Category Archives: Hebrew

Review: Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, Sue Groom

One of the great joys of working on the student’s handbook of Biblical Hebrew vocabulary this summer has been my entry into linguistics and biblical languages. I have long had a layperson’s interest in linguistics, and for me learning about nuances of historical change, sociolinguistics, and such has been one of the payoffs of learning biblical languages, a payoff I had to discover much on my own through authors such as Joel Hoffman and William Schniedewind. This past week I have also started working through

41H1K6GMXWL._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_However, though there are some great books introducing the layperson to linguistics and biblical interpretation, many seem to be more geared more to NT Greek: Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Campbell’s Advances in the Study of Biblical Greek, and so forth. So when I saw Sue Groom’s Linguistic Analysis of Biblical HebrewI ordered it on interlibrary loan right away. Groom’s book aims to introduce the linguistic tools that scholars have applied to the Hebrew Bible. However, though there were some useful chapters in this book, on the whole I found it somewhat of a disappointment.

The first hazard is the mention in the introduction that the book is based on Groom’s MA thesis. This is strange: theses and surveys tend to be very different genres. The second hazard is apparent in the table contents, which promises chapters on the corpus of ancient Hebrew, the development of the Masoretic text, the nature of Biblical Hebrew, ancient biblical translations, comparative philology, lexical semantics, and text linguistics. Hence, rather than orienting biblical studies students to the basic linguistic theories—e.g., syntax, phonology, morphology, etc.—she dives into current topics of discussion. And out of this 174-page book, the longest chapter (31 pages) is devoted to ancient translations that are better surveyed in a book on Old Testament textual criticism than in this book.

In the chapters that were the most useful, Groom glosses over the issues that perhaps need the most treatment. For example, her chapter on “The Nature of Biblical Hebrew” surveys discussions of diglossia, diachronic variation, and dialectical variation and geography—all in 14 pages. I found it hard to follow some of her discussions because she summarized complex arguments without sufficient examples. Still, I gained much from that chapter in particular, as well as her discussion of lexical semantics and comparative philology.

Perhaps the most useful part of her book is the conclusion, which integrates the many different methods she described in an analysis of selected terms in Judges 4. This really illustrated how one can use the biblical languages responsibly instead of in one of the exegetical fallacies so common in popular preaching.

So rather than recommending the entire book, I would recommend selected chapters, with the caveat that since this book was published in 2003 the scholarly discussions have certainly advanced. Overall, despite its usefulness, this book’s genesis as a thesis showed, since much of it felt like a literature review. For me, an ideal book of this kind might include a kind of workbook format, with examples to work through and questions for students to tackle.

That said, I just found out yesterday that I might be taking a seminar on historical linguistics and biblical Hebrew this fall, so I am sure to find out more about this area!

“These Are the Words” in Biblical Hebrew: Why You Should Buy our Upcoming Book.

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry describes the need for a handbook of Ancient Hebrew vocabulary based on semantic domains. He contrasts this to most of the handbooks available now, such as Landes and Van Pratico/Pelt:

From a pedagogical point of view, furthermore, there is something perverse about trying to assimilate vocabulary according to frequency spectra.

Hobbins is right: this is not how people learn a language naturally. Of course any language textbook should start with high-frequency vocabulary. But you will learn that vocabulary in the context of the language overall, not as isolated words to memorize in order of frequency.

Hobbins recommends an English-language resource that arranges Ancient Hebrew vocabulary by semantic domains, or logical categories such as colors, anatomy, military terms, etc. He wrote that in 2007. So far nobody has written such a book.

This frustration was what led my mentor, David Pleins, to start writing “And These Are the Words”: A Student’s Guide to Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Categories. At some point in the process he brought he on as co-author. After Pleins devised the initial lists and categories, I scoured books with titles like The Days of Our Years: A Lexical Semantic Study of the Life Cycle in Biblical IsraelThe Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Colour Lexemes, and Weathering the Psalms: A Meteorotheological Survey to expand our lists. Oh, and yes, we did crib from Hobbins’ list of human anatomy terms.

