Choosing a Hebrew Teaching & Learning Grammar

Who knew that there were so many options?

There’s a new first-year college-level Biblical Hebrew grammar published about every six months. There are so many to choose from! What are the main choices involved? I’ve figured out these differences in approach: Continue reading

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The Workings of Hebrew Narrative in the Hezekiah Stories in 2 Kings

My kids have just come home from school with the fact that the world’s best-selling book is the Bible and not any part of the Harry Potter series, or even Lord of the Rings.

It isn’t surprising when we look closely at the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (to say nothing of the all-important Final Quarter).  I’m constantly amazed at the artistry and profundity of both poetic and narrative texts of the OT.  And some of it escapes us until we read the Hebrew.

Having reached the end of 2 Kings 20 this morning, let me mention a couple of great little nuggets from 2 Kings 18-20, those riveting and sometimes perplexing stories about Hezekiah.  (Pretty well all of these things will apply also to Isaiah 36-39, but I am not taking the time to check each detail there right now.)

  • There is a fundamental tension within the story of the Assyrian crisis when Sennacherib invades.  Here it comes out in Christopher J. H. Wright’s brief historical survey in The Message of Jeremiah, Bible Speaks Today Series (2014), p. 18:

“When Sennacherib marched west to put down the rebellion in 701 BC, he invaded and ravaged Judah fiercely and then besieged Jerusalem itself.  Panic once again in Jerusalem.  This time Isaiah’s counsel prevailed, Hezekiah sought the Lord, and the city was spared with a miraculous deliverance (though Hezekiah did in fact submit to heavy tribute).”

That is a clear tension in the story, and the submission is narrated first, before the story of miraculous deliverance!  There’s no concealment or gilding the lily at this point.  But even the silence about conquest evident in the Sennacherib Prism might suggest that the failure to actually take Jerusalem is the elephant in Sennacherib’s room: “(Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”

  • There is a good example of ‘repetition with variation’ in Hebrew narrative.  The first message from Sennacherib’s chronies in 2 Kings 18:19-25 is seemingly careful not to incite the enmity of Yahweh, instead (disingenuously) claiming that Hezekiah’s centralization of worship to Jerusalem makes him less faithful to Yahweh than Sennacherib himself is, who has come to invade Judah, he says, on Yahweh’s instructions!  In v. 29 he adds, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand.”  But notice the word of the second backup threat to Hezekiah in 19:10: “”Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the kind of Assyria.’  …Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them…?  Much of the wording is identical, but in place of ‘Hezekiah’, now it is Yahweh’s competence being questioned.  Perhaps that is why the second prophetic denunciation through Isaiah is so much the stronger than the first!  Can I emphasize that this is a principle for understanding all OT narrative?  Pay attention to the little variations within the repetition!  They make the big points!  (This is also what makes good music good!)
  • Isaiah’s first, much briefer message in 19:6-7 uses a great word that I hadn’t noticed before:

6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard– those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
7 Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword. ‘” (2Ki 19:6-7 NIV)

The word rendered ‘underlings’ is one Hebrew word for children or teenagers, and can by derivation mean ‘servants..  It’s effectively labeling Sennacherib’s highest officials as his ‘boys’, trivial figures who just say and do what they’re told.  It’s a Churchillian one-word put-down.

By the way, Isaiah’s first message, as brief as it is, is links to the final judgment on Sennacherib, his eventual assassination (2 Kings 19:37).  Enclosed within this prophecy and fulfilment is another, the larger oracle/s of Isaiah (19:21-34) and their fulfilment in the plague that drives the Assyrians from the walls of Jerusalem (19:35-36).

Here are some of the things that feature twice in the narrative in 2 Kings 18-20; see if you can locate the two aspects of each feature:

Inclusios or Doublets in 2 Kings 18-20

  • And to illustrate just one brief example of the many deliberate doublets in this narrative: the account of Hezekiah’s career finishes where the Assyrian crisis began in 2 Kings 18:17 – at the aqueduct of the upper pool…a piece of infrastructure that 2 Kings 20:20 finally tells us was a key achievement of Hezekiah.  And, characteristically for Hebrew narrative, the two Hebrew terms for this structure are mentioned in reverse in the Hebrew text!  The book of Isaiah does even more with this particular narrative setting, but that’s another story.

What language did Jesus speak?

A good explanation of something many Christians may have wondered about.

With Meagre Powers

Today witnessed a very minor verbal exchange between Pope Francis and Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the language Jesus spoke. Reuters reports the incident on the final day of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East:

During his comments about a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity and tolerance towards Christians in Israel, Netanyahu told the [sic!] Francis: “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.

“Aramaic,” the pontiff interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.

The difference of opinion reignites a historic debate about the language Jesus spoke two millennia ago.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” Israeli linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann told Reuters. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”

Zuckermann added that during Jesus’ time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes – “the kind of people he ministered to.”

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The Three Kinds of Writing in Joshua and Their Purposes

The book of Joshua is a great example of a biblical book that contains different genres (kinds of writing) that predominate in different sections of the book, and each has its reason for being there.  I think that when the average reader tackles a book like Joshua, a narrative or history-telling book of the Old Testament (OT), s/he sets out reading it as narrative, the genre that tells a story.  And that is not wrong, because narrative provides the ‘matrix’ that holds the book together.  But embedded in the narrative is another genre that, as Robert Alter once pointed out in his essay, ‘Sacred History and Prose Fiction’ (in The Creation of Sacred Literature, ed. R. E. Friedman, p. 17), dialogue carries much of the meaning in OT narrative, and this is particularly true in a book like Joshua.  What appears within the speeches in Joshua, whether by God or by Joshua or even by others, is programmatic, of defining importance for the theological claims of the book, which determine how the narrated and recreated history is to be understood.  That is why dialogue predominates when counted by verse in the earliest and latest chapters of the book:

Genres of Joshua Chart

Notice also the other main genre in Joshua here, which is usually called (from memory) ‘boundary lists’.  We normally skip that section, or pay it little attention, but it could offer insights into what period that kind of detailed territorial information was in high demand, i.e. where in Israel’s history its first audience could be situated.  It seems to me that its relevance has to be pre-exilic.  That would tie into the significance of the famous (or notorious) ‘to this day’ statements that are so abundant in Joshua and tip the hand to the time period in which the book was written.  See Joshua 4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 8:28-29; 9:27; 10:27; 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 22:22; 23:9; 24:15.  Josh. 15:63 is a telling example; it reports the Jebusites of Jerusalem as not yet dislodged from there.  Since this was something achieved early in David’s reign according to 2 Sam. 5:6-10, we have a clue that the Joshua map lists or much, most or all of the book might have been produced as early as this, in the 10th century B.C.

Mini-Book Review: F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic

Okay, so it’s really old, published in 1973. This is one of those scholarly books that sits on the shelf of nearly every theological institution on the planet, but that is beginning to get a little dusty from disuse. It’s one of those books that any budding biblical scholar ought to have read, but some of us were like Linus in 1973, with our shorts nearly reaching the ground, and weren’t quite ready to read the works of scholars like Frank Moore Cross. So it has taken me a while to get to this.

But you ought to know that this is one of those books you ought to read if you want to understand the course of Old Testament scholarship in the last fifty years – one of Cross’s defining works, and thus a milestone for one of the leading scholars of the twentieth-century Albright school. It is a classic, a period piece, an effective marker of the state of anglophone thought on numerous Old Testament topics from Pentateuchal criticism and the Deuteronomistic History to the speciality of the Albright school, antique Hebrew poetry.

But remember…it is from 1973! It shouldn’t be read as contemporary research. But for the serious OT student with some introduction to critical issues, it should be read.

Distribution Chart for an Unusual Hebrew Pronominal Suffix (Technical)

“Hey Mo, don’t you worry ’bout goin’ down south,

I’ll be sayin’ every word that comes outta your mouth,

Just be doin’ your best, and pray that it’s blessed,

I’ll take care o’ the rest.”

