Hebrew Bible and ANE History Lists Commentary

News and Comments that relate to the Hebrew Bible and to my posts on various ANE and Hebrew Bible related mailing lists - Yitzhak Sapir

Sunday, February 26, 2006

ירחו yrhw in the Gezer Calendar

Updated March 4 - added link to negative comments on ANE-2 regarding Anson Rainey's Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets.

The Gezer Calendar
Photo source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Much of my recent discussions had related to the pre-exilic orthography. Now that the discussions are pretty much completed, I'm working on converting the mailing list arguments into posts. Among other things, I argued that certain letters normally taken to be matres lectionis (vowels) could perhaps simply be consonantal. For example, the third person possessive pronoun was written in pre-exilic inscriptions with a final ה h. Eventually, the masculine possessive developed into a final -o: vowel and in the Massoretic Text it is written with a ו w. In pre-exilic inscriptions, the spelling shifts from the use of ה h to ו w starting from the beginning of the 6th century BCE.

It is possible to reconstruct the development of the third person possessive pronouns in Hebrew. Originally, in Common Semitic, these were m. *-su, f. *-sa . In Central Semitic, these had become m. *-hu, f. *-ha. The feminine possessive suffix retained the consonantal ה h all the way to the times of the Massoretic vocalization appearing as a Mappiq. However, the masculine possessive suffix lost this, and eventually became -o: in the Massoretic vocalization. But the Massoretic vocalization represents a period no earlier than 500 CE What about the pre-exilic vocalization, before 500 BCE, more than 1000 years earlier? Did that vocalization have a consonantal ה h or just a simple -o: that was represented in the spelling using an ה h as a vowel letter?

Having read now some articles on orthography and the ancient Semitic languages, it appears that the Gezer "Calendar" provides some and perhaps the only evidence to the effect that the h was lost in pre-exilic times. ...

It is definitely considered the clearest evidence. The Calendar is a list of periods of the agricultural year. Throughout the calendar, two variants of the word ירח yrh "month" are used: the simple ירח yrh and the suffixed form ירחו yrh. The natural interpretation of the list of agricultural periods is to see the suffixed forms as dual forms, because this way all the agricultural periods fall in their correct places along the year and all the periods together add up to a twelve year cycle.

The standard interpretation is to see this as development from the conjectured Proto-Semitic form of the dual. This is reconstructed in Proto-Semitic as *warha:na in the nominative and *warhayna in the accusative/genitive (oblique) form. But if the final *-na is dropped, the word becomes part of a construct chain. It now means "two months of (what follows in the construct chain)" instead of just "two months." The construct oblique form, suffixed by the third person masculine possessive pronoun, becomes *warhaysu ("two months of him" = "his two months"). According to the commonly accepted derivation, apparently suggested by W. F. Albright, Proto-Semitic *warha:su > NWS *yarha:hu (prevocalic /s/ shifts to /h/ in many cases, and initial /w/ shifts to /y/) > *yarhayhu (the nominative case ending is lost and the oblique/accusative displaces it) > *yarhe:hu > ירחו yarhew. This derivation explains pretty much all the consonants in the text, the evolution of the word, and the meaning of the word in the text. It also has implications for the singular forms in the list - ירח yrh, suggesting that they also mean "his month" and are therefore suffixed by the possessive pronoun. But since there is no consonant to denote this possessive pronoun, it is conjectured that they had already developed into the vowel -o:. This is why, if one accepts this reading, the later use of ה h in Israelite inscriptions to denote the possessive suffix should probably be read as a vowel letter and not as a consonant.

Amarna Letter from Burnaburiash to Amenhotep IV
Photo source: The British Museum
Although there are some problems with the above reconstruction (to be discussed in a moment), it does work out quite nicely. But I had raised my own pet theory in the discussion, which is the matter of this post. My solution is actually similar to an early solution proposed by H. L. Ginsberg and supported by G. R. Driver. This solution suggests reading the ו w as a vowel letter for -o:. According to this reconstruction, the oblique/accusative case endings had not yet displaced the nominative endings, and so the nominative was yarha:. But the Canaanite shift *a: > o: led to this form being yarho:. This solution has been criticized on grounds that we know the Canaanite nominative dual case ending had not shifted to o: from a Canaanite gloss in the Amarna tablets which normally display this shift: he-na-ia *ce:na:ya "my two eyes" (EA 144:17 sent to Egypt from Sidon). A. Lemaire suggested that the dual nominative construct form -ay developed from an earlier form *-aw which is what the Gezer Calendar form represents. But this solution is very unlikely given that -ay is attested across many other Semitic languages and *-aw is not. G. Garbini suggested that this is not a dual at all but a plural, in which case the nominative construct ending would have been *-u: and this is what the ו w represents. It is hard to accept this solution since the ו w is consistently used for duals only in the Calendar. The main object to W. F. Albright's solution by the others has been that "his month" and "his two months" do not mention to whom the word "his" refers.

