Bible Linguistics

I stayed up way too late reading this stuff.

Abraham is considered the founder and progenitor faith covenants. It is bluntly stated in the New Testament that we who embrace Christ are also true spiritual descendants of Abraham (see Galatians 3).

Some of you may wonder where I get my notions about who that ancient man was. The Christian Thinktank offers just a sample of quotations from books you can’t even get any more. I never could get the funding for seminary. I still own a few that were far less expensive, but I spent quite a bit of my free time digging around in the massive library at Oklahoma Baptist University. And every time I visited a seminary (conferences, seminars, etc.), I tried to make time to rummage around their libraries. I’ve bugged people who got their graduate degrees in seminaries and camped out in their personal libraries. I picked their minds and read the papers they submitted for grade. All of which reading sounds a lot like this sampling at the Thinktank.

It’s book length by itself, and yet you get the feeling that the author was sharing just a thin smattering of pertinent source material that was brief and easier to read. I can tell you that some of scholars left us some very turgid prose, so he’s keeping it lightweight.

The topic of this very long-winded discussion on Abraham is how the Hebrew language developed, and how Abraham would have known it already, along with his native Sumerian language. Part of the explanation is establishing the relative social rank of Abraham among those living in Palestine at that time, as well as Egypt: He had equals, but nobody out-ranked him. The becomes important when we try to understand more of Abraham’s background, since he was not likely Sumerian, but a part of the Semitic peoples running all over that part of that world. Moses refers to Abraham as an Aramean, a Semitic tribe. This is consistent with my opinion that Abraham was Akkadian, which was a coalition of Semtic tribes. Both are actually references to the language, and less of a racial identity.

And Akkadian was a blend of several Semitic languages, the language of international diplomacy in the region of the world before Abraham’s time. I note in passing that the reason Aramaic rose to prominence later was that it was by far the easiest to write, so that it become the library language, the most common language of bureaucracy. Eventually it became dominant in official business of both government and commerce. The author of Thinktank offers some very helpful explanation of why things work like that even today, a little less than half-way down that long document.

At any rate, the ultimate answer to the question is that Abraham came into Canaan Land speaking something akin to Aramaic. It looked and sounded different from the common Canaanite language, but not so different as to be utterly foreign. So succeeding generations would have begun to absorb some of the Canaanite brand of Semitic language. The sojourn in Egypt put that on hold until after the Conquest. Between the Conquest and the Exile, the Hebrew language become more and more Canaanite, but never completely the same. During the Exile, things shifted back toward Aramaic for the same reason — exposure to the ambient dominant tongue. By the time of the Return, there were no Canaanites to speak of, so Israel stuck with Aramaic and simply called it “Hebrew.” But it meant their best libraries were all written in the unfamiliar Canaanite-influenced Ancient Hebrew.

At any rate, modern Hebrew is actually more Aramaic than the Hebrew of David’s time.

What does it mean to us? When we try to understand the more ancient parts of Scripture, it requires learning as much as we can about the kind of thinking process of the folks who wrote it. You cannot translate very well without an understanding of how language was used. There is a deep academic background with Abraham that is quite foreign to any part of the West. And then we have the deep academic background Moses got from Egypt mixed in with the Mesopotamian. And then there’s Moses on Mount Sinai with God and the sheer mass of wordless impression from such an experience to clarify everything. It was by that time a wholly unique intellectual background unlike anything else in the ANE, even as it bore some limited familiarity here and there.

Ancient Hebrew intellectual background is richer than we can know. This was the setting God constructed for revealing Himself.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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