I am proud to say that yesterday morning (3 AM!) we got the draft into the publisher. It feels nice to have a contract and know this will come out.

As I said, nobody has published a book like this in English before. Mark Wilson wrote a similar one for New Testament Greek, but it has one fatal flaw: he excludes all rare words except those etymologically related to common words. If we had taken such a principle in our book, it would be 1/4 of its size. This especially applies to many “daily life” words for clothes, furniture, etc., many of which are infrequent in the Bible.

Why might our book be useful?

First, vocabulary acquisition is essential to fluid and fun reading of the Scripture in its original languages. But the Hebrew Bible has many words that are infrequent, words that will not appear in frequency handbooks like Landes and Van Pelt/Practico. And learning vocabulary is best done in context—in this case, in the context of related words. So rather than merely learning a word for “scribe,” we can also learn words denoting books, writings, documents, pens, and ink.

But learning words by semantic domains should not just be an exercise in rote memorization. In an appendix of our book, we have collected “cluster verses” that contain several words for one category. For example, Numbers 31:50 is an ideal verse for those trying to learn words for jewelry:

And we have brought the Lord’s offering, what each of us found, articles of gold [זָהָב], armlets [אֶצְעָדָה] and bracelets [צָמִיד], signet rings [טַבַּעַת], ear-rings [עָגִיל], and pendants [כוּמָז], to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.’

That’s six different words in the semantic domain of “Jewelry,” which we have under “Clothing.” These verses enable students to learn biblical Hebrew vocabulary by engaging the text.

Second, these lists can serve as a springboard for many exercises in linguistic exploration. Because this is a student handbook, we did not differentiate words beyond basic semantic referents. But of course, words that refer to the same thing can be very different. The word “testicles” and the word “balls” refer to the same thing, but they are not used in the same contexts!

Similarly, we intend these lists to be used by students of Biblical Hebrew to compare words. Is one word poetic and another used in prose? Is one earlier and one later? Is one distinctive to a particular author?

For example, while reading Proverbs, I might come across the word יָפִיחַ, “witness,” as in a legal witness. But I wouldn’t know at first glance that this word is distinctive to Proverbs, and that the rest of the Hebrew Bible uses עֵד to refer to a witness.

Throughout the book, we have marked all words that are rare (used <10 times) as well as hapax legomena. This enables the student to explore words that are rare and have contested or ambiguous meaning. This also signals to the reader that some of our glosses are less sure than others—not because of any shoddy work on our part but because the word itself is infrequent to start with. If a word appears once in the Hebrew Bible, and if it is part of a list in Leviticus or employed as figurative language in poetry, context might not tell us much about what the word means.

Thirdthis book might be very useful for programs teaching biblical Hebrew using communicative pedagogy, such as Randall Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew and Paul Overland’s Learning Biblical Hebrew Interactively. The lists in our book supply many terms used in daily life. There is something weird about having studied a language for years and being able to talk about complex morphology and syntax, but being unable to create sentences any five-year-old could create in their native tongue: “I want to eat an apple,” “The tree is in the forest,” etc.

I will continue to post updates as we hear back from the publisher. In the meantime, I might do a few blog posts illustrating the usefulness of this tool.

Book Review: Understanding the Alphabet of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This 39-page guide to the paleography of the Dead Sea Scrolls could not have been written by a more qualified guide.  Not only is Yardeni a scholar of ancient Semitic philology and paleography, but she has a degree in graphic arts and calligraphy, so she brings an artist’s eye to her work that most scholars of ancient texts don’t have such formal training in.

yardeniIn this lavishly illustrated book, Yardeni divides Hebrew paleography during the Second Temple period into four categories:

  1. Pre-Jewish (late 3rd century – 167 BCE)
  2. Hasmonean (167-37 BCE)
  3. Herodian (37 BCE – 70 CE)
  4. Post-Herodian (70 CE – 135 CE)

