[3] Cognate Words in Ancient Semitic Languages to aide Hebrew

The Bible is the ancient texts of Scripture in its original languages. But unless we can know the ancient meanings of all the words and expressions found in these ancient texts of Scripture, our understanding of the Bible will have limitations. Let us consider how the Hebrew language came to be the language of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanak.

About 1900 BCE Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan (Gen 11:31; 15:7). This area was about 450 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Gary Rendsburg wrote on page 116 “… Abraham’s Ur should be identified with modern Urfa in southern Turkey (near Harran), which not only accords with local Jewish and Muslim tradition, but truly is ‘beyond the River,’ to use the biblical expression [Josh 24:2].” Maps in most Bibles do not show Ur near Harran where it ought to be. Ur is in a region for which Akkadian was the ancient Semitic language. Abraham, Lot, and their servants with their families brought this primary language of the Middle East with them, but Isaac, Jacob, and his sons’ families lived in Canaan where they were a tiny minority in the midst of the Canaanites who did not speak Akkadian. In order to converse with their more numerous neighbors, these descendants of the original group with Abraham had to learn the local language of the Canaanites, and over time it should be expected that their use of Akkadian gradually died out because it was impractical in that environment. Roughly 500 years after Abraham's time, Joshua led the Israelites back into the land of Canaan after their captivity in Egypt. It is not known how much of the language of Canaan they retained during their generations in Egypt, but once they entered the Promised Land, their continuing contact with the native peoples led to further merging of the language of the Israelites with that of the Canaanites. In the review by Galia Hatav, on page 131 we read, “Saenz-Badillos provides a full survey of the history of the Hebrew language, tracing its origins in the Canaanite period, through a span of 3,000 years, including its modern use in Israel.” Saenz-Badillos wrote, on page 53, “From the moment of its appearance in a documented written form, Hebrew offers, as we saw in the previous chapter, clear evidence that it belongs to the Canaanite group of languages, with certain peculiarities of its own.”

On page 12 of the book by Cyrus Gordon there is a discussion about the ancient city of Ugarit on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the north of ancient Israel. This was the capital of the small Ugaritic Kingdom, which flourished from about 1400 to 1200 BCE during the time period of the Judges in Israel. This page states, “Ugarit itself was located near the northwest corner of what we may call Canaan, the land that nurtured a number of linguistically related groups including the Phoenicians and the Hebrews.”

The discovery of the first texts in the Ugaritic language in 1929 is described on page 14 of the book by Mark Smith. On page 15 he mentions that in 1930 a few scholars had assigned certain shaped letters in these texts to equivalent letters in ancient Hebrew.

These letter assignments were made based upon the initial assumption that the Ugaritic language was very similar to ancient Hebrew. Once this decipherment was made, the Ugaritic language was easily understood by scholars who knew Hebrew.

While there are some differences in grammar between Ugaritic and ancient Hebrew, these Semitic languages are very closely related. In 1930 a significant library of Ugaritic texts was discovered in the Ugaritic Kingdom.

The northern boundary of the ancient Canaanites is unknown, so that leading scholars of Ugaritic studies at the end of the twentieth century are no longer willing to state that the Canaanites spoke the language that is called Ugaritic, but it was surely very close to it, as was biblical Hebrew. On page 1 of the Ugaritic grammar book by Daniel Sivan, he mentions that over 1300 texts have been unearthed from this greater region. He wrote, “At the present time, these clay tablets represent the only substantial second millennium B.C.E. source wholly written in the language of the inhabitants of the greater Syria-Israel region.” On pages 2-3 he wrote that a few scholars hold the view that Ugaritic is a Canaanite dialect, but others maintain that it is an independent language quite distinct from Canaanite. On page 4 Sivan wrote, “Ever since the discovery of the Ugaritic writings many studies have been written concerning the expressions of style and of form that are common to Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew literature both in larger literary units and isolated refrains.” Later, on the same page we note, “The profound
connection between the two literatures serves to elucidate many difficult passages in the Bible on [the] one hand and points to a common stylistic stock on the other.”

