The Old Testament and It’s “Southern Accent” Y’all . . .

As I begun to note some of the Northern/Southern (i.e., Israel/Judah) distinctions found throughout the Old Testament text (e.g., how various traditions reflect upon Northern and Southern kings), I began to wonder if the Biblical text could be analyzed linguistically to see whether evidence of Northern or Southern dialects could be found therein. After all, it is one thing to suggest that a particular pericope may have originated in Northern circles due to a possible theological or political idiosyncrasy; it is another thing to corroborate such a suggestion with linguistic data.

After reading through parts of Randall Garr’s Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine, 1000-586 B.C.E., it struck me that perhaps a method might be in place for analyzing the Biblical texts. By means of dialect geography, can we take a step further and recognize particular isoglosses even within the Biblical text? This question has been fascinating me.

While I haven’t yet been able to dive into this question (partly due to lack of time and partly due to lack of experience!), I came across some relevant paragraphs in Angel Saenz-Badillos’ book A History of the Hebrew Language. First, a quote regarding the North/South contrast in archaic biblical poetry and classical Hebrew prose:

When we consider that the cultural and religious centre at the time of the Judges was in the north of Israel, in the mountains of Ephraim and Benjamin, it is not surprising that the language of archaic biblical poetry has obvious connexions with the poetry of the Canaanite north. In contrast, classical Hebrew prose is clearly linked to the reigns of David and Solomon and their successors in Jerusalem. This does not necessarily mean that the advent of the Davidic monarchy saw a replacement of the northern language by the souther – rather, an ‘official’ language was created, which was used at court and in educated circles in Jerusalem, and which was intended to be as understandable in the north as in the south, although, clearly, southern features would have predominated. The language of prophetic and liturgical poetry from this period is not markedly different from that of the prose writings.

Pg. 68

Second, a quote more directly related to my question:

Although they certainly existed, there are no clear traces of different pre-exilic dialects, beyond a few variations in the treatment of dipthongs and the well-known text at Jg 12:1ff. regarding the pronunciation of shibboleth. Some prophetic books, like Hosea, reflect the linguistic environment of the northern kingdom, and may contain several specific dialect features, which would explain why they have so many parallels to the constructions and vocabulary of other Canaanite or Northwest Semitic languages. In the remaining pre-exilic prose books and in non-archaic poetic texts, there are notable differences of style and, in some instances, linguistic traces of different periods of composition, even though the language used in all such works remains basically the same, and may properly be called classical BH [Biblical Hebrew].”

Pg. 71

The books of Amos and Hosea seem like particularly interesting places to test out dialect differences. In the case of Amos, there is a southern prophet, speaking to a northern people in – as some have noted – a southern “accent” (so to speak). In the case of Hosea, we have a book originally written to a northern audience which has (I am convinced) been edited to make it’s message more directly relevant to a southern audience. (For more on this, see the fascinating article by Marvin A. Sweeney in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures entitled “A Form-Critical Reading of Hosea“.) To hear Saenz-Badillos suggest that Hosea actually reflects a distinctly northern linguistic (rather than just theological or political) environment seems to provide some grist for the mill. Nevertheless, he does seem to caution us of getting too far ahead of ourselves by noting that there are no clear traces preserved.

Nevertheless, this seems like an interesting topic worth exploring further. The North/South relationship was key in Israel’s history and fleshing it out linguistically seems to be necessary in helping to understand better this dynamic. Beyond this, the next step is to aim to understand better how such an approach might help to fortify our Biblical theology. How might the North/South tension found throughout the OT help to proclaim Christ as the fulfillment of the OT? While I am again very excited about these questions, they must, I’m afraid, wait for when I can devote more time to them. Until then, I simply throw this out to whet your appetite!