‘Why should I study Hebrew?’

I’m often asked by people going to theological college or seminary, “Why should I study Hebrew?’ Less often, they ask, “Why should I study Greek?”

They’re good questions. Vital questions.

To answer, I want you to imagine this scenario.

You’ve just arrived at university, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You’re there to study French literature. In fact, it’s been your dream for a few years now to study French literature. You love French culture. You’ve travelled to Paris and fallen in love with the place. You adore French cuisine. Now you want to sink your teeth into the masterpieces that French authors have produced. So you’ve enrolled in the course, bought all the books, and checked your timetable. You’re ready to begin.

And so the day finally arrives. You find the classroom. You walk in, find a seat, and try to get comfortable. But you find yourself shuffling in your seat with nervous anticipation.

Then the Professor walks in.

Your excitement piques even more. At last, you’re actually fulfilling that long-held desire to immerse yourself in French literature.

Bonjour!’ says the Professor.

Bonjour!’ you respond, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

The Professor proceeds to hand out a schedule for the semester. As you scan down the list, you see that each class is a feast of French classics: Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Gaston Leroux, Paul Verlaine… C’est formidable!

The wide smile on your face grows even wider. This is going to be such a treat!

Once all the schedules have been handed out, the Professor gathers everyone’s attention. He clears his throat, and begins to address you all.

“Everybody,” he says, “I want you to know that I actually don’t know any French. I do know bonjour, of course, and how to say escargot properly,” he chuckles, “as well as a handful of other words I’ve picked up here and there. But I don’t actually know the language. Nevertheless, we’re going to have a great time together studying French literature.”

The smile that had beamed across your face now flees.

“This is the ‘Professor?'” you ask yourself. “How is he going to teach us French literature if he doesn’t even know French? He’s not an expert! How are we supposed to trust him if he can’t even read the French for himself? Is this what I signed up for?”


The moral of the story?

If you’re going to be teaching people from a pulpit, interpreting the word of God for them, unpacking its meaning, its significance, and ensuring its positive impact on them, then do the responsible thing and learn the word of God in its original languages. Congregations will be looking to you as their expert who is not just willing but also able to read rightly and teach tightly the Scriptures. Do not sell them short!

For some reason seminary students often don’t need convincing about the value of learning Greek for New Testament study, and yet they do need substantial persuasion to learn Hebrew for the benefit of Old Testament study, not to mention Aramaic for the small portions of it in the Old Testament. 

A friend of mine who pastors a congregation told me of a young man in his church who was heading off to study at a theological college. This young man approached my friend for advice on making a choice: should he study Greek when he got to college, or should he study Hebrew? My friend’s response was legendary: “Well,” he said, “when you finish college and get up into your pulpit, do you want to be wearing only your shirt, or only your pants?”

It is incumbent on those who would be teachers to give their best efforts to the task, so as to honour the God whose Scriptures they are handling, as well as the congregations they are serving. Yes, we have the Bible translated into English and other languages, but there is always some loss in translation. If there weren’t, we might not ever need to hear another sermon again: we could just read our English translations all by ourselves, and never have to meet up regularly. But God has appointed some to be teachers in his Church as a means of blessing his Church with the full measure of the knowledge of the Son of God. This is why not all people are encouraged to be teachers, but also why we go on meeting together with teachers to lead us.

No one who reads from a translation of the Bible is somehow less faithful for doing so than someone who reads from the original languages. The suggestion is preposterous! I want to say, “Thank God for our Bible translators!” But the fact that we need translators tells us just how important it is to have people who do know the original languages. Without them, people are missing out.

I’ve heard some ministers who took Hebrew at seminary say they no longer use it, see no ongoing value for it in their ministry, or in hindsight think that learning Hebrew was too much effort for too little return—that it was time they could have spent better studying other things. But that makes me wonder whether they’re continuing to give the Scriptures their all. The Scriptures are the basis of all theological endeavour. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn Hebrew or Greek, but knowing them allows the teacher to weigh up the decisions made by others about the meaning of Scripture—be they other Bible translators, theologians, other ministers, the leaders of their Bible study groups, the TV documentary host, or the person on the street. And this is an ongoing task that is never finished. While the Scriptures don’t change, the situations we find ourselves in do. And so we need to continue understanding and interpreting the Scriptures for these new situations. One of the mottos of the Reformation captures this need nicely: semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). If a teacher is not actively examining and weighing up the Scriptures against ever changing situations, relying instead on what others say or translate, then they have fallen into a false sense of security. They have actually begun to congeal in a tradition. Teachers should be capable of continual, close examination of the Scriptures. Knowing ‘Shalom’, ‘Hallelujah!’, and the meaning of ‘Yom Kippur’ doesn’t cut it.

