Edition 2.0

12 December 2011


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Biblical Hebrew Poetry and Word Play

Reconstructing the Original Oral, Aural and Visual Experience

By David Steinberg


Home page http://www.houseofdavid.ca/

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V Problems in Reconstruction of EBHP

Problem 1 Where was the Stress Placed in Biblical Hebrew Wordsin EBHP?

Problem 2 Problems Caused by the Contrast Between the Sound Structure of EBHP, Tiberian and Israeli Hebrew

a. Phonemes that were Orally Destinct in EBHP that have Merged in IH and Most Other Modern Pronunciations

b. EBHP and Tiberian Three Way Consonantal Opposition Reduced to Modern Two Way Opposition

c. Changes in Pronunciation between EBHP, Tiberian Biblical Vocalization and Modern Hebrew most of which alter the Syllabic Structure

Problem 3 Ancient Hebrew Orthography Provides Some, But Not Much, Guidance Regarding the Placement, and Nature of Vowel in EBHP

Problem 4 - What Letters Were Prone to Be Miscopied in the Course of Transmission of Hebrew Biblical Texts?


V Problems in Reconstruction of EBHP

1. Problem 1- Where Was the Stress Placed in Biblical Hebrew Words in EBHP?

2. Problem 2 - Problems Caused by the Contrast Between the Phonemic Structure of EBHP, Tiberian and Israeli Hebrew


Table 7 - Phonemes that Were Orally Distinct in EBHP that Have Merged in IH and Most
Other Modern Pronunciations[1]



*/EBHP/[2] *[EBHP][3]

(c. 850-550 BCE)


/TH/+ *[TH]

(c. 850 CE)

/IH/ [IH] = [BHIH]


Vowel Length


Vowel length automatically decided[4] thus not phonemic

No distinction of vowel length

Dagesh Forte/ḥazaq

Gemination ie doubling phoenemic

Gemination may be phoenemic but if so it has very light phonemic load[5]




/ʾ/ [ʔ]

/ʾ/ [ʔ]

/ʾ/ []


a polyphonic[6] letter in Biblical Hebrew pronounced /c/ [ʕ] or /ġ/ [ɣ][7] depending on its proto-Semitic origin

/c/ [ʕ]

/c/ []


/h/ [h]

/h/ [h]

/h/ rarely [h] frequently [] or glottal stop [ʔ]

Consonantal /h/ [h] at end of word

Consonantal /h/ [h] at end of word

/h/ []



a polyphonic letter in Biblical Hebrew pronounced /ḥ/ [ħ] or //[8] [x] depending on its PS origin.

/ḥ/ [ħ]

/ḥ/ [x]


/p/ [p]


Two allophones in complementary distribution
= p [p] and פ = p [f]

= /p/ [p] [9]


פ = /p/ [f]


/b/ [b]


Two allophones in complementary distribution
= [b] and ב = b [v] (labio-dental, fricative, voiced)

= /b/ [b] [10]

ב = /b/ [v]


/w/ [w]

/w/ [w] (possibly [v][11])

/w/ [v]


/ṭ/ []

/ṭ/ []

/ṭ/ [t]


/t/ [t]


Two allophones in complementary distribution

תּ = t [t] and ת = t [θ]

/t/ [t]


/k/ [k]


Two allophones in complementary distribution
= k [k] or [kh] and כ = k [x]

= /k/ [k][12]

כ = /k/ [x]



/q/[13] []

/q/ []

/q/ [k]


/s/ [s]

/s/ [s]

/s/ [s]


/ś/ [ɬ]

/ś/ [s]

/ś/ [s]


Table - Original Typical Semitic 3 Way Opposition in EBHP Reduced to 2 Way in Israeli Hebrew with Loss of Emphatics

(This could deafen the reader to word play founded on the three way consonantal opposition which is not heard using modern pronunciation)

Table 8 - Changes in Pronunciation Between EBHP, TH and BHIH most of which Alter the Syllabic Structure of Nouns

