Linguistics and Old Testament Exegesis

Each and every language is a complex system of knowledge and abilities. Language enables people to communicate, share ideas, emotions, desires, knowledge, etc. Linguistics is the study of language and how it works, is structured, is acquired, and changes.[1] Linguistics is also often described as a science; it is “the scientific study of language.” The scientific study of linguistics is (1) Empirical: as stated by John Lyons, “linguistics is empirical, rather than speculative or intuitive; it operates with publically verifiable data obtained by means of observation or experiment.  To be empirical, in this sense, is for most people the very hallmark of science”.[2] (2) Objective: Modern linguistics attempts in the most neutral way to explain language[3].

While none of the Biblical authors were linguists, scholars have taken note to indications within the language of the Old Testament that show the authors were aware of language differences and grammar (Judg. 12:5-6; 2 Kings 18:26-28; Neh. 8:8). Since the medieval times the language of the Bible has been looked at through philological analysis, which is the focus of understanding the language of a specific text or book[4]. Philology is the study of how languages relate and change over time[5], and since the Old Testament books were written in different times and places philological analysis is important. However; since the science of linguistics is a fairly modern discipline, the application of linguistics in understanding Biblical texts is also modern. This essay will deal the topics of:

  1. Linguistic Analysis
  2. History of the Study of Hebrew Grammar
  3. Exegesis
  4. Value of the Study of Linguistics/Grammar in Exegesis
  5. Linguistic Analysis

As stated above linguistics is a science, it is the study and explanation of languages. The science of linguistics is extensive with numerous fields of study, including; (1) human speech sounds (phonetics) and the distinctive sounds that give meaning within a language (phonology); (2) the grammatical units of a language (morphology); (3) the arrangement of words into phrases and clauses (syntax); and (4) meaning (semantics); these are only a few of the areas of linguistic study. Linguistics also offers many different types of language analysis; for example, a linguist can compare a language by looking back at earlier stages of the same language (historical linguistics), or by comparing the language to other related languages (comparative linguistics), to geographically adjacent languages (contact linguistics), to typologically similar languages (language typology), or even to features common to all languages (language universals)[6].

  1. History of the Study of Hebrew Grammar

The first grammarian of the Hebrew language was the Jewish scholar Saadia ben Joseph (882-942 C.E.). Saadia ben Joseph (also known as Saadia Gaon) was a versatile Jewish scholar who launched the linguistic study of Hebrew with two books that he wrote in Arabic. Saadia Gaon is also famous for his translation of the Hebrew Bible into Arabic. Along with his grammatical book Kutub al Lugha (Books on the Hebrew Language), Saadia Gaon also wrote Agron (Vocabulary) which deals with lexicography of the Hebrew language. Although Saadia’s books have been lost centuries ago, knowledge of them has come from his successors. While some grammatical work had been done before Saadia and his successors, these works were not the driving motivation for Saadia. Rather, the incentive for deeper study and description of the rules of the Hebrew language came from a few different factors: (1) the understanding that grammar is necessary to bring understanding and meaning to scriptural literature, (2) the threat of the Qaraite sect, (3) the foundational work of the Masoretes, (4) the influence and example of Arabic grammars, and lastly (5) the continued literary use of Hebrew[7].

2.1 Grammar as a basic exegetical tool

Perhaps one of the biggest factors that the study of Hebrew grammar grew was its connection with exegesis. The first Jewish grammarians understood this and upheld the importance of the study of grammar with the philosophical and theological argument that proper knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures depends on the study of grammar; it is the most basic exegetical tool. These grammarians sought to prove that it was necessary for Jews to study linguistics by arguing that (1) the means for understanding and discernment is language and the means for all investigations and wisdom is linguistics, and (2) fulfillment of the commandments of the Scriptures is built upon proper understanding of the written word, and without the proper knowledge of language this is not possible.[8]

2.2 The Qaraite Sect

The Qaraite Sect was a product of a number of groups that had split off from the Rabbanites (traditional Jews) in Babylon and Persia during the eighth century and was fully formed in the mid-ninth century. The core of the Qaraite credo was to return to the Scriptures and to the law governed by it. This was in contrast to the rabbinic law and teaching that was based on the “oral law” or Talmud, which the Qaraites considered as “the commandments taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13) (Erder, p. 551). The Qaraite Sect made great strides in Jewish academics which caused a stronger searching and study of the Biblical text and language. Saadia Gaon, as one of the great academics of the time, became directly involved with the Qaraites by leading the rabbinate counterattack to the Qaraite movement. Qaraism led Saadia to eventually write Kitab al-Sab’in Lafza al-Mufrada (The Book of the Seventy Isolated Words), which was a short lexicographical essay written in Arabic.[9]