On pages 224-225 of the book by Mark Smith, he wrote, “In retrospect, the Ugaritic texts have fulfilled their promise for biblical studies. No other corpus from Syria to Mesopotamia, no roughly contemporary corpus such as the Mari texts, the El-Amarna letters, or the Emar texts (though these still hold considerable promise!), or even later texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have made the same impact on the understanding of Israel's languages and culture.”

Certain words found in biblical Hebrew have a meaning that is not clearly determined from the biblical contexts. Some of these words have a cognate in the Ugaritic language or in another Semitic language. By a cognate, I mean a word that sounds almost the same in the other language, is spelled almost the same using equivalent letters, is used in similar contexts, and which seems to have a common linguistic ancestry. Additional contexts of the cognate in the other Semitic language often provide clarifications or
more precise meanings of some Hebrew words.

In his discussion of Hebrew lexicons, on page 201, Michael O'Conner wrote, “The most important change between them [both the first edition of the Koehler-Baumgartner Hebrew lexicon in 1953 and Zorell's Hebrew lexicon of 1954] and Buhl [his revision of Gesenius' Hebrew lexicon in 1915] was the discovery of Ugaritic [in 1929]: this is well represented in Koehler-Baumgartner 1 and almost not at all in Zorell.” If grammatical care and most especially contextual matching is not followed, then the use of allegedly cognate words to transfer meanings can lead to wild speculations, and some
irresponsible scholars have thereby given a foul taste to the use of Ugaritic in biblical studies; see pages 159-166 of the book by Mark Smith who especially points to the abuses of Mitchell Dahood in damaging the reputation of the use of Semitic cognates. Michael O'Conner comments on this negativity as follows on page 203, “It may be that the [irresponsible] excesses of G. R. Driver and Mitchell Dahood are to be blamed for the negative view often taken nowadays of comparative [Semitic] argumentation, but the neglect of such argumentation has had a deleterious effect.” In other words, abuses of the use of Semitic cognates has led some scholars to want to abandon its use altogether, and this abandonment has been harmful, especially if grammatical care and good contextual matching is achieved.

Another ancient nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and north of Israel is Phoenicia whose language is called Phoenician. As mentioned above in the quotation from the book by Cyrus Gordon, Phoenician was also similar to ancient Hebrew. On pages 58 and 60 of the book by Edward Lipinski, he wrote, “Phoenician is the Canaanite form of speech used in the first millennium B.C. in the coastal cities of Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, in the neighboring towns, and in the various settlements and colonies established in Anatolia, along the Mediterranean shores, and on the
Atlantic coast of Spain and of Morocco.”

The language of the Phoenician colonies is called the Punic language, which is also very similar to Hebrew. Later, Aramaic became the language of the Mesopotamian region, but Aramaic was originally an eastern Mesopotamian Semitic language that also has many affinities to Hebrew. Syriac is a later offshoot of Aramaic. The common ancient Semitic languages that are closest to biblical Hebrew in order of closeness are the group of Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Punic, followed by Aramaic, Syraic, and Akkadian. Arabic is another Semitic language that is less close to biblical Hebrew.

The Israelites began their use of Hebrew in the land of Canaan where they derived their language. It was directly north of this area that Ugaritic and Phoenician were spoken. The deities of the Canaanites as mentioned in the Bible, namely Baal and Dagon, are also discussed in Ugaritic along with pagan practices associated with those deities, so the religion of the Ugaritic Kingdom and the religion of the Canaanites must have been very similar.

Cognate words in these languages that are embedded in similar contexts and are not used in an idiomatic expression should have virtually the same meanings. The ancient Israelites adopted the vocabulary of this region in their language.