She provides detailed examples of each period, although the last period is, she admits, not well-attested.  At the end of the book she provides a “cheat sheet” of the specific writing styles of each period.  However, through these four period she sees three major developments:

  1. Development of medial/final forms familiar today (e.g. of mem, nun, and tsadi)
  2. Leveling of letter height, more even lines
  3. Development of serifs/flourishes in gimel, zayin, tet, nun, ayin, tasdi, and shin/sin

Overall I really enjoyed the pictures in this book, which made it clear how the script changed over time.  I do think she could have made the book longer and described certain things more.  For example, she could have devoted specific chapters to each of the four time periods, rather than breezed through each one in a few paragraphs.  Often I felt the ratio of illustration to text was off, so that images of manuscripts were not explained adequately.

Still, this is a fun little volume, and I would recommend it for a good 45 minutes of reading and future reference.

Compact Qur’an: Surah 109 and Isaiah 24:16.

A few weeks ago I gushed about the value of writing concisely.  Today I had another moment of bliss.  I was translating Surah 109 for my Arabic class:

Say: O ye that reject Faith!
I worship not that which ye worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
To you be your Way and to me mine. (Yusuf Ali translation)

Verses like this made me think the Qur’an was shoddy poetry.  To English ears, this surah sounds bad both semantically and syntactically.  It has too much semantic repetition, and the syntax is just confusing.  But in Arabic, the same verses have a concise beauty to them.

English prides itself on its huge vocabulary.  English wordsmiths can choose from several words with the same meaning but slightly different connotations or sounds.  So this kind of repetition sounds bad to English ears.  Teachers correct it.

Similarly, English requires too many syntax words for this surah to translate well. Take the verse“I worship not that which ye worship.”  Phrases that “that which” are clumsy and give me a headache.  But in Arabic, it works:

Laa a-‘budu ma ta-‘buduna
Not I-worship that you-worship

Qur’anic Arabic does not need as many syntactic words as English does.  There are only two.  The verbs contain their subjects, so you do not need words for “I” and “you.”  A verse that requires 7 words in English can be expressed by 4 in Arabic.  Yet these 4 words evoke so much: Muhammad’s repudiation of Arabian Jahiliyyah polytheism, his relatives shunning and outcasting him, the hatred and ridicule he faced on a daily basis for the revelations he preached.  There is a lot packed into these punchy four words.  The awkward syntax is not a defect of the Qur’an but a limitation of English.

As for the semantic repetition, I was immediately reminded of Isaiah 24:16:

bogedim bagadu ubeged bogedim bagadu
For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously. (NRSV)
The deceivers deceive, and with deception the deceivers deceive. (my rough translation)

When this verse came up in my Hebrew class last fall, the entire class laughed, because it sounded so silly!  It has a noun referring to actors performing an action, the verb for that action, and another noun referring to the action.  In Hebrew, all three of those words would come from the same root — in this case B-G-D.  This is possible to do in English, but as you can see above it seems ungainly.  As above, English requires more words.  A word-for-word translation would look more like this:

Deceivers deceive, and deception deceivers deceive.

In both Hebrew and Arabic, the compactness of these verses is made possible by the linguistic structure of the languages.  Neither translates very smoothly into idiomatic English.  Yet I love the compactness these Semitic tongues enable.  After reading flowery Greek and Latin prose in my classics courses, they are a breath of fresh air.

Jerome on the “firmamentum” in Genesis 1:6.

When translating the start of the Vulgate I came across this verse:

Dixit quoque Deus: Fiat firmamentum in medio aquarum: et dividat aquas ab aquis.

The Latin here is very simple and can be rendered: “And God also said: Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters: and may it divide waters from waters.”

