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Biblical Hebrew

Things worth knowing about Biblical Hebrew

In this article we will pay attention to the origin of the development of the Biblical Hebrew. It is interesting, but above all important, to realize that the LORD has given His Word to Israel in this language, and by way of Israel to us too. When one occupies oneself with Hebrew, even superficially, one soon develops a love for the language. One smells as it were the ink and the parchments. One sees in thought the Jewish writer painting character by character in utmost concentration. But the most impressive thing is that one occupies oneself with a text which is the Word of God up to and including the jota and the tittles. Any translation, however accurate, is nowhere compared to it.

Hebrew as a Semitic language

Biblical Hebrew, the language in which the larger part of the Old Testament has been written, is considered a Semitic language. About 70 languages and/or dialects with specific distinguishing marks belong to this language family.

Semitic languages have been, and still are, spoken and written nowadays, particularly in the Middle East. Well-known languages belong to this group, such as Arabic and Aramaic, but also lesser known languages such as Maltese (an Arabic dialect spoken on the island of Malta), Asjor (an Aramaic dialect from the Caucasus) or Sorotese ( a language spoken on the island of Socrota in the Gulf of Aden).

Many languages of the Semitic language family are not spoken nowadays anymore; they have become a ”dead" language. We know them only by way of well preserved documents, such as inscriptions and clay tablets (the Acadia for example). This also applies for the classic or Biblical Hebrew, which we know only from the Hebrew Bible and epigraphic material (the Siloam inscription for example).

The term ‘Semitic’ was used for the first time by A.L. Schlötzer, a German linguist of the 18th century . By this term he meant the languages which were spoken by the Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic people. He borrowed the term itself from the so called nation table (Gen. 10:21-31), in which the descendants of Shem are mentioned.

Now the term Semitic is confusing in that the descendants of Shem and “Semitic languages” do not exactly match. Elamitic for example (Elam is a son of Shem according to Gen. 10:22) is not a Semitic language. On the other hand the Canaanites (counted as descendants of Ham along with the Sidonians) did speak a Semitic language. The Hebrew, Moabitic, Ammonitic and Phenician also belong to the Canaanitic language group.

Probably the Hebrew has developed out of that Canaanite dialect that the Israelites came upon at the conquering of the “Promised Land” and for which they gave up their native language (presumably an idiom related to the old Aramaic , compare Deut. 26:5). Hebrew can rightly be called a “language of Canaan “(Isaiah 19:18). The Aramaic returns after the Babylonian exile (the books of Ezra and Daniel in the Bible are partly written in Aramaic)!

The Semitic languages show a lot of mutual similarities compared to those of the German language group (such as Dutch, German, Fries, Danish). Nowadays in linguistic science one counts the Semitic languages as part of a wider context of languages, described as “Hamito-Semitic”or Afro- Asian”.

The Hebrew Alphabet

In Canaan, the area of the present states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, the cuneiform writing (from Mesopotamia) as well as the hieroglyphic writing (from Egypt) was used. Since the year 2000 B.C. new forms of writing came in vogue and about 1000 B.C. a system of just 22 characters was developed, which made it possible to write any word. But only the consonants were written just like in Egyptian. This script, the so called Phoenician alphabet, deviates from the cuneiform writing and the hieroglyphic writing because each sign signifies one consonant and no longer a complete word or a syllable. This type of writing is called alphabet, according to the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

Probably the form of the characters has been borrowed from the sketches of objects, as is the case with a pictography. However, the difference is that not the complete word is meant by the sign, but only the consonant. Just like spelling a name during a phone call: you are speaking with Esther: Eduard, Simon, Theodore, Henry, Eduard, Rudolph. A schematic sketch of the palm of a hand (kaf) became a”k”; a mark (taw) became a “t”, and so on. In the course of centuries the signs have been simplified and sometimes turned around. Nowadays no one will see the head of a cow, which is the origin of the character, in the present aleph.

The Phoenician script was adopted by other nations. They changed the form of the characters somewhat and sometimes even the sound; also characters were added. In this way the Hebrew, Aramaic and the Greek alphabet developed, the three scripts the Bible writers have used. Although the larger part of the Old Testament originally must have been written in the old Hebrew script, that is not the alphabet in which the Hebrew text is written or printed at present. For that the Aramaic square script is used (so called square because of the square form of the characters), which had pushed aside for the greater part the old Hebrew script long before the time of the Lord Jesus.

