Archive for the ‘History of Hebrew’ Category

Shoftim 5777

August 22, 2017

This is Torah Talk for the week of August 20th, 2017

Our hands did not shed this blood [Deut 21:7]. “Shed” has the appearance of a singular verb, not a plural;H you will find the same grammatical phenomenon in “my steps were nearly led off course” (Ps. 73:2). — Abraham ibn Ezra

Correction:  I say on the audio that the perfect is the equivalent of the Modern Hebrew present tense — no idea what I was thinking.  Of course, it is the equivalent of the Modern Hebrew past tense.  Sorry for the mistake.

This week’s handout:  48 Shoftim 5777



Late Biblical Hebrew — מלכות (malchut)

January 31, 2011

As I said in my last post, Avi Hurvitz’s method of identifying a feature of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) combines three elements:

(1) distribution
(2) attestation outside Biblical Hebrew
(3) standard equivalents

This time, we’ll look at just one example from Hurvitz’s demonstration that Psalm 145 (which makes up most of the “Ashrei” prayer that is such an integral part of Jewish worship) is a late text: the word malchut, “kingdom.”


Outside of Psalms (where there’s no historical context, which is why we need linguistic tools to date these texts) malchut occurs 80 times in Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther, and Ecclesiastes (all late); 3 times in Jeremiah (written immediately before and during the exilic period); and just 3 times in texts that are considered early: Num 24:7, 1 Sam 20:31, and 1 Kgs 2:12.

Attestation outside Biblical Hebrew:

Malchut appears some 50 times in Biblical Aramaic. The two other Biblical Hebrew words used for “kingdom” or “kingship,” melucha and mamlacha, never appear in Aramaic. With one possible exception from Elephantine (which may be a scribal error), neither is found in Aramaic at all, and the same is true for Mishnaic Hebrew and rabbinic literature in general. It’s worth noting that the ending -ut, which generally (not always) indicates an abstract noun, is found even in the earliest biblical texts (see Exod 14:25 for an example); but its real growth occurs only in LBH. So the history of malchut matches the history of the -ut ending that it features.

Standard Equivalents:

As noted in the last section, the Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) equivalents of malchut (מלכות) are melucha (מלוכה) and mamlacha (ממלכה). Here are just a couple of the numerous comparisons Hurvitz provides between SBH texts with one of those words and an otherwise matching later text that uses malchut. These are in Hebrew, of course, because the English translations would be essentially the same:

1 Chr 17:11
והקימותי את-זרעך אחריך אשר יהיה מבניך והכינותי את-מלכותו
והקימתי את-זרעך אחריך אשר יצא ממעיך והכימתי את-ממלכתו
2 Sam 7:12

2 Chr 7:18
והקימותי את כסא מלכותך
והקמתי את-כסא ממלכתך
1 Kgs 9:5

You’ll notice that the later Chronicles texts are also likely to have extra vavs and yuds, serving as vowel markers, than the earlier texts from Samuel and Kings.

Hurvitz’s full discussion demonstrates conclusively that the word malchut for “kingdom” or “kingship” is a feature of LBH. Since, like many features characteristic of LBH, it does occur sporadically in earlier texts, it’s important to remember that a single LBH feature is not enough to demonstrate that an entire text is late. For the rest of Hurvitz’s discussion about Psalm 145, you’ll have to turn to his Hebrew book, בין לשון ללשון. But he has published a number of scholarly articles in English.

Another example, also based on Hurvitz’s work, will be along shortly.

Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 4)

January 2, 2011

Now that we have a baseline to start with — the books of Daniel, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, in which, if anywhere, we can expect to find Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) — we can look more closely at the method by which to determine whether any particular linguistic feature is indeed representative of LBH.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the scholar who has done this kind of work most carefully is Avi Hurvitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This time, we’ll look at the method he uses. It depends on a combination of three types of arguments:

Distribution. The word’s distribution within the Bible should show a significant pattern of usage in books otherwise known to be late. If a vocabulary item or a particular grammatical feature occurs in the Persian-period books, but also occurs many times in Genesis or Jeremiah or Judges, it is simply a carry-over from the standard language (SBH, Standard Biblical Hebrew). But let’s say it occurs 18 times in the Bible: 16 times in the late books, and twice in the psalms, where the dating is quite uncertain. This would be a good candidate for study as an LBH feature.

Attestation outside Biblical Hebrew. It should be possible to trace how the expression entered Biblical Hebrew and continued into Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic. If a linguistic feature is new to Biblical Hebrew in the Persian period, we would like to know how the “biography” of that feature brought it into the Hebrew language at that point in history; this calls for looking into its source. But we’d also like to be confident that it continued to be a feature in the writings of the rabbinic era. This increases our confidence that the story we are telling of how this feature entered the language is a correct one.

Standard Equivalents. It should be possible to point to an equivalent for the expression in Standard Biblical Hebrew. How would a pre-exilic text have said this? If we cannot find an equivalent, it might simply be that the earlier biblical texts provided no occasion to use our feature. That would mean that its appearance only in late books is simply a coincidence.

If (and only if) all three aspects point to a late date for our word or expression can we have a certain amount of confidence in declaring that it’s a feature of LBH. To declare that a particular text is late, we want something more: an accumulation of late features. Otherwise we might be dealing with coincidence or with a late gloss to a text that was mostly early.

The method is especially important for figuring out the dates of biblical texts that are otherwise “unmoored” chronologically. Books that describe historical personages or include references to historical events give us other evidence for dates. But the Hurvitz method can help us date texts that don’t have a historical context, such as Proverbs, Psalms, and Job.

In my next couple of posts, we’ll look at an example from Psalms and also at one from Job to see how the combination of (1) distribution, (2) attestation outside Biblical Hebrew, and (3) standard equivalents is applied to actual biblical texts.

Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 3)

December 17, 2010

Now that we know what the “Late” part of “Late Biblical Hebrew” (LBH) means, how do we decide whether a biblical text is “late”? That is, how can we decide what linguistic features are found only in LBH, and whether the presence of certain features shows that a text was written after the return from Babylonian exile? That’s the question I’ll begin to discuss in this post.

The first thing to do is to establish a baseline, by looking at the language of the books that must unquestionably have been written after the exile. The books that describe the Persian empire running things are obviously the books that fall into this category: Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Daniel, you’ll remember, actually has a number of words in Greek (see the lists of musical instruments in Dan 3:5, 10, and 15; see below), so we know that this book was not complete until after the Persian period was ended by the conquests of Alexander the Great:

Now if you are ready to fall down and worship the statue that I have made when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither [קיטרוס], lyre, psaltery [פסנתרין], and bagpipe [סומפניה], and all other types of instruments, well and good. (Dan 3:15)

Chronicles falls into this category, too, as we see from the very end of the book:

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.” (2 Chr 36:22-23)

(You may recognize that the end of Chronicles is actually the same as the beginning of the book of Ezra, something I mentioned in my post on “The Old Testament” and will discuss more fully in a future post.)

Chronicles actually gives us a special kind of help in our project. Large parts of Chronicles tell us the same things we learn from the books of Samuel and Kings, and in almost the same language. Indeed, most scholars assume that the Chronicler (as we call the author of that book) used Samuel and Kings as sources for his work. So when there are linguistic differences between two versions of the “same” sentence, we can often attribute them to the effect of Late Biblical Hebrew. (As we’ll see when we turn to our discussion of Israelite history, there are other important differences between these two versions of the story as well.)

Now that we’ve identified five books that must have been written in the Persian period or later, how do we use that knowledge?

If a particular linguistic feature is found only (or overwhelmingly) in any or all of these five books, we can be reasonably confident that it is a feature of LBH. Even if it is found once or twice in texts that we are confident were written before the exile, it is probably safe to assume that (1) it is in a phrase or a verse that was added later to the earlier text, or (2) though used once by this particular author, it did not catch on as a regular feature of the language until after the exile.

That means that an LBH feature is not like a fingerprint. A single linguistic feature that can be described as late does not automatically provide a “smoking gun” to identify a text as post-exilic. Instead, we would only call a text late (by means of this method) if there is an accumulation of LBH features, giving us a text that is full of “late” language.

The scholar who has worked most consistently and most carefully at identifying late texts by analyzing their linguistic features is Avi Hurvitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In my next post we’ll look at his method in detail.

Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 2)

December 7, 2010

I’ve invested a lot of electrons in explaining the background to the study of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). Now, at last, it’s time to discuss what biblical scholars mean when we say “late.”

The answer is simple—“late” means “post-exilic.” If you don’t consider that answer a simple one … read on, for a quick outline of Israelite history as the Bible describes it:

• 1st half of the 2nd millennium BCE (Genesis) — the four generations from Abraham to the 12 sons of Jacob

• 13th c. BCE (Exodus-Deuteronomy) — the exodus from Egypt

• ca. 1200 (Joshua) — the return to Canaan

• 1200-1000 (Judges) — Israel is a loose confederation of tribes, with the leader of one or another tribe taking a leading role in each generation

• 1000-950 (Samuel) — a period of struggle leads to the selection of Israel’s first king, Saul, and then to his replacement by David, founder of a long-lived dynasty in Jerusalem

• 950-700 (Kings) — David is followed by Solomon, after which the northern tribes split off, leaving Solomon’s descendants as kings of Judah, while a succession of rulers from different families are kings of Israel. Israel is conquered by Assyria in 722, and many of its people are exiled to the far reaches of the Assyrian empire, where their ethnic identity disappears into that of the people among whom they settle. The Assyrians besiege Jerusalem in 701 but do not conquer it.

This brings us to the crucial moment in history for understanding Late Biblical Hebrew: the Babylonian exile.

• 586 — The Babylonians, who have conquered the Assyrians and become the major power north and east of Judah (balancing Egypt on the south and west) conquer Jerusalem and take (some of) the people of Judah into exile.