“I can still have a fruitful ministry without the original languages,” you might say. True. But which doctor would you go to: the one who has a full waiting room, a soothing voice, and gives you a jellybean at the end of the consultation, or the one who has all the paraphernalia to diagnose you and write you a correct prescription?

For the sake of your future congregations and the God whose Scriptures you will authoritatively interpret for them, give the original languages your best shot and don’t give them up once you’ve graduated. That’s when you’ll use them the most! Knowing the original languages won’t guarantee you’ll be a better speaker, but it will mean you know the Scriptures better. By all means, polish up your speaking skills, but for God’s sake make sure you know what you’re talking about. Know it well! God demands much of his teachers, so you should demand much of yourself, too.

So if you’re heading to theological college and have the opportunity to study Hebrew and Greek, please have a very good reason for not doing so. “It’s not for everybody,” or “It’s not really necessary,” just aren’t really good enough for would-be teachers. Both God and his flock, whom you will shepherd, deserve your best efforts.

Related: Why Learn Biblical Hebrew?

Can Loanwords in the Hebrew Bible be the result of scribal updating?

A loanword is a word that originates in one language, but makes it into another language for common use.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with loanwords. These are interesting cases, because it makes us ask how and when these loanwords made it into Hebrew. They are often used as evidence for particular (usually late) dating of biblical texts.

I was recently asked whether it was possible for loanwords to have crept into biblical texts through editing. That is, could a later scribe, in the process of copying a text, have updated the language and replaced a Hebrew word in the early text with a loanword from another language? And if this is possible, what does this tell us about our methods of dating biblical texts?

Well, the scenario of later scribes inserting later loanwords into earlier texts is possible, but there is absolutely no way of verifying it without manuscript evidence of such a replacement occurring. If all we have is the text with the loanword, how are we supposed to know whether there was another word there originally?

Although the suggestion is possible, it is pure speculation.

This makes me ask three further questions.

First, why would we make this suggestion when it cannot be verified? Is it possible that we want a text to be dated early and a loanword is a ‘spanner in the works’, leading to a form of wishful thinking that perhaps the implication of a loanword can be sidelined if we introduce another reasonable-sounding variable? If this is the case, then it’s putting the cart before the horse in terms of reasoning.

The second question to ask is whether the suggestion of a loanword replacing an earlier Hebrew word is plausible.

The third question to ask is whether it’s probable.

Anything is possible. A few things might be plausible. But only one thing is probable.

It’s possible that the music I can hear in the distance is coming from a left-handed Albino midget from Tanzania who plays the fiddle every Tuesday in Buenos Aires each July and who is currently leading a mariachi band here in Sydney. It’s possible! But it’s not all that plausible. It probably is just someone’s iPod playing through speakers.

So, is it plausible, and even probable that a later scribe would update an earlier text with loanwords? I say it probably isn’t. Here’s why I say that.

There are certain principles by which to abide for appraising loanwords in a case like this. We need to give particular attention to:

  1. the language from which a word has come;
  2. the actual word itself; and
  3. the Hebrew word being replaced by the loanword

If the loanword is a common word that could come through ‘plebeian’ means, like trade or migration, then it’s possibly original and early. That is, the loanword entered Hebrew at a very early stage. But if that’s the case, then we’re no longer talking about a later scribe updating an early text. Also, loanwords of this sort are usually limited to the languages of wide-faring merchants. The Phoenicians were one such group, but their language is very close to Hebrew anyway, so we would be talking about cognates, rather than loanwords. The other wide-faring merchants were Greeks. So perhaps all the Greek loanwords in Hebrew are early?

Not so fast!

The second principle I mentioned above is important here. We need to consider the type of word represented by the loanword. If the word is an item that could be commonly traded or influenced, then yes, it might be a loanword. Words for luxury goods, musical terms, architectural terms, or names of exotic animals can all be loanwords. But if the word comes from the domain of authority and institution, then its entry into Hebrew is unlikely to pre-date the rise of the people who spoke the original language as a colonial power.

Persian loanwords are, in this particular case, quite telling. For example, the word דת (dat: ‘law’ or ‘directive’) reflects the mechanisms of rule. The word פרדס (pardes: ‘park’ or ‘botanical garden’—from which we get our word paradise) reflects the lifestyle and accomplishments of Persian royalty. Could such words have entered Hebrew before significant contact between Persians and Israelites/Judeans? This could only have happened once the Persians rose to imperial power in the mid to late sixth century BC and Hebrew speakers and writers came under their direct influence.