N.b. This is absolutely vital for scanning biblical verse. See also Some Impacts of Sound Shifts Between EBHP, TH and IH


3. Problem 3 - Ancient Hebrew Orthography[14] Provides Some, But Not Much, Guidance Regarding the Placement, and Nature of Vowels in EBHP 


Table 9

Ambiguity of Pre-exilic (JEH) Orthography


Possible Range of /EBHP/+ Vocalizations and Hence Meanings (/TH/+ and [TH] within brackets for comparison)


*/daˈbr/ (MT /dˈbr/ *[dɔːˈvɔːɾ) "word" (noun)

*/ˈdabr/ (MT /ˈ.bɛr/ *[ˈːˈvɛɾ]) "plague" (noun)

*/daˈbar/ (MT */dˈbar/ *[dɔːˈvɐːɾ]) "he spoke" (qal SC.)

/dōˈbr/ (MT /dōˈbẹr/ *[doːˈvẹːɾ]) "is speaking/spokesman" (qal a.p.)

*/daˈbūr/ (MT /dˈbur/ *[dɔːˈvuːɾ]) "is spoken" (qal p.p.)

*/duˈbar/ (MT /dubˈbar/ *[dubˈbɐːɾ] identical to pual) "was spoken" (passive qal SC)

*/duˈboːr/ > */dˈboːr/ (MT /dәˈbor/ *[dәˈvoːr]) "speaking" (qal inf. constr.)

*/daˈbōr/ (MT /dˈbor/ *[dɔːˈvoːɾ]) (qal inf. abs.)

*/dibˈbr/ (MT /dibˈbẹr/ *[dibˈbẹːɾ]) "he spoke" (piel SC.)

*/dubˈbar/ (MT /dubˈbar/ *[dubˈbɐːɾ]) "it was said" (pual SC.)

*/dabˈbịr/ (MT /dabˈbẹr/ *[dɐbˈbẹːɾ]) "speak!" (piel ms. sing. SC)


*/yaˈbur/ > */yiˈbur/ (MT /yiˈbor/ *[yiʃˈboːɾ]) "he is breaking/will break"

*/ˈyabur/ > */ˈyibur/ (MT /yiˈbor/ *[yiʃˈboːɾ]) "let him break" (qal PCjus) or "he has broken" (qal PCpret_sim)

*/yuˈbar/ > (MT /yuˈbar/ *[yuʃˈbɐːr] identical to hophal) "it will be broken" (qal passive PCimp)

*/yiaˈbir/ (MT /yiˈbẹr/ *[yiʃʃɔːˈvẹːɾ]) "it is being broken/will be broken" (niphal PCimp)

*/yiˈabir/ (MT /yiˈbẹr/ *[yiʃʃɔːˈvẹːɾ]) "let it be broken" (niphal PCjus)

*/yaabˈbir/ (MT /yәabˈbẹr/ *[yәʃɐbˈbːɾ]) "he is shattering/will shatter" (piel PCimp)

*/yaˈabbir/ (MT /yәabˈbẹr/ *[yәʃɐbˈbːɾ]) "let him shatter" (piel PCjus)

*/yaubˈbar/ (MT /yәubˈbar/ *[yәʃubˈbɐːɾ]) "it will be shattered" (pual PCimp)

*/yaˈbīr/ (MT /yaˈbir/ *[yɐʃˈbiːɾ]) "he is breaking open/ he will break open" (hiphil PCimp)

*/ˈyabir/ (MT /yaˈbẹr/ *[yaʃˈbẹːɾ]) "let him break open" (hiphil PCjus)

*/yuˈbar/ (MT /yuˈbar/ *[yuʃˈbɐːr] or /yˈbar/ *[yɔʃˈbɐːr]) "it will be broken open" (hophal PCimp)


*/hiaˈbir/ (MT /hiˈbẹr/ *[hiɔːˈvẹːɾ]) (niphal infinitive or masc. sing. PCimp)

*/haˈbir/ (MT /haˈbẹr/ *[haˈbẹːɾ]) (hiphil infinitive absolute or masc. sing. PCimp)

*/huˈbar/ (MT /huˈbar/ *[huˈbaːɾ] or /hˈbar/ *[hɔˈbaːɾ]) (hophal SC)


*/miˈbr/ (MT /miˈbr/ *[miʃˈbɔːɾ]) "surf" (noun)

*/muabˈbir/ (MT /mәabˈbẹr/ *[mәʃabˈbẹːɾ]) (piel participle)

*/muubˈbar/ (MT /mәubˈbr/ *[mәʃubˈbɔːɾ]) (pual participle)

*/muˈbaːr/ (MT /muˈbr/*[muʃˈbɔːɾ] or /mˈbr/ *[mɔʃˈbɔːɾ] "breaken open" (hophal participle)


*/naˈbur/ > */niˈbur/ (MT niˈbor *[niʃˈboːr]) "we will break" (qal imperfect first person plural)

*/niˈbōr/ (MT /niˈbor/ *[niʃˈboːɾ]) (niphal inf. abs.)

*/niˈbar/ / (MT /niˈbar/ *[niʃˈbɐːɾ]) "was broken" (niphal SC)

*/niˈbaːr/ (MT /niˈbr/ *[niʃˈbɔːɾ]) "being broken" (niphal participle)


See also Table - Matres Lectionis in JEH


4. Problem 4 - What Letters Were Prone to Be Miscopied in the Course of Transmission of Hebrew Biblical Texts?

Box 8 - Scripts and Scripture

All texts, later incorporated in the Hebrew Bible, which were brought into exile in Babylonia in the early 6th century BCE, would have been written in Paleo-Hebrew scripts resembling those of the Mesha, Siloam and/or Lachish and with the orthography of Epigraphic Hebrew (see Gogel).

A significant part of the authoring, and most of the redacting of the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomistic History, the major prophetic books etc. took place in Babylonia from c. 590 BCE to c. 450 BCE. The language of that area was Aramaic. Presumably during that exile span of time the redaction of scriptures probably went hand with:

1.       Aramaic displacing Hebrew as the spoken language of the exiles;

2.       The rapid acceptance of the Imperial Aramaic script for writing both Hebrew and Aramaic; and,

3.       An increased and more uniform use of vowel letters in Hebrew writing, partly under the influence of Aramaic spelling conventions and partly to distinguish Hebrew from Aramaic pronunciation of cognate words and forms. It is of course possible that this orthographic change took place without the acceptance of Aramaic script.

It is probable that the Torah, as a whole, the Deuteronomistic History, the major prophetic books etc. were published initially in the Aramaic script in Babylonia. Of course the redactors would have drawn on documents written in the Paleo-Hebrew scripts and the orthography of Epigraphic Hebrew. Thus it may be that all surviving Paleo-Hebrew biblical texts (e.g. the Qumran Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll, the Samaritan Torah) at one stage passed through a form in Aramaic letters. It is likely that some of the later books of the Bible, such as Esther, Proverbs, Qohelet, Jonah, Daniel etc. were composed in Aramaic script.

In examining likely errors, it is necessary to consider

  1. Word Division - Paleo-Hebrew texts usually used clear dots to separate words thus minimizing the likelihood of an error in word division[15]. Biblical texts in the Aramaic-Square Hebrew script seem to have used blank spaces between words.
  2. Confusion of Letters (see tables of scripts in The Book of Hebrew Script: History, Palaeography, Script Styles, Calligraphy & Design by Ada Yardeni)

a)       Paleo-Hebrew Script In Mesha and Siloam scripts confusion of letters is very unlikely. Lachish script, being squat and somewhat cursive, errors are more possible if the document were written in a very small hand it might perhaps be possible to confuse n = נ (n) and
p = פ (p).

b)       Aramaic-Square Hebrew Script [16] In Babylonia, the Jewish exiles would have adopted one or more versions of the Imperial Aramaic Script. The later Judean Jewish developments of the script are known as Square Hebrew or Jewish Script. The rapid evolution of this script as the script changed, so changed the letters that could be easily confused.

The problem is that in copying texts might go from Mesha script to Lachish script to Imperial Aramaic script, to 3rd century BCE Jewish script to Herodian script potentially exposed to changing sets of possible letter confusions at each stage. A less likely line of development might be from Mesha script to Lachish script to early Second Temple Paleo-Hebrew script[17], to 3rd century BCE Jewish script to Herodian script.


The following tables outline what letters were very similar to other letters in the scripts in uses of the centuries if Hebrew text transmission leading up to the earliest Masoretic manuscripts of the tenth century CE. It can be clearly seen that there was much room for confusion. However, the most important guarantees of the integrity of the text have always been the competence and integrity of copyists and the fact that the text must make sense in Hebrew. I will illustrate the last point. The letters בכ (= b, k) have been very similar for about 2,000 years. It is clearly possible that some in some cases ב may have been miscopied as כ and visa-versa. However, for such an error to take root it would be necessary not only that the word undergoing the change still make sense in Hebrew but that it be appropriate to its context in the text.


Table A - Potential for the Confusion of Letters In Hebrew Bible Text Transmission

Table B Confusion of Letters in Paleo-Hebrew and Aramaic-Jewish Scripts

תֵּיקוּ - Questions that Cannot be resolved at Present

A Note on Epigraphic Hebrew

Pronunciation of Numerals in EBHP

[1] This is of Key Importance in Identifying Word Play see Encyclopedia Judaica article PROSODY, HEBREW, Jewish Encyclopedia article ALLITERATION AND KINDRED FIGURES (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1266&letter=A&search=pun), Wikipedia article Biblical poetry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_poetry#Quantitative_rhythm )

For the impact of the merging of phonemes on the vocabulary of Israeli Hebrew  see Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 16 para. 1645-1646.

[3] Note, in reconstructed [EBHP] transliterations and sound files -

1.there is no spirantization of the bgdkpt consonants - http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb_tequ.htm#bgdpt ;

2. vowel qualities are outlined here - http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb_6.htm#ebhp_vow_qual ;

3. I use the most probable form. Where no one form stands out as most probable, I select the one closest to the MT vocalization.

4. when multiple forms are possible, the form used is underlined.

[4] Except for ḥaep vowels, all vowels were long except for those in closed, unstressed syllables.

[5] Blau 1976/93p. 16 and See Hoffman pp. 99-101

[6] Polyphonic letters ח and ע ( http://www.houseofdavid.ca/anc_heb3.htm#polyphony see Blau 1982 and Wevers 1970 ). Since the Tiberian massorites did not recognize the polyphonic nature of these letters it goes unmarked in their pointing. The easiest way for the student to determine the correct phoneme in an actual word is to look the root up in HALOT and check the nature of the consonant in the Arabic or Ugaritic cognate. In all these cases the biblical Hebrew consonant will be the same as that in Ugaritic and Arabic.

[7] also transcribed gh (=غ)

[8] other transcriptions x, kh, k.

[9] In ordinary speech the treatment of the spiratization /b/ [b]/[v]; /k/ [k]/[x] and /p/ [p]/[f] in IH is complicated (See Bolozky 1997 sect. 17.5.4.). In reading the biblical text these allophonic distinctions are maintained as marked in the MT.

[10] In ordinary speech the treatment of the spiratization /b/ [b]/[v]; /k/ [k]/[x] and /p/ [p]/[f] in IH is complicated (See Bolozky 1997 sect. 17.5.4.). In reading the biblical text these allophonic distinctions are maintained as marked in the MT.

[12] In ordinary speech the treatment of the spiratization /b/ [b]/[v]; /k/ [k]/[x] and /p/ [p]/[f] in IH is complicated (See Bolozky 1997 sect. 17.5.4.). In reading the biblical text these allophonic distinctions are maintained as marked in the MT.

[13] also transliterated as ḳ

[14] According to the Encarta Dictionary, orthography is defined as: 1. study of correct spelling: the study of established correct spelling; 2. study of how letters are arranged: the study of letters of an alphabet and how they occur sequentially in words; and, 3. relationship between sounds and letters: the way letters and diacritic symbols represent the sounds of a language in spelling

[15] The positioning of these dots varied. Ancient Hebrew-writing scribes hung letters from a line, ruled or imaginary. I.e., the highest point of each letter, except lamed (ל) started from the line. The dot level is seen in: the Mesha inscription about the level of the bottom of most letters; the Siloam inscription and the Lachish letters about mid-height of most letters; the Qumran Paleo-Leviticus scroll right on the line, i.e. at the top level of most letters. In most Phoenician texts the words were not divided (scripto continua).

[16] The term "Early Jewish" is used here to designate the scripts developed in Judaea and used by Jews beginning in the Maccabaean period and continuing to the time of the First Jewish Revolt. It stands in contrast to Palaeo-Hebrew and to the Aramaic cursive of the late Persian and early Greek periods from which Jewish. Nabataean, and Palmyrene, among others. were derived. The traditional designations, "Assyrian," "Aramaic," "Square" do not apply accurately to the several Early Jewish script types and cannot be used in scientific palaeographical discussion. The last-mentioned term, "Square," applies at best to the formal hand of the First Jewish Revolt (and later), or less happily to the Herodian book hands, and should be abandoned. We have chosen the designation "Early Jewish"; it could be argued plausibly that "Judaean" would be even more precise. However, the broader term seems a happier alternative since the Early Jewish script was in use by Jews outside Judaea (cf. the Nash Papyrus), and it permits us to speak of the scripts of the late Roman and Byzantine eras from Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia (e.g., from Dura), which are continuous with the early series, as "Late Jewish.". Quoted from footnote 5 of The Development of Jewish Scripts by Frank Moore Cross (1961) reprinted in Leaves from an Epigrapher's Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy (Harvard Semitic Studies, No. 51) by Frank Moore Cross.

[17] The Palaeo-Hebrew script of Qumran is properly described as an archaistic survival from the book hand of Israelite times. It shows little development in the interval between the epigraphs of the seventhfifth centuries BCE and manuscripts of Maccabaean or Hasmonaean date. Evidently the script was taken up anew in the era of nationalistic revival of the second century BCE, to judge from its use as a monumental script by the Hasmonaeans on their coinage, as well as its resurgence as a biblical hand. It is in the late Hasmonaean era also that the Samaritan Pentateuchal text separates from the main stream of Jewish tradition, preserving in its special hand the Palaeo-Hebrew tradition . Moreover, in the second century BCE, Palaeo-Hebrew forms, dormant for some four centuries, begin afresh to evolve at a fairly steady pace. This new development is reflected in the series of MSS at Qumran, as well as in the coinage of the First and Second Jewish Revolts, and in the earliest Samaritan epigraphs. On the other hand, the earliest exemplars of the Palaeo-Hebrew hand at Qumran exhibit a remarkable fidelity of form and stance, when compared with archaic scripts, and were penned with fluid grace and speed. One can best explain these characteristics of the Qumran Palaeo-Hebrew hand by assuming that though relatively static, the old script was preserved alive in some narrow circle, presumably by a coterie of erudite scribes, as a biblical book hand. When the first of the Palaeo-Hebrew fragments were found in Cave I, an alternative explanation was proposed, that the fragments were in fact archaic, from the fourth or fifth century BCE. But later finds, including manuscripts in which there is extensive mixture of Palaeo-Hebrew and Jewish scripts (and in one instance a mixture of Palaeo-Hebrew, Jewish, and Greek scripts), have rendered this proposal inadmissible.. Quoted from footnote 4 of The Development of Jewish Scripts by Frank Moore Cross (1961) reprinted in Cross 2003.