2.3 The Masoretes

While the Masoretes were concerned primarily with recording the Biblical text, their work still formed the basis for early grammatical descriptions. This was due mainly from their invention of vowel points for the Hebrew text. It is generally agreed by scholars that deep Hebrew grammatical discourse could not have been possible without the invention of vowel points.[10] Concerning the Masoretic influence on Hebrew grammar Israel Yeivin states, “Some of the terminology used in the Masorah was taken over by the grammarians. Terms such as masculine, feminine, singular, plural, the names of the letters, the vowel and accent signs, and other features of the pointing . . . were all used by the Masoretes and taken over by the grammarians . . . Since the Masoretes compared all the occurrences of particular words, their lists formed the basis for grammatical observations on changes in vowel patterns: either conditioned changes, such as changes in forms in contextual or pausal situations, changes in words with or without maqqef, with or without the definite article, or waw simple and waw consecutive, etc., or unconditioned variation in the vowelling of the word.”[11]

2.4 Arabic grammars

The influence of Arabic grammars of Muslim scholars on Saadia Gaon is quite clear. Saadia wrote in Arabic and although Hebrew was his focus, Arabic was the language of science throughout the tenth century in the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. Like the Arabic grammarians Saadia also classified the words of language into three categories; nouns, verbs, and particles. While some lexical studies produced in Spain were written in Hebrew, most grammatical works over the next two centuries were written in Arabic.[12]

2.5 Comparative-Historical Method

While much more could be said about the history of Hebrew linguistics throughout the centuries, today the major focus on the Hebrew language is the comparative-historical approach to Hebrew grammar. This approach came from the study of the Indo-European family of languages which discovered the correspondences between Greek, Latin, and its Romance relatives (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.), and the Germanic languages including English. From comparing Hebrew with other Semitic languages it became possible to permeate back into earlier stages of the Hebrew language and follow its later developments (Mishnaic, Medieval, and Modern). Since the 1940s, Descriptive and structural linguists have more clearly described the methods by which language is studied and the ways in which its separate parts interact. This has led Biblical scholars to also take a deeper look at the increasing horizons in comparative philology, while at the same time processing an ever-increasing number of sources for ancient Hebrew.[13]

  1. Exegesis

The English word exegesis is a transliteration of the Greek word ἐξήγησις, which means a “narration that provides a detailed description, narrative, description,” or “setting forth something in great detail, explanation, interpretation”.[14] The word exegesis does not however occur anywhere in the New Testament and is used only once in the Septuagint (Judges 7:15). The verb form, ἐξηγέομαι (exegeomai), also appears in Judges 7:13, and means “explain, interpret, tell, report, describe, or to related something to someone.” In sources outside the Bible the word is also used to describe the activity of priest and soothsayers who transmit information or reveal divine secrets. Today the word exegesis is used more to mean interpretation. Exegesis is a component of the broader field of hermeneutics, and the natural outcome of exegesis is exposition, which is concerned with explaining the interpretation or result of exegesis. Exegesis can therefore be called “the science of interpretation”.[15]

While the focus of this essay is on the impact of the study of linguistics on exegesis (it should be mentioned that grammatical study is only a small part of fully exegeting a passage). Douglas Stuart, his book Old Testament Exegesis, provides a full guide to exegesis which includes:

  1. The Text
    1. Confirming the limits of the passage
    2. Comparing versions
    3. Reconstructing the text/Textual criticism
  2. Translation
    1. Make your own translation of the text
    2. Check and revise your translation
  3. Grammatical Data
    1. Find and Analyze significant grammatical issues
    2. Analyze orthography (spelling style), and Morphology (meaning-affecting parts of words such as prefixes and suffixes)
  4. Lexical Data
    1. Explain all words and concepts that are not obvious
    2. Word Studies
    3. Identify any special semantic features
  5. Form
    1. Identify the literary type (genre) of the passage
    2. Identify the form (specific literary type)
  6. Structure
    1. Outline the passage
    2. Look for patterns
  7. Historical Context
    1. Research the historical background of the passage
    2. Research the social setting
    3. Research the geographical setting
    4. Date the passage
  8. Literary Context
    1. Examine the literary function
    2. Examine the placement of the passage
    3. Analyze the authorship
  9. Biblical Context
    1. If used elsewhere in the Bible, analyze its use and context
    2. Analyze the passage’s relation to the rest of the Bible
  10. Theology
    1. Locate the passage theologically
    2. Identify any specific issues raised or solved by the passage
    3. Analyze any theological contribution of the passage
  11. Application
    1. List any life issues
    2. Look at the nature of the application (does it inform or direct?)
    3. Decide the application area (faith or action)
    4. Identify the audience of the application
    5. Establish the category of the application
    6. Fix the limits of the application
  12. Secondary Literature
    1. Research and learn from what others have said about the passage
    2. Compare and adjust your results
    3. Apply your discoveries

