The Romance of the Hebrew Language
By The Rev. William H. Saulez, M.A., B.D. Rector Of Ninfield
Longmans, Green, And Co.
THE HEBREW LANGUAGE
Let us now suppose that the reader is taking a Hebrew Bible in his hand to look at for the first time in his life. Two points will immediately strike his attention. The first, and this will be no small surprise to him, is that a Hebrew book begins where our English books end ; what we would call the last page of the book is in Hebrew the first page, and our first page would be their last. The reason of this is because in English we read from left to right ; but the Jew, looking to the north, and following the course of the sun in the sky overhead, got into the habit of reading from right to left, and so each line begins at the right side of the page, and the book commences at the right-hand end instead of at the left.
The second impression that will strike his notice is how different in appearance the letters are from those to which he is accustomed, whether in English or any other European language. There is a special reason for this difference. Our letters are arbitrary signs of the sounds which we want to produce, but in Hebrew every letter was meant to be a little picture in itself, and the picture was a representation of the letter wanted, it was the first letter of the word which that picture was called. D, for instance, was called Daleth, Daleth means Door, and the first letter of the word was the picture of a door ; and to make the alphabet still easier for the child to learn, all these pictures were taken from objects familiar to everybody, such as parts of the body, or parts of a house, or tools found in a house.
When our grandfathers were taught their alphabet in the nursery they were told that
A was an Archer who shot at a frog,
B was a Butcher who kept a Bull-dog, etc.,
and many a time must their young minds have wondered why A should be an Archer any more than an Apple or Adder. In the Hebrew nursery the system was better devised, for each letter was a picture of the thing itself ; thus to make a rhyme of it
Aleph was an ox, and here is its head,
Beth is the house where we all go to bed,
Gimel is a camel and this its profile,
Daleth the door which you pass for your meal.
Whilst He is the window you see in the wall.
And Vav is the tent peg, important though small,
And it is not hard to imagine the interest of the young Hebrew beginning his alphabet in this way without tears, and watching his teacher as he bent his hand in one way to represent the letter Yod, in another way the letter Caph, whilst his hand was passed over the back of his head to feel the picture of the letter Qoph, and if he had ever suffered from toothache the letter SHin must have been only too lifelike a reminder of the fangs of an extracted tooth. Each letter was the picture of an object the child was acquainted with, and it is a curious fact that his mind was accustomed to the sign of the Cross, trained, as it were, to see in it the fulfilment of the Law, for Tau, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as seen in seals of the fifth century B.C., took the shape of a cross, and differed in form from the Tau of later use. It was like an unconscious prophecy teaching him before he even learned to read that the Law was a Schoolmaster which as its final effort should lead him to Christ.
In saying that Tau, or the letter " T " in later use, differed in shape from that which was used before, it must be mentioned that there have been more editions than one of the Hebrew alphabet. In English, for instance, the letter " S " up to comparatively recent times had a different shape, something like the letter "f " with central bar omitted, from that which it was given at the end of a word. In the same way with Hebrew the shapes of the letters have considerably changed in the course of time, only instead of one or two letters being different, as in English, every letter was different. Generally speaking the differences are all grouped under two heads. What are called the Samaritan characters were in use from the earliest times up to the time of the Babylonian Captivity, and after that they gradually died out. The square Aramaean characters, as they are called, which are now in- variably used, came into vogue in the fifth or fourth century B.C. The point is worth bearing in mind, for there are certain passages in the Bibles where mistakes made by the copyists in writing out manuscripts were due to a similarity of letters, not in the Hebrew letters now used, but in those which were formerly used. In another chapter instances are given where lamedh aleph, making up the Hebrew word 16, " not," were confused with lamedh vav 16 " to him." This was because the letter Aleph was in shape like that of the letter Vav in the old Samaritan character, though the distinction between the two is unmistakable in the more modern square character.
First impressions are said to go a long way, and if the student who wishes to learn Hebrew will keep in mind these two impressions which struck him so forcibly the first time he opened a Hebrew book, they will prove the very clues that are needed for arriving at the genius of the language.
The first thing, we said, which would strike him was that Hebrew is read from right to left, the last page of an English book would be the first in a Hebrew book, and this reminds him at once that he is passing from Western to Eastern ideas, and another way of looking at things. When he places himself in the tents of the ancient patriarchs, on the plain of Arabia, or on the mountains of Palestine, everything is to be learned anew, seen in a new light, studied from a point of view which is totally strange to our Western minds. The language, the habits of life, the modes of thought and methods for expressing it, all are changed and present a strange and foreign aspect. He may faithfully translate the Hebrew into English words, as was done by the translators in the Authorised Version, but the change is much the same as if we took an Oriental with his turbaned head and gorgeous flowing robes, and, stripping him of these associations with his own land, made him walk down Piccadilly in silk top hat and frock coat of latest style. True, the individual remains the same, but the change in his appearance is almost lamentable, and those who only read the Bible in English have yet to learn that the translation does not accurately convey the beauty and dignity of the word in its own original costume.
The other impression which struck the reader the first time he opened a Hebrew Bible was the peculiar shape of the letters. Every letter, we said, was once a picture, and in most letters that picture is still retained, at all events sufficiently so to appeal to the imagination. That is another clue for arriving at the genius of the language. The narrative which the sacred writer puts before his readers is a series of living pictures, and to get at the force of the narrative and appreciate the beauty of the language each picture must be visualised to the mind, and a touch of life must be added to make it a moving picture, whether that touch comes from the tense or conjugation of the verb that is used, from a particle in the sentence, or the order in which the words are placed, or from the whole conception of the passage that enters the mind.
All modern books of devotion suggest that when a passage of Scripture is taken for meditation, the first thing necessary is to exercise the faculty of imagination, not only to read the passage thoughtfully, but to picture the scene described till the reader can almost feel that he is a part of the scene. He must imagine that the event is taking place before his eyes, or the words are being spoken in his presence. And it is curious as showing how old ways in course of time get revived as the best ways, that this advice from modern works of devotion is the very thing which men of old enforced on their readers, only, instead of asking their readers to do so, they did it for them. That first impression on opening a Hebrew Bible that every letter was a picture must never be allowed to fade from the mind. It is a key which opens the door to the choicest treasures of inspired writings. Moses, David, and the Prophets wrote their history, their songs and prophecies in a language of the everlasting present, showing their message to be one that is applicable to all ages of human effort and attainment. Hebrew, though dead, is a language that is yet speaking ; it will go on painting these moving pictures for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear as long as the world shall last. The student who follows God's Word in the language in which it was spoken finds in it a fascination which Western tongues can never offer. He discovers that it is not so much the ear that hears, but rather it is the eye that sees. The course of events is made to pass before the eye with the throb of life pulsating through every line ; the transactions are acted all over again. The past is not a fixed landscape, but a moving panorama like the ceaseless film of a cinematograph where one action is seen flowing into the next that follows : all he need do is to sit still and look on, and the grand old drama of distant days is rehearsed once more for his special benefit from start to finish.
In this respect the use of the tenses in the Hebrew historical writings is specially remarkable, and further attention will be drawn to the point later on. At present it will suffice to say that to the Hebrew beginner the constant use of the so-called future in the description of the past appears one of the most striking peculiarities of the language. But this peculiarity admits of an easy explanation. It was because the Hebrew viewed and described the transactions of the past, not as if they were over and done with, but as if they were in actual progress and in the course of taking place. What we call the future tense was with him the incomplete tense, showing that the event had not to his mind been relegated to the past. In imagination the writer quits his own point of time and throws himself into the period of which he is writing. With his reader he sails up the stream of time, and points with that incomplete tense of his to the scenes as they are being enacted on the bank, and this peculiarity of the Hebrew tongue is a part of the romance which has to be felt at first hand, for it does not bear reproduction in the idiom of our own language. The reader of the English Bible must have remarked the constant use of the word " Behold ! " which indicates that the writer is himself, and wishes to make the reader also, a spectator of the transaction he is describing. In writing even of the commonest actions, as that one went, spoke, saw, etc., the Hebrew is not usually satisfied with the simple statement that the thing was done, he must describe the process and paint how it was done. We are so familiar with the style of our English Bibles that we do not at once perceive the pictorial character of such expressions which occur on almost every page --
He arose and went.
He opened his lips and spake.
He put forth his hand and took.
He lifted up his eyes and saw.
He lifted up his voice and wept, etc.
But what we do not consciously perceive we often unconsciously feel ; and doubtless it is this painting of events which affords the charm with which the Scripture narrative is invested to the young and simple. The story is told of a mother who was reading some Bible stories to her child seated on her knees, and explaining in words of her own where she thought explanation was needed. " Tell me," said the mother, “if you can understand what I say." " Yes, mother," answered the child, “ I can understand while you are reading out of the book, but I cannot sometimes understand when you begin to explain."
The general survey we are taking of the Hebrew language will not be complete without touching on the sound of the words as spoken or read aloud. There is nothing more characteristic of a nation, nothing which shows more faithfully the climate of the land in which that nation dwells, than its manner of speech. In England, for example, it is the custom to articulate the words only from between the tongue and the lips, as if we lived in an atmosphere of mist or smoke, where it was scarcely safe to open the lips very wide. Our climate demands the caution, and the caution has moulded the sounds of speech and spelling of words. With the Italians, and still more with the Greeks, it is otherwise. The language of the former abounds in full and well-expressed vowel sounds, and that of the latter with diphthongs which are uttered, not with the lips, but with the mouth well open. The accents of the East are of still deeper vent and flow forth from the very lungs, as though they were pressing on the heart for utterance, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. We have a beautiful description of this force of the Hebrew language given to us in the speech of Elihu -- Job xxxii. 18-20.
" For I am full of words ;
The spirit within me constraineth me.
Behold, my belly is as wine which hath no vent ;
Like new bottles it is ready to burst.
I will speak that I may be refreshed ;
I will open my lips and answer."