The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 signs for consonants. The vowels and accents, which are nowadays in the Bible, have been added one or two millennia later by Jewish deliverers, called masoretes, to establish precisely the correct classic pronunciation (in the synagogue). That the usual sequence of the characters (aleph-beth-gimel-daleth, and so on) is very old appears from the so called alphabetic psalms:

Each half verse: Psalm 111 and 112

Each verse: Psalm 25, 34,145 and Proverbs 31:10-31

Each strophe: Psalm 37 and Lamentations (partly)

Each stanza: Psalm 119

History of the text of the Hebrew Bible

Hebrew is a consonant language, which means the script is made up of consonants only. The vowels have been added at a later stage.

How has that addition come about? When we trace the history of the Hebrew text of the Bible, it strikes us that there is little reference material. The original Bible scripts, the so called autographs, are no more …or have not been found yet.

The oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible we know are the so called Dead Sea Scrolls, found in 1947 (at the eve of the foundation of the state of Israel!) at Qumran near the Dead Sea and at other places in the desert of Judea too (Masada for example).

These handwritten Bible scrolls are dated at the beginning of our era. Up until the moment of the discovery we only had at our disposal the so called “Codex Leningradensis”, which is copied in 1008/1009 A.D. In it we find the complete Bible (the 39 books of the Old Testament) copied by one hand. A codex is a script kept together in one binding; as opposed to a scroll.

Comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Codex Leningradensis revealed that there are indeed a lot of differences between the two handwritings (Isaiah 53 for example counts 23 deviations compared with the current Hebrew text), but these differences do not concern the main substance of the text but rather the spelling and notation of it.

Meanwhile the lack of authentic handwritings is less significant because of the fact that the text is copied very faithfully. But at this moment we do not yet have reference material at our disposal. What we know is that about 100 years A.D. the Hebrew Bible text as we know it now, was settled, and that concerns the size as well as the text.

But…………..that goes only for the consonants. Even for a trained reader it is not easy to understand the whole of it. The question is: When, why and how have the accents for vowels and consonants been added?

Three connected causes are to be pointed out which gave rise to the establishment of the Bible text, including the sounds of vowels (by means of accents which are not original).

1. In the first place there was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans, which included the downfall of the Temple and the Temple service. With that the Jews lost their geographical and spiritual orientation point and were scattered around the world, the so called “Diaspora”. Ever since the Jews have plunged themselves into the written deliverance of the Bible text; the loss of the central sanctuary in Jerusalem made clear the need for an authoritative text of the Holy Scriptures.

2. The second cause is the fact that Hebrew wasn’t a spoken language anymore long before the start of the Common Era. During the time of the Lord Jesus on earth people spoke Aramaic or Greek. The worldwide dispersion of the Jews had an adverse affect upon Hebrew as a spoken language. Jews understandably took over the language of the country they settled in. With that, the knowledge of pronunciation and meaning threatened to get lost. Up till 1948 Hebrew remained a so called ‘dead’ or ‘holy’ language, especially used for religious purposes (think of the church Latin during the Middle Ages).

3. The third cause is the fast rising and extension of the young Christian church. The “Christians” (Messianic Jews) referred to the same scripts as the other Jews. In that mutual struggle it was important to have a reliable text. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translated by Greek speaking Jews, was much respected originally in Judaism as a whole (Greek was the main language then). But when the Septuagint also was used extensively by the Jewish Christians as well as heathen Christians to prove their truths of faith, its authority and value decreased so much in classic rabbinic Jewish societies, that they fell back to the old Hebrew Bible text. It is this old Hebrew Bible text which became the starting point for various translations.

Thus great care was bestowed on the Hebrew text. In the centuries since 100 A.D. distinguished scribes have worked hard on all kind of notes and philological (linguistic and literarily) explanations concerning the text, which should protect it against corruption, changes, inaccurate copying, extension and abbreviation.

The scribes, who undertook this special task since 100 A.D, are called masoretes, derived from the word ‘masora’, which means ‘tradition’ or ‘deliverance’. With the term ’masoretes’ we think about the Jewish scribes in particular, who, building on the foundations of their predecessors, between 500 and 900 A.D. have developed and completed the extensive work of vocalization and punctuation. (Vocalization: introducing vocal signs; punctuation: introducing accents).