Furthermore, we need to ask what Hebrew word the loanword could have replaced. In the case of דת (‘law’), it could replace a number of Hebrew words, such as תורה (torah), חק (regulation), or מצוה (mitzwah). But then we need to ask, why would a scribe replace a Hebrew word that the original author thought perfectly adequate and which did the job admirably well for centuries? And in the case of biblical texts, these were texts that would have had some literary currency throughout these centuries. These aren’t the kind of words that would become obsolete.

In the case of פרדס, the closest words in Hebrew would have been גן (gan: ‘garden’ or ‘grove’) or כרם (kerem: ‘vineyard’ or ‘orchard’). If, for example, in Song of Songs, a later scribe took an earlier manuscript and inserted the Persian loanword פרדס (pardes: ‘park’ or ‘botanical garden’) at 4.13, why did he not replace the word גן (gan: ‘garden’ or ‘grove’) in the previous verse, and another seven times elsewhere in the book (4.15 [x2], 16; 5.1; 6.2 [x2]; and 8.13), or the nine occurrences of כרם (kerem: ‘vineyard’ or ‘orchard’; 1.6 [x2]; 2.15 [x2]; 7.13; 8.11 [x2], 12)?

It just doesn’t add up as probable, let alone plausible.

So we return to the original question: Could a scribe living at a late date have updated an earlier text with later loanwords? Without specific manuscript evidence to demonstrate it, probably not. But we do need to take each case on its own merits and ensure we apply sound reasoning to the analysis.

Review: Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics

My brief review of Brill’s monumental Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics has been published in the latest issue of Themelios (39.3). Click HERE to read it.

Book Review: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew

I recently reviewed a new introductory Hebrew grammar by Prof. Jo Ann Hackett of the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Hackett is perhaps best known for her work on the Balaam texts from Deir Alla. My review of her grammar book, A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Hendrickson, 2010) is now up at Review of Biblical Literature, along with reviews by two others (Bernard Levinson and James Robson).

In short, I think this new grammar is a marked improvement on other older texts, especially in its attempt to be a true introductory grammar, rather than an undercover reference grammar. However, Prof. Hackett does make some choices that I do question.

Just after it became publicly available, Prof. Hackett contacted me about the review. With her permission, I’ve made some of her comments available here. As far as I know, no journal actually publishes an author’s response to reviews, so I’m glad to provide her with a public right of reply here. It’s best to read the review first, and then her comments below.

Jo Ann Hackett: I have just read your review of my textbook, and I must say that most of your negative reactions have been mirrored by others.  And I remain unconvinced, of course!  I do want to question, however, your suggestion that I treat what you call the “vav consecutive” as if it simply reverses the tense of the verb, because that is something I most certainly do not do, and I’m not quite sure how you could assume that I do.  I would suggest you read 15.3, where I specifically reject that point of view, and 15.4, which I hope shows that I think the historical explanation is correct.

In 16.8, where I say that some people believe that the vav of the ve-qatal form exists as an imitation of the wayyiqtol vav, I suppose you might read it the way you did, but even there, the explanation depends to a certain extent on the historical explanation of the wayyiqtol form.  So I don’t understand that part of the review, and to be honest, I really hate it that such a thing is out there about me, being read by people who don’t know any better.

Let me add a less serious aside.  The objections I’ve gotten to the fact that we call the verb by the 3ms SC form, even though I don’t start there, have all come from teachers.  I’ve taught this to all sorts of students, and I’ve yet to have a single one confused by it.  The same goes for the 1st-person first decision.  Teachers often hate it because we all learned it the other way.  Students, who don’t know any better, never even notice.  I have to admit that it’s hard for me, too, because I have them recite the paradigms and have to remember that they’re doing it in the way I taught them, not the way I learned it.

As you will see in her first paragraph, Prof. Hackett takes me to task for misrepresenting her on the ‘vav consecutive’. Having had my own arguments misrepresented in reviews, I can understand the frustration this can cause an author. However, in this case, I think there is some ambiguity inherent in the wording used within the grammar book that explains why I received the apparently wrong impression. In the review I state that it is unfortunate that Hackett opts for viewing the waw (or ‘vav‘) prefix of the wayyiqtol as a ‘waw conversive’—that is, an element that somehow converts or reverses tense. I quote §15.3 (p.90) of the book in its entirety:

15.3 Other Names For the Consecutive Preterite

The form we are calling the consecutive preterite is usually called “converted imperfect,” as if the addition of the וַ somehow “converted” a future-tense verb into a past-tense verb. It is also called the “imperfect with vav consecutive,” a better choice, but also misleading, since the basic verb is not the “imperfect” (our prefix conjugation) but rather the jussive.

