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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Hebrew Language

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called also absolutely Hebrew, is the language spoken by the Hebrews, and in which all the books of the Old Testament are written; whence it is also called the holy or sacred language. It is said to have been preserved in the midst of the confusion at Babel, in the family of Heber, or Eber, who, as it is alleged, was not concerned in the building of Babel, and, consequently, did not share in the punishment inflicted on the actual transgressors. The Jews, in general, have been of opinion, that the Hebrew was the language of Heber's family, from whom Abraham sprung. On the other hand, it has been maintained that Heber's family, in the fourth generation after the dispersion, lived in Chaldea, where Abraham was born, Genesis 11:27-28 , and that there is no reason to think they used a different language from their neighbours around them. It appears, moreover, that the Chaldee, and not the Hebrew, was the language of Abraham's country, and of his kindred, Genesis 24:4; Genesis 31:46-47; and it is probable that Abraham's native language was Chaldee, and that the Hebrew was the language of the Canaanites, which Abraham and his posterity learned by travelling among them. It is surprising that this adoption of the Phenician language by the patriarchs should have escaped the notice of several intelligent readers of the Bible. Jacob and Laban, it is clear, by the names they gave to the cairn, or memorial of stones, spoke two different dialects; and it is nearly equally evident, that the language of Laban was the dialect of Ur of the Chaldees, the original speech of the Hebrew race. As the patriarchs disused the true Hebrew dialect, it is manifest that they had conformed to the speech of Canaan; and that this conformity was complete, is proved by the identity between all the remains of Canaanitish names. At the same time, it must be remarked, that the Phenician and the Chaldean were merely different dialects of the same primitive language which had been spoken by the first ancestors of mankind.

2. There is no work in all antiquity written in pure Hebrew, beside the books of the Old Testament; and even some parts of those are in Chaldee. The Hebrew appears to be the most ancient of all the languages in the world; at least it is so with regard to us, who know of no older. Dr. Sharpe adopts the opinion, that the Hebrew was the original language; not indeed that the Hebrew is the unvaried language of our first parents, but that it was the general language of men at the dispersion; and, however it might have been improved and altered from the first speech of our first parents, it was the original of all the languages, or almost all the languages, rather dialects, that have since arisen in the world. Arguments have also been deduced from the nature and genius of the Hebrew language, in order to prove that it was the original language, neither improved nor debased by foreign idioms. The words of which it is composed are short, and admit of very little flexion. The names of places are descriptive of their nature, situation, accidental circumstances, &c. The compounds are few, and inartificially conjoined; and it is less burdened with those artificial affixes which distinguish other cognate dialects, such as the Chaldean, Syrian, Arabian, Phenician, &c.

The period, from the age of Moses to that of David, has been considered the golden age of the Hebrew language, which declined in purity from that time to the reign of Hezekiah or Manasseh, having received several foreign words, particularly Aramean, from the commercial and political intercourse of the Jews and Israelites with the Assyrians and Babylonians. This period has been termed the silver age of the Hebrew language. In the interval between the reign of Hezekiah and the Babylonish captivity, the purity of the language was neglected, and so many foreign words were introduced into it, that this period has not ineptly been designated its iron age. During the seventy years' captivity, though it does not appear that the Hebrews entirely lost their native tongue, yet it underwent so considerable a change from their adoption of the vernacular languages of the countries where they had resided, that afterward, on their return from exile, they spoke a dialect of Chaldee mixed with Hebrew words. On this account it was, that, when the Scriptures were read, it was found necessary to interpret them to the people in the Chaldean language; as, when Ezra the scribe brought the book of the law of Moses before the congregation, the Levites are said to have caused the people to understand the law, because "they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading," Nehem. Genesis 8:8 . Some time after the return from the great captivity, Hebrew ceased to be spoken altogether; though it continued to be cultivated and studied by the priests and Levites, as a learned language, that they might be enabled to expound the law and the prophets to the people, who, it appears from the New Testament, were well acquainted with their general contents and tenor: this last mentioned period has been called the leaden age of the language.

The present Hebrew characters, or letters, are twenty-two in number, and of a square form; but the antiquity of these letters is a point that has been most severely contested by many learned men. From a passage in Eusebius's Chronicle, and another in St. Jerom, it was inferred by Joseph Scaliger, that Ezra, when he reformed the Jewish church, transcribed the ancient characters of the Hebrews into the square letters of the Chaldeans; and that this was done for the use of those Jews who, being born during the captivity, knew no other alphabet than that of the people among whom they had been educated. Consequently, the old character, which we call the Samaritan, fell into total disuse. This opinion Scaliger supported by passages from both the Talmuds, as well as from rabbinical writers, in which it is expressly affirmed that such characters were adopted by Ezra. But the most decisive confirmation of this point is to be found in the ancient Hebrew coins, which were struck before the captivity, and even previously to the revolt of the ten tribes. The characters engraven on all of them are manifestly the same with the modern Samaritan, though with some trifling variations in their forms, occasioned by the depredations of time.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Hebrew Language'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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