Diachronic considerations in biblical lexicography

While studying NT Greek in undergrad, I became interested in linguistics. I gradually became alarmed as I discovered that key insights into human language made by linguists were hardly ever taken into account among scholars intending to interpret the Bible from the original languages. Greek and Hebrew are treated by too many exegetes as special codes more than as living, changing, and internally diverse human languages.

The Aleppo Codex is a medieval manuscript of t...

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Over the last couple of days, Joseph Kelly and John Hobbins had a brief blogversation about what ḥesed means in the Hebrew Bible. These two guys are waaaaaaaay out of my league on this sort of discussion, and to my knowledge do not fall prey to the above mentioned shortcomings of biblical scholars, but reading Joseph’s last post prompted these thoughts.

Just as an outside observer, it appears that what we have here may be a result of treating semantics on a synchronic basis rather than reconstructing possible diachronic effects — not to mention the possible effect of synchronic language variation. That is, I think it’s clear that ḥesed means something very much like ‘loyalty’ in certain passages as Joseph suggests, ‘justice’ in others, and very much like ‘random acts of kindness’ in others (e.g. Ruth). As a linguist looking at this broad usage, I think we’re seeing the concept being used differently in different communities, probably living at different periods in history.

I admit that I’m no expert in OT chronology, and I have by no means done a study on every instance of this word. But I’ll offer one highly conjectural sketch of what the evolution of the word could have looked like:

It appears as though the word originally meant something akin to ‘obligated fairness’ and gradually evolved into more of a bland sense of ‘favor’. Psalms presents an early meaning, namely ‘justice, fairness’; at a later period (Exodus, 2 Samuel, etc.), Israel’s conviction of God’s favor for their community may have helped broaden and even dilute the concept to mean ‘loyalty, faithfulness’, perhaps further weakened toward ‘favor, goodness’ (essentially, “YHWH does right by us”); Ruth, typically dated in the Hellenistic period, might be a snapshot of the word at a late period in which the meaning of ‘goodness, favor’ has remained, the semantics of obligation possibly having dropped out over time (although I would also question ruling out a personal sense of obligation in Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi).

I have focused here on possible diachronic reasons for this word’s varied usage rather than possible variation effects from different, synchronically coexisting theological or geographical communities. And as I said, this is nothing more than an armchair analysis. But this sort of variation in meaning between texts is absolutely the kind of thing that we must expect in our linguistic excavations in the Bible, and it’s also the kind of thing that biblical scholars don’t pay enough attention to. They often end up inflating words with all kinds of semantic baggage in ways akin to the Amplified Bible.

Lord knows I’m not accusing either the linguistically astute John Hobbins or Joseph Kelly of this, but I did think this particular discussion might benefit from those considerations in ways I hadn’t seen offered so far.

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  • This is actually something I would do well to study more! I am theoretically sympathetic to what you are suggesting. There is no reason to begin with the assumption that the word must have a single unifying meaning throughout the text, or that there is only one concept of ḥesed in the Hebrew Bible. This has to be supported by the evidence. I simply haven’t put the effort into doing the necessary research to draw my own conclusion on the matter as I have been more focused on the trajectory of influence of the Yhwh Creed, particularly as it pertains to Joel and Jonah. I have the opportunity this summer to do a more expansive project, so I probably need to devote some time and energy to this matter.

    • That specific line of inquiry (the influence of the YHWH Creed) is fascinating. I look forward to reading more on it!

  • I’ve submitted a manuscript to CBQ on the trajectory of influence of the Yhwh Creed (Exodus -> Jonah -> Joel), but I am still waiting to hear back from them on that. I’ll be presenting a paper in Ann Arbor over the summer on the Yhwh Creed at the Orality and Literacy conference. Hopefully this all contributes to my research into influence studies (often categorized as “Intertextuality”).

    • I typed “miscategorized.” I think I accidentally allowed my spell checker to change the word.

      • To remedy my ignorance, exactly how would you differentiate intertextuality from influence studies?

        • This is actually a bigger question than you might realize. To comprehend what intertextuality signifies in literary critical circles requires that one understands theories of language that have developed from structuralism to poststructuralism. Simply put, it isn’t citation/allusion/echo, despite the way biblical scholars have appropriated the term.

  • John Hobbins

    I think the trajectory of the creed is a great topic.But I don’t see any reason to assume that at the beginning of the trajectory the word in question referenced obligated fairness and only later came to reference acts of beneficence and unrequired goodness. 

    Furthermore, I’m skeptical of multi-step trajectories without solid evidence. Yes to 
    Exodus -> Jonah, yes to 
    Exodus > Joel, yes to 
    Exodus -> Numbers and 
    Exodus -> Nehemiah and 
    Exodus -> Psalm 103, etc., but not Exodus -> Jonah -> Joel.

    • John, I hope that if my paper gets published, you will have an opportunity to read it and that we will have an opportunity to revisit the discussion of this multi-step trajectory. It is not insignificant, in my opinion.