Biblical Hebrew

aleppo-codexIt is largely accepted that there are three periods of Biblical Hebrew:

  • Archaic Biblical Hebrew: represented by certain poems in the Pentateuch and the Prophets.
  • Standard Biblical Hebrew: found in Biblical prose from Genesis through Second Kings.
  • Late Biblical Hebrew: as seen in post-exilic books such as Ezra, Nehmiah, Daniel, and the Chronicles.

There are seven common verb stems of Biblical Hebrew, which fall into three groups. The first is made up of two stems, Qal and Nif’al. Verbs in Qal may be active or stative, and Nif’al verbs usually express either reflexivity, reciprocity, or may express the passive of Qal verbs.

The second group contains three stems, Pi”el, Pu”al and Hitpa”el. The characteristic trait of this group is the doubling (“germination”) of the second consonant and the stems are often called “intensive.” Pi”el verbs sometimes are factitive, Pu”al is an internal passive of Pi”el, and Hitpa”el may be reflexive or reciprocal, infrequently passive.

The third group includes two stems and is formed with a prefixed consonant “he”: Hif’il is causative-factitive and Hof’al functions as its internal passive.

Biblical Hebrew has a sensitive and complex system of denoting subtle indications of time and aspect. The frequency of the conjunction “waw” before many verbs, according to medieval Jewish grammarians, could change the tense of a verb; this “waw” is known as the “waw conversive.”

Foreign loan words

According to Kutscher, “The native vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew is a true reflection of the life, geographical background, means of livelihood, manner and customs, religion and beliefs of the Jewish people during Biblical times.” By means of the vocabulary, one can obtain a sociological breakdown of Jewish agricultural society.

Technical and commercial terms are largely foreign words, which Kutscher attributes to the foreignness of these concepts to the ancient Israelites, whereas the large number of native agricultural terms gives a window into the importance of working the land. For example, Kutscher notes there are 117 names of plants in Biblical Hebrew, 18 of which are thorns and thistles!

Due to the Silk Road and other trade routes, the average Jew in Biblical times had rather large geographical horizons, from India to Southern Arabia and Nubia, to Asia Minor, and possibly beyond the Greek Isles. The general population was exposed to numerous languages and Biblical Hebrew absorbed many foreign loanwords. These foreign words are often recognized by their alien roots or appearance.

Additionally, there are included in the Biblical Hebrew lexicon what are called “travelling” or “culture” words These are words that appear simultaneously in several languages of the Mediterranean basin, such that it is impossible to know in which language the word originated. One example is the word “sack,” which is found in Egyptian and most Semitic languages. It was recorded in Greek and filtered into many European languages.

Akkadian, the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians, is one of the main sources of loan words in Biblical Hebrew. As an example, the Hebrew month names today are of Akkadian origin. Several of them even appear in Late Biblical Hebrew books, whereas in Standard Biblical Hebrew, the month names reflect the ancient Canaanite calendar.

However, more than any other language, it is Aramaic which left an indelible imprint on Hebrew, from the adoption of the Aramaic alphabet during Second Temple times to a more subtle influence of Aramaic roots that have so successfully infiltrated the language that it is almost impossible to spot them. As Kutscher states, “Because of the symbiosis of the two languages during the nearly one thousand years before Hebrew died out as a spoken language (end of the second century CE), Aramaic became the main factor shaping Hebrew.” This influence is most felt in the late books, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, some Psalms, Esther, and more. 

Inscriptions

The most important inscriptions from the First Temple Period are the Gezer Calendar (Solomonic period, 10th century BCE), the Samaria Ostraca (time of Joash, end of 8th century), the famous Siloam Inscription of Hezekiah (end of the eighth century), a letter from Mesad Hashavyahu (also known as “Yavne-Yam”; time of Josiah, end of 7th century), the Lachish Letters and the Arad Ostraca (just before the end of the Kingdom of Judah, beginning of 6th century), according to Kutscher.

Recently, another early inscription has been found written on a pottery sherd in Emek HaEla (possibly the Biblical Sha’arayim), which has been dated to the early 10th century BCE (during the reign of King David).

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