Reviews of

A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew

In Ancient Israel, Avi Hurvitz, Brill, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Language, Kurtis Peters, Lexicon on April 21, 2015 at 11:06 pm

2015.04.10 | Hurvitz, Avi. A Concise Lexicon of Late Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Innovations in the Writings of the Second Temple Period. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 160. Leiden: Brill, 2014. Pp. X+270. ISBN: 9789004266117. $128.

Reviewed by Kurtis Peters.

Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy.

Avi Hurvitz’s latest contribution to scholarship is a Hebrew lexicon of a very different sort than scholarship is used to seeing. He has extracted a diachronic layer of Biblical Hebrew – Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) – and collated all linguistic markers of that period, namely anything that marks LBH as distinct from what precedes it (Hurvitz’s Classical Biblical Hebrew or CBH). While it is not new to create a lexicon for a certain diachronic layer of Hebrew (see Clines Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, as distinct from corpus-based lexica such as most other lexica of Biblical Hebrew), it is rather innovative to create one that is dedicated only to what is new or in the stages of development during a specific historical stratum that is also corpus restricted (Late Biblical Hebrew, rather than early Second Temple Hebrew).

Essentially, this lexicon is a catalogue of semantic change during the Second Temple Period insofar as it appears in the biblical material. This renders the existing title somewhat misleading, because surely Late Biblical Hebrew contains more than the innovations of that stratum. What may further complicate the matter is the very term “lexicon.”A lexicon, typically understoond, contains all the lexemes of a given language, not merely the innovations. But it also is concerned with lexemes. A quick scan through Hurvitz’s volume will make it plain that he is concerned not only with lexemes, but also with larger grammatical constructions and phrases. See, for example, the entries for בֵּית קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים (p.68), מִ…וּלְמַעְלָה (p.154) or even דָּוִיד (p.88), for just the plene spelling of “David.” Therefore, perhaps “A Concise Catalogue of Semantic Changes from Classical to Late Biblical Hebrew” might be a more apt title, albeit more cumbersome.

How, though, does one collate such semantic change? Hurvitz begins by assigning certain biblical books to the relevant stratum according to one of two criteria: either the book mentions datable historical events (Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Second Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah) or the book is dated linguistically to post-Exilic times according to near unanimous scholarly consensus (Qohelet and Malachi) (p.4). In these biblical books, Hurvitz divides what he sees as innovations into the following four categories: persian loanwords, cases of Aramaic interference, Rabbinic Hebrew elements, and inner-Biblical Hebrew developments (p.5-9). He identifies such innovations based on the following criteria: the item must be exclusively or predominantly found only in acknowledged late compositions (books mentioned above); it must contrast with equivalents in CBH texts; it must be corroborated by contemporaneous extra-biblical sources (DSS, Ben-Sira, Rabbinic Hebrew, Imperial Aramaic, etc.), and its linguistic environment must have an abundance of other late linguistic features (p.9-11).

The entries of the lexicon themselves take on an interesting structure. Only the head of the entry is what one has come to expect of a lexicon, with grammatical designation, gloss, and a list of occurrences. What follows bears out the justification that the item under review is indeed a linguistic innovation of the LBH stratum. First, where possible, one is given a list of linguistic equivalents from Biblical Aramaic. Second, and more revealing, there is a list of linguistic alternatives to the item as found in CBH, often juxtaposed by later counterparts (a text in Samuel may be juxtaposed by a text in Chronicles, where a semantic change is visible). Then there are external post-classical sources, divided into paraphrases or glosses of the biblical text (e.g. Targumim) and independent sources (e.g. Rabbinic literature), which demonstrate the ongoing use of the linguistic item and the fact that it is not anomalous. The entry is concluded by a comments section (largely just lists of direct quotations from relevant scholarly literature) and a bibliography.

Determining the value of Hurvitz’s contribution is not straightforward. As a lexicon, it is not very helpful. If one is to read through the book of Esther, for example, Hurvitz’s lexicon will not provide that person with much more than any of the standard lexica would. In fact, it will offer much less, given that it covers only eighty or so entries. It also provides only the most minimal information as to a word’s meaning. Often only a single gloss is provided. Therefore, this is no beneficial companion to the general reader of LBH texts. Despite the (misleading) title of the volume, it does not appear that this is its aim, and so it must rather be evaluated according to its actual aims. In this case, the aim appears to be, as mentioned above, to catalogue semantic change from Classical Biblical Hebrew to Late Biblical Hebrew. And this goal it has indeed achieved. The volume may be relevant to a much narrower readership than a traditional lexicon, but it nevertheless delivers useful material for the furthering of diachronic investigations of Biblical Hebrew. There are several loud detractors to such an enterprise, those who reject a diachronic approach (Young, Rezetko and Ehrensvärd are mentioned), but Hurvitz’s response in this volume is merely to suggest that there is a “gulf between the two opposing parties [that] is hardly bridgeable. Indeed, no common ground for a potentially meaningful dialogue in this connection seems to be in sight at the moment. Thus, our policy all along was to refrain from futile polemics” (p.13). Though there may be serious critique of the underlying premise of Hurvitz’s work, he simply dismisses it and implies that this book is not for them, which consequently seems to imply that the book is for sympathizers – an interesting approach to say the least.

Provided that there are those readers out there who sympathize with diachronic approaches to Hebrew (indeed there are many) and those who are concerned with semantic change rather than the kind of information that lexica typically have on offer (there are some), Hurvitz’s lexicon will undoubtedly be a milestone for the research of Late Biblical Hebrew in the years to come.

Kurtis Peters
Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, BC, Canada
KRPeters [at]


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