My solution is that ירחו yrhw represents an otherwise unknown dual form and has no possessive suffix attached. Now isn't that a simple solution? It solves all the problems. This is a dual form, not a plural one. The final ו w is a consonant, not a vowel letter for *-u: or -o:. The form with a ו w at the end is not to be traced back as the precursor of -ay but is a new if short-lived development. There is no "his" that suggests a reference to some person not mentioned in the text. The only problem with such a solution is that it appears to be otherwise without evidence, and the reconstruction of a new rare form that is otherwise unattested appears to be concocted to fit the evidence.

However, I have another example of this form in a very common word in the Bible: יחדו yahdaw "together." The root of this form is yahd-, which is related to Proto-Semitic *)ahad, and a variant form that appears in Central Semitic, *wahd- > NWS yahd-. This word means variously "one," "individual," or "singular." According to my suggestion, יחדו yahdaw "together" is the dual of -יחד yahd- "individual." This is a pretty attractive suggestion, and it forms the meagre "evidence" for the reading of final ו w as an independent dual form.

It is perhaps even possible that there are other instances of this form. For example, in Psalms 114:5, normally read ההפכי הצור אגם-מים, חלמיש למעינו-מים "Who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters." The last two words could be read as a dual of מעין mcyn or עין cyn "fountain" = "two fountains." Perhaps the use of the same word for "fountain" as for "eyes" led to the use of a dual but there is nothing in the verse itself to suggest that this is necessarily a dual form. This word, however, is unusual, exceptional and not standard in Biblical Hebrew and it is always interpreted as an archaic poetic use. The reading cyn "eye"/"fountain" presupposes that the prefix is the archaic למ lm "to." The form of the noun cayn "fountain" is then exactly parallel to the previously discussed words yarh and yahd. This would suggest that the ו w suffix was a rare dual form that perhaps developed only in segholates or nouns of a CVCC/CaCC structure.

The Ahiram Sarcophagus Inscription
Photo source: Drews University course page
Other objections to W. F. Albright's solution could be raised on the grounds that it assumes a very quick development for Hebrew. It assumes that *ay shifted to e. This is actually reasonable, given that it is attested earlier at Ugarit and contemporaneously at Phoenicia, and later in Moab and Israelite areas to which Gezer would be related. However, it also assumes a loss of the nominative case-endings which may be considered unlikely. These were not lost at Ugarit, nor were they lost in the Amarna Canaanite glosses. In the contemporaneous records, the consonantal script makes it hard to tell but there is evidence that they were not lost at Phoenicia either. It also supposes that after they were lost, the third person masculine possessive on singular nouns had developed from *-ahu > *-aw > -o:. If we can compare with the Phoenician 10th century evidence, the Ahiram sarcophagus suggests that all this has not yet occurred. (This development is attested in later Phoenician inscriptions). To top it off, all this is supposed to have happened in the three centuries between the 13th century (Amarna period where case-endings are attested) and the 10th century (the time of the Gezer tablet). During this period, almost the entire Ancient Near East was in a "dark age" and individual communities were relatively free from foreign influences. To me, such conditions suggest that the languages of the area would have been more conservative during this period. It therefore seems unlikely to me that such significant linguistic change beginning with the loss of case-endings would have occurred in this period.

The strengths of my theory are the relatively significant yet unlikely linguistic changes presupposed by the standard (W. F. Albright's) reconstruction, and the attractiveness of the etymology for the word יחדו yahdaw "together." The main weakness is that it presupposes that the form is a rare local form that is relatively unattested. The evidence from יחדו yahdaw "together" is useful, but more evidence would have been better. It serves to show that the assumption that final ה h was a mater lectionis for -o: in pre-exilic inscriptions is rather precarious. Perhaps the reason ה h was written in the third person masculine singular pronoun suffix is because Hebrew had not yet lost the consonantal h in that suffix, after all.

In the context of researching this, I had either made use of the following references and reviews or felt they pertain to this discussion:


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