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Archive for the ‘Hebrew’ Category

One of the tasks of a fiction writer is to decide what to name his or her characters. I’ve had to think carefully about how to handle that in the Edhai historical-fiction series I’m working on.

The series begins in the time before the Biblical Deluge and thus in a period when all the world spoke a single language. In more recent times — meaning the past few thousand years — people have been shorter-lived, so languages have been more apt to change. But in the pre-flood period, people lived much longer — Adam for 930 years, Seth for 912 years, Enosh for 905 years, and so on (see Gen 5:3-11). Given such longer lifetimes and the overlap among generations, I surmise that there would have been more stability in language. It would have changed less.

Even after the Flood, humans lived for a relatively long period of time, Noah living to 950 years and his son Shem to 600 years (see Gen 9:29 and 11:10, 11). This would likely also contribute to linguistic stability until the confusion of human languages at Babel sometime between 2269 and 2030 BCE during the lifetime of Peleg (Gen 10:25, 11:1-9).

What I’m getting at here is that for the first couple of thousand years of human existence all humans would likely have spoken the same language — Hebrew or something like it — and might never even have conceived of the idea of a foreign tongue. This would affect all names of humans and places, which would have been based on words and their meanings, rather than just on family traditions or the sound of the name — ‘my grandfather’s name was Robert, let’s name the baby after him’ or ‘I like the way “Chelsea” sounds.’

Tetragrammaton

The Tetragrammaton as it appears on a church window in Decorah, Iowa. via Wikimedia.

So in The Cursed Ground, the initial novel in the series, I’m choosing names with real English meanings. For example, the two main characters are named Boon and Temper. The story doesn’t deal much with historical characters like Noah and Lamech, but even when they are mentioned, I try to employ English equivalents, such as Soothe and Plainspeaker.

This is an interesting problem, but not as easily solved as you might think. Not all English words really sound that great if you try to use them as proper names — calling someone “Smart” or “Friendly” or “Robust” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

What to call the true God presented an especial challenge when I was trying to decide how the characters would refer to him in the story. Ancient people who knew the name of God would have pronounced it in their own language, using something like “Yehewah” or “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” But in the story, I wanted to have the characters speaking of God with consciousness of the meaning of his name.

The name JHVH or YHWH (a.k.a., the Tetragrammaton) in Hebrew expresses the causative form and imperfect state of the verb ha-wah’, or “become.” The divine name, then, basically means “He Causes to Become,” in that Jehovah causes himself to become whatever he wishes in order to fulfill his purposes. Thus I decided that in The Cursed Ground and in the sequels to follow, the characters who know this God would refer to him as “He Who Causes to Become,” or, more often “the Becomer.”

Anyhow, I thought I would share my thought process leading to the way names are devised in the Edhai series, in case this might be of interest to readers.

ARK — 22 October 2014

 

 

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I know it’s a bit after Columbus Day, but this question came up recently when I heard yet another speaker say that Columbus proved the earth is round when he sailed across the Atlantic and didn’t fall off the edge of the world. The story goes that in the Middle Ages everyone believed the earth was flat, and that the courageous Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) went to Queen Isabella of Spain and got her to finance his voyage across the ocean to prove everybody was wrong.

15th century global

A 15th-century Columbus-era globe. Credit: Alexander Franke, via Wikimedia.

This question about the shape of the earth and Columbus’s voyage sometimes comes up in discussions of the authenticity of the Bible, which is why I bring it up here. Critics of the Bible often claim that the Bible is unscientific. They might point to statements in the Bible that supposedly prove that its writers believed in a flat earth, as if using figurative language such as “the four corners of the earth” (Rev 7:1) or ‘the rising and setting of the sun’ (Ps 113:3) were somehow verboten.

Many of us who are students of the Bible accept it as an inspired expression of a divine Author. At the same time, it is literature and its individual writers were human, so there is nothing wrong with their use of literary devices. The Bible is not a science textbook, but we like to point out that when it touches on matters of proven science, it is accurate. There’s a lot to say about that topic, but one point we sometimes bring up is that the Bible as early as the 8th century BCE described the shape of the earth as round. Isaiah 40:22 describes that shape as a “circle” or “sphere” — chug in Hebrew.

