Watch Your Language!

By Philip R Davies (1945-2018)
Palestine Exploration Fund
Emeritus, University of Sheffield
August 2009

About twenty years ago, I gave a conference paper called "Do Old Testament Studies Need a Dictionary?"[1] In those days, "Old Testament" was unselfconsciously used—but so were biblical categories of description. I was railing against "Academic Bibspeak," in which key terms were not translated into meaningful modern equivalents but remained fossilized within biblical scholarship. My argument was that to be "critical" we had to analyze one kind of vocabulary by using another, and not in its own—and thus be able to offer a "judgment" by translating the vocabulary.

Rereading this old piece recently—for the first time since its publication, I think—I expected symptoms of youthful brashness and was not disappointed. Did I also recognize how far the discipline had progressed since? Just a bit.

Here is one of my original proposed dictionary entries (p. 333):


(a) A probably fictitious entity supposedly composed of the elements of two nation-states formed in Palestine during the Iron II period under the kings David and Solomon

(b) The name given to a kingdom centered in the Ephraimite hill country of Palestine between the end of the 10th and the end of the 8th centuries BCE, possibly deriving its name from a group mentioned in the MERNEPTAH STELE.

This entry greatly oversimplified the issue: the Israels that the biblical writers offer us are more varied and variegated: the books of Deuteronomy, Kings, Ezekiel, Chronicles, and Ezra, for instance, all differ on what "Israel" includes (make up your selection from Samarians, Judeans, and Judeans claiming to be returned from exile, proselytes, gerim). It is now clearer, too, that Judah and Israel probably originated independently, developed independently and, though closely associated during their history (by temporary political union and vassalage), were at their demise antagonistic neighbors. Yehud and Samerina later must have combined into some kind of religious unit called "Israel": the Pentateuch is a set of texts canonized by both Judeans and Samarians and describe this "Israel" as a fictitious twelve-tribe nation existing from patriarchal times, enslavement in Egypt, and escape to the land of Canaan. While a few historians accordingly now speak of "Israel and Judah," distinguishing their social and religious attributes and their memories of the past, it is all too common to find "Israel" used without discrimination between the two kinds of Israel or between either of them and Judah.

The problem does not stop there. Many scholarly books mention the "religion" of "Israel" as "Yahwism." As far as I know, Yahweh was a god worshipped in Israel and Judah, and apparently also in Teman and elsewhere. But a "religion of Yahweh"? There was no "Baalism" "Mardukism," or "Elism." Deities are not religions. Indeed, it is misleading to use the word "religion" to imply a system of belief and practice. In the ancient Near East, people venerated many deities and participated in many cults simultaneously. Their "religion" was an amalgam of these—ancestral cults, city cults, royal cults, national cults, cults of sacred places, and so on. People were far too religious to have one "religion."

And what are "the prophets"? Do the "prophetic books" include Joshua to Kings? Daniel? Jonah? Were false prophets still prophets nonetheless? What made them "false," anyway? I can find no adequate anthropological or sociological description of "prophet": it's a biblical category masking as social description Wilson proposed "intermediary"[2] but without much success.

Many other terms still need to be replaced. The "ark" of the covenant was a box. "Righteousness" (tsedeq) can mean "innocence," "integrity" or "honesty": a "covenant" is a treaty. "Salvation" very often means no more than "safety" or "security."

Then we have "bless," "glory," "holy"—cultic and liturgical language that is quite technical. It persists in modern Christian liturgy, but how many Christians know what "blessing God" means—let alone "blessing his holy name"? Many such terms are alien to the sphere of everyday life: others can be illuminated by modern language. Hesed, for example, sometime used of God and sometimes of humans, has its closest English equivalent in "loyalty," signifying the obligations incumbent on both client or patron in the kind of relationship quite familiar to anyone who has seen The Godfather. Human's hesedis "respect" (yir'ah). The relationship entails a "deal" or "understanding" and sometimes the patron makes an offer ("promise") that cannot be refused ("rejected," ma'as). A good patron's hesed is benevolence or generosity ("grace"), and he gives "protection" (yeshu'ah, "salvation").

Moving further, "heaven" should be replaced by "sky" (shamayim). Or should we say "space"—if we think God lives in any particular place.

All right: we can't turn everything in the Bible into modern language. But we need both to defamiliarize it to those who think it speaks directly to their modern religion and familiarize it to those for who (rightly) think its religious discourse is alien. In any case, we need to use a proper critical descriptive language in our biblical scholarship. A dictionary is still a good idea.


[1] "Do Old Testament Studies Need a Dictionary?" in Clines, Fowl & Porter (eds), The Bible in Three Dimensions, Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990: 321-35.

[2] R.R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel [sic], Philadelphia: Fortress 1980.

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