those first three words, indicating that God is stressing to Samuel to make sure that Jesse is invited to the sacrifice. I will try to capture this emphasis in the translation of the verse below:

1 Samuel 16:3 וְקָרָ֥אתָ לְיִשַׁ֖י בַּזָּ֑בַח וְאָֽנֹכִ֗י אֹודִֽיעֲךָ֙ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶֽׁר־תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֣ לִ֔י אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־אֹמַ֖ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃

1 Samuel 16:3 (translated) Invite Jesse to the sacrifice! Then I will help you to understand what to do next. You are to anoint the one (as king) whom I tell you to (anoint).

I personally find the text to be as beautiful to look at as it is challenging.  In the next post we will continue on looking at some more steps in translating and applying a Hebrew Old Testament text. Blessings!  MORE NEXT TIME….


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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