The Building Blocks of Biblical Interpretations: Text, Lexicon, and Grammar
Much of TheTorah.com focuses on big issues, such as the composition and the historical background of biblical texts. But it is only possible to explore those issues once we know what the biblical text itself reads, and once we understand the meaning of its words and know its grammar. This is more difficult than meets the eye.
This difficulty is exacerbated for the non-specialist by the nature of the available tools, i.e., the standard scholarly critical Bibles, grammars, and lexica. These often complex and convoluted works are composed for insiders and mostly unsuitable for the uninitiated.
To ameliorate the problem somewhat, I have composed a website aimed at introducing these tools to beginning and intermediate students, who like many of our readers, know biblical Hebrew and biblical scholarship by osmosis, but have never had a systematic introduction to these fields. The site may be found here: Tools for Studying the Hebrew Bible
To give readers a sense of the utility of these tools and the importance of text, lexicon, and grammar, I will demonstrate how a Bible scholar works with these tools with some examples from Parashat Ekev.
The Text of the Bible
It is remarkable that Jews, who can agree on little, all agree not only on what books comprise the Bible, but on what the precise text of the Torah and indeed the entire Hebrew Bible is—what we now call the Masoretic Text. This is true wherever Jews reside and across denominations—the Charedi Jew in Meah Shearim has the same Torah text as the renewal Jew living in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
Pluriformity of Texts
This was not always the case—this uniformity developed, through mechanisms that we can no longer reconstruct, out of a pluriformity of texts that is attested extensively in the Second Temple period. Thus, the Dead Sea Scrolls often have readings that differ from the Masoretic Text (MT). Sometimes their readings agree with the ancient Greek translation of the Bible called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX, for the Roman numeral 70, following the tradition that 70 or 72 elders complied it). This suggests that in places where the scrolls are not extant but the LXX differs from MT, the LXX probably represents the translation of a non-MT text that has been lost in Hebrew.
The Samaritan Torah
The Samaritan community also preserves a different Torah text; older scholarship thought that the differences between MT and the Samaritan were due to innovations and changes by the Samaritans, but most modern scholars now see the Samaritan in most places as representing an ancient pre-Samaritan Torah text. (For the Samaritans, only the Torah is canonical.)
Thus, especially if we are engaged in the study of the history of Israelite religion, or if we want to interpret the earliest biblical text, we cannot rely only on the MT, which is not, from the scholarly perspective, the pristine, original, unchanged and unchangeable biblical text. Instead, we need to compare various ancient biblical texts alongside the MT.
גדול or גדולים
For example, Deut 11:7, from our parasha reads:
כִּ֤י עֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ הָֽרֹאֹ֔ת אֶת־כָּל־מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יְ-הוָ֖ה הַגָּדֹ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עָשָֽׂה׃
The NJPS translation renders this: “But that it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that the LORD performed,” translating the singular (מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֑ל) as “marvelous deeds.”
Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ), one of the critical Bible editions explained on the website, notes that one Dead Sea Scroll (4QDeutjk) reads הגדולים, while a mezuzah from Cave 8 that includes this passage (!!!) reads למעשי י-הוה הגדלים.
BHQ further notes that various ancient Bible translations, what scholars call “versions,” translate this phrase in the plural—this is true of the Greek LXX, the Latin Vulgate, the Syriac Peshitta, and the Aramaic Targum Neofiti. So it is likely that in antiquity this phrase existed in two forms: מעשה … הגדל, literally “marvelous deed” and מעשי … הגדלים, “marvelous deeds.”
Determining the Best Text to Interpret
This case does not make a huge interpretive difference (though in any synagogue I attend, if someone read מעשי… הגדלים, they would be jumped on!), since it is quite likely that the singular מַעֲשֵׂה הַגָּדֹל, literally “marvelous deed,” could be understood collectively, as “marvelous deeds.” But this would need to be confirmed rather than asserted—does Biblical Hebrew have such collectives, and could this phrase be considered one of them? That would be a grammatical issue, and I will touch on that below.
Thus, the first step that most biblical scholars take when engaging a biblical text is deciding which text they will interpret. The MT is important, has roots in antiquity, and is the authoritative text within Judaism, but it is not the oldest or only text available. (Furthermore, its vowels and cantillation marks are post-Talmudic.) In places, it is problematic and may be corrected or emended. Elsewhere, ancient versions suggest that MT was one of several texts circulating in antiquity, and the scholar may decide to explicate a non-MT text, believing that it is more original or superior to MT.
Lexical Issues: Knowing What Words Mean
Once we have determined what the biblical text is, how do we know what its words mean? This is what biblical lexica (dictionaries) reveal—or more properly suggest. Since we do not have an unbroken tradition of what biblical words mean, often the lexica disagree, suggesting different, sometimes radically different meanings. It is often difficult to determine which of these suggested meanings is best.
All lexica use more of less the same types of evidence: etymology (a word’s derivation and relation to related “cognate” words), and how the word was rendered in various ancient translations, on the assumption that these ancient translators may have still had a correct or live tradition of the word’s meaning. The former tool must always be checked against context, which trumps all—if a word means something in a language related to Hebrew, but that meaning does not make sense in the particular biblical context, it is of little worth.
