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A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax introduces and abridges the syntactical features of the original language of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. An intermediate-level reference grammar for Biblical Hebrew, it assumes an understanding of elementary phonology and morphology, and it defines and illustrates the fundamental syntactical features of Biblical Hebrew that most intermediate-level readers struggle to master. The volume divides Biblical Hebrew syntax and morphology into four parts. The first three cover the individual words (nouns, verbs, and particles) with the goal of helping the reader move from morphological and syntactical observations to meaning and significance. The fourth section moves beyond phrase-level phenomena and considers the larger relationships of clauses and sentences. Since publication of the first edition, research on Biblical Hebrew syntax has substantially evolved. This new edition incorporates these developments through detailed descriptions of grammatical phenomena from a linguistics approach. It retains the labels and terminology used in the first edition to maintain continuity with the majority of entry-level and more advanced grammars.
This chapter will lay some historical groundwork in preparation for our consideration of OT books included in the Primary History. As we attempt to reconstruct Israel’s history, we will discover several challenges. The first is how best to relate the historical accounts in the biblical texts with the evidence of modern archaeology. One example, excavation at the ancient settlement of Jericho (featured in the conquest narrative of Joshua), will demonstrate the difficulty of the endeavor and the need for a balanced interpretive approach.
A second challenge is that of OT chronology, which must be relative since we lack evidence for fixed dates prior to the seventh century BCE. Only as we move through the OT to later events can we confi rm dates of biblical accounts with parallels in ancient Near Eastern sources. Finally, we will consider what we can know of Israel’s history of religious ideas. Although biblical texts were written and preserved by members of the “official” religion, we can detect the vestiges of “local” and “family” religion from earlier sources used to compile the OT.
We have come to a turning point in our study of Israel’s library. The Torah, or first five books of the OT, make up the books of Moses. We leave Moses behind now and move on to consider the rest of the Primary History: Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings (review Chapter 4). After these remaining books of the Primary History, we will also consider historical books from the exilic and postexilic periods (Chapter 15), which are grouped together with the Primary History in the Christian canon because of their attention to history.
Ancient Israel existed in real time and space. In time, we will recall that ancient Israel was preceded by thousands of years of world history, including, for example, the first writing of the Sumerians (third millennium BCE), the Babylonian Empire, and the renowned history of ancient Egypt. In space, Israel was part of Syria-Palestine. Together with Egypt and Mesopotamia, Israel constituted a vast swath of arable land known as the “Fertile Crescent.” Syria-Palestine was thus a vital land bridge between three continents and, likewise, highly vulnerable to surrounding power struggles. The latter meant frequent invasions and domination by a succession of world empires.
The primary purpose of Israel’s story contained in the pages of the OT is to explore its relationship with God. Yahweh initiated an intimate relationship with a man named Abraham, which was defined by a covenant and by promises of descendants and land. The ensuing history covers an era that left its own mark on world history, in no small part due to Israel’s legacy. The age between 800 and 200 BCE (the Axial Age) witnessed the appearance of ethical religion and rational philosophy in human civilization. Israel gave the world the Old Testament and the concept of monotheism emerging in its pages.
The OT comes from a specific time and place, a definite world very different from our own. Don’t think of the OT as a holy book dropped from the sky without historical context. Quite the contrary! The OT reflects the world of antiquity rich in literature, in art, and in something we might even call “the sciences,” and with elaborate philosophies about the nature of the world. And the world in which the ancient Israelites lived and worked had a history already spanning thousands of years. The first cities of human civilization and first fledgling empires were as distant in time to ancient Israel as the Roman Empire is to you and me.
We will now focus our attention on the final book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy. We will discover that, even as the book recounts what has come before for the sake of Israel poised to enter the promised land, it does so in a new setting, in an innovative literary format, and with distinctive emphases that speak to generations present and yet to come.
Deuteronomy consists of four collections of speeches given by Moses, set off by literary superscriptions. Scholars have determined that the book is organized in the form of an ancient international treaty. Following a historical prologue, the speeches reiterate and affirm Torah instruction, institute a covenant renewal that links blessings with covenant fidelity, and detail provisions for Israel after Moses’ death (recounted in the final chapter of the book). Deuteronomy is distinctive in the Pentateuch for its focus on the centralization of Israel’s religious cult at the place where Yahweh will cause his name to dwell, the great statement of faith known as the Shema (6:4), and the first explicit statements of monotheism in the OT.
The fifth book of the Bible is not entirely new. It isn’t simple repetition either. The Torah – both its narrative and its law – is revisited in Deuteronomy in a way that renews it for the next generation of Israelites. In doing so, the book of Deuteronomy shows that the Torah is dynamic and renewable for every generation.