Comments concerning whether etymology is useful are now addressed because I have seen some individuals come to unwarranted conclusions from the application of etymology. The supposed first or early use of a word is its etymology. On page 148 of his linguistic discussion, Peter Cotterell wrote, “The myth of point meaning. The first is the myth of point meaning - the supposition that even if a word has a range of possible meanings attested in the dictionary, there lies behind them all a single ‘basic’ meaning.” Then on page 149 he wrote, “The etymological fallacy. The myth of point meaning is closely related to the etymological fallacy. Words represent dynamic phenomena, their possible range of associated referents constantly changing, and changing unpredictably.” On page 150 he wrote, “Thus, the meaning of a word will not be revealed by consideration of its etymology but by a consideration of all possible meanings of that word known to have been available at the time the word was used (thus avoiding the diachronic fallacy [the meaning may change over time]), and of the text, cotext, and context within which it appears. Even then it is necessary to be aware that an individual source may make use of any available symbol in any arbitrary manner provided only that the meaning would be reasonably transparent to the intended receivers.” Later on this page the author continues, “The fact is
that the etymology of a word may help to suggest a possible meaning in a particular text. But it is the context that is determinative and not the etymology.” Even comparative Semitic cognates are useless if the contexts of the cognates are not the same.

The KJV was published in England in 1611 at a time after that nation had rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and replaced it with its national church, the Anglican Church. However, there was some religious tolerance in England, especially for the Jews. Gesenius wrote his famous Hebrew lexicon before the middle of the nineteenth century, and he often used the meanings of ancient Arabic, Aramaic, and Syriac words to explain some Hebrew words. Thus Gesenius employed Semitic cognates to help understand biblical Hebrew, yet he did so in a responsible manner of
matching the context. But after his death newer archaeological discoveries written in ancient Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Punic have been made, and thus many useful papers, lexicons, and commentaries have been written since the middle of the twentieth century that help explain certain Hebrew words and phrases. This is called the use of comparative Semitic languages applied to biblical Hebrew.

The Hebrew Scriptures were written over a period of hundreds of years in an ancient culture. The reader who wishes to study the Scriptures in solitary confinement with nothing but an English translation of the Bible will be disappointed because some of the Hebrew words are only now being capable of comprehension in its original context through archaeology, history, comparative Semitic languages, etc. There is no single source to acquire that will provide all data that one needs to fully understand the latest attainable knowledge about ancient Hebrew. Strong's concordance is outdated in the scholarship of its lexicons, which were prepared by volunteer students.

Many of its etymologies are conjectural and misleading. Etymology itself, even if correct, is often not a reasonable guide to discover the meaning of a Hebrew word. In general, etymology, especially when it is often a guess, is not a good method to use to arrive at the meaning of a Hebrew word that is not easily attained from its biblical contexts.

When journal articles discuss the meaning of a Hebrew word, they never refer to the Hebrew lexicon at the back of Strong's concordance because its lack of authority and care is well recognized in scholarly circles. The claims in Strong's concordance that word xxxx was etymologically derived from word yyyy are generally mere conjecture and should not be repeated. The
only time I ever look at the lexicons at the back of Strong's concordance is to check that another writer has correctly quoted from it. But the word numbers in Strong's concordance are a very useful method for identifying the words for English speaking people for whom this is being written. Most Hebrew words do have stems, which are from two to four letters within the word.

I will provide literal translations of many Scriptures. For some significant words I will supply the Strong's number and often provide a transliteration of the Hebrew word in its standard singular form (for non-verbs) or its infinitive form (for verbs). Sometimes I will put the Strong's number and the transliteration in square brackets immediately after the English word.

Authors, editors, and other sources that are used are cited in full in the bibliography at the end. The English letter spellings that are used within Strong's concordance to transliterate the Hebrew words are most often contrary to all of the three Jewish schools of pronunciation (Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Yemenite). Hence I will not use the spellings in Strong's concordance.