Biblical Hebrew and Pictographic Letters

Are There Hidden Codes in Hebrew, Based on the Original Shapes of Letters?

On a fairly regular basis, people will send me videos in which people (almost always Christians) argue that when we examine the original shapes of Hebrew letters, we sometimes see a kind of code. The shapes of the letters, strung together to comprise words, when read together, reveal a message. This often happens, for instance, with the opening Hebrew word of the Bible (bereshit) or the divine name (YHWH).

Is this approach to Hebrew correct? No. Absolutely not.

No reputable scholar or linguist thinks that biblical Hebrew works by deciphering the relationship between the various pictographic images that came to comprise the alphabet. There is also no Hebrew dictionary or lexicon that works this way. These 22 letters, though originally pictograms, function in biblical Hebrew as LETTERS that comprise WORDS (just like these words you are now reading in English). Nowhere in the Tanakh do they function as pictograms that we must separate into individual symbols to decipher some hidden code.
For instance, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, bet (ב), in its original archaic form, did resemble a house. It is the basic equivalent of our “B.” Numerically, it is “2” (since it is the second letter). That’s it. There is no hidden code that one must learn, decipher, and connect iconographically with the other letters in the word in which ב occurs.
As you might guess, were we to go down the pictographic road, we could basically take any word, and with a little creativity (and usually strong-arming words into a single definition that just happens to coincide with our argument!), break it down, compare its pictographic meanings, and come up with some neat-sounding explanation. But we would be engaging in the grossest form of eisegesis, that is, reading into the text what we want to be there instead of reading out of the text what God put there.
The whole approach of deciphering pictogram Hebrew letters is linguistically untenable. However well-intended, it’s utterly bogus. You couldn’t even have a conversation if the language worked this way. Every time someone said one word, we would need to stop them, analyze the shapes of the letters, and piece them together into a sentence. Communication would be impossible.

In short, biblical Hebrew is not a code to decipher. It is a language that works like all languages.

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Written by Chad Bird, 1517 Scholar