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God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger, on tablets of Stone, in Hebrew.

When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God. -Exodus 31:18

He also frequently spoke to His people in Hebrew. And of course, we now have Hebrew records of all of these divine words.

My question is: Why Hebrew? (I am assuming this is not because God speaks Hebrew in Heaven...)

  • Is it because Hebrew was the ideal language for communicating the truths of the Old Testament?

  • Is it simply because His people happened to speak that language?

  • Are there any Old Testament passages which show God speaking (or writing) in a different language?

I would also love it if you could include a comment about whether this teaches us anything about the nature of God. Thanks.

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    With all due respect I must say that this is a rather silly question.. He was the one who gave all the languages at tower of Babel, remember? He listens to my prayers in Russian. Of course he speaks all languages. – Monika Michael Jul 8 '12 at 7:00
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    I bet he writes traditional Chinese backwards and mirrored, encrypted with RSA256 just for fun.. – Monika Michael Jul 8 '12 at 7:02
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    @MonikaMichael Please don't take it as a silly question. Many people have wondered what the answer to this question is. If you have an answer, please post it. I am interested in the implications of the correct answer as much as the correct answer. – Jas 3.1 Jul 8 '12 at 7:16
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    This is a simple question, not a silly one. – Joe Jul 8 '12 at 18:08
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    This question does not show any research effort I think is probably the reason it's getting down votes. The fact that the accepted answer begins with "Here's the obvious answer" would lend weight to this theory. – Flimzy Jul 9 '12 at 3:58
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Oftentimes, the simplest answer is the correct one. So here's the obvious answer: He spoke and wrote in Hebrew because he was dealing with Hebrew-speaking people at the moment. Had God spoken to them in English, Latin, or Chinese, they would not have understood him!

God, being omniscient, knows all human languages. This means that he has no trouble communicating with the Hebrews in Hebrew, or with you and me in whatever our native tongues may be. So why make it more difficult than it has to be, especially given people's tendency to get his commandments all wrong even when they're spelled out in perfect plainness?

There's a parallel to be found in the Day of Pentecost, where the Gift of Tongues was dramatically made manifest as the Apostles preached their sermon. People from a wide variety of nations and regions were present, and all heard the sermon in their own language. But remember that these were people who had traveled to Jerusalem. It's not at all unreasonable to assume that most of them knew at least enough Hebrew (or whatever language was commonly in use at Jerusalem at the time) to get by. And yet, the Lord gave them the message in the language that they were most familiar with, to facilitate effective communication.

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The prophecies of Daniel are chiefly written in Aramaic, thereby providing a non-Hebrew example of a revelation, ergo God spoke to Daniel in a language other than Hebrew. If they were first written in Aramaic by an Aramaic and Hebrew speaker (The Book of Daniel is actually written using both languages in different chapters), then it seems a stretch to argue that the vision itself had to be in Hebrew.

Likewise, John the Revelator most likely did not speak Hebrew (he also spoke Aramaic and possibly some Greek), suggesting that when John received the vision, Jesus was probably not speaking to him in Hebrew.

Finally, Jesus himself raised Jairus' daughter in Mark 5:41 using the words "Talitha Cumi" which are in Aramaic, not Hebrew. (I realize this is NT, but if Hebrew were God's ideal language, I'm surprised that Jesus himself wouldn't choose to use it, especially when evidencing his divinity.) Indeed, when quoting the 22nd Psalm, as he was dying on the cross, he cried out, "Eli, Eli, Lama Sabbatchani" in, you guessed it - Aramaic.

There is a tradition that God spoke Hebrew in the Garden of Eden, but there is nothing Scriptural to assert even that "fact."