While it’s beneficial to point this out, sometimes I hear folks add that the shape of the earth was not known until Columbus proved it in 1492. This is not accurate. In fact, the spherical shape of the earth was known by Greek scientists as early as the 5th century BCE. Here are a couple of articles that discuss this question briefly:

The best article I’ve seen on this topic, though, is “Inventing the Flat Earth,” by historian Jeffrey Russell, in History Today. Unfortunately, that article is not available online outside of a paywall. However, following are a few points of interest from Russell’s piece.

Russell writes that “after the fifth century BC very few Greek writers thought of the earth as anything but round.” In the Greek and Roman worlds in the last few centuries BCE, maps showing a round earth as well as “three dimensional globes … were used publicly as educational tools.” After that and all through the Middle Ages, the roundness of the earth was generally known among educated people, with flat-earthers few and far between and little-respected.

Russell says that the “Flat Error” or “Myth of the Flat Earth,” that is, the misconception that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, was not widely disseminated until the early 19th century, when the American writer Washington Irving popularized the idea in his partly fictional writings about Columbus. After that time, it became common to portray the Middle Ages as a time of scientific ignorance, with belief in a flat earth as an important trope.

Interestingly, Russell writes, the Flat Error became a rhetorical tool in perhaps the most important ideological battle of the 19th century:

The Flat Error became an article of almost unquestioned faith for historians from the 1860s onward, and for a very deliberate reason. The Darwinist controversy was underway, and Positivists wanted to discredit the anti-Darwinists as foolish bumpkins. To do this they wanted both to compare resistance against evolution with resistance against sphericity and to incorporate it as part of a historical pattern of religious resistance to science. They created the historical myth of the warfare of theology and science.

Russell makes the interesting assertion that the persistence of the Flat Error really comes down to prejudice: “medieval people were so superstitious they must have believed in something as foolish as the flat earth.” Underlying this, he believes is “the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages for being Catholic, the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, and the Anglo-American prejudice against the Spanish…”

He believes that it comes down to fear as well, the fear of giving up cherished ideas, in way,  the fear “of falling off the edge of knowledge.” Easier “to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”

ARK — 21 October 2014

 

 

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I’ve been slowly working my way through the Hebrew Scriptures, reading the Hebrew and English in parallel so as to read with understanding — I described my process previously in my article “How I’m Learning to Read Biblical Hebrew.”

Years ago when I started reading the Bible (online access to the Bible here), I found it a real chore to get through books two through five of the Pentateuch — Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy —  because of the focus on the details of the Law and the Israelite genealogy, and especially the repetitiveness of the text.

But now that I’m using that text to learn the original language, I’m finding that the repetitiveness is a learning aid. For example, I’m now reading Numbers 7, in which chieftains of each of the 12 tribes bring in one-by-one the same offering of dishes and flour and bulls and rams and so on. The repetition in the text is actually helping me to learn the Hebrew words for these things. And rather than boring me, that repetition is helping me to engage more deeply with the text.

I don’t know whether other students have had the same experience, and I have no idea whether the text was structured that way partly on purpose. But I can say that it’s working out that way for me.

ARK — 26 August 2014

 

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Over the past year and a half, I’ve been learning to read Biblical Hebrew. I should say that I don’t think anyone has to learn the original languages to benefit from the Scriptures — nearly everyone in the world now has the Bible available in his or her own language, either the whole Bible or part of it. A good translation, especially one that includes the Divine Name, should be sufficient for a sincere person to understand the written Word.

However, in connection with the Edhai project, I wanted to have a good feel for how people spoke in Bible times. While eventually Akkadian, Aramaic, and Greek will no doubt be valuable, I thought Biblical Hebrew would be a good place to start.

To learn the language, I’ve been using a similar process that I used some years ago to learn to read Spanish. My basic process is to first read the passage in English, then read the same passage in the new language, but taking the time to analyze the passage until I can actually read it out loud with understanding.

