Archive for the ‘Beginner's Guide’ Category

Late Biblical Hebrew (Job)

November 29, 2020

10 years ago I did a series of 5 posts in the severely-neglected Learner’s Guide aspect of the blog on the subject of Late Biblical Hebrew (the link will take you to the beginning of the series).  I promised a 6th post on Late Biblical Hebrew focusing on the book of Job, which somehow never got written.  But now — since I am reading the prose framework of the book of Job with students starting tomorrow — I’m finally writing that promised post.

Ezekiel 14 tells us that Job was well known as a righteous individual by the prophet’s time (ca. 600 bce).  Because he is mentioned in connection with Noah and Dan’el,* the assumption is that Job, like them, was (1) not an Israelite, and (2)by now a figure lost in the mists of time.  [*That spelling is not a mistake.  Ezekiel is not talking about Daniel, but about a character now known to us from Ugaritic poetry, which predates anything written in the Bible.  We’ll see shortly why this is significant.]

Because the language of the frame story of Job is relatively straightforward and easy to read — quite unlike the poetry — the question arises:  Was it written by the author of the poem, or did he simply take an old story and insert his poem into it?  We’ll look at that question here through the lenses of two different scholarly articles, one by Nahum Sarna (a teacher of my teachers) and one by Avi Hurvitz, from whom I myself was briefly privileged to learn.  Readers of the earlier posts in this LBH series will know that I highly value his careful linguistic analysis.

Nahum Sarna, in a well-known 1957 article called “Epic Substratum in the Prose of Job,” writes as follows:

Whether or not the prose and poetry of the book originally constituted a unity is outside the scope of this study. But it is certain that the prologue and epilogue belong to each other and are the work of a single author.…  If the narrative framework is the product of a single hand, is it late or early?

Without going into Sarna’s detailed analysis (those who are interested can find a copy of the article here), his comparison of the prologue and epilogue of Job to ancient Semitic epic poetry — including the story of Dan’el — led him to conclude:

The Hebrew prose, in vocabulary and style, is saturated with poeticisms and employs some unique forms explicable by reference to Ugaritic. The literary structure contains all the classic elements of repetition and schematization associated with that of the epic. The exploitation of numerals with special status conforms exactly to the epic pattern. The mythological motif and the sociological themes find close parallels in the Ugaritic literature. In the light of all this the detailed and consistent patriarchal setting must be regarded as genuine and as belonging to the original saga. In brief, the considerable amount of epic substratum indicates that our present narrative framework is directly derived from an ancient Epic of Job.

And now for a responsible opposing viewpoint.  In Part 4 of the LBH series, I describe the careful methodology used by Avi Hurvitz of the Hebrew University to identify a word or feature as late, based on three factors: (1) its distribution entirely or primarily in texts that must be from the Persian period or later; (2) its attestation outside Biblical Hebrew, which should let us trace how the word entered Biblical Hebrew and remained in later Hebrew usage; and (3) the standard equivalents that were used before the late feature entered the language.  An accumulation of late features would give us confidence in identifying that biblical text as late.  The 5th entry in the LBH series showed how this works with an example, the word מלכות in Psalm 145.

Hurvitz turned his attention to Job in a 1974 Harvard Theological Review article called “The Date of the Prose-Tale of Job Linguistically Reconsidered.”  He writes:

Sarna’s conclusion, that an “epic substratum” is pre-served in the Prose Tale of Job, relies on the occurrence of idioms which are ascribed to a language of remote antiquity.  However, all this does not imply that the prose narrative, in its extant version, is necessarily old. As was emphasized long ago, “it is a mistake to infer the age of the writer from the circumstances of the hero of the book.”

And here is his conclusion:

We believe that there is some exaggeration in the statement saying that “the prose tale in the prologue and epilogue is written in exquisite biblical Hebrew, on a par with the classic narratives in Genesis and Samuel”; or that “the author [of the Prose Tale – A.H.] uses perfect classical Hebrew with practically no trace of a later style.” It would appear that in spite of his efforts to write pure classical Hebrew and to mark his story with “Patriarchal coloring,” the author of the Prose Tale could not avoid certain phrases which are unmistakably characteristic of post-exilic Hebrew, thus betraying his actual late date.

Hurvitz lists seven different examples (some of them occurring multiple times) of Late Biblical Hebrew in the prose sections of Job. Here—briefly—are three:

• Thematic: השטן ha-satan, “the Adversary” (passim in chs. 1-2)
• Morphological: עד ad + the participle (1:18)
• Vocabulary: לקבל leqabbel (2:10)

Here I’ll discuss just the last of Hurvitz’s examples: the Piel verb לקבל from Job 2:10 (where it’s used twice).  Job asks his wife, “Should we accept [נְקַבֵּל] only good from God and not accept [נְקַבֵּל] evil?”

Distribution.  There are 9 occurrences of this root in Piel outside of Job: one in Prov 19:20 and all the rest in Esther, Ezra, and Chronicles, all of them from the Persian period.

Attestation outside Biblical Hebrew. This verb is “widely used in post-exilic Hebrew, in Tannaitic and Talmudic literature alike” (and of course in Modern Hebrew as well).  It’s also found 3 times in the Aramaic portions of the book of Daniel.

Standard Equivalents.  What verb was used in Standard Biblical Hebrew where LBH uses קבל?  The answer is לקח.  This verb is usually translated nowadays as “take,” but in SBH it can also mean “get.”  “Taking” a bribe is לקח in Deut 16:19, but the Aramaic translation of the Torah uses קבל in that verse.  And compare Ezra 8:30 (LBH) with Num 31:54 (SBH) or 2 Chr 29:22 (LBH) with Exod 24:6 (SBH) to see how the later texts say something similar but with the “new” verb instead of the “old” one.

There’s much more to say about Late Biblical Hebrew, which I hope to return to in later posts.  In the meantime, those who are interested in Job can look at the marvelous translation of it by Ray Scheindlin that I recommended long ago; the marvelous new translation of it by Ed Greenstein, whom I’ve mentioned many times on the podcast; and my own discussion of it in The Bible’s Many Voices (261-272).

How to PRINT the Hebrew Alphabet

September 3, 2020

One thing that learners of Hebrew often have difficulty with is learning how to write the Hebrew alphabet.  (And you do need to learn how to write, for everything

– from making flashcards and vocabulary lists

– through writing down verb conjugations in order to learn them

– to translating into Biblical Hebrew as your study goes deeper.

But Biblical Hebrew is always printed in a font with serifs:

The same text in a sans-serif font would look like this:

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

But students see the letters as they’re presented in textbooks and in the Bible itself and try to copy the serifs.  It’s almost as tedious for me to read as it is for them to write.

So I’ve created a little Zoom lecture that shows you how to print the Hebrew letters in a quick and readable way.  I can’t post the video to WordPress, but if you email the Bible Guy (via the link in the right sidebar) I will send you a link to it.  (Click on the “Bible Guy” banner at the top of the page to see the sidebar.)

You will have to prove you’re not a robot to send me an email, so it may take a while before I see it; please be patient.  If you are a robot, just leave me a robocall. 🙂

Hebrew Letters Used as Numerals

July 9, 2020

If you want to navigate the Hebrew site of Israel’s 929 Project (as I recommended in my last post for those who want to listen to the Bible read in Hebrew) …

Or if you want to read a Bible printed in Eliahu Koren’s beautifully designed Bible font

One thing you’ll need to do is to learn how to count using Hebrew letters.  In Biblical times and for long after, the ten symbols from 0-9 that we use today had of course not yet been invented.  (We call them Arabic numerals, but I believe they were actually invented in India; Arabic today uses a slightly different set than the one we’re familiar with.)

