Evidence of Diversity in Pre-Exilic Judahite Hebrew

By Young, Ian | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

Evidence of Diversity in Pre-Exilic Judahite Hebrew


Young, Ian, Hebrew Studies Journal


An assumption which often seems to be made by modern scholars regarding the language of the Hebrew Bible is that non-standard language usage is explicable in two main ways. This is enunciated already by Driver's statement that the peculiarities of the language in Song of Songs "show either that it must be a late work (post-exilic), or if early, that it belongs to North Israel." (1) From such a statement it seems clear that Driver presupposed that the language of early Judah was simply identical with standard biblical Hebrew. (2) The purpose of this article is to propose a number of arguments which suggest that there was more to the language of Judah (Judahite (3)) than a simple identity with standard Hebrew. We will especially focus on recent important work by G. A. Rendsburg in order to show how a shift in scholarly presuppositions can lead to a different interpretation of the evidence for variation in the text of the Hebrew Bible.

I. GENERAL ARGUMENTS FOR DIVERSITY

Several of the most important arguments for diversity in pre-exilic Judahite Hebrew are based on general theoretical considerations. First of all, one would presume from the nature of language that there was some variation between the standard literary Hebrew of Jerusalem and the spoken dialects. This becomes even more obvious if one believes the ancient Hebrew situation could be described as diglossia, in which two synchronic varieties of one language are used for different purposes, one for formal communication (e.g., the majority of literature), the other for colloquial purposes (e.g., the language of the home). (4) Secondly, even were the kingdom of Judah simply the descendent of the single, homogenous tribe of Judah, it is highly likely that regional linguistic variations would have developed over time. In fact, however, the biblical tradition indicates that the kingdom of Judah absorbed a number of non-Judahite elements like the Calebites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, and the Jerahmeelites, as well as the tribe of Simeon. (5) The probability is that such groups would contribute to the kingdom's linguistic diversity. Indeed, as my colleague Professor A. D. Crown has reminded me, the distinction between northerners and southerners may be somewhat artificial. Not only should we reckon with small scale migration between the two, but some scholars have identified a rapid expansion in the size of Jerusalem circa 700 B.C.E. as due at least partly to a wave of refugees fleeing the northern kingdom after its conquest by the Assyrians. (6) Thus, the two populations may have mixed long before Gordon's hypothesized reunion of exiles from north and south in the Babylonian diaspora. (7)

II. DIVERSITY IN THE JUDAHITE INSCRIPTIONS

The above points do not prove the existence of variant dialects under the standardized surface of biblical Hebrew in the south, but they do indicate the a priori likelihood that such variation existed. That is to say, at the least, there was more to southern Hebrew or even the Hebrew of Jerusalem than just standard biblical Hebrew. Our epigraphic sources from the south may be interpreted as supporting this suggestion, since they contain a number of deviations from standard biblical Hebrew. Examples include the b/p interchange in some words in Arad letter 24; (8) the form [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] for standard biblical Hebrew [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] in Siloam Tunnel lines 2, 3, 4; (9) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], for "day"; (10) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] for standard [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] "we" in Lachish 4:10/11; (11) the noun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] meaning "remainder" (e.g., Arad 1:5-6); (12) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] for standard [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] "tunnel, water-course" in Siloam Tunnel 1; (13) etc. A number of these and items like them might be explained on grounds other than dialectal variation; nevertheless, the above list shows that our only direct pre-exilic evidence from Judah does not support the idea that southern Hebrew was wholly and simply identical with standard biblical Hebrew, (l4) even though the administrative genre of the majority of the inscriptions is closely related to the scribally transmitted literary genre of the Bible.

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