In the land of Israel itself, the archaeologists tell us, there’s little cultural change as a result of the fall of Jerusalem—even though the Temple in Jerusalem has been burnt down! But the Bible is not the book of those who remained in Judah. It’s the book of those who were taken to Babylonia in captivity and whose descendants then returned to Israel after Cyrus the Mede, emperor of Persia, conquered the Babylonians in 538.

For this group, there was tremendous cultural change. They were immersed in a different civilization from the one they’d known, and (most importantly for our question) a different linguistic environment. The language of Babylonia was Akkadian, a Semitic language somewhat distantly related to Hebrew, but the lingua franca of the Babylonian empire was Aramaic, a much more closely related language. This situation inevitably affected the way the exiles used Hebrew, and it was this “modern” variety of Hebrew that they brought back with them to Israel.

Archaeological remains show us that the material culture of Israel was quite different once it became part of the Persian empire, and it seems that language change also accelerated during this period. It’s the severe break caused by the exile that makes it both possible and worthwhile to determine which biblical texts are “late”—that is, which texts were written only after the return from exile. That’s the scholarly issue behind the question of Late Biblical Hebrew.

As you might guess, this is an issue that is politically and emotionally charged as well. I’ll return to this subject, and to a more serious look at the history of the biblical period, in a later series of posts. For now, since we’ve discussed when “late” is, we’ll turn to a discussion of how to decide whether a biblical text really is late or not.

Late Biblical Hebrew (Part 1)

November 28, 2010

I said in an earlier post that “Standard” Biblical Hebrew (SBH) was the Hebrew that we find in writings from the middle of the biblical period. A good rough guide is to say that it’s the language of the books from Genesis through Kings. By contrast, the latest books in the Bible are written in “Late” Biblical Hebrew (LBH), and I’ve just, at the recent SBL convention in Atlanta, heard Chaim Cohen of Ben Gurion University refer to Hebrew like that of Judges 5 as ABH, Archaic Biblical Hebrew.

You might wonder why anyone except for specialists would care which particular flavor of Hebrew a biblical text is written in. But this is one of the most contentious questions in biblical studies today. The reason is that there are many biblical texts whose dates are uncertain. For a long time now, scholars have attempted to fix the dates of various biblical books or sections within a book—for example, the various chapters of Psalms—by pointing out linguistic features that they call “early” or “late.”

These language features we’re talking about fall into various categories:

Vocabulary. This might be a newly coined word; a word from Aramaic, Akkadian, Persian, or Greek; a new combination of words; or a word used in a new way—e.g., a verb used with a different preposition or a noun taking on a different meaning. English example: “Dude” and “guy” used to refer only to males; now they can refer to either sex.

Morphology. This refers to the various ways in which nouns decline (masculine-feminine, singular-plural) or verbs conjugate (add first, second, or third person to the mix, as well as the much wider variety of verb forms). Off the top of my head, this is a less important category in understanding LBH; by that time the morphology of Hebrew had become fairly standard. In fact, even the morphology of Modern Hebrew is very close to that of Biblical Hebrew. It is from Archaic Biblical Hebrew to Standard Biblical Hebrew that morphology changes most. (Some examples, perhaps, in a later post; for now, I’ll just mention the phrase hay’to-eretz in Gen 1:24.) English example: Except in forms like “I am, you are, he is,” we no longer distinguish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person for English verbs. That also means that words like “dost” and “doeth” have given way to “do” and “does.”

Syntax. This refers to the way that phrases and sentences are put together. English example: I haven’t got a historical example handy, but here’s a difference between English English and American English that undoubtedly has historical roots. In American English we’d say, “The Bears are playing the Eagles today,” but “Chicago is playing Philadelphia today.” English English would use “are” in both sentences, since “Chicago” represents a collective.  [Update:  For a bit more on this, see “The Festival are clear” by Geoffrey Pullum (on Language Log).]

It’s worth remembering, though, that linguistic changes of this kind do not take place all at once. They accumulate gradually. So a single “late” form is not enough to identify a text as late. It might be one of the earlier changes in the language, or it might be something that a single writer actually used quite early in the biblical period that, for one reason or another, didn’t “take” until much later. Scholars have compiled lists of the various changes that make up what we now call Late Biblical Hebrew. But, as far as I’m aware, no one has yet put together a comprehensive chronology of when each of the changes occurred. It may well be that we don’t have enough information to paint more than a very sketchy portrait of the overall history of this change.

At this stage of the game, what we’re most interested in is a very rough estimate of the date of a text: not whether it was written in the 640s, 630s, or 620s BCE, but whether or not it is “late.” But what do biblical scholars mean by “late”? That’s a subject I’ll leave for my next post.

I got some remedial Biblical Hebrew tutoring in my first year at Brandeis University from Mark Rooker, who at the time was finishing his dissertation on Biblical Hebrew in Transition: The Language of the Book of Ezekiel. For those who’d like some more technical discussion on the subject (but not the entire book), here’s a link to his article on the features of Late Biblical Hebrew.