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A Different Angle on the Hebrew Question

December 1, 2007

Duane Smith and I have both been interacting with Anson Rainey’s recent theory that Hebrew is not a Canaanite language. In short, Rainey holds that Hebrew and Moabite are closer to Aramaic than Phoenician and the Canaanite glosses in the Amarna Letters. That is to say, they really aren’t Canaanite languages. He seems to adopt this position as much for ideological (wanting to see ancient Israel coming from outside the land of Canaan) as much as linguistic reasons (see a short version of the article here).

As I’ve said before, I don’t find the evidence overwhelming and wonder if the differences inherent in the material remains available might explain many of the distinctives that Rainey points to. However, the other night a different angle on the question occurred to me.

Most of us are convinced that the Philistines were among the Aegean  groups known collectively as the “Sea People” who causes much destruction at the end of the Bronze Age. However, one look at the Ekron inscription shows a group that has adopted a Northwest Semitic language. While I can’t tell say where Rainey would place this text or its language, the bigger issue seems clear: the Philistines adopt the language of their neighbors. Analogically then, would we not expect ancient Israel to have adopted the language of their neighbors as well?

Please don’t misunderstand, I am making no claim as to the ethnogenesis of ancient Israel. Rather, I’m questioning whether Rainey’s argument provides a valid datum to the issue at all.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2007 4:20 pm

    Very interesting. I think adoption needs to be shown on a case-by-case basis just as I think language migration needs to be shown on a case-by-case basis. So, I’m not so sure about the analogy, but it is interesting. By the way, on a quick reading of the Ekron inscription, one might think that ‘dth, “his lady,” is diagnostic of Phoenician. But see the PN ‘dt’ in Reifenberg Seal 7. If forced to bet, I’d bet Rainey would think it “Canaanite.” On a related subject, it might be instructive to study the Canaanite stuff in the Amarna letters from east to west rather than from north to south as is normally done. I do worry that the north-south isoglosses might swamp out any east-west isoglosses. But if one could isolate “eastern” elements that were more Hebrew like and “western” elements that were more Phoenician like it would be most interesting.

  2. jimgetz permalink*
    December 2, 2007 10:32 am

    Duane, you’re of course correct that any adoption would need to be shown on a case-by-case basis, and I’m only providing one glaring and obvious data point, but I think this would be a good way to prove or disprove Rainey’s ideas.

    I’m glad you brought up the east/west split in Northwest Semitic. I’ve wondered about this as well: a distinct set of eastern isoglosses found in Hebrew, Moabite, etc. and a western set found in the Phoenician cities on the coast.

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