[b-hebrew] Interpretation of Biblical Hebrew, or Harold, is this your methodology?

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Mon Jul 5 16:38:34 EDT 2004

Dear Harold:

If you want to convince me of a particular reading, you’ll have to do more than just throw someone else’s translation at me. I may disagree with multiple aspects of that translation.

If I misread a passage because I have misinformation of something outside of the Hebrew language, then correcting the information I have will cause me to reread the passage. You tried to do that with foxes and vineyards: the only problem with that is that the information that you referenced, while it corrected me in that foxes like to eat grapes, did not otherwise support your claims. That is a correct step to take.

If you want to convince me of a particular reading, or as in the case above the definition of a word, these are the steps you’ll need to do. Let’s use the example of Proverbs 1:19.

The first step, strip away the points. The points were not original are sometimes wrong. Even if they are wrong as few as 1% of the time, that is too often for me. From a seat of the pants impression, the points are wrong 2–5% of the time. If one tries to keep to the points when they are wrong, it can lead to some real mental gymnastics. It’s no problem if the points are correct, but we can’t assume that. In this example, that gives us:

כן ארחות כל בצע בצע את נפש בעליו יקח

The next step is to analyze this grammatically. Do we have complete sentences (possibly it is a continuation of a previous verse, or it continues into the next verse, so context is part of this step)? From the context, we see that this is a stand alone verse, so the complete sentence(s) are internal.

Concurrently with this step, look for any words in their contexts that may take two or more pointings, hence two or more divergent meanings. In the two partial sentences below, none of the words will give a problem, so I won’t go very much into this question with this verse.

Do the first three words make up a sentence? 

KN )RXWT KL  כן ארחות כל

While the first word KN can have an implied “to be” making another verb surplus, it can also have another verb: the context asks for more than just these three words. It does not make sense as a complete sentence in this context.

Do the final four words make up a complete sentence?

)T NP$ B(LYW YQX  את נפש בעליו יקח

Here we have a verb and an object, but no subject—incomplete sentence.

As pointed, BC( BC(  בצע בצע are a compound verb, but as a compound verb, do they fit either partial sentence? If attached to the second, that gives two verbs but still no subject. If attached to the first, it gives us a verb where grammatically we expect to see a noun. But without points, we have other options. If both are nouns, we now have two simple, complete sentences, where each is the subject of its respective sentence. I read the first as a participle acting as a noun, the second as a shegolate noun. Thus the two sentences are:

כן ארחות כל בצע
Such are the roads of all those taking a cut


בצע את נפש באליו יקח
a cut takes the life of its master

A couple of additional notes to clarify matters more: “cut” when it stands alone as in this context, is used in the same way as in English “a cut of the profits” or “gain” (e.g. Genesis 37:26) or “a cut of the loot” or “illegal gain” as in this and most other cases in Tanakh. Secondly, this is poetic, with KN with its implied “to be” and YQX acting as the parenthesis of the verse, with the subjects in the center with the added benefit for poetic use that they are from the same root. (A similar poetic mirroring is found in verses 26 & 27 of the same chapter.)

A final translation, smoothed out in English with a bit a paraphrasing, could very well be, “Such are the roads of those who take a cut of the loot; unjust gain takes over the life of its owner.”

Usually, the reading that makes the simplest sentences has the correct meaning, but not always.

Reading the context, the verses surrounding the verse in question, gives the final say. The context of this verse shows that this is the final verse of a passage talking about people going out and illegally taking from others. The two verses immediately preceding this verse indicates that such actions end up giving problems to the actors. Again, it fits.

After doing all these steps, you may find that the points were correct all along and usually that’s the case, making the first step unnecessary, but we can’t assume that.

If, OTOH, after doing all these steps we still can’t tease a logical meaning without severe mental gymnastics, we need to entertain the possibility that a definition or two may be incorrect in the lexicon. But this is the absolute last step and often multiplies the work exponentially. I don’t like to do this step. I prefer to use recognized definitions wherever possible. But I will question lexica when I see two or more definitions given to one lexeme and I see no reason for it.

On the question of Job 39:13, these are the steps I took to tease out a simple sentence that made sense and fit the context. Do you remember? I didn’t need to do the final step with that verse.

Harold, are these the steps you take when you disagree with me? But if all you do is to present someone else’s translation, how convincing is that? Especially when I may disagree with the translator on several points? Or do you have another methodology that you haven’t explained?

With what aspects of this methodology do you disagree and why?

Is there any way to improve this methodology?

Oh yes, this methodology is combined with my presupposition borne out in practice that lexemes usually, though not always, have only one root definition and its definition will be recognizable in other lexemes from the same root. Whether that root definition is narrow or broad can often be recognized from the lexeme’s uses, the uses of other lexemes from the same root and in comparison with synonyms and antonyms. In modern languages where we have the history of a term, that can help, but that is not true of Biblical Hebrew. But with how small the surviving corpus is of Biblical Hebrew with its many hapax legomais, that doesn’t always work.

Karl W. Randolph.
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