While this outline does not have to be followed exclusively, it represents a guide of what should be done in order to truly exegete a Biblical passage.[16]

On describing exegesis Stuart states, “An exegesis is a thorough, analytical study of a biblical passage done so as to arrive at a useful interpretation of the passage. Exegesis is a theological task, but not a mystical one. There are certain basic rules and standards for how to do it, although the results can vary in appearance because the biblical passages themselves vary so much”.[17] Old Testament exegesis is not easy, and in order to do it properly one must be acquainted which many different disciplines. On the linguistic side one must become involved with the functions and meanings of words, as well as the analysis of literature and speech (philology), as well as the specific grammatical style of the passage. One must understand history, both the historical background of the passage and history of the text itself (textual criticism). Lastly an adequate understanding of the Biblical context and theology are also very important. Although the process of exegesis takes hard work, the results can often be very rewarding and exciting.[18]

  1. Value of the Study of Linguistics/Grammar in Exegesis

As stated above, the purpose of exegesis is to arrive at a clear interpretation and understanding of a passage of Scripture. Correct exegesis must go beyond casual contemporary explanation of a passage. The Biblical exegete therefore must be able to place himself in the time and perspective of both the author and audience of the passage. At the heart of Biblical exegesis is the study of the original Biblical languages. Apart from the knowledge of the original languages there can therefore be no accurate conclusions to what a passage of Scripture teaches, especially the more difficult passages. In order to make clear interpretations the Biblical exegete has to understand the mind and thoughts of the author, which were expressed in another language, and therefore the linguistic study of the Biblical languages becomes essential in making correct interpretation. The aspects of this linguistics study include, as stated earlier, the language structure (morphology), word meanings (lexicography), and the functions of different parts of speech (syntax). It should be clear to then see that the study of linguistics/grammar plays a big role in the interpretation of Scripture.[19]

4.1 Analysis of Grammar in Exegesis

When introducing grammatical analysis in exegesis, Stuart explains that “the goal of grammar is accuracy.” Comprehension in any language depends greatly on grammar. Failing to understand the grammar of the Old Testament can lead to not knowing exactly what was or was not said in a Biblical passage.[20] The primary interest in the grammatical study during exegesis is to isolate any grammatical features that could have an effect on the interpretation of the passage. This is especially important when grammatical ambiguities exist within a text. For example, if in one of the prophetical books it is written that God has “a word,” it is important to know that grammatically this could mean a word “about Jerusalem,” “on behalf of Jerusalem,” or “against Jerusalem.” Biblical translators must choose one of these options when making their translation and cannot accurately translate the ambiguity of the passage into English. In Hebrew the ambiguity of the passage was often meaningful and done on purpose. This was because the audience of the ancient prophet could not always tell whether God’s word was good or bad or to whom it was directed to until the prophet ended his message.[21]

4.2 Example of Grammatical Analysis: Hosea 1:2

לֵ֣ךְ קַח־לְךָ֞ אֵ֤שֶׁת זְנוּנִים֙ וְיַלְדֵ֣י זְנוּנִ֔ים כִּֽי־זָנֹ֤ה תִזְנֶה֙ הָאֶָץ מֵֽאַחֲרֵ֖י יְהוָֽה

“When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, he said to him, ‘Go marry a prostitute who will bear illegitimate children conceived through prostitution, because the nation continually commits spiritual prostitution by turning away from the LORD.’”