  • Thanks - very good points. If you would humor me, though... can you add a "Summary" to the top which directly answers the question as to why He spoke Hebrew so often? (I realize it might not be clear why I am asking this question, but I think the implications of the answer will become more clear once the answer is clearly stated.) – Jas 3.1 Jul 8 '12 at 20:59
  • With all due respect, I should think it obvious that I find the premis of the question off-base. You need to prove to me that God actually does speak Hebrew more oft than not. – Affable Geek Jul 9 '12 at 0:56
  • I don't believe that He speaks Hebrew more of than not. Let me try this a different way. Do we see God speaking Hebrew a lot in the OT? Yes. ... Why is that? – Jas 3.1 Jul 9 '12 at 1:07
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    I think Mason Wheeler did an excellent job of answering that. – Affable Geek Jul 9 '12 at 1:10
  • And let's not forget the "writing on the wall" (an expression still in use today, though most people, I imagine, would not know its origin) found in Daniel Chapter 5. The words written on the wall by the fingers of a human hand were "mene, mene, tekel, parsin". I'm assuming that Belshazzar was unable to read the writing because it was either in a language he did not speak or understand, or it was comprised of words he recognized but he knew neither how and why they appeared together nor what they meant collectively. I think the latter is probably correct. – rhetorician Nov 6 '16 at 19:13
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Judaic
In 2 Kings 18.26-28 [paralleled by Isaiah 36.11-13], 2 Chronicles 32.18 & Nehemiah 13.24, there is mention of Yehūḏîṯ, which literally means "Judaic," "Judaean" or "Jewish [speech]": the language of the kingdom of Yehudah [Judah], which we might say is Hebrew, but which could alternatively be a dialect specific to the tribe of Yehudah (cf. Judges 12.1-7). At any rate there is nothing in any of these passages about God speaking or writing, nor is the term "Hebrew" ever employed (although it is [mis]translated to say that in a few English Bibles).

"Hebrew"?
As a matter of fact, in the Bible itself (at least the parts thereof considered to be canon by most Christian groups) the first time that Hebrew is mentioned as a language is actually in the New Testament.1 There is no direct or explicit reference anywhere in the Old Testament to a language called Hebrew nor is there even a phrase like "the language of the Hebrews" which might perhaps at least imply such a phenomenon.

A Babylonian in the Land of Canaan
Variations of the term "Hebrew" appear 34 times in the Old Testament, always in reference to a person or a group of people. The first such instance is in Genesis 14.13, where Abram is called "the Hebrew", which at the time was not an ethnonym, Abram himself being a Babylonian (or "Chaldean")2 and having friends or acquaintances among the Egyptians (he was a guest of one of the Pharaohs, according to Gen. 12.10-20), the Philistines (he cut a covenant with a Philistine king, Abimelech, in Gen. 21.22-34, to which king God spoke in Ch. 20), the Hittites (from whom he bought his family tomb in Gen. 23) and the Canaanites (consisting of roughly ten goyim/ethnoi, "tribes/nations"3, in whose land he dwelt for the second half of his lifetime).

It might be safe to deduce from the above that Abram/Abraham was multilingual, able to speak Akkadian (Middle Babylonian in his case4) and Hittite; the Proto-Arabic of ancient Canaan; and the languages of the Egyptians (perhaps Middle Egyptian at his time) and the Philistines. It may be that he did not even know of a Hebrew language. The alternative to this would be to assume (and it's just as much an assumption as is any other theory) that Abraham necessarily chose to speak Hebrew (wherever he would have acquired it from) and that all these different peoples he encountered necessarily spoke his language of choice, including his Amorite comrades Mamre, Aner and Eshcol (see again Gen. 14.13), and also his God.

The Slave Who Named God
Abraham's wife Sarah had an Egyptian slave named Hagar, who is the first person in the Bible to ever give God a nickname. In Gen. 16, Hagar also bestows upon the well between Kadesh and Bered the presumably Hebrew name of Be'er-Lahai-Roi, the "Well of the Living One Who Sees Me," because there she had seen God and spoken to him. One might conclude from this that the conversation between God and Hagar took place in Hebrew, but it could just as well have been conducted in Hagar's native Egyptian dialect and, after her naming of the well, either she or its later users translated the name into the local Canaanite dialect (from which eventually Hebrew might have originated).

Diverse Cultural and Ethnic Origins

In Gen. 42, Joseph, a great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah, meets his brothers in Egypt years after they have sold him into slavery. V. 23 of this chapter indicates that Joseph's brothers, who think he is merely an Egyptian, are also under the impression that Egyptians typically do not understand their speech. Joseph helps this assumption along by necessarily using a translator to communicate with them. There is, however, no mention whatsoever of what language is being spoken by anyone in the scene, nor, for that matter, by anyone in Egypt or Canaan.

A few generations after Joseph, in the Book of Exodus, it is in this East African environment, filled with points of contact with foreigners of various stripes, that Moses and his fellow Israelites find themselves. If Moses was indeed raised by and as Egyptian royalty5 it stands to reason that he spoke and wrote Egyptian quite fluently. (The Ancient Egyptian name for their hieroglyphical script is Medw Neter, the "Words of God."6) If he didn't already speak the language of the Kenites of Midian before he married the daughter of their priest7 then surely after forty years living among them8 he must have become quite well-versed in that tongue as well. And if Moses' Kushite ["Ethiopian"] wife mentioned in Numbers 12.1 is the same person as the Kenite's daughter, then the Kenites themselves seem to have been a diverse and—it would stand to reason—multilingual population, possibly best described as Afro-Arabian (not unlike many Northeast African, South Arabian and South Indian ethnic groups of the modern era).

Leviticus 24 contains the story of one of the Israelites who is sojourning in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan during the Exodus, whose father is Egyptian and whose mother is from the tribe of Dan. Lest that be taken to be quite the peculiar anomaly, note too 1 Chronicles 4.18, in which the daughter of a Pharaoh is married to an early descendant of Judah! The patriarch Judah himself was married to a Canaanite (Gen. 38.2) and Joseph's wife was the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen. 41.45).

So Israel was itself a diverse population both at its onset and at the time of the Exodus. Moses himself grew up as an Egyptian, married into a family to which he was only very distantly related through Abraham and which lived a good distance outside Moses's native Egypt (perhaps outside Africa altogether) and he encountered various peoples on his journey with Israel through the wilderness.

There is no part of the Torah/Pentateuch or any other portion of the Old Testament that indicates God inscribing anything anywhere in Hebrew (nor in Arabic or Medw Neter or cuneiform or any specific language). That conclusion is an assumption, which may be quite correct but is not based on anything that the Bible actually says. Neither is there any mention in the Old Testament of what language God ever speaks to anyone when he does speak, neither on earth nor above the earth.9

Why Necessarily Only One Language?

Going by the demographics of the people who Moses led out of Egypt, let alone Moses' own cultural background and experiences, it should be fair to presume that the stone tablets with the Ten Words themselves catered to a few different dialects or scripts, somewhat like the Rosetta Stone (written in Medw Neter, Demotic Egyptian, and Greek) or the royal Afro-Arabian inscription known as the Monumentum Adulitanum (written in Ge'ez, Sabaic and Greek).

Considering the fact that, according to the story, it is the Deity himself who authored the stone tablets, I don't see why they couldn't have contained the Ten Words copied into ten different languages, or even seventy-odd dialects, symbolic of the traditional number of goyim, "nations/peoples," descended from Noah in Gen. 10.

And when God introduces himself to the shepherd Moses on Mt Horeb, he might be speaking to him in Kenite or Egyptian just as much as Hebrew, or a combination of the above, or perhaps Moses is experiencing a form of the New Testament's glossolalia, hearing the Deity's voice in a tongue completely unknown to him but which he is nonetheless able to comprehend and to converse in.

