August language

For the past twenty-five years, August for me has been a language month.  Let me explain.  At the seminary in which I teach, the biblical languages are offered in intensive format for those desiring to delve into the deeper dimensions of the Bible.  For four weeks every August for the past quarter century, I have taught eager learners to read the classical Hebrew language of the Bible.

Classical Hebrew was not exactly the language of King David or the vernacular used by the prophets to promulgate their oracles.  The street language of the people of Israel, called Canaanite after the various populations who preceded her along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, was a bit different.  Classical Hebrew was a special literary form of the street language.  It was developed by the scribal caste in ancient Israel to produce the official documents of the nation.  What Jews call the Hebrew Bible and Christians call the Old Testament was authored and edited in this developed literary language.  Most of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament looks exactly the same linguistically speaking, even though it was obviously produced over a period of many centuries.  Language uniformity exists because all of the books of the Bible were converted to a common dialect that has come to be called Biblical Hebrew.  This is what I teach and have taught, all told now, for nearly forty years.

My first experience with Hebrew was in Israel in the early 1970s.  As a young man fascinated by the exotic world of the middle east, I studied Hebrew in an intensive/everyday experience in classrooms in Jerusalem and on a Galilee kibbutz.  The language I learned then is the main language of the modern state of Israel.  Called Modern Hebrew, it has been in the process of development only since the late 19th century.  It is founded, however, upon the classical language of the Bible.  So while Modern Hebrew is not exactly the same as Biblical Hebrew, gaining oral and aural facility in Modern Hebrew gives one a leg up on mastering the language of the Bible.  When I studied Biblical Hebrew a few years later, I found it easy and fun because I’d already learned to speak and write its modern counterpart.  It is a bit like reading the King James Version of the Bible from a linguistic platform of 21st century English.  Not exactly the same language, but “you can get there from here.”

A selling point for my August language class is that we don’t just do language.  We also introduce students to the culture of the people who used the language for communication.  Every day I bring to class an item that illustrates something from the biblical, medieval, or modern experience of the Jewish people.  Items like a 6th century BCE Babylonian arrowhead found near the northern wall of Jerusalem, a Herodian period oil lamp that would have brought light to a home in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, or one of the various symbols used by Jews from rabbinic times to the present to capture the dynamic of commitment to God and His Torah.  I expect to discuss some of these items in upcoming blogs.  I think you’ll enjoy these presentations, so check back, right?

As you can tell, my Augusts are about language.  I hope you didn’t mind my sidestepping my usual topics in this blog to talk about Hebrew, which for years now has been and I expect forever will be an important part of my life.  Want to know more?  Come join us in Nyack, New York!  Always glad to include you in my August Language.

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