The word firmamentum, famously rendered in the KJV as “firmament,” is translated from the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ (rāqîaʿ).  In English it is rendered as “vault” (NIV) or “dome” (NRSV, NAB) in contemporary translations.  What is going on here?


From G. L. Robinson’s Leaders of Israel (New York: Association Press, 1913), p. 2.

When ancient Israel wrote of the “dome” separating the lower waters from the upper waters, it seems they took it quite seriously.  And there is some sense to it, especially for a culture that hasn’t flown airplanes above the clouds.  Why else would the sky be blue like the waters below?  Why else would water come from the sky?

In classical Latin, “firmamentum” referred to a support or prop (often architectural) or the main point of an argument.  So it seems to me that Jerome expanded the meaning of the word.  Since Greco-Roman cosmology did not involve a dome, he had to adapt a Latin word to fit this Hebrew concept.

Jerome, a contemporary of Augustine, was one of the last Latin-writing Church Fathers to get a classical education.  He spent much of his career as an ascetic teacher and biblical scholar emphasizing how he left pagan culture behind.  He advised patrons to only have their children read Christian thinkers, even as the literary forms and linguistic styles he wrote in were undeniably of pagan Rome.  So (it seems to me) he is uniquely positioned on the cusp of medieval Latin.  He wrote as a scholar of the pagan classics, but in translating the bulk of the Vulgate he created the turns of phrase that would infuse the Western medieval church’s liturgy and theology.  This use of firmamentum might just be one example of such a turn of phrase.

What do you think?  To what extent did Jerome shape the course of medieval Latin in his creative translation effort?

EDIT: For the curious, Scribalishness has a great post explaining the dome and Genesis 1’s cosmology.

The Good, the Bad, and the Preaching of Christ: Philippians 1:15-20.

Hope this new year is going well for all of you.  I am sad, because I know that this Philippians series will have to wait until the summer to get finished.  But Monday I begin my odyssey into the Odyssey.  But for now, Paul marches on:

15 Τινὲς μὲν καὶ διὰ φθόνον καὶ ἔριν, τινὲς δὲ καὶ δι᾽ εὐδοκίαν τὸν Χριστὸν κηρύσσουσιν·

16 οἱ μὲν ἐξ ἀγάπης, εἰδότες ὅτι εἰς ἀπολογίαν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου κεῖμαι,

17 οἱ δὲ ἐξ ἐριθείας τὸν Χριστὸν καταγγέλλουσιν, οὐχ ἁγνῶς, οἰόμενοι θλῖψιν ἐγείρειν τοῖς δεσμοῖς μου.

18 τί γάρ; πλὴν ὅτι παντὶ τρόπῳ, εἴτε προφάσει εἴτε ἀληθείᾳ, Χριστὸς καταγγέλλεται, καὶ ἐν τούτῳ χαίρω. ἀλλὰ καὶ χαρήσομαι,

19 οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι τοῦτό μοι ἀποβήσεται εἰς σωτηρίαν διὰ τῆς ὑμῶν δεήσεως καὶ ἐπιχορηγίας τοῦ πνεύματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ

20 κατὰ τὴν ἀποκαραδοκίαν καὶ ἐλπίδα μου, ὅτι ἐν οὐδενὶ αἰσχυνθήσομαι ἀλλ᾽ ἐν πάσῃ παρρησίᾳ ὡς πάντοτε καὶ νῦν μεγαλυνθήσεται Χριστὸς ἐν τῷ σώματί μου, εἴτε διὰ ζωῆς εἴτε διὰ θανάτου.

In English:

15 While some preach Christ by envy and strife, others do through goodwill;

16 Some from love, knowing that I am appointed to defense of the gospel,

17 and others from strife proclaim Christ not from pure motives, thinking they will increase the affliction of my bonds.

18 What of this?  But in every manner, whether in pretext or in truth, Christ is preached, and in that I rejoice.  And I will continue to rejoice,

19 for I know that this will turn out for salvation, through your prayers and the assistance of the spirit of Jesus Christ,

20 in accord with my eager expectation and hope, that I may in nothing be ashamed but in all boldness, as always and now, Christ will be exalted through my body, whether through life or through death.

Today I’ll focus on the term φθόνον (phthonon, or phthonos in the nominative).

Phthonos most directly translates to “jealousy” or “envy.”  Sumney explains that this is an uncommon term in the NT, appearing only nine times, three of which are in lists of vices.  Reumann notes two things about this word: it’s a “thoroughly Greek term, in classical sources,” and it is always a bad thing.  Phthonos is a vice, whether it’s envy of friends, political leaders, or the gods.  First Clement gives a short history of jealousy and envy, deeming its cause to be outside God’s order, and implicated jealousy in the sins of Cain, David, and Israel itself.

Yet we have also just read a passage from Exodus where the Lord famous says, “I am a jealous [qana’] God.”  Is God supposed to be petty and envious?  TWOT tells us that qana’ is a vice for humans in the Hebrew worldview, but not for God:

On the other hand the divine action accomplished with “jealousy” may result in good and salvation.  Thus this arduous love effected the return (Isa 42:13). … The word is used to denote a passionate, consuming “zeal” focused on God that results in the doing of his will and the maintaining of his honor in the face of the ungodly acts of men and nations.

So phthonos is bad, but qana’ is not necessarily so.  Propp even notes that qana’ carries connotations of sexual jealousy and possession.  The Septuagint seems to catch this nuance.  The Greek renders qana’ not as phthonos, but as ζηλωτής (zēlōtēs), meaning “loyal,” “zealous,” “enthusiastically adherent,” or “patriotic.”  Yet English translations often fail to make this distinction, rendering both in the same way.  The NIV, NRSV, and NAB all have “envy” (Phil 1:15) and “jealous” (Exodus 20:5).

So perhaps Exodus should not state that God is jealous, but that God is zealous or impassioned, as Propp suggests.  To me this makes more sense, and erases this odd anthropomorphism that the KJV and subsequent translations introduce.

Idols and images: Exodus 20:1-5.

I continue blogging the decalogue with Exodus 20:1-5:

  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר

  אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

  לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, עַל-פָּנָי

  לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל, וְכָל-תְּמוּנָה, אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל, וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת–וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם, מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ

:ה לֹא-תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם, וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם:  כִּי אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵל קַנָּא–פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים, לְשֹׂנְאָי

My translation:

1 And God spoke all these words, saying:

2 I am the Lord your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.

3 Do not have other gods before my face.

4 Do not make an idol of any form which is in the heavens above, on the earth beneath, or in the seas under the land.

5 Do not bow down to them and do not serve them, for I am the Lord your god, a jealous god, appointing the sins of the fathers onto the sons, onto the third and the fourth generation of those who despise me.

This famous passage of the Bible graces many a church (and courthouse) with its presence.  Breaking my usual pattern of looking at 2-3 words or phrases, today’s post will focus entirely on the nuances of עַל-פָּנָי (ʿal-pānāy).

An Israelite's worst nightmare.  Source:

An Israelite’s worst nightmare. Source:

I have written before about the metaphorical usage of various body parts in biblical Hebrew literature.  Literally, this text says to have “no other gods before my face.”  What does this mean?  Most translators render this “before me” (NRSV, NIV) or “besides me” (NAB) or “beside me” (Alter).  They translate the idiom “before my face” into more literal, non-metaphorical language: you cannot worship anything other than Yahweh.  I can’t help but think something is lost in translation.  William Propp comments:

If Yahweh inhabited an idol or stone, the command would simply be not to display other images in his cella [temple sanctuary], as was done around Allah, for example, in pre-Islamic Mecca.  So one possible meaning is that no other deities may be worshipped in Yahweh-shrines. (167)

Monotheism was not pulled out of a hat.  It went through an intermediate stage of henotheism: allegiance to one deity, not denying the existence of other gods but their efficacy and power.  Similarly, it’s possible that Israel’s aniconism (no images!) did not emerge overnight either.  If there were statues of Yahweh, then “before my face” could point to something much more concrete and un-metaphorical than “besides me.”  It may point to another meaning of Alter’s translation “beside me.”  Alter uses a spatial term that carries the same ambiguity as “before my face,” although his notes make it clear he intends it in the idiomatic sense only.

Ancient translators also veered between the literal and the idiomatic in translating this phrase.  The Septugaint renders it “πλὴν ἐμοῦ”: “except me.”  But the Vulgate renders it “coram me”: “in my presence.”  Deuteronomy 5:7, despite being identical to Exodus 20:3, gets translated differently in the same translations!  The Septuagint renders it “πρὸ προσώπου μου” and the Vulgate “in conspectu meo.”  Both preserve the Hebrew idiom.  Still, it raises a question: didn’t the translators of the Septuagint and the Vulgate notice they were translating the same passage twice?

So we are left with two readings.  The first reading takes ʿal-pānāy only in the idiomatic sense: “I shall be your only god.”  Other translators preserve a possible henotheistic, iconographic sense to the idiom.  Perhaps there were images of Yahweh that had faces and shrines.  Pastors often take an entirely different route: an idol is anything that we put before God.  The Oxford Bible Commentary notes that this is not part of the original meaning of an idol (pesel).  So whatever you believe about “before my face” or “besides me,” know that the idols spoken of here are Ba’al and Asherah, not sex and money.

Prologue to the Decalogue: Deuteronomy 5:1-5.

Merry Christmas!

Today I’ll be continuing my blog series on reading the Decalogue in Hebrew, comparing the ten mitzvot in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.  Let’s start, as my course did, with the prologue to Deuteronomy’s version:

א  וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם; וּלְמַדְתֶּם אֹתָם, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם לַעֲשֹׂתָם.

ב  יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, כָּרַת עִמָּנוּ בְּרִית–בְּחֹרֵב.

ג  לֹא אֶת-אֲבֹתֵינוּ, כָּרַת יְהוָה אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת:  כִּי אִתָּנוּ, אֲנַחְנוּ אֵלֶּה פֹה הַיּוֹם כֻּלָּנוּ חַיִּים.

ד  פָּנִים בְּפָנִים, דִּבֶּר יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר–מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.

ה  אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין-יְהוָה וּבֵינֵיכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לְהַגִּיד לָכֶם, אֶת-דְּבַר יְהוָה:  כִּי יְרֵאתֶם מִפְּנֵי הָאֵשׁ, וְלֹא-עֲלִיתֶם בָּהָר לֵאמֹר.

Note that the letters alef, bet, gimel are used as the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc.  My translation:

1 Moses called to all of Israel and he said to them, “Hear, Israel, the decrees and the judgments which I speak in your ears today.  And you shall learn them and keep them to do them.

2 The Lord our God cut with us a covenant at Horeb.

3 Not with our fathers did the Lord cut this covenant, but with us here today, all of us living.

4 Face to face the Lord spoke with you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire.

5 I am standing between God and you at that time, to make known to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid in the face of the fire, and did not go up mountain when the Lord said:

This is simple Hebrew, as Deuteronomist language tends to be with its stock phrases and simple vocabulary.  After spending a semester with biblical poetry, I had forgotten Hebrew could be this easy.

One common trope in this passage is the metaphorical use of body parts.  In v. 1 we have “speak in your ears [ozen].”  Then in 4 and 5 we have the Lord “face [pnei] to face” with Israel, who is afraid “in the face of the fire.”  Hebrew is a very concrete language.  Even highly abstract terms are evoked by concrete images, some of which are echoed in the New Testament.  Body parts, especially the face, ear, and eyes, frequently represent the function they perform for the human and for God.  So God has ears to hear the prayers and petitions of humans just as humans have ears to hear the commands of God.  The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) points out that ears represent not just hearing, but obedience.  While some translators, such as Robert Alter, translate this “in your hearing,” I prefer to preserve the metaphor.

