December 27, 2009

Canonical Selection As An Obstacle To Understanding The Canonical Text

In explaining the thesis in support of his An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, Tawil writes,

The assumption behind this thesis is that Akkadian lexicography is further advanced than Hebrew lexicography. Though this may seem paradoxical, or at least lamentable, it is in fact inescapable. The two factors that created this state of affairs - and that ensure that it will continue for the foreseeable future - are the quantity of texts at the lexicographer's disposal and the types of texts. The mundane component of language, usually the most basic competent (sic?), is in fact disproportionately unattested in Biblical Hebrew. . .

Akkadian is, by and large, free of these problems. . . [emphasis added]

He goes on to discuss several important issues and difficulties in the use of Akkadian as a source for Biblical Hebrew lexicography. While the complexities of the relationship between Akkadian and Biblical/Classical Hebrew that Tawil raises are sometimes formidable, and we need always to take them into account, I want use his observation, "Akkadian lexicography is further advanced than Hebrew lexicography," as my text for today's sermon post.

The evidence for Akkadian lexicography comes to us primarily by way of the contingencies of discovery rather than canonical selection. Not that such contingences necessarily result in a random sample, at best such contingences represent that which no one in antiquity purposefully destroyed and that which survived to be discovered. The ancient process of coping and archiving further distorts reprehensive linguistic distribution. With those sometimes serious and often unquantifiable, even unqualifiable, limitations in mind, these discovers tend to emulate, however poorly, a random distribution of cultural sources and linguistic usages in a way that true canonization does not. In any case, if sufficiently numerous, and Akkadian texts certainly are, these contingent discoveries reveal a broad distribution of linguistic practice. The process of selection that produced the Hebrew Bible represents the more limited interests of those involved in that process. I don't mean the final selection alone but, more importantly, I mean the process of selecting what went into the various individual literatures that eventually became canonical. It is not just, or perhaps even importantly, the subversion of unwanted literatures, thought that was no doubt part of it, but the strong positive selection, over time, for the resultant set of literatures and their individual contents that limited the lexical repertory of the Hebrew Bible. While the sectarian texts from the Dead Sea are by definition not canonical, they certainly also represent a similar highly selected data set. Even including the very few specimens of epigraphic Hebrew, we have nothing that approaches a representative distribution of linguistic material. To cite two examples, economic texts and medical texts or even references to them are all but absent from the data set. Tawil only noted the problem of the under attestation of "the mundane component of language" in Biblical/Classical Hebrew but I worry that the issue involves more than selection unfavorable to the mundane. It may involve selection, in places an incomplete selection, against the very things that the canonical tradition viewed as negative. In some cases, it may have involved selection against things the canonical traditions valued because such things appeared to be self-evident. In either case, our lack of knowledge restricts to a largely unknown degree our ability to be reliable readers of the Hebrew Bible.

I do worry that Akkadian, while helpful in exactly the ways Tawil wants us to view it, cannot overcome the problems we face. Our understanding likely improves with proper continued consideration of the Akkadian evidence (and the Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic . . . evidence), but many unresolved and perhaps no small number of unknown problems remain. At best, we can only approach a goal of being reliable readers of the Hebrew Bible. How close we can get to that goal remains unclear. I don't want to be overly pessimistic in all this. Much of our ability to read and understand the Classical Hebrew is better now than at any time since the language flourished ancient Canaan. In some ways and on some points, our understanding is better now than it was in specific ancient periods and places. For example, we can be certain that we know some things about Classical Hebrew, even lexicographic things, that the Old Greek translators didn't know. And that is true even assuming that these scholars often worked from something other a direct predecessor of Masoretic Text. Still, much idiom and nuance elude us; significant associations certainly escape our notice; and we likely perpetuate several seriously wrong understandings. If this is true at the lexical level, it is likely as true at less basic levels of language and literature. But then, it is exactly these problems that help make Classical Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible such wonderful abnormal interests.

Posted by Duane Smith at December 27, 2009 1:30 PM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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Reminds me of the turn of the century Jeremias and the Religionsgeschicte stuff, how everything in Israel was influenced for borrowed from Babylon or Assyria.

Posted by: theologien at December 28, 2009 2:04 AM


I hope my post didn't give that impression. There is a large distance between a shared cultural and linguistic heritage and borrowing. While pervasive barrowing is far from my own opinion and I think far from Tawil's, there is a danger of falling into that easy program and I agree with you that it needs to be resisted. Things are complicated, likely far more complicated than we think.

Posted by: Duane at December 28, 2009 7:17 AM

No, Duane, I have to puncture any air of superiority we moderns may feel.