So — not in the Bible, but toward the end of the 2nd c. BCE, shortly after the latest texts in the Hebrew Bible were written — Hebrew started using letters as numerals.  It’s an idea that they took over from the Greeks.  (See here.)

Here is a handy guide to the Hebrew letters used as numerals that are used to refer to chapters and verses in the Bible and to other traditional texts.  It’s p. 73 of the Guidebook to my Teaching Company course on Biblical Hebrew..

How to Navigate the 929 Website

July 9, 2020

The 929 project started as an all-Hebrew project to get Israelis reading a chapter of the Bible every day, on a schedule where everyone would read the same chapter every day.  There’s now an English companion site, which you’re invited to look at here.

The English site is easy enough to navigate.  If you don’t read Modern Hebrew there’s only one reason to visit the Hebrew site: to listen to Omer Frenkel read the text of the Bible to you in his newscaster accent.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, when you click HE in the upper right corner of the screen to switch to the Hebrew site, it automatically opens the current day’s chapter.  So navigating on the English site to the chapter you want to listen to is not an option.

Bible Guy to the rescue!  Click here for a visual guide [not as elegant as it might be, but efficient] explaining how to navigate to the chapter you want on the Hebrew site or on the 929 app.  Happy listening!

How to Listen to the Bible — in Hebrew!

July 6, 2020

Lots of people are audio learners, and we all learned our first language by listening.  So most people will find it extremely helpful to listen to the Bible when they begin studying Biblical Hebrew.  Here are two ways to do that.


1) Download mp3s of the Bible and listen to them whenever you get the chance.  There is an mp3 of each chapter of the Bible at this URL:

Warning: this recording is somewhat harsh and portentous.  (You can hear a sample of it in the podcast linked at the end of this post.)


2) There is another set of recordings, in a modern Israeli newscaster’s voice, that are somewhat easier on the ear.  You can find these via the 929 Project website or app.  (The 929 project is an originally Israeli project geared toward getting people to read one chapter of the Bible every day.)  And the chapters are on SoundCloud as well.


As of this writing, you must navigate the website or app (or search SoundCloud) in Hebrew to get to any chapter but the chapter that’s being featured that day.  I’ll post instructions on how to do that when I get the chance.  But you might want to get started with Genesis 1 here.

You’ll note that that the reader (former newscaster Omer Frenkel) prefaces his reading with the words bereshit perek aleph (בראשית פרק א) — “Genesis, chapter 1.”

The reader of the Mechon Mamre mp3s (a man named Abraham Shmuelof with a quite unusual history) starts Genesis 1 with these words: hamishah humshei torah, sefer bereshit, parashat bereshit (חמישה חומשי תורה, ספר בראשית, פרשת בראשית) — “The Five Books of Torah, the book of Genesis, weekly Torah reading Bereshit.”

After that both men begin with the first words of the chapter: bereshit bara elohim

Go to my book The Bible’s Many Voices and have a look at the beginning of Chapter 1, “The Sound of the Biblical Voices,” when you’re ready to start thinking about how to translate those words!

And you’ll find some more discussion on Episode 5 of the book’s short-lived companion podcast.

Biblical Hebrew Starter Kit

September 18, 2018

In this post, I’m providing a “Biblical Hebrew Starter Kit”* in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

* The Kit has been updated as of June 2020.

It is just the very first possible lesson in learning how to read Biblical Hebrew by decoding the letters and the vowels.

If you have any suggestions for improvement you can make them in the comments or e-mail them to me (see the sidebar).  And of course I’ll be grateful if you catch any mistakes.  But I most likely won’t be able to help with any technical problems (sorry).

Here’s the kit:

Biblical Hebrew Starter Kit

Happy learning!  And of course do feel free to share the kit as widely as possible!

A Hebrew Bible for reading

February 15, 2015

I’m always encouraging my students (and other friends who are interested in learning) to get a Bible that’s readable.  My hope is that they’ll go on what I used to call “The Ten-Minute-a-Day Plan” — just reading Bible, in the original Hebrew, for at least 10 minutes a day, not stopping to look anything up or figure anything out, but just reading.

One great way to do that now is via the new Israel-based 929 project, which I discussed in a previous post.  That’s certainly a good idea, but it doesn’t help you understand what you’re reading.  I’ve been recommending one of two Bibles for regular daily reading:

(1) One choice is the deservedly popular Koren edition, using the much-praised and beautifully readable typeface designed by Eliahu Koren.  Since it’s an all-Hebrew text, the thing to do is keep an English Bible handy (or use Koren’s own Hebrew-English edition).  There’s a Hebrew-English edition of the JPS Tanakh as well, but I find the JPS Hebrew typeface not as reader-friendly as I wish it were.  And the English translation, though very well done, is too free to be useful as a “pony” for students.

(2) Another choice is the Reader’s Hebrew Bible produced by Zondervan.  The benefit here (as you can see by looking at the sample) is that you simply glance down to the bottom of the page when you encounter a word you don’t know.  Proper names are grayed out to keep innocent readers from a pointless chase after the meaning of something that isn’t actually a word to begin with.  This option — also quite readable despite the interfering numbers pointing you to the glosses — falls in between the Koren Bible by itself and the Koren with translation.  It assumes you already know or will quickly learn the most common Hebrew words plus basic morphology.  It’s strictly a vocabulary aid.

Now there’s a third choice: BHS: A Reader’s Edition, edited by Donald A. VanceGeorge Athas, and Yael Avrahami.  (That link is the only place I was able to find a picture of what it looks like inside; find it here on Amazon.)  I don’t know anything about Vance or Athas, but I’m friendly with Yael Avrahami, who cited some of my work in her book The Senses of Scripture.  So I wish I were happier with this book than I am.

The font is beautifully readable, and the marks indicating that there’s a note are much less intrusive than in the Zondervan book.  But some other, basic aspects of the book are extremely disappointing:

•  One has to go to the notes at the bottom to find out that a word is a GN (geographical name), PN (personal name), or DN (deity name).  Perhaps they thought it would be cheating to adopt the same “grayed-out” feature as the Zondervan edition.  This does give the reader more information, but at a cost of speed.

•  A great many words — all words that occur fewer than 70 times, plus every occurrence of a weak verb, no matter how common — are parsed at the bottom of the page.  There are over 10,000 of these parsings (according to the introduction), so to save space they all, most unfortunately, are given in code.  E.g., tDr25, which means “Hitpael converted perfect/perfect consecutive 3rd common plural.”  These codes “work,” but they are completely unintuitive, and they go a long way to making the notes at the bottom of the page so much harder to read that it almost defeats the purpose.  I’d rather my students understood the parsing on their own.  It’s not that hard to learn, especially if (as in the Zondervan RHB) the root and binyan of difficult words are given.

•  The notes of BHS are missing!  Students most certainly don’t need the Masoretic marginal notes that clutter the BHS page, but — at least after their very first year of Hebrew at the most — they do need the notes at the bottom of the page that point to difficulties in the text.  What exactly makes this Bible a “BHS” if those notes are missing?  The differences in the Hebrew text between BHS and other editions are not really important for beginning students.

•  This sucker is big.  It is ¾” fatter and half a pound heavier than the Zondervan book.  And trust me, that’s one heavy half a pound.

I ask my Penn students to buy BHS, since they will certainly want it at least for the second year of Biblical Hebrew.  I also encourage them to buy a more readable Bible to train themselves how to read comfortably, which one or two of them do.  I was hoping this “Reader’s Edition” of BHS would let me offer my students both features in a single package, but as it is I can’t really recommend it to them.  Please, friends …

– keep the beautiful font and the unobtrusive note markers;

– junk the ugly parsing;

– use “Bible paper” if you have to;

– and put back the BHS notes!