The masoretes have shaped the Hebrew Bible as we know it now. We call this text the Masorete Text (MT), as distinct from the Qumran Text (QT).

(From: W. Bloemendaal, de tekst van het Oude Testament, Baarn, 1966)

Something about “reading mothers”

Many centuries before the balanced system of vowel signs as we know it had come in use, people had developed a less fine meshed, but decisive vowel system to indicate the most important vowels in a word.

In Hebrew the words ‘waw’ and ‘yod’ are pronounced in such a way that one could partly hear the vowels (oe) and (ie); waw and yod are therefore called half vocals. They also were used for the vowels, at first at the beginning of a word (about the 9th century B.C) later in the middle too (about 7th century B.C.)

So these ‘reading mothers’ have been used since the beginning of the 9th century, while they were omitted almost entirely in the close related Phoenician language. The use in the middle of a word was limited and not tied down to prescriptions; everyone could write them or omit them. After the exile they were written more and more; this development went the farthest in a couple of handwritings of Qumran: in several Biblical and many non-Biblical texts.

From: J.Hoftijzer, Hebreeuws en Aramees als bijbeltalen, Bijbel Handboek, Kampen 1981)

The pronunciation

There are roughly three pronunciations of the Biblical Hebrew: the Yemenitic pronunciation (used by the Jews in Yemen), the Sephardic pronunciation (used in the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam and in the Sephardic-Jewish communities in foreign countries) and the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which is used by the majority of the Jewish communities in Europe and America. The names Sephardic and Ashkenazi are borrowed from the Bible. In Obadiah verse 20 Sepharad is mentioned, which should be Spain according to Jewish commentators. The word Ashkenazi is borrowed from Gen. 10 verse 3 and Jeremiah 51 verse 27, where Askenaz is mentioned, which is Germany according to the Jewish exegeses.

In the early Middle Ages Europe had two important Jewish centres: Spain and Germany. That’s why the Jewish inhabitants were named Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish. They not only differed from each other in the pronunciation of the Hebrew, but also in religious rituals. After the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Spain (in 1942) and later from Portugal too, these Jews settled down in Northern Africa, Turkey (Istanbul), Bulgaria, Yugoslavia (Sarajevo), Greece (Saloniki) and also in Amsterdam. The Ashkenazi Jews mainly settled down in Eastern Europe (Poland), because of the persecutions during the crusades.

It was the German humanist Reuchlin (1455-1522) who introduced Hebrew as a subject to the universities in Europe. Because he had had a Sephardic Jew as a teacher the Sephardic pronunciation was used at the universities (and his grammar was also used by the reformer Luther!). When the Jews started to speak Hebrew as a ‘living’ language' at the end of the 19th century and by the inspiration of the Zionism, the question arose which pronunciation was to be used. Because of the influence of Eliezer ben Jehuda the Sephardic pronunciation was chosen, although the majority of the Jewish immigrants were from Eastern Europe and therefore only knew the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

One of the arguments of Eliezer ben Jehuda was that the Sephardic pronunciation clearly was the most scientific, because it was taught at the universities in Western Europe. That is why a pronunciation of the Hebrew is used in the present state of Israel, which is based on the Sephardic one. However, this choice had nothing to do with science. It was only because Reuchlin happened to have a Sephardic teacher and not an Ashkenazi one! How David and Solomon pronounced their Hebrew, we do not know………..

Meanwhile (language lives!) the present Israeli pronunciation deviates from the Sephardic in several ways. One does not agree in the language teaching which one can be used best. Some universities (Leiden for example) chose the Sephardic, others (Amsterdam: UVA for example) choose the Israeli pronunciation. There are good arguments for both points of view.

(From: P. Siebesma, Handleiding bij de studie Bijbels Hebreews, Barneveld, 2003)

The oldest complete Hebrew Bible manuscript

In the year 1007 the prominent merchant-scholar Ozdad ha-Kohen ordered the sofeer (writer) Samuel ben Jakob to make a copy of the Tenach (Hebrew Bible), provided with all the masorete notations, symbols and signs. The project, for that is what the making of such a book can be called, was finished in the year 1009. So Samuel ben Jakob worked for two years on it.