Not even today can we compare our understanding of Biblical Hebrew with that of the scholars of the 7th-10th centuries CE. It is through the scholars of ASE that I discovered just how little I had understood references and allusions in the Biblical texts. Time and again I find that they *knew*, not guessed, but knew, the nuances and what they mean! They knew, while I have to do philological research to find out that, yes, they got it right.

Sigh, I just wish that when people approach the biblical texts, they were, um, more literate. That is, understood literature -- genres, devices, allusions, tropes, etc. The Biblical texts are literature in the most basic sense of the term. Many so-called anomalies and/or difficulties disappear if literature as literature is understood... and I do not mean just poetic genres.

Speaking of genres, if Biblical scholars knew literary genres, we would never again hear anyone try to claim that neither David nor Shlomo existed. It's absurd, because it's right in front of our noses -- BUT, you do have to understand literature and literary genres.

BTW, please forgive me if I gag when I read how people could not possibly have memorized such long texts. Wanna bet?

Posted by: rochelle at December 29, 2009 2:34 AM


Hmmm. I thought I was suggesting that we moderns were limited in our ability to understand the text. Except for perhaps one speculative venture into larger issues, I thought I was confining myself to lexicography. When I said that we knew more than some ancients, I wrapped so many caveats ("In some ways and on some points, our understanding is better now than it was in specific ancient periods and places.") around it that it would take several posts the length of this one to unwrap them.

Posted by: Duane at December 29, 2009 8:47 AM

Duane, what good is lexicography if one does not understand the meanings that the words actually conveyed?

I'm just asking.

Posted by: rochelle at December 29, 2009 9:00 AM


If all lexicographers did was compile dictionaries I'd understand you concern. But, if that isn't their most interesting or important work, the delineation (and documentation) of the semantic ranges of lexemes may be. In the case of those languages without native speakers or that have evolved significantly, lexicography often includes the discovery of the semantic ranges of lexemes and occasionally even their basic meaning. To be sure, with rare exception, lexicography starts with some understanding of a lexeme. That prior (to use Bayesian language) comes from traditional usage, contemporary or near contemporary translations, etymology, etc and in a few cases of the initial decipherment of a language a pure guess. But as the lexicographer sees a lexeme in a broader range of contexts, she refines her initial prior to take into account those usages. In the course of this iterative process, the center of the semantic range (if one can ever say such a thing) may move and the whole of the semantic range may broaden, contract or shift (most commonly broaden). The problem that we face in Classical Hebrew is that at least some, possibly many, contexts are simply no longer available or are greatly unrepresented. One sees the same problem in other languages as well. For example, the available contexts for defining the semantic ranges, in a few cases even establishing an initial prior, for Ugaritic lexemes is limited by the relatively small number of texts. The problem is even greater when one comes to a language like Hurrian. Hurrian is a rather strange example, but not the only one, where we have a reasonably good grasp of the grammar but still can barely understand a single line. A Hittite translation of a Hurrian text from Hattusas, bilinguals from Sapinuwa and a multi-lingual vocabulary text from Ugarit have helped but the lexical issues remain significant.

Posted by: Duane at December 29, 2009 1:27 PM


If you have no idea of what genre you are looking at, finding the semantic range is not a great help. I am talking about literature here, not lists of commercial items or receipts, etc. You first have to determine the genre, then, and only then, establishing a semantic range can be a wonderful aid.

If you do not pay attention to the simple fact that a subject brings with it its own vocabulary, then you end up with books of P, J, etc.

If you ignore the obvious fact that many parts of, for instance, Genesis, are a collation of two traditions, then you are left assuming that the book has been poorly "edited."

If you do not recognize genre, then you will misunderstand Hebrew poetry and song. Someone trained in literature recognizes genre, allusion, description, meter, etc., instantly, but too many Biblical scholars do not have that training. Indeed, it is common to read that Hebrew poetry does not have a meter. It does, triple time, and triple time is based in human physiology -- as recent studies in music have shown quite unequivocally.

If you do not realize that multivocality is standard in the Tanakh, then you miss half the meaning. If, and only if, you realize that any given piece of the MT is multivocal, then semantic range is of aid.

That's only a few of the "if-thens."

On top of all this, much depends upon which part is studied. Most of the word play in Classical Hebrew is only two level, but Davidic works can have up to 5 levels of semantic range. (This is why authentic Davidic works can easily be recognized.) Jeremiah runs up to 3 levels, though usually only 2.

I certainly do use these aids offered by studies of the lexemes -- but only after I have established the genre.

Posted by: rochelle at December 31, 2009 12:33 AM

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