Bala'am of Mesopotamia
In Numbers 22 God speaks to the non-Israelite soothsayer Bala'am, who may even be from the same region of Asia as Abraham was. There shouldn't be much reason to expect that this conversation was definitely in Hebrew, but then again perhaps Bala'am was a Hebrew-speaker and God chose to communicate with him using that tongue.

Only One Tenuous Instance (in the NT)

In the "canonical" Bible the closest to a clear and explicit mention of anything close to God directly speaking to anyone in a particular language occurs in Acts 26.14, wherein the apostle Paul/Saul is making his case to King Herod Agrippa. Herein he tells the king that when Jesus accosted him on his way to Damascus, he questioned him "in the Hebrew dialect". Curiously, however, a few English Bible translations such as the NIV, the NLT and the NET disagree with the Greek texts by saying that it was "in the Aramaic language". Surprisingly, even the TLV, a Messianic Jewish Bible, says "Aramaic". The "Aramaic Bible in Plain English" translation says "Judean Aramaic". The ancient Syriac Aramaic Bible, called the Pəšîṭtâ, says "Hebrew" just like the Greek New Testament and most English translations.


1. See e.g. Luke 23.38, & John 5.2, 19.13-20, & 20.16
2. See Genesis 11.31
3. See Genesis 15.18-21
4. Although Alice C. Linsley argues that it was "Kushitic" [East African] Akkadian.
5. Exodus 2.10
6. See also Acts 7.22
7. Exodus 2.16-3.1, & Judges 1.16 & 4.11
8. Based on Stephen's opinion in Acts 7.23 read together with Exodus 7.7.
9. Am I allowed to quote myself? Heh-heh... :-D

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In addition to the answers given, that state that Hebrew is the language of the Nation of Israel, to whom the old testament was revealed. And the point about Daniel and Ezra having aramaic parts.

There is also the fact that Hebrew was important from the beginning.

The name of the first man, Adam, seems to be related to the hebrew word Adamah which I understand means earth(And he was created from earth). There may be lots of other etymologies that relate to the biblical stories.

Religious Jews would consider hebrew to be Lashon Hakodesh - the holy tongue/language.

The details in the spelling of hebrew names are considered important, for example the old testament says that Sarai was renamed Sarah. Avram was renamed Avraham.

God's name is made from the 4 hebrew letters Yud Heh Vav/Waw Heh.

Also bear in mind that while God does speak in the Old Testament, e.g. Gen 1, "yehi ohr - let there be light". Not all of the OT is God speaking. Also, bear in mind that when prophets speak it's often interpreting visions and dream that God communicated to them in, and it can be their voice rather than them being a receptacle for /bearer of, a voice from God.

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    All we know is that the Israelites called Adam "Adam" and called God "Yahweh". It's entirely possible that they are translations. – curiousdannii Nov 6 '16 at 13:21
  • @curiousdannii not really.. 'cos as mentioned, the etymology of Adam is such that the word Adamah(earth) seems to come from Adam just as in the story Adam comes from Adamah(earth). So the origins of the hebrew words for Adam and Earth relate to the biblical story. And as mentioned, i'm sure there are many other examples of such etymologies that relate to the biblical stories. Also, and besides that - If you think they are translations, then translations from what? – barlop Nov 6 '16 at 13:42
  • Translation from what? Good question. Per @MasonWheeler's comment on another answer The Bible says that all men spoke the same language before Babel, but it does not specifically identify that language as Hebrew. And in fact, a literal reading of the text--that the languages of all men were confounded--would seem to indicate that the original language no longer existed after God finished his work there – KorvinStarmast Nov 7 '16 at 13:47
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Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel tells a story which has, over the past few hundred years, spawned dozens of pop-culture references, including, especially, the English idiom "The Writing's On the Wall", denoting, according to The Free Dictionary, the likelihood that something bad is about to happen.1 The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia summarises the story as follows:

