Note: I gleaned this information from two sources, the book “Our Father Abraham”, pp 294-299, by Marvin Wilson, and from my notes on Ray VanderLaan’s teaching while studying in Israel. The following is just my attempt to understand it for myself- I am certainly not an authority on Hebrew. My hope is that it will increase your understanding of the role and qualifications of a teacher.
The Hebrew Bible uses several different terms to describe those whom we call teachers. Learning these different terms gives us more insight into what the early writers thought were the roles and responsibilities of a teacher. We are going to look at five different words in Hebrew that are each translated “to teach” or “to learn”:
- Ra’ah: This word means to “tend or feed the flock”. The noun ro’eh comes from this verb and is the word for shepherd. This idea suggests that the shepherd would build up, care for, and guide his flock and would provide food and drink(nourishment). The shepherd would recognize individual needs and differences and try to help them make assets out of their liabilities. For example, Proverbs 22:6 (paraphrased) says, “Train up a child in his own way, his own bent, personality, temperament, and encourage him to be what God wants him to be.” Like shepherds, teachers must spend time feeding and sustaining their flock. In the New Testament, the office of pastor is literally that of a shepherd (Greek poimen; see also Ephesians 4:11-12 and footnotes) and implies that they will be gifted at providing food from Scripture. To be a teacher, according to the definition of ra’ah, you must be able to feed your sheep from the word (see also Jesus’ exhortation to Peter in John 21:16-18).
- Bin: This Hebrew word means “to understand, to discern, and distinguish truth from error and good from evil”. It is also translated “teach or instruct”. Behind this word is the idea of separating, evaluating or distinguishing one thing from another, in the sense of taking an idea or argument apart. It means learning to think critically by being able to explain something. A teacher teaches his students to think for themselves by evaluating arguments and sorting out the questions. A student not only needs to know the right answers, but he needs to able to ask the right questions. To be this kind of teacher, you must first know the truth and be a discerner of good and evil in order to “bin” your students.
- Shanan: This is one of the more graphic words in the Hebrew Bible that is translated, “to teach”. It comes from the root word that means “to sharpen or whet”. It is used in Deuteronomy 32:41 as a verb, “Swords are sharp”, and in Isaiah 5:28 – “arrows are sharp”. In the Shema, “shanon” is translated, “to impress, or to teach diligently to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The word “shanon” is often used to describe the point in the lesson that cuts to your heart, makes the most impression on you; when it penetrates your mind and really grabs hold of you. For the teacher, God’s word is an instrument that cuts or pierces as he drills the point in to your innermost being. Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than a two-edged sword and pierces or penetrates, even dividing the soul and spirit and is a discerner of thoughts and intents of the heart. A good biblical teacher will make points and impress them firmly on your mind (See also Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:37).
- Yarah: This word means to direct, or to point out, as in showing one the way (provide directions) and comes from the idea of the shooting of arrows (1 Samuel 20:36-37). Like an archer, a teacher has something to shoot out or project, guiding it toward a specific target or goal. Another way to say this would be “to direct towards, or point out, as in showing the way to a specific place”. Psalm 32:8 says, “I will instruct you and teach (yarah) you in the way you should go”. As a teacher you should be directing your student toward their destination on the road of life.
- Lamad: This is the most common Hebrew word that is translated, “to teach”. The basic meaning of this word is, “get accustomed to, to practice, to train, to exercise in”, such as training in warfare, training or exercising in learning the commandments. As the word “lamad” developed over the years it began to take on the meaning of discipline. In the Hebrew alphabet, the letter “L” is named “lamed” and is formed in the shape of a goad used for prodding or urging the one being trained. The Hebrew word for ox-goad is “malmad”, which is an instrument fitted with a sharp nail and means literally-“the thing that teaches”. Out of the word “lamed” comes the words, “talmid , talmidim, and Talmud.” Talmidim underwent rigorous training at the feet of the rabbi who was training them. The oral law, a large collection of Jewish learning and teaching, was known as the Talmud – which literally means “learning or study”. The main idea behind “lamad” is training and discipline. In Proverbs it advocates the use of the rod to facilitate training. The good teacher teaches and shows how important discipline is in the learning process.
To summarize, a study of the five Hebrew word used “to teach” gives us great insight into the importance that Jewish people placed on learning. From “ra’ah” (feeding the flock), to “bin” (being able to distinguish or separate), to “shanon” (to sharpen or whet), to “yarah” (to point the way), to “lamad” (to discipline and train), we get an idea of the scope and responsibility of a pastor, teacher or rabbi. You can even get more of a feel for their passion for learning and teaching from Chapter 14 of “Our Father Abraham” which is entitled, “A Life of Learning – The Heart of Jewish Heritage”. The task of being a teacher was and is one with huge responsibilities and qualifications. Hopefully, this short study will help you approach the task of teaching with a healthy respect for its importance and worth.