– Keith Green, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest”

Noticing that Psalm 2 had in common with Exodus 15 (the Song of Moses) and a range of other texts an unusual form of the 3rd masc. plural (usually) pronominal suffix, ‘מוֹ’ (-mo), I became interested in just where those endings turned up, why they might exist, and whether any significant implications stem from these features.

So let me offer an Excel chart that shows their distribution and specific references:

Distribution Chart for -mo 3mp pronominal suffixes

 

-mo suffix chart image

The distribution of these endings is interesting.  It shows clusters of its use on verbs (esp. Exod 15), nouns (e.g. Ps 2:3) and prepositions (normally ‘עַל’ or ‘לְ’, once ‘אֶל’, Ps 2:5).  For instance, Exodus 15 features seven such suffixes, exclusively on verbs, whereas all the prophetic uses are on prepositions, and then only in Isaiah and once in Habakkuk.  A few more observations:

  • The suffix is normally plural but occasionally singular, as in the Genesis references.
  • The suffix can occur in parallel construction with the regular 3mp ending, as in Ps 49:11.
  • The form is almost always found in poetry, though the poetry/prose boundary is difficult to identify in prophetic discourse (affecting the Isaiah references).  Exod 23:31, however, is a prose use.

A point of interest for me is whether this is an archaic form or instead an ‘archaizing’ form, a stylistic touch implying traditional authority or fidelity, e.g. continued use of archaic English forms by churchgoers reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Psalm 49 instance might suggest a stylistic use.  I suspect that some clusters are genuinely archaic, including Exodus 15.  Isaianic  usage probably reflects use of this suffix largely restricted to prepositions in the middle of the Old Testament period.  Some of the Psalms uses, especially later ones, occur in proximity to references to Israel’s distant past, e.g. 78:24, 66; 83:11; 99:7.

It is challenging to find where secondary sources discuss this phenomenon, but see Gesenius/Kautsch/Cowley #32m (pp. 107-8 in my edition), #58g (156-7) re verb suffixes, #91b, h, l (255-258) re noun suffixes, and #103f, o (301-2, 305) re suffixes on prepositions.  #91l debates the implications of such forms for dating, in the authors’ case, denying that they can be relied upon to be genuine signs of archaism, while those of the Albright school (e.g. Cross, Freedman) might take them as betraying the archaic nature of a poem like Exodus 15.  (See Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 86, for a sample reference to Exodus 15 and the beginning and ending of Deuteronomy 33 in these terms.  You’ll notice that all feature this suffix abundantly.)

I would assume that ancient Hebrew language like any other has a history and a course of development, and that it must be possible to arrive at some conclusions on the basis of phenomena such as the one mentioned here.  I believe that the authors behind Miller-Naudé, Cynthia L., and Ziony Zevit (eds.). Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012) would advocate this position, though I haven’t yet read the volume.  With the same proviso, I understand that the opposing position is put in Young, I., R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008).  Let’s all check them out!

Excel-Based Hebrew Verb Drill for Hebrew Students

This Excel table is based on the forms listed in the back of the popular Basics of Biblical Hebrew, 2d edition, by Pratico & van Pelt:

Excel Hebrew Verb Drill Chart Image

The key cells are in columns B&C, #2-12, which generate new numbers every time you hit ‘calculate’.  The numbers correspond to row & column co-ordinates in the tables in the Pratico & van Pelt text, pages 416-437.

Using the Form Key, and the SBL Hebrew font (or similar), type in your attempt at the correct form in cells D2-D11, then check the tables in Pratico & van Pelt to mark your attempts.  I shade light orange for correct, grey for incorrect and leave the cell white for nonsense forms which can occur, e.g. passive participle forms for a stem that only has active ones.

Then record the stats toward the bottom of the page, have a chart generated from those stats to track your progress, and then do it all again!  See what you think.  Here’s the link.  Critique is welcome.

https://firstthreequarters.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/excel-verb-drill-form-12-2013.xlsx