Once when King Belshazzar was banqueting with his lords and drinking wine from the golden vessels of the Temple of YHWH, a man's hand was seen writing on the wall certain mysterious words. Frightened by the apparition, the king ordered his astrologers to explain the inscription; but they were unable to read it. Daniel was then summoned to the royal palace; and the king promised him costly presents if he would decipher the inscription. Daniel read it "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin" and explained it to mean that God had "numbered" the kingdom of Belshazzar and brought it to an end; that the king had been weighed and found wanting; and that his kingdom was divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

Vv. 23-24 imply quite strongly that "the apparition" is to be understood as God's Hand; and the act of it writing on a presumably stone wall would appear to be pointedly referencing the story from the Exodus in which God inscribes the "Ten Words" upon stone tablets with his own hand.

Daniel does not indicate which language or script the Hand is writing in at Belshazzar's banquet. At present, the oldest available manuscripts of the Book of Daniel are the Greek Septuagint [LXX] and some text from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The latter of these matches the much younger Masoretic Text, which is written partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic. The chapter in question is in Aramaic in those manuscripts. The LXX of v. 25, where the Hand's inscription is provided, does not supply a Greek translation of the words but seems to be, rather, a Hellenised form of the Aramaic, reading Manē, Thekel, Phares.2

The story cryptically lends itself to the questions of why the king's wise men were unable to understand the text on the wall and whether the reader of the narrative should interpret it to have been a script that the wise men could not read (an illiteracy issue) or if it's that they just didn't catch all the puns intended (an interpretation issue). Talmudists apparently assumed that the wall-text was in Hebrew, some of them advancing the idea that it was in a script (perhaps Archaic Hebrew?) which was too different to be understood by even the Jews at the royal court.

Modern commentators such as J.G. Baldwin and R. Dick Wilson assume, instead, that the text was in Aramaic, like the Biblical manuscripts in which the story itself appears. Alternatively, based on F. Clermont-Ganneau's counter-proposal to this, in the 1886 Journale Asiatique, "The handwriting probably employed the local unvocalized Aramaic in cursive script. It is, however, possible that ideographs in Neo-Babylonian cuneiform script were used."

All the suggestions are speculative, since the Biblical text itself is by no means explicit about language-form; and the story is indeed even about how a piece of text was indecipherable to a bunch of well-educated individuals; and all of this sort of ambiguity is typical of apocalyptic literature. It does indeed seem to say that God wrote something on a wall, which could well have been in some sort of Hebrew, but it's equally (or perhaps a lot more) reasonable to conclude that it was in Aramaic, if not a completely different script.

1. See how many times the reference occurs just in music alone!
2. In the LXX it is only 3 words instead of the 4 which occur in the Aramaic texts. (See the story's description above.)

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The first identification of Hebrew as a language was around the time of Noah after the flood and before the tower of babel.

At the tower the bible states all men spoke the same language (Hebrew). God punished the builders by confounding their ability to communicate not only with each other but also with God. During the time that followed we see the chosen people communicating in Hebrew with God until Pentecost, when all language and peoples were blessed.

Until Pentecost the will and nature of God was only given through Jewish followers (Hebrews). Simple Christian understanding with assumption that Adam and Eve were also given Hebrew as a way to communicate with their creator. So, yes, I would assume it is the language of Gods choosing.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. Can you edit this answer and add some references for the ideas you forward, particularly showing who holds such a doctrinal position and what their basis is? In particular the idea that the language issue at Babel affected people's ability to communicate with God as that is not a mainstream Christian understanding. See What makes a good supported answer? for more ideas on how to formulate answers for this site. Thanks. – Caleb Oct 15 '12 at 6:47
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    Agreed. A claim like this should be backed up with sources of some sort. The Bible says that all men spoke the same language before Babel, but it does not specifically identify that language as Hebrew. And in fact, a literal reading of the text--that the languages of all men were confounded--would seem to indicate that the original language no longer existed after God finished his work there. If you could add some references to clear up this point, it would greatly improve the quality of your answer. :) – Mason Wheeler Oct 15 '12 at 23:52

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