Biblical Hebrew: Pictographs and Exegesis
By: Ya’aqov ben Yisrael
Part 1: Pictographs
Ancient Hebrew and Pictographs
There are groups of individuals who make the claim that there is a deeper meaning of the Ancient Hebrew based upon the suggestion that the original Hebrew script might have been pictographic. This is really a pseudo-science and poor scholarship. Those making the claim are not trained linguists, and have no clue how languages evolved or work.
The earliest languages recorded are the Sumerian and Egyptian Hieroglyphic. Both languages are in fact hieroglyphic in nature, being that Sumerian is also based on pictures. In these most ancient of languages, which utilize pictures for letters, even these did not utilize the picture as any inner meaning to the word. Ancient Egyptian can demonstrate this easiest, as everyone is sure what the pictures are and represent; as opposed to the Sumerian Cuneiform, which has lost much of its original form.
The Egyptian writing method employs 134 Phonetic signs, and 180 ideographic and determinative signs. The phonetic signs are divided into: uniliteral, the sign represents one phonetic sound; biliteral, the sign represents two phonetic sounds; and triliteral, the sign represents three phonetic sounds. The entirety of Egyptian grammar is much like any other Semitic language. It uses the phonetic signs to build vocabulary, verbs, and is used in the same manner as the later alephbets are used. The ideographs and determinatives are only used to give a clearer meaning to the words built upon the phonetic signs. This is due to the fact that there are many words (in many languages) which are homophones. They are spelled and sound the same, but have different meanings. It is the ideographs and determinatives which give the reader the true meanings of these words. The Egyptian Phonetic signs are used identically to how we use our English alphabet. Below I will provide a chart which indicates the Egyptian Uniliteral, Biliteral and Triliteral signs:
Now for instance, the phonetic signs for “i/y” is a reed
The Hebrew language developed much later than the Egyptian, Sumerian or even Chinese. By the time the Semites developed their own alphabet, their language already employed the Cuneiform system of the Akkadians, which was a hieroglyphic type system, utilizing pictures to represent phonemes. Even if one could prove positively that the ancient Hebrew was indeed pictographic, these pictures were phonetic signs only, and the pictures had no significance to the meaning of the words in which they were employed. The names of the alphabet were used only to represent the initial sounds. For instance, the letter Beth only represented the “b” sound, and did not have any meaning inherent in a “house” which was what the name Beth meant. Hebrew developed among the nations which utilized pictographic writing, Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite, etc. It would stand to reason that if the ancient Hebrews did employ a pictographic language, then their rules would resemble those of the nations in which it developed. Indeed it does. Looking at these early languages we find that there were certain signs which were used to represent phonemes; the phonetic signs. In each of these languages, Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite, etc. there are signs which represent consonants, and vowels (Egyptian excluded); these languages had verb conjugation, and noun declensions, prepositions, adverbs, participles, ect. There are strong verbs, doubling verbs, weak verbs, and doubly weak verbs.
Egyptian verbs work in a similar way to Hebrew verbs, mostly utilizing a triliteral root. For instance: SDMNF means “he heard”; which was written with the picture representation of: Bulls Ear
, Owl , Water , Horned Viper (representing the “He” suffix pronoun). The perfect tense in Egyptian, like Hebrew is governed in the suffix. “I heard” in Egyptian would be SDMNI which would be written as: Bulls Ear , Owl , Water and a kneeling man (representing the “I” suffix pronoun). Hebrew works similarly to the Egyptian method. שמע Shama’ means “he heard”. It is written with the Shin (two front teeth) Mim (Water) and Ayin (Eye or Spring). “I heard” would be written שמעתי Shama’ti Shin (Two front teeth) Mim (Water) Ayin (Eye or Spring) Tav (an “x” mark) Yod (Hand). In Both Egyptian and Hebrew the 1st singular perfect is represented with an “I/Y”. Sedjemeni (I heard) Shamati שמעתי (I heard).
One famous Egyptian word is MS which is written: Three Fox Skins
, Piece of Cloth meaning “to bear/give birth”. This is found in famous names such as Tutmoses, and could also possibly be the origin of the name Moses. Notice the meaning of the word has no relation to three fox’s skins nor a piece of cloth.
The point I am trying to make is that even among those most ancient of languages which we all know to have used pictographs, these pictographs didn’t work the way many claim ancient Hebrew works in regard to pictographs.
One final example. In Egyptian Hieroglyphic there is no pictograph for a “dove”. The word for “dove” is PAT, which is written as a Reed Mat G, Arm D, Loaf Vand would look like GDV when written out. What then does a reed mat, arm and loaf have to do with a dove? Nothing at all; the glyphs only represented the phonetic signs to pronounce the word PAT.
Pictographs were not a viable means to write the entire Egyptian language, because many thousands of signs would have been needed. Also, there are severe limitations on what could be expressed in a purely pictographic language. There are only about 500 signs which are in common use, yet there are over 17,000 known Egyptian words, so although early decipherers thought that Hieroglyphs formed a picture language, this was far from the case.
When it comes to the so called pictographs, what happens is that the “real, deeper” meaning is left to the interpretive ability of those who utilize this method. In ancient times, this was not how Hebrew worked, nor any true pictographic language. The method does not work in every context, rather many just pick and choose certain words to display for their search for mysterious affirmations.
According to the Ancient Hebrew Research Center, the following chart represents their version of true Ancient Hebrew writing:
If the pictographic method was a true and bona fide means of understanding Hebrew, then this method would work in every word, from בראשׁית to ויעל but this is not the case. I would love for anyone to take the pictographic method and provide a coherent and informative narrative for just the first chapter of Genesis. This will be impossible.
The fact is, there is absolutely no evidence, none what-so-ever, that ancient Hebrew was written in pictographs. What many do, and especially Jeff Benner, is mistake early Semitic with original Hebrew. Hebrew, as a dialect of Cana’an, is not older than the times of the early Israelite kings. This is proven by the fact that there is no Semitic pictographs in Cana’an, nor for that matter in any of the proposed migratory routes of Avraham and his kin from Ur to Cana’an.
The following is a quote from Jeff Benner’s site; I will make my comments in parenthesis:
“Many tablets containing cuneiform (Latin for “wedge shaped”) texts have been found throughout the Near East and used to write many different languages including Sumerian, Akkadian and Eblaite. This cuneiform writing was a logogram style of writing where one cuneiform sign represented one word, similar to modern day Chinese. It was found that the cuneiform writing developed out of an older “pictographic” writing. Each pictograph was a picture of what that logogram represented such as in ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Over time the pictures were replaced by the cuneiform.
(Cuneiform is not only a logogram style of writing. Sumerian as well as Assyro-Akkadian has phonetic signs, ideograms as well as determinative signs, just like Egyptian, Hittite, and modern Chinese and Japanese. One need only ask their oriental neighbor who knows Kanji if their language is solely pictographic, you will be surprised to find it is not. I have already explained how he is wrong about Egyptian Hieroglyphs, so I will not cover this again; if you need refreshing please read my earlier post. Here is a great wiki article on Chinese:)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language#Chinese_characters
In 1928 French Archeologists discovered a large collection of cuneiform tablets with a script unlike the previously discovered cuneiform writing. This discovery was made at a site known as “Ras Shamra” near the Mediterranean coast in modern day Syria. The site was later discovered to be the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit. It was later discovered that the Ugarit cuneiform was a phonogram, or alphabetic, where each cuneiform sign represented one letter of an alphabet. The Ugarit Alphabet was Semitic, the same as Hebrew. Some have even called the writing system of Ugarit “Hebrew cuneiform”. Not only is the Ugarit alphabet Semitic, the Ugarit language was also Semitic and almost identical to Hebrew. This was a great discovery for Biblical Hebrew scholars as the Ugarit language was able to shed some light on some Hebrew words of uncertain meaning.
(He admits here that Ugarit, which is a Semitic language, and is earlier than Hebrew, not Hebrew, is an alphabetic language utilizing Cuneiform, a pictogram, which is used to indicated One Letter, or one Phonetic value. What he fails to understand, or to admit, is that Ugarit only removed the need for ideograms and determinatives, and used only the phonetic signs to build all their vocabulary. This is really only a simplification of language.)
The city of Ugarit was occupied from pre-historic times to about 1200 BCE when it was mysteriously deserted. The tablets with the Ugarit cuneiform were written in its later life (about 1300 to 1200 BCE). It was discovered through the writings of the tablets that the people of the city were worshipers of the same Canaanite gods as their surrounding neighbors including deities as El, Baal, Asherah and even Yahweh. The culture, lifestyles and literary writings were found to be very similar to the Israelites and can also shed much light on the Biblical text.
(YaHWeH is not found in the Ugarit texts.)
The origins of the Ugarit cuneiform script is not known but can be assumed that it was derived out of the same Pictographic script used to write Hebrew, just as the Sumerian cuneiform evolved out of a pictographic script. This theory adds to the evidence that the Semitic/Hebrew script is older than previously thought.”
(Brenner is here trying to imply, and erroneously lead the ignorant to believe that Hebrew was an early Semitic dialect. This is not so. All Semitic languages are similar, but each has its own peculiarities also. The earliest Hebrew inscriptions can be found only as far back as the time of the early Israelite kings. Brenner is making the common mistake many who haven’t had any higher education in Semitic Studies; that is, they assume Semitic in all its forms equals Hebrew.)
I have a couple of verbs in Hebrew which I would love to have a meaning based upon the pictographic approach, בָּעַר, בָּרַךְ, נָגַע I would love to know how the “pictures” give meaning to these words. Let’s take בער which by the way, Benner in his Lexicon is silent upon its interpretive meaning. The verb means to burn, and is made up of the contrived pictographs, House, Eye/Spring, and Head. How do these pictures in any way represent “burning”?
ברך means to kneel, and by inference to “bless”. It is made up of House, Head, and Palm. How do these pictures imply kneeling or blessing? According to Benner it means to “fill the palm”. How he gets from House of Heads, to grains is really amusing, especially in relation to the various words which are formed from these two letters such as בָּרָא which should mean “to fill the ox” instead of create; or בְּרֹום which is actually a foreign loanword and not Hebrew. Benner leaves off completely the Waw, which means “Hook”. According to his method it should be “Fill the Hook with Water”; or how about בְּרֹושׁ , again Benner arbitrarily leaves off the Waw. This should be then “Fill the Hook with Teeth”. This word actually means a cypress tree. Even if we take his most simplistic approach the word should mean “House of Heads Connected to Teeth”.
נגע means to touch, or approach. It is made up of Seed, Foot (according to Benner it is a foot; gimel actually means weaned) and Eye/Spring. How do these word even hint at touching or approaching?
One thing which puzzles me; how do these people provide any useful information on the changes of Hebrew verb stems? For example, לָמַד means to learn in the Pa’al (simple) stem, but it has another meaning in the Pi’el (Intensive) stem, לִמֵּד to teach. There is no change to the letters themselves in many of the stems, only in pronunciation. For instance, in the word בָּרַךְ which means to bend the knee, or to bless; it could be written as בֵּרַךְ beirakh which means to bless, or as בֹּרַךְ borakh which means to be blessed. The former is active, the latter is passive, but the written form is the same. These are perfect tenses, in the imperfect they are likewise written the same as יברך which could be pronounced as either יְבָרֵךְ yevareikh “he will bless” or יְבֹרַךְ yevorakh “he will be blessed”. This happens in a great many Hebrew words, and in some places the distinction is very important. However, by utilizing the “pictographic” method, these subtleties are overlooked.
Please accept my apology, but I cannot just accept such a poor theory of Hebrew, which is actually an arbitrarily contrived meaning based upon the whims of Benner who invented this whole process of Pictographic interpretation. The letters and therefore the words mean whatever he claims they mean, regardless of what the intrinsic value of the word is in reality.
Part 2: Exegesis
In the science of Biblical interpretation there is a branch called exegesis. Exegesis comes from the Greek εξηγησις which means explanation, from the verb εξηγεομαι “I explain, interpret” from the two words εξ “out” and ηγεομαι “I lead out”. In Hebrew this is called פַּרְשָׁנוּת parshanuth, from פֵּרוּשׁ peirush, which means “explanation”; the verb form being in the pi’el פֵּרַשׁ/לְפָרֵשׁ lefareish/peirash meaning “to explain/interpret”.
Exegesis of the Hebrew Text is based upon the following four principles, each interdependent upon the other: פְּשָׁט peshat (simple/straightforward), רֶמֶז remez (implication/allegorical), דְּרַשׁ derash (derived/comparative), and סֹוד sod (consensus [ijma’]/council).
As mentioned above, peshat is the simple or straightforward meaning, which would be the meaning anyone would arrive at upon the reading of the Text. Peshat is not “literal” meaning, as the context can sometimes demand figurative, metaphorical, or allegorical meanings. For instance:
1. When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement is metaphor. Example: Isaiah 5:7 - For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.
2. When life and action are attributed to an inanimate object the statement is allegorical. Example: Zechariah 5:1-3 - Then I turned, and lifted up my eyes, and looked, and behold a flying scroll. And he said to me, What do you see? And I answered, I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits. And he said to me, This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole earth; for everyone who steals shall be cut off henceforth, according to it; and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off henceforth, according to it.
3. When an expression is a comparison using “like” or “as” the statement is a simile. Example: Psalm 17:8 - Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of your wings ...
Remez literally means a hint. This in terms of exegesis means though there is no direct address of an issue, there is a hint, or an implication in the Text in question. For example: Proverbs 20:10 - Different weights, and different measures, both of them are alike an abomination to the Lord. Here the peshat demands the Text concerns only divers weights and scales; however the implication (remez) would be any sort of dishonest gain in a business transaction or otherwise.
Derash means literally studied, or searched out. It comes from the Hebrew verb דָּרַשׁ darash meaning to seek, investigate, to inquire, ect. This is where an exegete will compare the words of a Text to the similar words used in other Texts, and inquire into the etymological meaning of the words in the Text. This is where the grammar and meaning of the Hebrew Text is diligently scrutinized. A perfect verse to show the meaning of derash is Deuteronomy 13:15:
וְדָרַשְׁתָּ֧ וְחָקַרְתָּ֧ וְשָׁאַלְתָּ֖ הֵיטֵ֑ב וְהִנֵּ֤ה אֱמֶת֙ נָכֹ֣ון הַדָּבָ֔ר נֶעֶשְׂתָ֛ה הַתֹּועֵבָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃
You have inquired (darashta) and investigated and asked diligently, and behold truth, the matter is established, this abomination has been done in your midst.
Sod means council, and this is in reality a confidential council, or a private consensus. This basically means that when there are words or meanings which are not clear in the Hebrew Text, due mainly to linguistic degradation; then the scholarly will contend and reach a consensus as to what the meaning is. This is akin to the Arabic اجماع Ijma’. There is no magical or mystical quality to this process. The idea of “secret” meaning was propagated by the kabbalists in the middle ages initiated by Baḥya ben Asher of Saragossa (1291) in his commentary of the Torah. Though this is the first mention of PaRDeS, I believe the practice could go back to the beginning of Biblical exegesis, which was a science established by the Israelite scholars of the second Temple period. The word sod comes from the Hebrew verb יָסַד which means to lay a foundation. Below is Gesenius’ definition from his Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament page 714
These four disciplines are interdependent on one another. In every Text of the Tenakh there exists the possibility to utilize each of these disciplines to prise out a wealth of information and meaning. However, when employing these methods it is useful to remember the Talmudic warning:
אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו
"A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning."
(Shabbat 63a; Yev. 11b, 24a)