Friday, January 4, 2013

Review: Biblical Hebrew in Transition

Review of Mark F. Rooker, Biblical Hebrew in Transition: The Language of the Book of Ezekiel (JSOTsup 90; Sheffield Academic Press, 1990).

Rooker begins his study by giving various, but now disputed, theories of linguistic change. These include: the idea that language changes are a result of the language falling into decay over time, the idea that culture adopts more lax verbal expressions for ease of speech, and the idea that a popular speaker/writer/group adopts a variation of speech, is then countered by other variants, and thus change takes place. Rooker seems to adopt the last of these.

He then proceeds to discuss a brief history of linguistic study and centers on the more recent diachronic research of Hurvitz and Polzin for their contributions toward the characteristics of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). Rooker adopts Polzin’s criteria for determining LBH with some major exceptions. He then proceeds to lay out the statistics of the various elements within certain books believed to be evidencing a use of EBH and those evidencing a use of LBH according to Polzin’s amended criteria and adds the Book of Ezekiel to the mix (a book he is eager to point out that Polzin left out of his study. A discussion of whether genre plays a role in discrediting such studies, since poetry tends to archaize and can look early even when late, follows; but Rooker concludes that even if one can make a distinction between poetry and prose (following Kugel, he attempts to lessen the distinction), the work of the later prophets, including that of Ezekiel, he contends, looks much more like prose than poetry.

Rooker’s main purpose with this book is to displace the idea laid down by Polzin that P (divided up between Pg and Ps) reflects a transitional period (circa 600 BCE) with the conclusion that the Book of Ezekiel is a much better candidate for such a demarcation, and instead, P (both Pg and Ps) has far more characteristics of Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH), and that very few of the criteria selected by Polzin and Rooker would even suggest LBH influence (although he mentions the possibility that lexicography, as opposed to a strictly grammatical/syntactical analysis may yield different results). What this does is open up Rooker’s study to vie for that transitional position. 

Rooker then proceeds to examine the text of Ezekiel in terms of a contrast and distribution methodology, i.e., in terms of both its grammatical or lexical features against what is thought to be known of EBH and linguistic distribution within LBH of a particular grammatical or lexical usage. This last component of Rooker’s methodology is important, since it may be that EBH simply did not employ a particular construction due to its lack of any occasion upon which to employ such a construction. In other words, it may simply be that the extant material that makes up EBH, limited as it is, never came across a need to employ a particular word or construction. Hence, there needs to be an identification of a common use of another term or grammatical construct that LBH has now, for the most part, replaced, and sources that are certainly written in LBH comprise the data that Rooker uses to compare with what might be features of LBH within the Book of Ezekiel.

After noting several features of LBH in Ezekiel, along with the fact that Ezekiel does not seem to use many of these features as often as much later examples of LBH, Rooker comes to his conclusion that Ezekiel is indeed the best candidate to serve as a transitional document that marks the "line" between EBH and LBH.

My Thoughts:
I think that, to a certain extent, such a work is useful. Knowing when a work is written may yield valuable background information and certainly help us with understanding the book itself, as we should not think that there is such a thing as “Biblical Hebrew,” a uniform language that can be used to interpret any text regardless of where that text might lay in history.
However, I was taken aback by the fact that there were so many elements, even when Polzin’s criteria was abridged, that seem to make the supposedly LBH features less evident, as they appeared in so many places in works considered to be examples of EBH. For instance, in the statistical analysis of wayĕhî as rare in LBH doesn’t seem to add up, as Nehemiah (an example of LBH) has 78.96 occurrences per 1000 vss of the construction, but Chronicles only has 33.10 per 1000 vss and Ezra only 4.76 per 1000. Yet, Dtr (an example of EBH) has a greater commonality with Nehemiah at 74.21 per 1000 vss. In other words, I’m baffled as to why this was used as evidence either way, and said to occur only rarely in LBH.
Still, there are many solid observations, such as the LBH’s affinity for using plural forms of words and phrases that EBH used in the singular. Here, the examples of EBH are all at zero uses, but Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ezekiel all have a solid use of the practice.
Rookers use of the contrastive and distributive method is helpful. This is especially the case when a variation of a synonymous linguistic form can be observed in both Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, since the form can then be reviewed within the larger body of literature in order to identify the nature of the Hebrew found in a particular biblical text. In other words, if an elongated form appears in Chronicles and is synonymous with a shorter form, one can simply survey other sources of EBH and LBH in order to discover whether it is a genuine feature of LBH and not simply a regional or idiosyncrasy of the author (although Rooker notes that all of these changes likely had roots in dialectical differences stemming from Aramaic influence and influences stemming from regional dialects within Israel.
Although, I find it difficult to maintain that some texts simply do not archaize so well as to look like EBH or that some sources that were originally written in the EBH period were not simply updated and expanded. To be sure, certain texts (e.g., Ecclesiastes) are lately written and constitute definite examples of LBH (perhaps we should call this ELBH “Extremely Late Biblical Hebrew”) with a heavy influence of Aramaic and Hebraizing. But what is in place to ensure that the former two phenomena did not occur?
Rooker himself admits that Ezekiel made use of “earlier sources and frozen forms” (177). Perhaps, Ezekiel is not transitional at all, but is instead a late book that only looks earlier and not as far along the transitional shift of the language due to features that are archaic looking?
What is important is that, even with the points with which I would take issue, Rooker makes his case well enough in my mind that Ezekiel should be seen as an example of transitional Hebrew and Polzin’s theory concerning P, as a prime example of transitional literature, abandoned. What this does for everyone who believes that P is a work of the fourth and fifth centuries, I can’t say. It seems that Rooker’s analysis in this regard has been largely ignored for some reason. Perhaps, this is a case in point of lesser known works making huge contributions to the field, but made impotent simply by their lack of word of mouth.
In any case, Rooker’s analysis helps build a diachronic framework for studying the development of the Hebrew language, the final form of the current texts of the Bible we now possess, and may, in fact, place P back in the pre-exilic period.

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