How to Use Vocabulary to Chart the Evolution of Ancient Hebrew—and Other Linguistic Questions

 In 2017, David Pleins and I released a new resource designed for students of biblical Hebrew: Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament, a user-friendly book from Zondervan that arranges biblical Hebrew words and phrases into categories from water to warfare, from jars to genitalia. Since then, we’ve gotten positive reviews in several journals, including the Review of Biblical and Early Christian Studies, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Expository Times, Bulletin for Biblical Research, Review of Biblical Literature, and Hebrew Higher Education. This blog series at theLAB aims to show how this book can be useful for students of all levels. (Links to previous posts will be at the bottom of this page.)

The last post in this series looked at how Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories helps make sense of closely related vocabulary in Biblical Hebrew, using the example of words for various types of honey. However, the slight differences between closely related words in the Bible are not only related to their meaning. In this post, we will look at the possible evolution of Biblical Hebrew vocabulary over time.

Like any other language, Hebrew changed throughout the centuries of the Bible’s oral and textual composition. Though our only access to ancient Hebrew is through the written word, scholars have still theorized three main periods in the development of ancient Hebrew:

  1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew: mainly a collection of poetic texts dating from before the time of David and Solomon. Examples: the Song of Deborah (Judg 5) and the Song of Miriam (Exod 15).
  2. Standard Biblical Hebrew: the written evidence of Hebrew from roughly 1000 BCE to 586 BCE, the Babylonian exile.
  3. Late Biblical Hebrew: texts reflecting changes in Hebrew during the Second Temple period. Examples: Ezra, Nehemiah, Job, Daniel, and Esther.

One way scholars place texts into each of these categories is through a close look at its vocabulary. If a word is hapax, appears in an earlier text, and it has a close Ugaritic cognate, then it might be an Archaic Biblical Hebrew word. If a word is in a Second Temple text and seems to be borrowed from Aramaic—the lingua franca of Persia where the Jews were in diaspora before the return from exile under Cyrus—then that word might be a Late Biblical Hebrew word.

Example: The Garden

Using Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories, a student of Biblical Hebrew can chart these words. For example, a standard word for “garden” in Biblical Hebrew is gan. Adam and Eve originally dwelt in the gan of Eden (e.g., Gen 2:8), and Ahab demands Naboth’s vineyard so that he might use it for a gan of vegetable plants (1 Kgs 21:2). In the Song of Songs, the female lover invites her beloved to come to his gan and eat its choicest fruits (4:16).

However, three later biblical books use another word referring to a garden or orchard: pardes, which appears in three places:

  • Song 4:13: “Your channel is an pardes of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard…”
  • Ecclesiastes 2:5: “I made myself pardesim and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.”
  • Nehemiah 2:8: “A letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s pardes, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.”

Pardes is a loan-word from Persia picked up by Hebrew during the exile in Babylon. Nehemiah is set in the return from exile, and while Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are not set in a particular time, they are also most likely written in the Second Temple period.

Scholars use these chronological categories both to study ancient Hebrew on its own terms and to place biblical texts in the chronology of ancient Israel. This is especially helpful for writings like Job or Song of Songs that give no indication as to their date of composition—so their language can help us.1 While some words appear only in Late Biblical Hebrew texts, other words change their meaning from Classical to Late. (A helpful resource for these lexical changes is Avi Hurvitz’s A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew.)

Of course, some scholars, notably Ian Young, question the entire project of dating biblical texts from their language. Particularly in religious discourse, fossilized archaisms persist long after those words and phrases have dropped out of colloquial use. Just look at the continued use of the King James Version in American churches. Imagine if a thirtieth-century scholar found the script for a twenty-first century worship service. They might date it to the seventeenth century for its supposedly “archiac” language! Yet often, archaisms are a deliberate literary tool.

In short, the chronological divisions of ancient Biblical Hebrew still divide biblical linguists. So do the conclusions about particular books of the Bible drawn from those theories. However, using Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories, one can begin to gather the data for such questions.

The question of the chronology of ancient Hebrew is just one linguistic issue that our book can serve to spark discussions in. Of course, the issue of lexical semantics is also key for understanding the language of the Bible. Instructors interested in this issue might use Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories in conjunction with Moisés Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics.

In the next post of this virtual book tour, we’ll look at how Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories can connect biblical language with biblical culture and archaeology.

1 F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Late Linguistic Features in the Song of Songs,” in Perspectives on the Song of Songs, ed. Anselm C. Hagedorn, Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 346 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 27–77; Avi Hurvitz, “The Date of the Prose-Tale of Job Linguistically Reconsidered,” The Harvard Theological Review 67 (1974): 17–34.

Jonathan’s Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories is in production now, so the pre-order price won’t be around much longer. Get your copy today.

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