Question: "What is Biblical Hebrew? Why was the Old Testament written in Hebrew?"
Answer: Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Ancient Hebrew, which was the language of the people of Israel. (Some portions of the book of Daniel and the transcription of a couple of court documents in Ezra were written in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonian Empire.) Hebrew is a Semitic language, and because the Hebrew of the time was similar to the languages spoken by other peoples in the region, sometimes literature from the surrounding areas helps us understand the meaning of an Ancient Hebrew word. Today, the language of the Old Testament is known as Ancient Hebrew or Biblical Hebrew or Classical Hebrew to distinguish it from Modern Hebrew, which is different—just as Old English is different from Modern English.
The time span from Genesis to Malachi is great (about 1,000 years), and the Hebrew language went through normal development and change within that time frame. There is evidence that the language of the older books was updated as the language changed. The Pentateuch as we know it may reflect a much more modern version of Hebrew than what was originally written and spoken by Moses.
The original Hebrew of the Scriptures was written with consonants only. Hebrew has a regular consonant-vowel-consonant structure in most of its words; therefore, leaving the vowels out was not a problem as long as the readers were thoroughly familiar with language. The following examples in English will help to illustrate, even with words that have more complex consonant-and-vowel combinations or that begin or end with vowels. Most English readers can read these sentences without too much difficulty:
YSTRDY JHN WNT T MCDNLDS (Yesterday, John went to McDonalds)
CHRSTMS S N DCMBR VRY YR (Christmas is in December every year)
TH QCK BRN FX JMPD VR TH LZY DG (The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog)
This consonant-only text (consonantal text) had been preserved and copied for hundreds and hundreds of years. Between AD 600 and 1000, as Jewish culture was being dispersed and diluted across the civilized world, a group of scholars and scribes called the Masoretes undertook the task of adding vowels to the text so that the pronunciation and, in some cases, the meaning would be preserved. They did not want to disturb the biblical (inspired) text, so they simply added “points,” small marks representing vowels, above or below the consonants so that readers would know how to pronounce the words without confusing what the Masoretes added with the original text.
For instance, in the Masorete pointing system, a short i sound is indicated by one dot below the consonant. A short e sound is indicated by three dots, arranged in an inverted triangle, below the consonant. A long e sound is indicated by two dots side by side below the consonant, and so on. There are about a dozen different dot-and-dash combinations added to the Hebrew text without actually changing the inspired text.
Below is the Hebrew phrase ha aretz, which means “the earth” and appears at the end of Genesis 1. You can see the consonants are written in large print, and the vowel pointing is much smaller below the consonants. Hebrew reads from right to left, the consonantal sound vocalized first, and then the vowel underneath it:
Translation scholars normally work with the consonantal text and use the Masoretic text (the pointed text) as an aid. If the average pastor or Bible student buys an Old Testament in Biblical Hebrew (BHS or Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia), it will be in the Masoretic (pointed) text, as most pastors and Bible students, as well as missionary translators, would have trouble reading the consonantal text. When we compare the consonants of the Masoretic text with much older texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find an extremely high degree of accuracy with which the text has been copied and transmitted—further evidence of the divine preservation of the biblical text.
The Old Testament was written in Classical Hebrew because that was the language in use when the Israelite prophets received their messages from God. The Lord did not create a special language or use an esoteric mystery language to communicate His Word; He spoke to the common people in their own everyday language. God has always intended His Word to be accessible to everyone.