Hosea 1:2 is a great example of the importance of grammar in exegesis. While exegeting this verse the interpreter encounters a key interpretational question: Did God really command Hosea to marry a prostitute? While many commentators have suggested that Hosea’s wife probably turned to prostitution sometime after they were married; and that Hosea must have looked back at his life at a later point and used this as an analogy for Israel’s unfaithfulness, Hebrew grammar does not have this interpretation on its side.[22]

As Stuart in the Word Biblical Commentary states, the preposition ב before Hosea is important, because it means “through” Hosea and not “to” nor “with.” Therefore; Hosea is not the primary audience for the lesson taught but instead the marriage and the children that would come through it are a way for God to use Hosea’s situation to teach Israel the truth about their terrible corruption. There is then no evidence to argue that Hosea read back into the events of his life a symbolism that he later discovered. The term אשת זנונים that is sometimes translated “a prostitute,” “harlot,” or “a wife of whoredom,” in this verse cannot mean prostitute in the normal meaning of the word.[23] This is because in Biblical Hebrew there are just three different words that are used for “prostitute,” these are: ‏קְדֵשָׁה‎ (cult prostitute), ‏זֹנָה‎ (common prostitute), and ‏בֶּלֶב (male prostitute), none of which are used in this verse.[24] Instead זנונים as a plural abstract refers more to the character rather than profession of Hosea’s wife. There is also no evidence in the book of Hosea that she actually practiced prostitution or was unfaithful in her marriage. Later in the book as the term זנונים is used the definition becomes clearer, especially in the phrase רוח זנונים “spirit of prostitution” or “prostituting spirit” in Hosea 4:12 and 5:4. Here it is clear the phrase refers to the unholy desires, cohabitations, and practices of Israel which are depicted metaphorically as the promiscuity of prostitution. Israel’s defiance and betrayal were considered by God as a national “prostitution.” Because Gomer was a typical citizen of the wayward nation of Israel she could be referred to as an אשת זנונים and therefore could be called a prostitute because she was an active part of Israel’s religious “prostitution”.[25]


In conclusion; linguistics, the study of language, is an important discipline of study today and can be broken up and used in many different areas. Linguistic study can also be of great benefit in Bible study and interpretation. Exegesis is the word that describes the analytical study of a Biblical passage, and the purpose of exegesis is to arrive at a clear interpretation and understanding of a passage of the Bible. In order to make clear interpretations the Biblical exegete has to understand the mind and thoughts of the author, which were expressed in another language, and therefore at the heart of exegesis is the study of the Bible’s original languages and grammar.

[1] What Is linguistics? (2015, September 25). Retrieved from University of Santa Cruz California: Linguistics:

[2] (2012). In J. Lyons, Language and Linguistics (p. 38). Cambridge University Press

[3] Marshall, P. (2012, October 15). Why Study ‘Linguistics’? Retrieved from School of Christian Thought: Houstan Baptist University :

[4] Miller, C. L. (2005). Linguistics. In B. T. Arnold, & H. G. Williamson, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books (pp. 657-669). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

[5] Stanley J. Grenz; David Guretzki; Cherith Fee Nordling. (1999). Philology. In Pocket Dictionary For The Study Of New Testament Greek (p. 97). Downes Grove: InterVarsity Press.

[6] Miller, C. L. (2005). Linguistics. In B. T. Arnold, & H. G. Williamson, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books (p. 658). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

[7] Waltke, Bruce K.; M. O’Connor. (1990). History of the Study of Hebrew Grammar. In An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (pp. 31-32). Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

[8] Waltke, Bruce K.; M. O’Connor. (1990). History of the Study of Hebrew Grammar. In An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (p. 32). Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

[9] Ibid. p. 33

[10] Ibid. p.33

[11] Yeivin, I. (1980). In I. Yeivin, Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah, Volume 5 (p. 153). Scholars Press.

[12] Waltke, Bruce K.; M. O’Connor. (1990). History of the Study of Hebrew Grammar. In An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (p. 34). Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

[13] Ibid. p.43

[14] Danker, F. W. (n.d.). ἐξήγησις. In Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG) (p. 349). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[15] Ellis, K.C. “The Nature of Biblical Exegesis.” Bibliotheca Sacra. 546 (April-June, 1980) 151-55.

[16] Stuart, D. (2009). Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (Fourth Edition) (pp. 5-31). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

[17] Ibid. p. 1

[18] Ibid. p. 1

[19] Ellis, K.C. “The Nature of Biblical Exegesis.” Bibliotheca Sacra. 546 (April-June, 1980) 151-55.

[20] Stuart, D. (2009). Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (Fourth Edition) (p. 42). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

[21] Ibid. p. 68

[22] Ibid. pp. 43-44

[23] Stuart, D. (1988). Volume 31: Hosea – Jonah. In B. M. Metzger, D. A. Hubbard, G. W. Barker, & J. D. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary (p. 26). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[24] Stuart, D. (2009). Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors (Fourth Edition) (p. 44). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

[25] Stuart, D. (1988). Volume 31: Hosea – Jonah. In B. M. Metzger, D. A. Hubbard, G. W. Barker, & J. D. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary (pp. 26-27). Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *