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Holman Bible Dictionary
Biblical or classical Hebrew belongs to the Northwest Semitic branch of Semitic languages which includes Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite. This linguistic group is referred to commonly as Canaanite, although some prefer not to call Ugaritic a Canaanite dialect.
Hebrew has an alphabet of twenty-two consonants. The texts were written right to left. The script was based on that of the Phoenicians, a circumstance which did not make it possible to represent or to distinguish clearly among all the consonantal sounds in current use in classical Hebrew. For example, s and sh were represented by the letter shin, “ and g (sayin and gayin) by the letter sayin, and h and ch by the letter heth. In addition six letters, beth, gimel, daleth, kaph, pe, and taw presumably had both soft and hard pronunciations depending on whether the letter was preceded by a vowel sound. It was not until the fifth century A.D. or later that dots and diacritical marks were employed to distinguish certain sounds. The “square” or Aramaic script began to be adopted for Hebrew in the post-exilic age of Judaism, although the archaic script continued to be used alongside it for quite sometime, even as late as the time of the Qumran or Dead Sea Scroll materials.
The distinguishing characteristics of Hebrew are for the most part those shared by one or more of the other Semitic languages. Each root for verbs and nouns characteristically had three consonants, even in later periods when the use of four consonant roots was increased. Nouns are either masculine or feminine. They have singular, plural, or even dual forms, the dual being used for items normally found in pairs, such as eyes, ears, lips. While most nouns were derived from a verbal root, some were original nouns which gave rise to verbs (denominatives). The genitive relationship (usually expressed in English by “of”) is expressed by the construct formation in which the word standing before the genitive is altered in form and pronunciation (if possible).
The Hebrew verb forms indicate person, number, and gender. There are seven verbal stems which serve to indicate types of action: simple action, active or passive; intensive action, active, passive, or reflexive; and causative action, active or passive. In classical Hebrew the isolated verb form did not indicate a tense, but rather complete or incomplete action. Thus verbs are often referred to as perfect or imperfect, there being no past, present, future, past perfect, present perfect, or future perfect. The tense can be determined only in context, and sometimes even that procedure produces uncertain results. Classical Hebrew is a verb oriented language rather than a noun oriented or abstract language. The usual word order of a sentence is verb, subject, modifiers, direct object. The language is quite concrete in expression. However, the relatively simple structure and syntax of classical Hebrew did not keep biblical writers from producing countless passages of unparalleled beauty and power.
While historical development took place in classical Hebrew from the eleventh century to the emergence of Mishnaic Hebrew, it does not seem possible to write the history of that development. It is generally agreed that the most archaic texts are poetic, such as Genesis 4:23-24; Exodus 15:1; Judges 5:1 , although often it is difficult to decide what is archaic and what may be the result of an archaizing style. Books written toward the close of the Old Testament period, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes, show the Hebrew language undergoing a number of significant changes due primarily to Aramaic influence. Most of the Hebrew Bible now shows a homogeneous style which was most likely due to scribes in the late pre-exilic period copying the older texts in the dialect of Jerusalem. Thus, to be able to date an extant text does not necessarily mean that one can date the material contained in the text. There is some evidence of dialectical variations in the Hebrew spoken in biblical times. For example there is the shibboleth-sibboleth incident in Judges 12:5-6 . Some Bible students think many of the difficulties of the text of Hosea may be clarified by considering the Hebrew of that book as an example of northern or Israelite idiom.
The growing number of Hebrew inscriptions dating from the pre-exilic age provides an important supplement to the study of classical Hebrew. These inscriptions were chiseled into stone, written on ostraca (broken pieces of pottery), or cut into seals or inscribed on jar handles and weights. Some of the most important inscriptional evidence includes the Gezer calendar (tenth century), the Hazor ostraca (ninth century), the Samaria ostraca (early eighth century), the Siloam inscription (late eighth century), Yavneh-yam ostracon (late seventh century), jar handles from Gibeon (late seventh century), the Lachish ostracon (early sixth century), and the Arad ostraca (late seventh and early sixth centuries). To these may be added the Moabite Stone (Stele of Mesha, ninth century) and the Ammonite stele (ninth century) which contain inscriptions in languages very similar to classical Hebrew. Several benefits may be gained from these and other inscriptions for the study of classical Hebrew. First, we now have available an adequate view of the development of Hebrew script and orthography from the tenth century to New Testament times. Second, it now appears that literacy was earlier and more widespread in Israel than was thought previously. Third, the addition of new words and personal names and the like have enriched our knowledge of classical Hebrew. And fourth, details of the texts add new data on matters of history, material culture, and religion.
There has probably not been a time since its inception when Hebrew has not been in use, even if mainly as a scholarly or literary language. Classical Hebrew was followed by Mishnaic Hebrew, the language of the Mishnah, which reflects Hebrew as it was known from around 200 B.C. to about A.D. 500 Mishnaic Hebrew was the language of the academy where the Scriptures were interpreted and where the oral interpretations of the sages were passed down. The language differs from the classical idiom in several important respects, including a greatly expanded vocabulary with the addition of words from Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, the use of new particles, idioms, and patterns of speech, and especially extensive development of the verbal stems.
After A.D. 500 Rabbinic Hebrew was used as a literary language by the scholars who spoke different vernaculars. The medieval period saw a great flowering of Hebrew literature of all kinds, especially commentaries and philosophical works. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed the development of modern Hebrew into a vital, living language as suitable for the sciences and literature as for everyday use, but this language represents a vast development and change from classical Hebrew of the Bible, particularly in the verbal system. See Aramaic; Semitic Languages; Mishnah; Moabite; Hebrew Inscriptions.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Hebrew'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​h/hebrew.html. 1991.