During those two years he wrote on 491 thick sheets of parchment (30x27 cm.) the complete text of the Hebrew Bible, provided it in horizontal and vertical margins with almost all masorete notations (about 60.000!), placed several religious poems in between and ended on the last page with an acrostic (name poem, like the national song ‘Wilhelmus’ in Holland), of which the first letters formed his own name. And, as if this was not enough, he provided the Bible with 16 pages, beautifully illustrated with exceptionally nice calligraphies.

Up until now the Codex Leningradensis is the pearl in the crown of the Firkovich collection: the largest collection of unpublished or not yet published Jewish texts from the Middle Ages in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg (the former Leningrad).

Abraham Firkovich [Poland, 1786-1874, a merchant and leader of the Kraits (the ‘protestants ’among the Jews), who traveled up and down from Cairo and Crimea), took a great interest in antique Jewish manuscripts, which he bought up whenever he could. He himself did not tell anything about the purchase of the Codex. We do not know whom he bought the book from or how much he paid for it. We only know that he bought it. Later on he partly granted his collection, partly sold it to the National Library of Russia.

The fact is that the sudden emergence of a complete manuscript of the Old Testament in perfect condition (which almost certainly is based upon the Masorete text of Ben Asjer!) burst in like a bomb, especially with the scholars who occupied with the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. The well known Biblia Hebraica Stuttgardensia (BHS) is based on this manuscript. Although the Bible texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are about a thousand years older, unfortunately they are not complete and not from one hand.

The name of God in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew language the name of God is written like this: JHWH. These four letters (jod-he-waw-he) are called the Tetragrammaton: the four letter name of God. This name of God, His personal name, is found about 7000 times in the Hebrew Bible. The Name probably is a form of the old Hebrew verb hawa (he-waw-he), which means “to be” just like the verb hajah (he-jod-he). In Exodus 3:15 God makes His name known. When Moses says: Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, the God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is His Name? What shall I say unto them?” God answers: I am that I am. On the analogy of the verbal form ehje (I will be) one linguistically reads the Name as jahwe (He will be).

However, the fact is that no one knows for sure how the Name of God was pronounced originally. How come? When the old Hebrew language was written (and it still goes this way nowadays!), the writers only used consonants and no vowels. As long as the old Hebrew was a colloquial language (like Modern Hebrew nowadays) this was no problem. The pronunciation of the Name was known to the Israelites and when they saw this Name written, they effortlessly filled in the matching vowels.

However, two things that happened changed this situation. First of all the idea occurred among the Jews that it was incorrect to speak the Name of God out loud. For fear of transgressing the third commandment (“Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain”, Exodus 20:7), they decided not to say that name at all. That is a form of hypercorrection . Besides the Hebrew language it was less and less used in the daily conversation with the lapse of time. In this way the original Hebrew pronunciation of the Name of God was forgotten altogether.\

When the Masoretes started their work of vocalization, they hit a problem. How to vocalize the Name of God? For they were not allowed to speak it or let it be spoken and the question arises whether they themselves still knew how to pronounce the Name …. They chose the following solution: the vowels for the word adonai were placed beneath the consonants JHWH, to remind the reader that he had to say adonai (‘sovereign Lord’).

How can the Name of God best be translated? The Septuagint translates the Tetragrammaton with ‘kurios’, which is Greek for ‘lord’. Jewish translations often replace the Tetragrammaton with a paraphrase, such as ‘the Name’ or ‘the Eternal’. There are many ideas about the pronunciation and meaning of the name of God JHWH. The classical translation is ‘LORD’.

The original meaning

The Hebrew language belongs to the Semitic languages. The most important feature of the Semitic languages is that almost every word has a stem, consisting of three consonants. This stem (or radix) is the vehicle of an original meaning. The Hebrew stem sin-lamed-mem for example means ‘to be complete’. By means of vowels and added consonants we can derive a series of words from this stem, of which the meaning is closely bound up with the meaning of the stem. We can form the following words of the stem SLM:

SeLeM peace offer

SaLeM befriended

SiLLeM retribution

SiLLuM payment

SiLLuMa punishment

SaLMunim bribery

SaLoM wellbeing

jruSaLeM Jerusalem

SaLoMo land of peace

And with the hope for that last word “land of peace’ I gladly finish this study. I hope you have come to like Hebrew after reading this article!