Why Kids?

A Bit of History

In 1778, Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College in the USA, wrote his presidential inaugural address in fluent Biblical Hebrew. Today this kind of thing sounds crazy, outlandish, impossible to expect. But we want such a feat to become something unsurprising, something a lot of people could do. Back then, the study of Biblical Hebrew was mandatory at Yale. Yale leaders emphasized the study of Hebrew as a bulwark against unwanted theological drift. 

Now let me tell you a little more about Ezra Stiles: he read a chapter from the Hebrew Bible every morning, and only then would he allow himself to have breakfast. But what’s even more surprising is that he taught his wife and children Hebrew, and made the daily recitation of a Hebrew passage part of his household routine for everyone! In May 1771, he wrote that his 12-year-old son, “began translating the first Psalm. I propose that he translate only a verse or two a day before breakfast.” Ezra Stiles wasn’t alone.

Samuel Johnson, president of Kings College back in the 1700s, taught Biblical Hebrew to his children. He claimed that both of his sons were fluent in Hebrew by the age of ten! Now keep in mind that these were men with a microscopic fraction of the resources, free time, technology, and wealth we have today. And yet our tendency today is to shake our heads in amused tolerance at their eccentricities. Isn’t that true? Let me mention one more moonstruck Hebrew lunatic of history.

In the 19th century William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, had a great national vision. He wanted to be the catalyst for a Hebrew revolution, and his plan was to teach the Hebrew language to millions of Christians. He never achieved his great vision, but we’re here to talk about how this vision is within reach, but on an even larger scale.

Start Young

One of the reasons most people fail to learn the biblical languages, or fail to maintain them, is simple: they didn’t start learning early. It’s no secret that if you want to master something like an instrument or a sport, you have to start young. It’s very rare to see someone who is extremely good at playing the guitar who started learning when he was 30 while married and raising a family. The best basketball players don’t pick up a basketball for the first time when they’re in college. Yet for some reason we expect pastors and leaders to be able to master the biblical languages when they’re adults, with no prior experience or practice! It goes against common sense, but it’s been the status quo for centuries, and for good reason. You see, up until now there has simply never been a way for normal children to learn. Sure, once in a while a strange kid will be born who loves reading complex Hebrew grammars at the age of 5, but that’s unusual. Normal kids don’t enjoy memorizing paradigms and grammar rules. It’s really hard to get a six-year-old to spend time reviewing flashcards in an ancient language. 
 
So it’s no wonder that we’ve become so accustomed to a vicious cycle: 1) grow up, 2) study the biblical languages while at university or seminary, 3) forget everything you learned, 4) hope that the next generation will do better somehow. Yet at the same time we know that if we want our kids to speak and understand Spanish or French well, then they have to start young, and they have to be taught those languages in a way that’s natural for them to learn–through comprehensible input!  
 
When people go to seminary, many try their best to avoid studying the biblical languages because, deep down inside, they know that they don’t stand a chance of mastering the languages like they might if they had been learning since childhood. People tend to avoid the unfamiliar; we all tend to find the easy way out. And so it’s not surprising that church leadership has become more and more what David Wells calls “a new order of sacred fools,” second-handers who can’t dig deep into the Bible for themselves.
 
But what if we started teaching Greek or Hebrew to our kids before they could even walk? We at Aleph with Beth believe this is possible now, and it’s already happening! We want to see a revolution in how people think about biblical language training. With our videos, for the first time kids have the opportunity to soak up the sound and structure of Hebrew in a way that they enjoy—that even seems fun! They can internalize the language early with all of their effortless, young energy. And when they grow up, Hebrew will neither seem unfamiliar nor difficult. Instead they’ll gravitate towards studying it more, simply because they grew up with it, just like Mozart grew up playing the piano from the age of 3.
But you may still have objections to this idea. You may be suspicious because it’s new, or afraid of subjecting your kids to screens at a young age. Let’s talk about that.

I don't want my kids growing up in front of a screen

This is a typical concern for many. But most haven’t looked at the actual research of the past few decades. It shows that children who grow up playing video games and watching shows in moderation actually are smarter than previous generations. Their IQ scores are going up, not down. All the way back in 2005 authors like Steven Johnson were talking about this phenomenon. It goes against everyone’s expectations. We’re used to grumbling that humanity is getting dumber, as though this were irrefutable common knowledge. But Johnson shows two main things that are a bit shocking:
 
  1. By almost all the standards we use to measure reading’s cognitive benefits — attention, memory, following threads, and so on — the nonliterary popular culture has been steadily growing more challenging over the past thirty years.
  2. Increasingly, the nonliterary popular culture is honing different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books.”2

So, 20 minutes or an hour of Aleph with Beth per day definitely won’t hurt a kid’s development. Rather, it’ll be the start of a new reformation in the church, where children grow into men and women who can go deeper into the Word than any generation before. 

But what if my kid doesn't want to be a pastor when he grows up?

Nothing in the Bible leads us to believe that reading Scripture in the original languages is reserved for pastors, elders, priests, or anyone else. Instead we see over and over that all of God’s people are to treasure and honor His Word as much as possible (e.g. Psalm 119). If we’re to become more like the man of Psalm 1 whose delight is in the law of Yahweh, who meditates on it day and night, we’re going to do everything possible to understand His Word. Psalm 78:5-7 says, “He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments.”  We all want our children to set their hope in God, so why not teach them how to go as deep as possible into His Word?  As the great 17th century God-besotted William Gurnall wrote,
Oh, do your best while they are young and in your constant care, to win them to God and set them on the road to heaven.

And a wonderful way to set them on the road to heaven is to raise them to be intimately acquainted with the Bible, able to handle rightly and faithfully the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). We plan to eventually develop even more resources for children to learn Hebrew besides our videos. We want to serve parents in every way possible to make this a reality.

So we invite you to embrace a new paradigm: make Hebrew (and Greek someday!) the new normal for raising kids and for Christian discipleship. It’s not impossible. It costs nothing. It’s a joy. What do you have to lose? And you and your children have so much to gain!
“When I recently started learning Hebrew, I got so angry that the Holy Language was and is not taught in the so-called Christian countries like mine…. You see, over here in Uganda, Muslim children are taught basic Arabic so they can read the Koran. The Muslim religious leaders are even proficient in Arabic which gives them a better understanding of their ‘book’ and religion. The Roman Catholic priests also have a working knowledge of Latin. But sadly, we the Protestants are/were never taught our language, the language of the Holy Scriptures—Hebrew. For that reason, I believe we are not as knowledgeable as we should be concerning the word of YHWH…. Therefore, I am grateful to Aleph with Beth for freely teaching us Hebrew, and for excellently doing so. I pray that one day Hebrew will be taught in Christian countries from early childhood so that Christian children grow up reading the Bible in its original contextual language. That is why I am at 44 years doing Aleph with Beth with my 9 year old daughter, Eden.” –Moses Musinguzi