Biblical Hebrew presents some special problems that I didn’t have with Spanish — that is, the alphabet and the vowel points. I have some linguistic training, which has helped me to figure out the pronunciation of the consonants and vowels.

However, I found that I needed to add some other aids beyond a Hebrew Bible. By far the most valuable resource has been the superb Interlinear Scripture Analyzer (ISA) software available free from Scripture 4 All. The scripture provides a literal word-by-word interlinear translation, as you can see from the sample shown here.

 

ISA software screen shot

 

As you can see, in the Hebrew text and in the interlinear translation, the authors have faithfully included God’s name; they have used the common formulation “Yahweh” in their English interlinear rendering.

ISA is the most important additional tool I’m using for my project, but I’ve also found it useful to listen to the Hebrew Audio Bible available from the Academy of Ancient Languages. I also have a Hebrew primer, which has been useful for understanding grammar; a Hebrew lexicon that I use occasionally to research words, and a set of flash cards from Zondervan to help build vocabulary.

At first, I found I had to struggle for 10 or 15 minutes just to puzzle out a single word. However, now in that same amount of time I can read seven or eight verses with understanding. In some cases, I don’t even need anymore to refer to the interlinear.

I’m now up to Exodus 19 in this exciting Bible reading project.

ARK — 20 March 2012

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I’ve been intrigued by Biblical Hebrew’s lack of verb tenses (past, present, future) and what it might have to say about the psychology of the people who originally spoke it.

Considering the Bible account, it seems likely that Hebrew or something like it was the original human language. According to one way of thinking, the worshipers of the true God would not have gotten involved in the rebellious centralization and tower-building project of Nimrod and his cohorts, so presumably their language would not have been confused (see Gen 11:1-9). So the language of Jehovah’s true worshipers would have been preserved, and this would be the one in which the Bible got written.

Although the Bible writers were able to express ideas of past, present, and future, time as a factor in Hebrew verb expression has a relatively low priority. Rather, Hebrew verbs are expressed in two states, perfect (action completed) and imperfect (incomplete action).

Kyle M. Yates, in The Essentials of Biblical Hebrew, writes:

The time as understood in most modern languages is not the same as that of the Semitic mind. The discernment of the time of an action is not of vital importance to the Hebrew thought pattern. It is necessary for the Indo-germanic thinker only to fit the action into his overemphasized estimation of time. The understanding of the condition of the action as to its completeness or incompleteness was sufficient generally to the Semite and if not, there was some word of temporal or historical significance which would bring time into focus.

So the question is, what does this indicate about the psychology of the original speakers of this language? Did they have a different view of time from modern humans, because they had a longer lifespan (and originally the prospect of living forever)? Interestingly, the Bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures (Vol. 1, Watchtower, 1988) follows this line of thinking:

If, as the Bible indicates, Hebrew was the original tongue used in Eden, this lack of emphasis on verbal time may reflect the outlook of man in his perfection, when the prospect of everlasting life was before Adam and when life had not been reduced to a mere 70 or 80 years.

— ARK, 3 Dec. 2010

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Ad in Biblical Archaeology Review for HCSBI was impressed recently to see the ad shown to the right from Biblical Archaeology Review for May/June of 2010. In an age where most churchgoers effectively don’t even know the name of the God they profess to worship, it is impressive that translators would have the courage to include the name of the Bible’s divine Author in its text.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is published by B&H Publishing Group, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources. The organization has an earlier version of the HCSB available for free at MyStudyBible.com. This online version has some great study features. If you hover over key words in the text, you get a rollover displaying things like the word and pronunciation in the original language, definition, and information about how the HCSB renders that word in English throughout the text.

On playing around with the online version, one thing I noticed immediately was that in Gen. 2:4, the first place where the Tetragrammaton (YHWH or JHVH) appears in the Hebrew text, the HCSB disappointingly renders it “LORD,” as you would find in the King James version and its many derivatives. Hovering over “LORD” in that verse reveals that the online HCSB translates the name of God as a real name only 484 times, whereas it use the title “LORD” 5,925 times and “God” twice.

