Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Writing Hebrew

Posted by foryourfaith on February 16, 2012

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Because the huge number of symbols used in early writing, scribes were generally the only people who could read and write before the invention of the alphabet in the late Bronze Age (1525 – 1200 BC). Of the early alphabets, the most significant were developed in Canaan.

The Hebrew Alphabet

Although he earliest surviving alphabet was created before the Phoenicians arrived in Canaan (about 1200 BC), the Phoenicians produced the most extensive body of surviving texts using an alphabet. The texts date from 1050 to 850 BC. Consequently, the writing system developed in ancient Canaan is generally referred to as the Phoenician alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet is its direct descendant. As the Hebrews settled in their new land, after 40 years in the wilderness, they developed their own method of writing by adapting the Phoenician alphabet to their own language. This was probably not difficult, as Hebrew like Phoenician (and Ugaritic), is a Canaanite language that, along with Aramaic, makes up the language group known as West Semitic.

The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters. All of them are consonants, for only consonants are written in Hebrew. Most words in ancient Hebrew have roots that contain three consonants. Readers had to supply the vowel sounds to make up the intended word, which was suggested by the context. For example, if English were to be written in this fashion, without vowels, a word written as “vctn” could be read as either “vocation” or “vacation.” However, the context would usually alert the reader to the correct choice. A person would go on a vacation but follow a vocation. In addition, Hebrew is written from right to left. And so, the English words “vocation” and “vacation” would be written backwards in Hebrew, as “ntcv.”

Keeping the Language Constant

All the books of the Old Testament are written in Hebrew, except for a few scattered chapters and verses. But even though these books were written over a period of nearly 1,000 years – and incorporated even older, oral traditions – there is strikingly little difference between the oldest texts and the newest. This is astounding, as most languages change constantly. For example, English literature of 1,000 years ago is totally unreadable today by someone with no special training. To the untrained eye, the text of the Old English poem “Beowulf” looks more like obsolete German with a sprinkling of strange symbols added. Not so the Old Testament. The reason for the consistency of Hebrew writing may be that the texts of scripture were so revered that they had a profound effect on the language itself, keeping it constant.

There may also be other reasons for this consistency, however. Some of the earlier biblical passages may have been somewhat updated as writers or editors of the tenth to sixth centuries BC, shaped the official version of stories that had long been transmitted by word of mouth. For example, we know that some ancient place names, which would have been unknown to most readers at the time the text was being written down, were replaced by more current names. In Genesis 14:14 we read that Abram went as far as Dan, but Dan did not exist in Abram’s day; the territory in question would be named Dan, after one of Abram’s great grandsons, only centuries later. The author or editor of this passage from Genesis must have quietly substituted “Dan” for the region’s older name “Lashem,” which would have been known to Abram but totally unknown to most later readers. In other passages, both old and newer names are used together. For example, “And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan (Genesis 23:2).

Another possible reason for the unparalleled consistency in the Hebrew language is that after a time it ceased to be a living language in the strict sense. From the fifth century BC on, the Israelites began to speak Aramaic, the language of their Persian conquerors, and as time went by Hebrew was used solely for worship and holy scripture. As a result, the language was less subject to change than the language used for everyday business and conversation.

Even after Hebrew stopped being used in daily life, however, it continued to be highly revered as the language of sacred texts, and the scriptures continued to be preserved in the older language. Although many nonbiblical texts were written in Hebrew in ancient times, none of these writings survive today. Aside from some inscriptions on monuments and walls and writing on ancient coins, the only ancient Hebrew writing that survives is found in the Old Testament.

The Oldest Words in the Bible

Although the biblical books we have today were probably written relatively late in Israel’s history, earlier bits of writing were incorporated into the final text. Among the oldest of these, scholars believe, was the Song of Miriam. After the Israelites had passed through the miraculously parted waters of the red Sea, Miriam, Aaron’s sister, picked up a tambourine and danced “Sing to the Lord,” she sang, “for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). Another ancient piece of writing found in the Bible is the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), a magnificent piece of poetry that offers a slightly different version of the battle described in Judges 4, which immediately precedes the song.

First Alphabet

The earliest writings using what appears to be an alphabet was actually left by a group of northwest Asian prisoners of war who were working in the turquoise mines in the Sinai Peninsula about 1600 BC. The writings have not been clearly deciphered, but they seem to be religious in content. So far, however, no connections have been made between this earliest alphabetic writing and later systems.

Unlocking Language Mysteries

Although almost no ancient Hebrew writing survives outside the Bible, archaeologists have uncovered a large trove of writings on clay tablets at Ugarit on the Syrian coast. Although these writings use a cuneiform-style alphabet instead of an alphabet made up of lines, the Ugaritic language is so close to Hebrew that scholars are able to use these texts to help solve problems in deciphering unclear Hebrew words of the Old Testament.

Not Quite an Alphabet

Technically, the collection of symbols, or letters used in writing Hebrew is not an alphabet, but an abjad. An abjad is the equivalent of an alphabet that has no symbols to represent vowel sounds.


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  1. […] Writing Hebrew « Mysteries of the Bible […]

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