How Well Do We Understand the Language of the Bible?

One task that requires a combination of approaches is understanding the language that the biblical writers used.  The texts in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were produced over a period of 500-1000 years.  During a time period that long a language can emerge and die, or it can gradually change so that it becomes difficult to recognize as the same language at the beginning and end of the period.  So, the sacred texts of ancient Israel use many different stages of the Hebrew language, and portions of the books of Ezra and Daniel use two different stages of the Aramaic language.  There is evidence that biblical writers and editors sometimes updated the language of the written sources they used to compose their books.  It is also possible, but difficult to prove, that some biblical writers wrote in deliberately archaic forms of the language for literary effects.  So, in order to understand the language of a biblical text, we need to use our best understanding of where that text fits into the historical development of the language and what the writer of the final form was trying to do.

One problem that I confront each year in my teaching of Biblical Hebrew is a section of the book of Ruth which contains, by my count, eight pronouns that are the wrong gender.  Unlike English, Biblical Hebrew has different pronouns for “them” and the plural “you” based on the gender of the group to whom the text is referring.  Here is a list of the problematic phrases:

1:8  May the LORD deal with you (2 m. pl.) kindly…

1:8  As you (2 m. pl.) have dealt

1:9  May the LORD give to you (2 m. pl.)

1:11 …if they could be husbands for you (2 m. pl.)

1:13 Would you wait for them (3 f. pl.)

1:13  For them (3 f. pl.)  would you keep yourself…

1:19 And the two of them (3 m. pl.) went on….

1:22 And they (3 m. pl.) arrived in Bethlehem…

Before and after this sequence, the book of Ruth uses pronouns correctly, according to our understanding of them, and there are many pronouns within this sequence that are correct. What could explain this phenomenon?  It is possible that the Hebrew language passed through a stage in which pronouns worked differently than in others, but why would that only affect a small portion of Ruth?  I am not aware of any other place in the Hebrew Bible that contains such a sudden burst of seemingly incorrect pronouns.  Elsewhere they occur in isolated cases.  The first six of these eight “misuses” appear in the speech of Naomi, so a literary argument might propose that the writer wishes to portray Naomi as a poor speaker of Hebrew, or as too emotionally distraught to get her grammar right.  The last two examples, however, are in the narration of the book, so this line of argument cannot be conclusive either.  Socio-linguistics might tell us that what we define as “gender” in language can have additional functions.  In the Amharic language of central Ethiopia, for example, two male speakers may talk to each other using grammatically feminine forms as a signal of a long, close friendship.

I do not know of a satisfying answer to this question, but it is a good reminder that our translation of biblical texts and, thus, our understanding of them must always be provisional.  Challenging problems like this require all the tools of understanding at our disposal, requiring experts in history, literature, and linguistics to listen to each other and make use of each other’s work.

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