Online version of HCSB showing study features

So the HCSB translators know how the original text reads, but they made a conscious decision to stick to the practice of post-Biblical Judaism and Christendom of using a euphemism most of the time and including God’s name fewer than 8 percent of the 6,413 times it appears in the Hebrew scriptures.

This was surprisingly to me, especially in light of the strong message conveyed in the Biblical Archaeology Review ad. So I sent a feedback message on the MyStudyBible Web site asking for their reasoning. I was happy to receive a very nice message from E. Ray Clendenen, associate editor and one of the HCSB translators.

Ray tells me that the online version of the translation is an older one and that the newer version of the translation uses Yahweh over 600 times and that the translation team intends to increase the divine Name’s usage more over time.

Ray says the team used the following guidelines for rendering the Tetragrammaton as Yahweh:

We use it as the rendering of YHWH (which the Hebrew Bible editors first rendered as Adonai, “Lord”) whenever God’s “name” is being given (either explicitly, using the word “name,” or implicitly), when He is being identified (“I am Yahweh”), when He is being contrasted to other gods such as Baal, in certain repeated phrases such as “Yahweh the God of your fathers,” or when YHWH has been rendered by Yahweh in the immediate context.

He admits that the translators have probably been inconsistent in some cases, but provides an interesting insight into why they thought it wiser to continue the practice of substituting “LORD” most of the time:

… our objective is to introduce to the contemporary church what is the most likely pronunciation of the divine name YHWH in the Hebrew Bible. We did not render the majority of occurrences of YHWH as Yahweh because our goal is not only to be accurate but to use an English style that is most familiar to people. Since most Christians today probably do not commonly speak of “Yahweh,” but rather of “the Lord,” we felt it would be insensitive to use Yahweh for YHWH in every case and would make the Bible seem too uncomfortable for most people.

I thought this was a frank and humble admission from someone with extensive credentials as a Biblical scholar, acknowledging the limitations of this fellow believers. He tells me that “We hope that the name will grow on people and that we can expand the uses of Yahweh in future editions.”

At the same time, there is something sad about this confession — that eminent Bible translators feel that they have to hold back the truth because their readers would feel uncomfortable with the name of the true God.

[Update from 16 August 2014:] This engaging video was just released, presenting some good reasoning why the name of God should be included in the Bible: http://www.jw.org/en/publications/books/good-news-from-god/who-is-god/video-gods-name/

ARK — 23 Nov. 2010

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An inscription on a pottery fragment recently deciphered at the University of Haifa in Israel shows that Hebrew was in use during the 10th century BCE, much earlier than generally acknowledged by mainstream scholars.

An announcement from the University of Haifa (see “Most ancient Hebrew inscription deciphered“) says the inscription appears on a pottery shard 15 cm x 16.5 cm and was deciphered by Prof. Gershon Galil of the university’s Department of Biblical Studies. Galil has demonstrated that the inscription is Hebrew. Radioactive dating placed the fragment during the 10th century BCE, making this the oldest known example of Hebrew writing.

The writing’s distinctive use of verbs and particular content show it to be attributable to Hebrew and not to other cultures of the area at that time. Galil is quoted as saying,

This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah (“did”) and avad (“worked”), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah (“widow”) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages.

The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs.

Galil says this finding argues against the mainstream view that the Bible was written during a later period and that the kingdom of Israel didn’t exist that early.

Galil adds that

It can now be maintained that it was highly reasonable that during the 10th century BCE, during the reign of King David, there were scribes in Israel who were able to write literary texts and complex historiographies such as the books of Judges and Samuel.

Although the content does not appear to copy or quote from the Bible, the university says it is similar in content to such scriptures as Isa. 1:17, Ps. 72:3, and Ex. 23:3.

Translated into English, the text reads:

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].

2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]

3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]

4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.

5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

ARK — 15 January 2010

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