When these lips are opened the utterance is full of animation, and bodies forth the form of things while it is giving vent to feeling, and this gives the Hebrew language a peculiar charm of its own. It is the very breath of the soul, the quivering voice of the human heart. It does not claim the beauty of sound like the Greek, nor yet the musical tones of Italian speech, but it breathes and lives. To use its own expression it was
" The Spirit of God that spake in it,
The Breath of the Almighty that gave it life."
There are many curiosities in Hebrew which cannot be reproduced, such as the strange fact that the same word is sometimes used, not only in different senses, but even with flatly contradictory meanings. For example, one word signifies both to bless and to curse ; the same is the case with the words signifying to redeem and to pollute, to join and to separate, to afflict and to honour, to know and to be strange, to lend and to borrow, to sin and to purge, to desire and to abhor, to hurt and to heal.
Further examples of this striking feature will be found under " The Derivation of Words " in the following chapter.
The translation of Hebrew words given to us in our Bibles has often puzzled the minds of those who are strangers to the language. Take, for example, the Writing on the Wall of Belshazzar's Palace in Babylon (Daniel v. 25-28). In the first place, it seems hard to understand how all the wise men, the astrologers, the Chaldaeans, and the soothsayers were unable to translate a few simple Hebrew words, especially as the language was very much like their own, and was spoken every day in their midst. But this wonder is as nothing compared with the greater wonder when Daniel comes in and reads off long sentences from each word, as if each letter meant a whole word in itself or more. According to our version Mene takes eight words in English to bring out its meaning, Tekel ten words, and Peres eleven. The explanation of that and a great many other texts is that any man with two eyes could read them, but only the Man of God could give the words their right meaning. Peres, for instance, meant Division, and every wise man in the place knew it did, but only Daniel could tell what that Division referred to : " Thy kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians."
But still, the English reader is quite right in imagining that one Hebrew word will often require several words in his own language to give it its full significance, though the above is not a case in point. The Hebrews, like children, love to say the whole thing at once, and to express by a single word the person who did it, and to whom it was done, how many were engaged in it, what they did, and how they did it. Person, gender, number, tense, conjugation and object can all be got into one word, though with us the same fulness of meaning would take five or more words. And-he-said, Thou-hast-thoroughly-corrected-me, In-my-cryings-unto-thee, When-I-call-impetuously-to-thee-for-help,
According to the teaching of geology and astronomy the existence of the heavens and the earth is to be reckoned by myriads of thousands of years. According to Gen. i. i, it is alleged, people say, that they are of yesterday ; 4004 B.C. if we take Archbishop Ussher's date in the margin. To know whether this difficulty is real it is necessary to know what is actually written, and it is specially remarkable that the article found in both the Authorised and Revised Versions " In the beginning " is omitted in the Hebrew, and the verse, if accurately translated, should read, " In beginning God created the heaven and the earth." The first word in the original refers to time or duration, not to order ; and thus the words do not mean " At first God created the heaven and the earth," nor " In the beginning of creation He created," etc., but " Of old, in former duration, God created the heaven and the earth." How long ago is not said, and the critic need not try to make believe that it is. The Hebrew word is indefinite, for the book is not meant to be a scientific treatise, and can include millions of years as easily as thousands. The statement of the writer is therefore not contrary to the discoveries of geology, which alleges the earth to have existed for myriads of years before the creation of man. The first word of the Hebrew Bible is big enough to take in times indefinite, exceeding the powers of human comprehension. The actual words of Scripture also answer the more ancient objectors who thought it absurd that God should have created nothing in previous eternity, and had remained inactive till a few thousands of years ago. The word rightly understood says the exact contrary. It leaves " the when " of creation undefined.
In a later chapter the reader's attention will be drawn to the romance which the Jews themselves have so abundantly drawn from the language of Holy Writ, and so it will suffice at present to give one or two examples. In this first verse of Genesis which we have been talking about the letter Aleph occurs six times, but Aleph with a stroke over it is the Jewish symbol for 1000, and so Aleph six times repeated is equivalent to 6000. Hence the Jews suppose that the existence of the world for 6000 years is signified by this fact.
Aleph Tau, making up the word Eth, is the regular sign in Hebrew of the accusative case, as -am, -um, -em in Latin are the accusative endings. Only instead of being placed at the end of the word, as in Latin, this Eth is prefixed with a hyphen called Maqqeph to the beginning of the word. The Jew, however, saw something very remarkable about this word Eth, for Aleph is the first letter of their alphabet and Tau the last. Hence they reasoned that Eth is more than sign of a case, it is the beginning and the end, so it represents the whole substance of the thing, the totiety of the word to which it is expressed. In this way the first verse of the Bible may be rendered --
“ In beginning God created : the Primal Cause and End is He of the Heavens, and the Primal Cause and End is He of the earth." (Cf. Rev. i. II : “ I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.")
Another very curious way the Jews had of interpreting Scripture was to transpose the letters of some word in a given passage so that it should in this transposition convey a further meaning. For instance, the King referred to in Ps. xxi. i, they say is the Messiah, because the Hebrew letters in the word " shall joy," Yish-mak, make up, when transposed, the word Meshiak or Messiah.