[b-hebrew] Use of cognate languages in the interpretation of Biblical Hebrew

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Wed Oct 22 10:21:40 EDT 2008

Dear Matthew,

The use of cognate languages in the study of Classical Hebrew is a 
fine supplement, but we need to be cautious, as Yigal has pointed 
out. You ask about "the reasoning and rationale," and I will present 
a few points.


It is important to realize that the lexical meaning of Hebrew words 
are not found in Hebrew-English lexicons, but in the minds of living 
people - those whose native language was classical Hebrew. But these 
people are now dead! In the lexicons we only find glosses - the most 
common English words that are used to translate Hebrew words. Lexical 
meaning exists in the mind in the form of concepts. These may be 
rather broad, and they have a relatively clear core, but are fuzzy at 
the edges. When a native speaker heard a word spoken or saw it in a 
written text, the particular concept in his or her mind signaled by 
the word was activated, and the context would show the person which 
part of the concept that was made visible and which part was made 
invisible. For example, modern English Bibles use about 30 English 
words/phrases to render the Hebrew word NP$; native speakers of 
Hebrew used one single word, and they would in most cases instantly 
know the part of the concept that was focused upon.

In Medieval times when the study of Classical Hebrew got momentum in 
Europe, the approach to lexical semantics was inductive. This means 
that scholars by looking at the contexts in which a particular word 
occurred (and to a certain extent to cognate languages), tried to 
find its core meaning and secondary meanings. On the basis of this, 
and on the basis of the English (or German or Spanish) translations 
of the word, lexicons and word books were made. We should add that 
theological viewpoints also crept into the lexicons. Therefore, when 
we use lexicons and work with lexical semantics we should keep all 
the uncertainties in mind.


It is obvious that the study of similar words in cognate languages 
are much more problematic than the study of Hebrew words in their 
contexts. But when a Hebrew word occurs once or twice, it is natural 
to look at the cognate languages. But we should always keep in mind 
the distance in time and space between the cognate languages and 
Hebrew, as Yigal mentioned. Look at the core meanings of the 
following root:

Hebrew: )MAR = say
Aramaic: )MAR = say
Ethiopic: )ammara = show (it can also have the sense "tell")
Akkadian: amaru = to see

The root is common in each of the languages, but the senses and 
nuances are different, and if we for example found the root in a text 
whose place among the Semitic languages was uncertain, which sense or 
nuance should we choose?

At present my students and I read the Ba(alam text from Deir (Alla in 
class. It has some Aramaic and some Hebrew/Cananite characteristics, 
and in this document we find the word )MR. Because of the 
Northwest-Semitic characteristics of the language, we take the word 
in the sense "say," that also fits the context. This text is an 
excellent example of the problems and uncertainties when cognate 
meanings are sought. Several scholars have translated and discussed 
this text, and in many instances their translations of particular 
lines are completely different. The reason may be that they read one 
letter in a word differently, and more often,  the use different 
cognate words from Ugaritic, Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Aramaic, 
Phoenician, Syriac, and Arabic. The same roots may have different 
nuances and senses in these languages, and the translations depend on 
which sense in which cognate language is chosen.
(See J. Hackett (1980) "The Balaam Text From Deir 'Alla".)

We should also keep in mind the different religious viewpoints of the 
writers of the ancient texts, as well as the religious viewpoints of 
the modern authors dealing with the ancient texts.

For example, the substantive NP$ in the Hebrew Bible refers to living 
creatures and to their life, but never to a spiritual part of man, a 
departed spirit. In Akkadian, napi$tu has the same reference (the 
Hebrew Bible has no word for "departed spirit," not even )+ym, but in 
Akkadian it is expressed by the word e+emmu, which also can refer to 
a sorcerer.) In Ethiopic we have the word NAFS, and this word has 
another meaning than Hebrew NP$ and Akkadian napi$tu - it refers to 
the spirit of the dead, as it can in modern Hebrew and in Arabic.

The examples above illustrates different religious viewpoints among 
the writers of ancient texts, which would color the cognates and 
mislead those seeking cognate meanings. Let us now look at examples 
of how the religious views of modern authors may cloud the picture. 
It is believed that in the Hebrew Bible there is one single word in 
the Histhapal conjugation, namely XWH (to fall down; worship). 
Earlier it was believed that the root was $XH in the Hithpael 
conjugation. The new meaning is based on Ugaritic evidence, and I 
think it is correct - but it can of course be wrong. There is another 
example of Ugaritic evidence used to find the sense of a Hebrew word 
that is questionable, namely the word RP). This Hebrew word is used 
with reference to giants, and in lexicons it is also used  several 
times with reference to "departed spirits ". This is also seen in 
Bible translations, such as Is 26:14 NIV (In 26:19 NIV translates the 
same word with "her dead," probably because it would be strange to 
say that "departed spirits" should "stand up"). The people of Ugarit 
believed in an underworld with living beings, and RP) is in several 
instances in Ugaritic connected with the dead.  However,  king Keret 
is said to be one of the RP)YM, so the word can refer to living 
beings on the earth as well. Moreover, the whole person could descend 
to the Netherworld, and no text says that RP)YM are departed spirits. 
Nonetheless, without a clear definition of the RP)YM in Ugaritic, 
several scholars have guessed that they were departed spirits or 
"shadows," and because these scholars held the view that the writers 
of the Hebrew Bible believed in a Netherworld similar to the Ugaritic 
one, they have applied this guess to the Hebrew cognate word. One 
problematic side of this is that  the guess that Hebrew RP) means 
"departed spirits" is presented as a fact in lexicons and Bible 
translations! So the readers are misled!

If we take a philological approach to the issue, the question is 
whether the root  from which the word is taken is RP) = "heal" or 
RPH = "be weak". If it is the latter root, the Hebrew word can mean 
"the weak ones". In Is 26:14 MTYM and RP)YM are equated. Then it is 
said that RP)YN are destroyed ($MD) and
have perished ()MD), and that corroborates the thought that they have 
lost their power (they are weak). So instead of interpreting the word 
RP) as departed spirits living in an Underworld, it can be 
interpreted as the very opposite - the RP) are in the grave, and they 
do not have any life because they are deprived of their power.

I have written at length in order to show that just as etymology is 
tricky business, so is it to use cognate languages to throw light on 
Hebrew words. It can be done, and in some instances, as with the 
Ba(alaam text, it may be the only tool that we have in connection 
with many words. But we should keep in mind that the conclusions are 
only tentative, and most of what scholars have written about cognates 
are nothing but educated guesses. I use to tell my students: Do not 
trust in authorities, even if they are famous. Do not trust the 
grammars and do not trust the lexicons! But take these works as a 
point of departure; be skeptical, do your own thinking and draw your 
own conclusions!

Best regards,

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>Does anybody know of a good starting point for understanding the 
>reasoning and rationale behind the use of cognate languages in the 
>interpretation of Biblical Hebrew?  It seems to be a generally 
>agreed upon principle that there is value in it, but I'd like to 
>know the origin of the practice and upon what assumptions it rests. 
>Any help is appreciated.
>Matthew Dent
>b-hebrew mailing list
>b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org

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