See now this review.

Bible Odyssey

July 4, 2014

The new Bible Odyssey web site from the Society of Biblical Literature has just gone live.

I have a piece in it (by their request) on “Sexual Harassment in the Book of Ruth,” reworked from something I published while I was still in grad school.

I would be interested to hear your reactions to the web site and how interesting / useful it is for you.

Shamgar the Mysterious (Biblicist’s Holiday)

October 24, 2013

Today I’m going to take a look at one of the mysterious minor characters in the Bible — Shamgar ben Anat.

We first meet him in the last verse of Judges 3. That chapter begins by explaining that the non-Israelites who remained in Canaan had deliberately been left there by God, who wanted to keep the Jews on their toes militarily (and also wanted to have some enemies of theirs around when it became necessary to punish them).

The first part of Judges 3 tells how Israel was rescued from King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim (you could call him King Shame-on-ya from Mesopotamia) by Othniel the Kenizzite, the first “judge.”

Time out here for a word or two about the “judges” (שופטים, shoftim) that the book of Judges is named after. Do not think of someone wearing a wig or holding a gavel. The word might better be translated as “magistrates” — that is, people who were not in any sense “royal” but who ruled whatever area of the country they could control and who issued “rulings” (משפטים, mishpatim) as a way of governing. NJPS calls them “chieftains,” which is more anthropological but otherwise pretty much the same thing.

Othniel was the first of these chieftains, and his story is followed in Judges 3 by that of Ehud, who because he was left-handed was able to surprise King Eglon of Moab, the oppressor of Israel in those days, and kill him. He became the next chieftain of Israel. Judges 4 and 5 tell at great length of Deborah, who was both a prophet and also a chieftain of Israel. But after Ehud’s story and before Deborah’s comes this one verse:

Judg. 3:31
  After him came Shamgar son of Anath, who slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too was a champion of Israel.

Shamgar is not specifically described here as a “judge,” but two things tell us that he was one. First, he came “after” Ehud — that is, ruled after him. Second, he “was a champion of Israel” (in the NJPS translation); more precisely, he “saved” or “delivered” Israel: ויושע גם הוא את ישראל. This is the verb that the “judges” of the book of Judges do:

Judg. 2:16
  Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered [ויושיעום] them out of the power of those who plundered them.

To “deliver” (hoshia) makes you a מושיע, a moshia or “savior.”

But who was this Shamgar? His name is not Semitic (too many consonants, for one thing), and he is described as “son of Anat” — a Canaanite goddess! Walter Maier, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, explains:

Shamgar, a mighty fighter in Judges (3:31; 5:6), is designated ben anat, “the son of Anath.” The name “Shamgar” is non-Israelite (best seen as Hurrian in origin). Scholarly opinion varies as to understanding “the son of Anath.” For example, this designation is seen as indicating Shamgar’s community; Shamgar was from Beth-anath (IDB 4: 306). Another interpretation, seeing in the designation mention of the war divinity Anath, is that it is a military title or epithet (Craigie 1972: 239–40). However, Cross (1980: 7) thinks that ben anat may be a simple personal name. After comparing inscriptions on two arrowheads dating to the late 12th and late 11th centuries B.C., he suggests that the designation be understood as “the (son of) Son of Anath.” Ben Anath (“Son of Anath”) was Shamgar’s father, who was named after the goddess. Extrabiblical onomastic data indicate that personal names often consisted of “Son of” plus the name of a deity. Since Ben Anath was named after the warrior goddess Anath it is quite possible that he came from a military family.

My question is, what’s he doing here? I can understand that someone with a non-Israelite name, even someone (Israelite or otherwise) who was a worshipper of Anat, might have established himself as a champion of the Israelites and ruler of the land in this period. But if you are going to go so far as to tell me that he “slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad,” why not tell me the whole story?