You will see from this paragraph that there is no specific denial of the concept of a converted imperfect. The first sentence is stated without challenge. It is most likely that Prof. Hackett intended the ‘also’ in the phrase ‘but also misleading’ (second sentence) to signify a denial of the veracity of both the ‘converted imperfect’ and ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’ terminologies. However, since the concept of a ‘converted imperfect’ is not labelled misleading immediately after it is described, the impression I gained was that ‘also misleading’ applied only to the use of the word ‘imperfect’ in the terminology. In other words, I read the paragraph as saying that the wayyiqtol (or ‘consecutive preterite’ as Hackett terms it) can also be conceptualised as a ‘converted imperfect’ or, even better as an ‘imperfect with vav consecutive’, even though the wayyiqtol happens to be using the jussive, rather than the imperfect (yiqtol). Thus, although Prof. Hackett meant to put these other terms forward so as to deny their veracity or usefulness, there is no specific and unambiguous statement to that effect, and the paragraph can plausibly be read as though it were a mild endorsement (albeit with slight correction) of these conceptualities.

I am quite relieved to learn from Prof. Hackett that she does not endorse the ‘waw conversive’ or ‘consecutive imperfect’ views of the wayyiqtol. Yet, that makes the ambiguity inherent in the wording of §15.3 all the more unfortunate. I’m quite glad, however, that this issue could be raised and clarified here, and hope that instructors using the book are aware of the ambiguity and can take action to ensure a proper understanding of this particular section the way Prof. Hackett intended it.

Can we date biblical texts on linguistic grounds?

It’s an interesting question: Do the linguistic features of Biblical Hebrew allow us to figure out the date of biblical texts? Traditionally, the answer has been ‘yes’. And so Hebrew has been divided into ‘Early Biblical Hebrew’ (‘EBH’ — a.k.a. ‘Standard Biblical Hebrew’, or ‘SBH’) and ‘Late Biblical Hebrew (‘LBH’). As the terms suggest, EBH was viewed as an earlier stage of the language, usually dated to the pre-exilic era (i.e. before 587 BC), while LBH became more prevalent after this time.

Recently, however, a two-volume study, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), by Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd, has called this hypothesis into question.

The hypothesis of Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd is that the data usually shown as evidence for a linguistic transition from an early form of Hebrew to a later form can and should be reinterpreted. They argue that instead of being a linear development, both EBH and LBH were concurrent ‘styles’ of Hebrew that coexisted. As a result of this, biblical texts can’t really be dated in the manner previously done. In other words, it is a mistake to think that a text written in EBH is necessarily earlier than a text written in LBH. That would have to be established on other grounds beyond linguistics.

The ramifications of this for our study of Hebrew language and biblical texts are actually quite significant. For starters, if Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd are correct, then we would need to privilege non-linguistic data in determining (or at least trying to determine) the date of particular texts.

But are they correct?

Significant debate has ensued since the publication of LDBT in 2008. Some of it has been carried out in journals and academic conferences. But some of it has been conducted through online forums and blogs. You can find one such exchange being carried out between the authors of LDBT and two critics of their new take, John Cook and Robert Holmstedt. You will find the exchange on the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog of John Cook and Robert Holmstedt, here:

Cook and Holmstedt disagree with the method and conclusions in LDBT. The discussion is quite heated at times, but that at least makes for interesting reading. You’ll also find John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry weighing critically into the debate.

For my part, let me lay my cards on the table in this debate. I was one of the proof readers for LDBT, and I have to say I found the arguments logically convincing. The critique of the linguistic approach of Avi Hurvitz was, especially, quite persuasive. I agree with Young (who was my PhD supervisor), Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd that too much has been made of linguistic data in the past, and that we cannot really date biblical texts based solely on linguistic grounds. I also agree that building a history of the language based on biblical texts is seriously undermined by the difficulties of thinking about redaction and scribal transmission.

However, there are numerous other questions that arise. If EBH and LBH are not successive stages of the Hebrew language, but rather concurrent ‘styles’, what exactly do they represent? Are they purely dialectal? Was ancient Israel/Judah/Samaria/Yehud a place where diglossia occurred? Is the linguistic divide between LBH and EBH based on geographic, social, or literary grounds—or even other grounds entirely? Do we need new terms to describe these two ‘styles’ of Hebrew?

It will be interesting to see how discussion develops.