Dating the Hebrew in the
Pentateuch

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Question
Should we be troubled by the fact that the Pentateuch reflects a form of Hebrew that is much later than the days of Moses?
Answer
The Hebrew in the Pentateuch, particularly in the book of Deuteronomy, for example, reflects the type of Hebrew that we generally refer to as classical Hebrew of the Jerusalem dialect. By classical Hebrew we mean Hebrew from the period of the early monarchy, the pre-exilic period; in Jerusalem dialect because the way that they spoke and wrote Hebrew in Jerusalem was different than in Samaria to the north, more of a southern dialect. It should not be troubling, though, that this would be from the time later than Moses because we do have in Deuteronomy two songs at the end of book: the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 and then the testament of Moses, Deuteronomy 33. And these songs appear to reflect a Hebrew that's older than the book as a whole, so we know we've got some early stuff there. Now, the narrative structure of the rest of the book is speeches that Moses delivered to the priests. The Hebrew in these speeches could have been updated dramatically from the time of Moses to the time of the monarchy. The question would be, well then why wouldn't these songs at the end of the book have done that? They tended to from scribal practices it appears that they tended to leave poetry alone; they wouldn't mess with poetry because the poetic structure is more unusual. And we've got examples elsewhere where we can see that they grammatically updated narrative. They didn't have a problem doing that.

As an example of the kind of grammatical updating that we could have, one of the ancient languages that was written near to Hebrew was Hittite. We've got examples of scribes that would take early Hittite texts that were written in the early period and grammatically update them to the later form of Hittite. So, the collection of the laws, the laws of Telipinu the Hittite, it was originally written in the old Hittite period about 1600 B.C. It continued to be copied over the centuries, but around 1200 B.C. the Hittite language had changed, so we have a copy of the very same text but the grammar, morphology, the form of Hittite has changed, so it was more from 1200 B.C. That could be very similar to what we have happening in the Hebrew Bible with the Pentateuch from the time of Moses. We know that scribes did this, and there's actually a couple of words in Deuteronomy and in the rest of the Pentateuch that are early forms of particular words that appear in the midst of later Hebrew. So, I think some of those early words give us a clue that the book as a whole was early. Most of the forms got updated, but you still got some early forms that are still embedded in the text.

Answer by Dr. Gordon H. Johnston

Dr. Gordon Johnston is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary