As indicated above, Hebrew is a part of the Semitic family of languages. It is especially close to Phoenician, Moabite, Edomite, Amorite, Eblaite, Aramaic, and Ugaritic. Ugaritic has contributed important insights to a better understanding of biblical Hebrew in vocabulary, morphology, orthography, syntax, and poetics. The earliest Hebrew manuscripts were written in an ancient Canaanite script, an angular script, that was replaced by the well-known square Aramaic script c. 200 b.c. Most manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible are in the latter script.
Hebrew was originally written without vowels; only consonants were written. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Hebrew and Aramaic is without vowels. The vowel points found printed in our Hebrew Bibles were not established until the ninth century a.d. The original pronunciation of ancient biblical Hebrew is unknown.
Hebrew was written using twenty-two letters from right to left. This was common among the North Semitic languages. Psalm 119 is illustrative, for it has twenty-two sections. Each section has eight verses, all beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. The twenty-two sections run through the Hebrew alphabet consecutively.
The use of Hebrew as a common spoken language declined after the Jews returned from the Exile (538 b.c.), but continued to hold first place as Israel's “sacred tongue.” Use of Hebrew revived during the Maccabean Era (164 b.c.-63 b.c.). Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the vernacular.
Numerous features of biblical Hebrew still remain unclear or only partially understood, the Hebrew “verbal system” being the most notorious example. The meaning of about two thousand Hebrew biblical words still are not certainly understood. Nevertheless, herculean accomplishments have been made in gaining a better understanding of this human language in which God chose to reveal himself and his counsel. And a much-needed intermediate Hebrew grammar has now been published by Waltke and O'Connor (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 1990).
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