Bible Study tools online and free to download

The latest Tyndale Tech email just arrived. I do not usually repeat them here, I reckon if you are interested you subscribe! But this one has a much wider than usual potential readership. In it David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House, Cambridge presents a pretty full list of the remarkable range of online or freely downloadable Bible study tools, and also highlights briefly the main ones to buy as well.

If you study the Bible, at any level at all from beginner to PhD there is likely to be something here for you that you did not know about! The range of superb online tools has grown so fast over the last few years, that it is now amazing what is available.

The Invention of Hebrew: Conclusion

The concluding chapter is short, and to the point. It’s a rattling good read, not only nicely summing up the more exciting ideas that have been presented and argued in the preceding chapters, but also pulling them together into a more coherent whole.

Like most good conclusions there is a tendency to over-simplify, so probably the history of history is more complex than the presentation of Foucault’s Jerusalem/Rome typology suggests, but isn’t it a stimulating way of approaching the issues!

There is also much to think about, and develop in so many ways in the presentations of the history of Hebrew literature from Iron Age epigraphy to Hebrew Scripture. Not least here the place given to prophets like Moses ;) Through it all, and not only in the material summarised in the final section, the interest in the political face of texts is deftly woven.

My conclusions (having read the “Conclusion”)

This is a book I will recommend, time and again, and probably refer to again and again. It could easily also be a book that launches a thousand (or at least quite a lot of) articles, there are so many thought provoking ideas and superb one-liners.

The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter 4: The Invention of Hebrew in Iron Age Israel

Chapter 4 discusses matters of most direct concern to biblical scholars (as such). It contains a wealth of material to bring non-specialists (like me) more up to date on Hebrew and other North West Semitic epigraphy from the Iron age.

The Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon presents a field worker's complaint in writing about the confiscation of his cloak. Tracing image from Wikimedia.

There are continually intriguing glimpses of this ancient world and its adopting, and adapting, of a different communications technology. One of the both at the same time most, and also least, surprising details are the parallels between ancient Greek adoption of the alphabet, where early literacy concerned exclusively drinking, dance and sex, and the early adoption of the Internet ;) Noticing this has a serious outcome, to demonstrate that alphabetic literacy did not need scribal schools to flourish. Likewise digital literacy in our day owes little if anything to the formal education system (beyond the basic “learning to read”). This suggests that the lack of evidence of Iron Age scribal schools in Palestine is not sufficient evidence for lack of literacy. Indeed texts like Lashish 3, in which a military commander resents his superior’s asssumption that he may not be able to read and write himself, and the Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon which, although we assume it was not written by the field worker, demonstrates his access to and use of the medium.

This chapter contains fascinating information, and also intriguing claims these are often closely argued. For example the important section which seeks to show deliberate standardisation of Hebrew script in the eighth to sixth centuries, and that this standardised system both crossed the boundaries of the (expected on the basis of biblical accounts) northern and southern kingdoms but also stopped at their boundaries. There are however somtimes annoying jumps in the argument, so although Sanders aims to base his discussion on the epigraphic evidence rather than on the accounts in the biblical texts (where our earliest copies come from a long time after the period being discussed, so offering questionable evidence) he seems to assume two Hebrew kingdoms, rather than discover them. Likewise on p.124:

If written Aramaic and Moabite were created in competition with an emerging standard form of Hebrew, then they re indirect evidence for the invention of written Hebrew in the late ninth century.

I think the argument is circular, since I do not remember evidence being presented to suggest that these other script/languages were indeed created “in competition” with Hebrew.  So, for example the Mesha inscription predates the examples of “Standardized Hebrew”.

For me one of the most interesting aspects of this chapter was the focus on prophetic texts, and on the light epigraphic evidence throws on the possible processes of composition and transmission of such texts. Here both the Deir’ Alla inscription, Hebrew ostraca and the Bronze Age materials from Mari are all woven into a coherent account of how such written prophecy worked among West Semitic peoples, and how this written prophecy changed over time. This is really exciting!

When talking about biblical prophecy (in particular Isaiah 10:5-15) he takes Machinist’s interpretation of the passage as a neat reversal of Assyrian royal propaganda, and includes the evocative phrase: “a new double speaker: the prophet and the god he ventriloquizes” which both expresses the idea and provokes further thought about what is being said. This is typical of flashes if insight communicated in vivid language that are found everywhere and enliven what risks becoming a sometimes technical discussion.

He argues that texts like this, from Isaiah, depend upon the langauage and genres of Neo-Assyrian royal propaganda, and that such propaganda was lost with the rise of Babylon replacing Nineveh as the imperial centre (a claim I would have liked to see backed by evidence). If that is so then these biblical texts must originate from an Assyrian dominated historical context, and not a later one.

One of the key points of this chapter, could have done with being brought more sharply into focus, and discussed at greater length. For the claim that invention of Hebrew was intimately bound up with the invention (or recognition) of a responsive (and in some ways authoritative?) audience, a “you” addressed by the texts, is highly significant for understanding the texts handed to us as Bible. This is also important because this claim is central to demonstrating the thesis of the chapter. From signs like this I get the impression that a bigger, less easy to read, monograph stands somewhere behind the book I am reading. Perhaps rather these more detailed arguments are made in Sanders work published in more specialised places.

The Invention of Hebrew: Chapter 3: Empires and Alphabets

Letter from Abdi-Hepa (ruler of Jesusalem) to Amenophis III in syllabic cuneiform Canaano-Akkadian

My reading of this chapter was rather interrupted. It has taken me weeks, which is a shame as this is the material which most interests me :( The off/on schedule was partly caused by “life”, but partly I think because I could have done with revising a noddy guide to writing in the late Bronze to early Iron Ages before reading it. (This is not Seth’s fault, he provides a clear and full but also brief summary as he goes along, the fault was mine reading in installments with enough gap to forget between – I’ll have to reread the chapter in one sitting some day :)

Basically the argument is that in this period the different formas of writing were used in different ways by different people. The empires and their local agents using cuneiform syllabic writing, (at least some/one) local power(s) using alphabetic cuneiform and the marginalised using a linear alphabetic script (pretty much what we think of when we say alphabet signs scratched or drawn rather than impressed like cuneiform). The linear script was almost only used to label things or places, there are no letters or literary texts from this period, and the training “texts” are simply practice alphabets. By contrast there is evidence of training of scribes in cuneiform.

Wadi el-Hol alphabetic writing from Bruce Zuckermann in collaboration with Lynn Swartz Dodd "Pots and Alphabets: Refractions of Reflections on Typological Method" (MAARAV, A Journal for the Study of the Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 10, p. 89)

He also argues that neither writing system represented a “language”. Canaano-akkadian was a system allowing the transmission of messages between specialists who probably translated in turning the message from writing to speech, it was not anyone’s spoken language.  At the other end the alphabet was used to name things, so in a different way does not really represent a language. Ugarit was the main exception known to us, there cuneiform was used to communicate a local language in alphabetic form, this was a conscious mimicing and alternative to the langauge forms of empire. It flourished at a time when both Mesopotamian and Egyptian powers were weak.

This is fascinating stuff, especially when (as he promises to do in the next chapter) you put it together with his thesis about the different political cultures related to these linguistic and technological expressions.

I do hope I haven’t mangled this chapter’s argument too badly. I half wonder if I should read it properly before posting this, but (a) I MUST finish the Amos article and (b) I want to read the next chapter (this is a page-turner) and (c) I am trying to podcast reflections on the E100 at a rate of 2 per day, so that when my sabbatical ends I’ll have a stockpile to see me through the lean weeks while I am teaching ;)

So… if you have read ch.3, and think I’ve got it wrong, please comment so I can correct this post and not mislead people!

Another most useful project

It is a long time since I have mentioned TanakhML, but it is one of the few online resources I use almost daily for reading the (Hebrew) Bible. The Interface is neat and attractive, it is fairly easy to browse the text, you can turn various elements like vowels and accents on or off, but best of all you can click the little button that says “accents” at the top right of the browse window and get a view of the verse you are at that shows instantly how the Masoretes read it, purase by phrase. For someone like me who has never really tried to master the accent system this is brilliant!

Open Morph Tagged Hebrew Bible?

Open Scriptures makes a really interesting announcement Morphological Hebrew Bible Version 1.0 if we had such a tool all sorts of interesting free and open source Bible projects become much more possible.

Sadly this looks more like version 0.1 than 1.0, as far as I can see there is as yet no actual morph tagging available :( But, and here the short announcement is frustratingly unclear. And not being a code junkie (despite my recent foray into mySQL database management) I can not make out if they even have yet a system to allow volunteers to make and discuss the coding. If they do what is needed are:

  • volunteers, people with good knowledge of Hebrew and a willingness to spend some time for a good cause but no kudos
  • checkers, people with an even better knowledge of Hebrew who will check and debate the determinations

I wonder if this might be a project people teaching Hebrew could give to their students as an assignment, to code a few verses, which the teacher then checks, marks, and then corrects. This is basically a task that Hebrew teachers regularly perform, moving it into the framework of such a project would make it more productive!

