Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Some thoughts on the Hebrew corpus

Some thoughts on the Hebrew corpus

Serving the Word: Is Biblical Hebrew a Language? — blog post.

One of the questions of concern to me is just how reliable are our conjectures about the Hebrew language, its syntax and word meanings, when the text corpus is so small? Future linguists would be handicapped in reconstructing the range of 21st century English from the Penguin Pocket Dictionary, as the author rhetorically implies.
This dearth of materials is the main impetus to scholars turning to cognate languages such as Ugaritic, Moabite, and to some extent Arabic. Studying these languages has clarified many textual problems already.
However, not many of the extinct cognate languages would have been decyphered had not various "Rosetta Stone"-like discoveries been unearthed. In the case of ancient Egyptian, the texts would be today meaningless without the fortuitous discovery of ancient interlinears. If a minimally represented language is difficult or impossible to read without these rare interlinears then, logically, to extrapolate to a wider lexicon from a small corpus must be accepted only after much evidence presents itself.
I'm thinking of the Logos 3.0a Lexham Hebrew-English Interlinear (the latest beta and RC revision). In Gen_1:1, they add the notation that b · r šyt is in the "state construct form." Many translations, like the NAB, agree, and they translate:
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, (NAB)
In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth— (YLT)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, (NRSV)

In the beginning, when God created the universe, (GNB)
The NET Bible states in their "tn" footnote to this verse:
The translation assumes that the form translated "beginning" is in the absolute state rather than the construct ("in the beginning of," or "when God created"). In other words, the clause in Gen_1:1 is a main clause, Gen_1:2 has three clauses that are descriptive and supply background information, and Gen_1:3 begins the narrative sequence proper. The referent of the word "beginning" has to be defined from the context since there is no beginning or ending with God.
Whether construct or absolute, whether you plead that all the other occurrences are construct, or whether you argue Gen_1:1 is a special case, only additional evidence engendered by new research employing new ideas may settle the question. I recently saw a graphic of an interlinear from "Towards a General Model for Interlinear Text," Cathy Bow, Baden Hughes and Steven Bird University of Melbourne" where b · r šyt is glossed as "head," and the Hebrew word for "create" is glossed "cut."
Such interesting tidbits make me think that perhaps the mythological battle between chaos and order, as reflected in Canaanite and earlier myths, was lost or censored. Imagine that the "mythological" background "before" the beginning might have been left off, censoring a reference to some goddess like Tiamat being slain. Thus, experimentally, Gen_1:1 might be interlineared:
from-her-head severs elohim — the-heavens and — the-earth
— (CLIOT)

Another related idea it seems is "scripture must be interpreted by scripture." Just as the language is open to alternate interpretation because of the small corpus, the theology may have to be re-interpreted in the light of the small body of representative literature from those days, embodied in only one main source (the Bible) among others for Hebrew origins, and by recognizing that much of the background to what survived in the texts is not now known, or perhaps is permanently lost.

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