Did the Hebrew language exist before the exile into Babylon?
I received a comment on my blog claiming that the Hebrew language didn’t exist until the Jewish exile in Babylon. So, what does the evidence say?
According to the Bible, all people spoke the same language until around 2200 BC when God caused different languages to develop at Babel and people scattered to form different nations across the earth (Gen. 11:1-9). This was the source of the diversity of human languages.
The Hebrew nation settled in Canaan in the 14th century BC. They occupied Canaan until the first Jewish captives were deported to Babylon in 605 BC and the second wave were exiled in 586 BC when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed (Dan. 1; 2 Ki. 25).
According to Wikipedia, the Siloam inscription records the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel. The NIV Study Bible states that Hezekiah was king of Judah between 715 BC and 686 BC (2 Ki. 18:1-2). The tunnel, leading from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, was designed as an aqueduct to provide Jerusalem with water during an impending siege by the Assyrians, led by Sennacherib (2 Ki. 20:20; 2 Chr. 32:30). The inscription, which was discovered in the tunnel in 1880 and has been dated at 701 BC, is written in the “Biblical Hebrew” language, which uses the ancient Hebrew alphabet. So here we have a written example of the Hebrew language that dates at least 100 years before the Jewish exile.
Hebrew belongs to the Semantic family of languages which were used in the middle east. Geographically it was a Canaanite language like Phoenician, Ugaritic and Moabite. The Bible notes that Jacob’s language was different to Aramaic (Gen. 31:47). Scholars believe that Hebrew was spoken in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the 10th to 7th centuries BC.
Therefore, the reader’s comment seems to be inconsistent with the evidence available. It can be shown that the Hebrew language originated well before the Babylonian exile. In fact, Wikipedia claims that there is evidence of “Biblical Hebrew” as far back as the 10th century BC, which extends to the days of king David (2 Sam. 5:4). The Gezer calendar is dated in this time period.
Written, March 2013