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

Isaac Fried if at math.bu.edu
Wed Oct 22 22:02:36 EDT 2008


Hebrew etymology is crystal clear if (1) you carefully define it, (2)  
consider it systematic, and (3) look at it comprehensively. The root  
RP, as appearing in the fuller forms (RP, R(P, RP), RPH inherently  
means 'disperse, loose' and by implication 'slacken, die out, relax,  
relent, soften, weaken, relieve', for good or for worse. RAPEH is  
'frail, weak', but L-RAPE) is to lessen or weaken the pain of  
illness. It is similar in sense to RAWAX (related to RUAX, 'wind') as  
in 1 Samuel 16:23: "Whenever the spirit from God seized Saul, David  
would take the harp and play, and Saul would be relieved (W-RAWAX)  
and feel better, for the evil spirit would leave him. I think the  
REPA)IM of Isaiah 14:9 are just the dead relaxing in their grave.
The related root RW or RWH means 'soft as by being moist' --- the  
opposite of CM). The related root RB means 'aggregate, cluster' as  
well, and by implication 'of great quantity or size'.

Isaac Fried, Boston University

On Oct 22, 2008, at 10:21 AM, Rolf Furuli wrote:

> 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.
>> Thanks!
>> Matthew Dent
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