Genocide in Dt 7:2?

Yesterday I was reading bits of theses I am supervising (catching up after an Easter holiday), both were complex material, one because she is writing about Bakhtin (stimulating and likeable but not easy), the other because he’s dealing with two of the more difficult passages, basically dealing with the question of God’s commands to Israel in to commit the Canaanites etc. to the ban.

A basic question in dealing with this is: What do the passages actually say? For Dt 7:2 the English versions are pretty unanimous and clear (this is therefore just a small sample):

New Revised Standard
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
New International Version
and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
English Standard Version
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

It is not just the translations that follow the AV slavishly either, the CEV and New Living are as bad or worse.

So, to adopt (though hopefully with other motives) the snake’s question (Gen 3:1): Is this really what God says?
וּנְתָנָם  יְהוָה  אֱלֹהֶיךָ  לְפָנֶיךָ  וְהִכִּיתָם
הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם
לֹא־תִכְרֹת  לָהֶם  בְּרִית  וְלֹא  תְחָנֵּם׃

The key phrases are in the second and third lines (above, this phrasing is based on the Masoretic accentuation).

הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם is something like “you will certainly ban them” using a superlative construction that repeats the verb. The only major question about its meaning is what exactly the verb חרם means. Whatever it is they are most definitely to do it to the seven nations mentioned in the previous verse.

The last line is easier, they are not to make a covenant with them, nor show them “mercy”. Mercy here represents חנן “grace, mercy favour”.

The first clue that the English translations are wrong, if they mean – as I understand them to – that the Israelites are to wipe these seven nations out, is that they are commanded to make no covenant with them. One cannot make covenants with the dead. Secondly they are to show them no favour, this is not the same as showing no mercy!

Thus the traditional reading depends entirely on understanding of the ban חרם if this means “kill” then the rest of the interpretation is possible, but if it means something else then the rest is misleading (to put it mildly).

The Greek already had this understanding rendering הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם  as ἀφανισμῷ ἀφανιεῖς αὐτούς.

So, does this ban mean “kill” or even “kill as a sacrifice to a god”. Not exactly, it seems rather to mean “exclude from human use, devote to a god exclusively (sometimes by sacrificing or killing).

So, does Dt 7:2 mean: “Exterminate them!” ? Sadly I think the answer is “yes and no”. As a command from God it clearly does not, one cannot make a covenant with someone one has killed! The command is rather to have nothing whatever to do with them. However, as an instruction in time of war to the Israelite forces in Joshua’s day, it does mean “Take no prisoners.”

I think a better translation would render the verse something like:

“and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them,
then you must completely cut yourselves off from them,
you shall make no covenant with them and nor offer them grace.”


Unclaimed prizes (no, not a Nigerian letter)

In January 2005 (on my first blogiversary) I offered a prize, assuming that somewhere a cunning scholar of biblical languages would claim the book. So far over five years later the book sits unclaimed on my shelf. So, here’s another chance:

Ralph (the sacred river) has a nice post “Eggcorns and Belial” taking up the term “eggcorn” – that the ever stimulating Language Log did much to popularise – and asking where there are examples of “eggcorns” in the Bible.

Now a true eggcorn (according to LL) is like but different from a number of other language phenomena:

It’s not a folk etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community.

It’s not a malapropism, because “egg corn” and “acorn” are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like “allegory” for “alligator,” “oracular” for “vernacular” and “fortuitous” for “fortunate” are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content).
LL also claims that eggcorns also not merely a misshearing (what after Sylvia Wright we call a “mondegreen”), like Ralph’s own name, since “the mis-construal is not part of a song or poem or similar performance.”

Now, on that last distinction I am not convinced of the usefulness, particularly for Biblical Hebrew where we do not know what might have been part of a song etc..

Which leads in a round about way to my niggling worry about Ralph’s proposals


?????, tzalmavet, “shadow of death” for tzalmut, “deep darkness.” – is probably a true eggcorn

Gen. 2:23, where it says “she shall be called Woman (ishah), because she was taken out of Man (ish).” – Is surely a straightforward “folk etymology”.Though, Ralph’s main example:

the old understanding of ?????, beliyya’al, “Belial,” as “without worth”- may indeed be a true eggcorn.Though, of course, as Ralph points out, we cannot really know. Ah the joys and frustrations of working with such a small corpus!

So does any language buff out there have any other proposals for biblical eggcorns? (I’m happy to extend “biblical” to include the Christian Scriptures in Greek as well as biblical Hebrew!) There is even a real live prize for the proposer of the most convincing biblical eggcorn!