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
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.