The Etymology of עקב
Biblical scholars do not look up every word in the text, but concentrate on less frequent words. Thus, lexica would confirm a scholar’s intuition that the parasha’s second word, עקב, means “as a consequence of” and is etymologically related to the word עָקֵב that means “heel,” based on the semantics of “follow at the heel.” In that sense, Rashi’s famous derasha(from the Tanhuma) that connects the word to heel, albeit differently, is noteworthy:
And it will be, because you will heed: Heb. עֵקֶב, lit. heel. If you will heed the minor commandments which one [usually] tramples with his heels [i.e., which a person treats as being of minor importance].
The Meaning of שגר אלפיך ועשתרות צאניך
The two words שְׁגַר and עַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת in the phrase שְׁגַר־אֲלָפֶ֙יךָ֙ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת צֹאנֶ֔ךָ are more rare than עֵקֶב. Looking them up would lead to the following three observations:
- The dictionaries render these words as “offspring” and “young.” But what evidence suggests this? Lexicographers make decisions on evidence that we can each evaluate independently. That brings me to etymology.
- One lexicon, BDB, connects שׁגר to an Aramaic root “to throw,” and thus it means “offspring,” while all the lexica note that עַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת is related to the Semitic goddess of fertility, Astarte. A newer lexicon, HALOT, shows how the two words שׁגר and עַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת are also used together in an Ugaritic (Syrian) text, suggesting that they formed a word pair in Canaanite literature, and that this text’s author partook in this conventional use. In any case, the etymologies which the lexica adduce here seem sound, and, more importantly, the meanings of “offspring” or “young” make excellent sense in context, so the meaning of this phrase is more or less certain.
- But a careful look at the more modern lexica brings out more evidence, namely that שׁגר was a minor cattle deity, at least at Ugarit. This raises an obvious question: Why is Deuteronomy using, quite exceptionally, the names of two cattle fecundity deities in this verse? Is it demythologizing here?
Thus, not only can lexica tell us, or better, suggest to us, what a word means, but reading the “fine print” may often offer important interpretive insights.
Just as we have no live speaker of Biblical Hebrew to help us make lexical decisions, we have no such person of whom we might ask grammatical questions. Grammarians of Biblical Hebrew use the same criteria that lexicographers use to build their grammars, and like lexicographers, they often disagree.
Earlier we saw how NJPS translated מַעֲשֵׂה הַגָּדֹל, a singular phrase, as “marvelous deeds.” Yet, the NJPS translation is supposed to be based on the MT, and thus was (in theory) not following the LXX or various Qumran texts that rendered it in the plural. But is such a translation of MT justified?
The Biblical use of Singular Nouns as Collectives
A look at the grammars indicates that it is, by showing that Hebrew (much more than English) uses singular nouns as collectives; in the words of one grammar: “Almost any singular noun may be used as a noun of species or of category—the generic use—and then it is the equivalent to a plural.”
But the standard grammars discuss this issue of collectives in general, and do not cite the case of מעשה. It might thus be prudent to see if this particular word is used elsewhere in the singular with a plural meaning. This can be done easily with a concordance, which collects together all uses of the same word. These exist now in paper form, which remain useful especially on Shabbat, or as electronic resources.
Using one of these tools would bring up verses such as Leviticus 18:3,
כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ׃
You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the [practices of the] land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.
In this verse, מַעֲשֵׂה, used twice, contextually must refer to acts, rather than a single act, and NJPS (quoted above) correctly renders the word “practices” in the plural. Thus, the general claim of the grammars is substantiated by more specific concordance work.
The Paragogic (added) nun of תִּשְׁמְעוּן
A grammar could also be used to clarify the third word of theparasha, which begins וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן (“and if you do obey”)—does the final nun of that word make any difference in terms of meaning? Does תִּשְׁמְעוּן mean something different, or carry a different nuance, than תִּשְׁמְעוּ?
A grammar would tell you that this nun is called a paragogic (added) nun, and that it is added 305 times to the plural imperfect. It does not affect meaning, and may be an archaism; it is disproportionately used in Deuteronomy, especially at pauses (as in our case). Thus, the grammars confirm that it does not deserve special attention or demand that the longer form be translated differently than the shorter one.
The grammars here and elsewhere treat Biblical Hebrew as a “normal” language, where certain differences are stylistic, geographical, or chronological, and not always closely tied to meaning. This differs from much, but not all, of the traditional way of reading biblical texts, which asserts that each difference bears meaning.
Some of you may want to leave issues of text, grammar, and lexicon to scholars—but much of the evidence that scholars use when translating is available for you as well. Based on your reading of the evidence adduced, you may decide that the scholarly consensus is wrong, that a word is ambiguous, or you may even find evidence for a new interpretation of a word, phrase, verse, or chapter.
Text, lexicon, and grammar are the most basic building blocks of the biblical text, and must be considered whenever we engage in biblical interpretation. Only then may we move on to more complex issues of why, when, where, and how a particular text was composed—central issues of much of contemporary critical biblical scholarship.
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August 3, 2015
April 5, 2020
Professor Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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