My suspicion is that the writer who assembled the book of Judges from earlier sources (written and legendary) actually knew nothing about Shamgar except for this, from the Song of Deborah:

Judg. 5:6
In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
In the days of Jael,
Caravans ceased,
And wayfarers went
By roundabout paths.

This song is probably the most ancient text in the Bible (see my earlier post on it here). Some scholars think that Judges 4 is simply a prose retelling based on the well-known poem in Judges 5; if that’s true, it would be natural to add a note leading up to the story of Deborah implying that Shamgar had ruled just before her. (Jael, of course, has a featured role in the poem, so she can have one in the story too.) As for the 600 Philistines, either that was also somehow an attribution of Shamgar’s that was floating around (like George Washington and the cherry tree), or our author made it up to give him something to do.

The two verses I quote in this post are the only biblical mentions of Shamgar. His name, and the two “facts” we know about him — that marauders were plentiful in his days, and that he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad — open a tantalizing window on an early moment in the history of the Israelites. The only biblical heroes who killed more Philistines than that are Samson, Saul, and David. Pretty good company.

But unless one day we dig up an inscription that tells us more about his story, we will never know anything else about this once famous ruler of the Israelites.

The “Old Testament”

January 18, 2010

Everybody knows that the Old Testament is the “Jewish” part of the Bible. I’ve written earlier about the fact that “the Bible” means three different things to Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Now it’s time to clarify another misconception that many people share: that the Jewish Bible consists of the Old Testament alone.

It’s true, of course, that none of the books of the New Testament or Apocrypha are part of the Jewish Bible. But that doesn’t mean that what is left is the Old Testament. Here’s why:

• First, of course, “Old” Testament implies the existence of a “New” Testament, which Jews don’t in fact accept. (Exactly why Christians call these parts of their Bible “Testaments” will be the subject of a later post.) That is why some considerate Christians have begun to refer to this part of their Bible as “the Primary Testament” or (awkwardly) “the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.” So Jews who refer to their Bible as “the Old Testament” are speaking from a non-Jewish perspective.

• But there’s a much more important reason not to call the Jewish Bible “the Old Testament.” It’s not just a matter of perspective; the contents of the two books are arranged in a different order. That means each one tells a different story.

The Old Testament starts (of course) with Genesis, and carries the historical story all the way through the book of Esther. Then there’s a short grouping of (mostly) poetic books, followed by the prophets, ending with Malachi.

The Jewish Bible starts out the same way as the Old Testament, and (with one slight change) follows the same order as far as the end of the book of Kings. But the Jewish Bible is not divided into history, poetry, and prophecy, but into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. (They’re capitalized because these three parts of the Bible each play a different role in Judaism; more on this in a later post.) So the first five books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, constitute a section on their own. Then come the books of the “Prophets,” divided into a historical section and a prophetic section. Finally, the catch-all “Writings,” ending with Chronicles.

Both versions begin with the creation of the world. Here’s how the Old Testament ends:

Mal. 4:4*
Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Then you turn the page, and the New Testament begins:

Matt. 1:1
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

“Elijah” shows up in ch. 3, in the person of John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophecies ending with Malachi begin to be fulfilled.

The Jewish Bible tells a very different story—it is a book not of fulfillment but of potential:

2Chr. 36: 22
And in the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the LORD roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing, as follows: 23 “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all His people, the LORD his God be with him and let him go up.”

It ends with the beginning of the return from exile. The historical story told in the Bible actually continues (with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), but the Bible itself ends as the Torah, its first and (for Jews) most important part ends—with the Jews on the point of returning to their homeland.
Bottom line? The Old Testament is arranged to introduce the New Testament. The (Jewish) Bible is arranged to introduce the Jews to a life in their land. So even though they contain the same material, they tell a very different story.

*(Jews will notice that there are 4 chapters in the Christian version of Malachi rather than 3—but that’s just because the chapters and verses are numbered a bit differently. More on this in a later post.)