The face [pnei] is also a pervasive metaphor in Hebrew.  TWOT points out that the pnei:

is described not merely as an exterior instrument in one’s physiology, but rather as being engaged in some form of behavioral pattern, and is this characterized by some personal quality.  It is only natural that the face was considered to be extraordinarily revealing vis-a-vis a man’s emotions, moods, and dispositions. (1782)

This makes it possible for Hebrew to use some facial metaphors such as “hard” or “shining,” as in the popular biblical blessing “may the Lord make his face shine on you” (Num 6:25).  Seeing one’s face connotes intimacy with that person.  So while this passage says that God spoke face to face with Israel, that immediacy is mediated by the cloud.  Moses cannot see God’s face.  We cannot get to close to God, or we will die.

Another odd idiom here is to “cut a covenant” (carat berit).  Studies of the covenant form of literature in Exodus show its similarities with political treaties in the ancient Near East.  If this is the model for a covenant, why would the verb not be “sealed” (Alter), “made” (NAB, NRSV, NIV), “drawn up,” “signed,” or “ratified”?

In Genesis 15, Abraham makes a covenant with God:

"God’s Covenant with Abraham," David Martin (1639-1721)

“God’s Covenant with Abraham,” David Martin (1639-1721)

7Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ 8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ 9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.

Scholars speculate that part of the covenant ritual in ancient Israel – whether between God and people or people and people – was cutting animals in half.  Cutting a covenant was an arduous physical process, not just signing your name on a sheet of paper.  And in the case of the covenant with God, it had the implication that the one who does not keep it might themself be cut.

Next up, I’ll be continuing with the commandments themselves.

“Thou shalt blog:” Reading the Decalogue in Hebrew, Part 1.

To kick off my blog, I’d like to start a series.  I’m going to blog through the Decalogue (aka Ten Commandments) in Hebrew over the next four weeks.



Some questions I will ask:

  • How are the decalogues in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 different?
  • Does the order of the 10 differ?
  • How do authorial voices (as in the documentary hypothesis) factor into those differences?
  • Was the decalogue different at Qumran?

Along the way I will parse some of the thornier parts and look at any linguistic oddities raised by the Hebrew.


To aid me, I’ll be using the Lehrhaus Judaica course on that same subject.  (If you are a Hebrew enthusiast, you should check them out.  They videostream the Advanced Hebrew courses.  We have a student taking the course from New Zealand.  Okay, advertisement done.)

I’ll also be reading through William H.C. Propp’s commentary on Exodus in the Anchor Bible series.

I hope you can join me!  See my first post, on Deuteronomy’s prologue to the ten commandments.

The genesis of my Hebrew.

In 2011, a friend of mine told me he was learning to read Hebrew as part of converting to Judaism.  I was enthralled: “Do they teach that to non-Jews?”

It just so happened that Congregation Beth Shalom was next door to my church.  I took it as a sign.  Over the next year I progressed through the elementary grammar and began to work on Ruth before the rabbi and I both had to move away.



When I came to Santa Clara University, I restarted Hebrew through independent studies in Ruth and Jonah with my New Testament professor Catherine Murphy.  It went so well that I was able to take Advanced Hebrew at the Graduate Theological Union.  Having never taken a formal course in Hebrew, I felt both intimidated and honored to be able to study Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Psalms (in Qumranic and Masoretic variants) with doctoral students.  Since fall 2012, I also been taking Jehon Grist‘s Advanced Hebrew courses through Jewish adult education network Lehrhaus Judaica.

My feelings on Hebrew have changed over time.  At first its sparseness scared me.  But during my first year of Greek, I grew to appreciate Hebrew’s lack of complicated declensions and particles.  Now I love its compactness and sound.