Biblical Hebrew Phases: A Case Study

The contrast between Classical and Late Biblical Hebrew is best illustrated by juxtaposing two extracts of biblical prose narrative, one from each corpus.

Classical Biblical Hebrew:

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Behold, I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. 17 But YHWH afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

(Genesis 12:10–20)

This beautiful piece of prose exhibits several expressions typical of Classical Biblical Hebrew that are never found in the Late Biblical Hebrew corpus:

1. The syntagma hinneh-na’ (Hebrew: הִנֵּה־נָא, “behold,” v. 11) is attested 22 times in the Classical corpus and four times in the poetry of Job, but not once in Late Biblical Hebrew. These statistics are not accidental; they are symptomatic of wider-ranging developments. The modal particle na’ (Hebrew: נָא, “please”) is vastly more frequent in Classical than in Late Biblical Hebrew.

2. Temporal ki (Hebrew: כִּי, “when,” v. 12) is frequent in Classical but virtually absent from Late Biblical Hebrew.

3. The passive qal verb tuqqaḥ (Hebrew: וַתֻּקַּח in “was taken,” v. 15) is a regular feature in Classical Hebrew, but it is almost completely lacking from Late Biblical Hebrew. The passive qal of the root lqḥ (Hebrew: לקח, “take”) is attested 15 times in the Hebrew Bible: seven times in the Classical prose corpus and eight times in prophetic books and Job. There are no cases in Late Biblical Hebrew.

Late Biblical Hebrew:

Scroll of Esther

An 18th-century C.E. scroll of Esther from the collection of the Israel Museum. Photo: Google Art Project.

1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; 2 he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. 3 In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 4 When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. 5 Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. 6 Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, 7 and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. 8 Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

(Esther 4:1–8)

This prose passage is as fluid and capable as the previous one, but the language is essentially different. Several features typical of Late Biblical Hebrew, and completely absent from the Classical corpus, occur:

1. There are three Persian loanwords: dat (Hebrew: דָּת, “decree,” vv. 3 and 8), ginzey (Hebew: גִּנְזֵי, “treasures,” v. 7), and patšegen (Hebrew: פַּתְשֶׁגֶן, “copy,” v. 8). Each of these words occurs elsewhere in Late Biblical Hebrew: dat (דָּת) in Ezra 8:36; gnz (גנז), in the form ganzakh (גַּנְזַך), in 1 Chronicles 28:11; patšegen (פַּתְשֶׁגֶן), in the slightly different form paršegen (פַּרְשֶׁגֶן), in Ezra 7:11. But none of them is found in Classical Hebrew.

2. Aramaic influence can be seen in the noun ketav (Hebrew: כְּתָב, “writing,” v. 8), whose morphology marks it out as a loanword. This word is found in Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles but never in Classical Hebrew. Also reflecting Aramaic is the noun parašah (Hebrew: פָּרָשָׁה, “precise amount,” v. 7). Although this noun is attested only in the present verse, its nominal pattern was imported from Aramaic.

3. A phraseological feature limited to Late Biblical Hebrew is the combination of the prepositions ‘ad (Hebrew: עַד, “up to”) and le (Hebrew: לְ, “to”) in v. 2. It is found more than 20 times in Ezra and Chronicles but practically never in Classical Hebrew.

4. Several syntactic features of the passage are typical of Late Biblical Hebrew. ’Eyn (Hebrew: אֵין) + infinitive in a modal, meaning “none might enter” (v. 2), is attested eight times—in Esther, Ecclesiastes, Ezra, and Chronicles but never in Classical Hebrew. The use of the participle to express repeated action in a past time frame (e.g., “wherever the king’s commandment and decree would arrive,” v. 3) is also frequent in Late Biblical Hebrew but rare in Classical Hebrew.

As illustrated by these samples, the linguistic differences between Classical and Late Biblical Hebrew are extensive and profound.


About the Authors:

Ronald S. Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on textual criticism, the Hebrew Bible, and ancient Near Eastern religion.

Jan Joosten is the Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. He specializes in the Septuagint, Syriac texts, and the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls.

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