Since mid-October 2020, I had the opportunity to attend several seminars by world-renown Hebrew scholars. One lecture by Professor Emmanuel Tov of the Hebrew University and three by Dr. Russell Fuller, associate professor of Old Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of several books including Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. I hope that in time, I will be able to write a little about each of these seminars. Today I wish to focus on Dr. Fuller’s talk on the Masoretic 𝕸 accents in the Hebrew Bible, and the blessing of our King James Version.
Dr. Fuller spoke about the great help that the Masoretic accents provide in understanding the syntax of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and thus the ability to translate it more correctly into another language, such as English or Spanish. As a youngster I had no interest in grammar, but grammar becomes very exciting when it begins to answer the language questions we have.
After coming to a simple understanding about how the Masoretic accents are often discounted by translators of the Hebrew Bible, and yet how vital they are to the proper understanding of Hebrew syntax, I wanted to know which of the Bible versions does the best job of translating according to the Masoretic 𝕸 tradition.
I had the privilege of asking that question. I supposed the answer would point to one of the over fifty Bible translations I own and was ready to purchase an additional Bible if needed. I was both surprised and thrilled with the answer. Dr. Fuller told the participants in attendance that it was the King James Version. I have loved and defended the KJV for decades. In my opinion, despite its many errors, it best preserves the Christology of the Hebrew Bible (see Part I) and it is both the most accurate and poetic translation available into English or Spanish.
We are so blessed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses the KJV, along with the Inspired Version notes by the Prophet Joseph Smith, as our Bible. We will focus on 1 Samuel 3:3 to make the main point of this essay. We will then turn to an example in the book of Isaiah.
“And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep” (1 Samuel 3:3).
The KJV states that Samuel had lied down before the lamp of God had completely burnt out. In italics we find the expression, to sleep. This indicates that the translators of the KJV filled the elliptical expression so that it could be better understood, but those words are not present in the Hebrew Bible. The idea is that the youth had lied down in order to go to sleep.
When we read this verse in the context of the surrounding ones, we note that Eli, the High Priest, had also laid down. Because it was said that Samuel had lied down (שׁכב) rather than he was sleeping (ישן), I had always supposed that both had gone to bed in adjacent, or nearby, rooms but had not yet fallen asleep that night.
From the way Eli responds to the lad, it appears that the High Priest was awake and had not been roused from his sleep. The matter is not of the most significant consequence, but here I am almost alone. Only Matthew Henry seems to agree. Henry also adds, “Samuel lay awake in his bed, his thoughts, no doubt, well employed (as David’s Psalm 63:6), when the Lord called to him.” As we shall see, almost all the exegetes feel this event took place in the morning.
The lamp of God represents the candlestick or menorah (no candles were used) found in the Holy Place in the Temple, adjacent to the Holy of Holies. In the Holy Place one could find the altar of incense, the candlestick, and the table of shewbread. The great majority of exegetes suggest that the manifestation took place before the candelabra was extinguished in the morning, as the oil was replenished so it would burn all night and was naturally extinguished in the morning (Exodus 27:21) before they were relit. It appears that the relighting took place twice a day: once at dusk and once in the morning. (Some have additionally suggested that the light of the lamp also is a reference to revelation, to a time when revelation still existed in Israel.)
Delitzsch and Keil explain, “The ‘lamp of God’ is the light of the candlestick in the tabernacle, the seven lamps of which were put up and lighted every evening, and burned through the night till all the oil was consumed (see Exodus 30:8; Leviticus 24:2; 2Chronicles 13:11, and the explanation given at Exodus 27:21). The statement that this light was not yet extinguished, is equivalent to ‘before the morning dawn.’”
Lang likewise has, “And the lamp of God was not yet gone out—no doubt this indicates night-time, near the morning, since the seven-lamped candelabrum in the Sanctuary before the curtain, which (Exodus 27:20-21; Exodus 30:7-8) was furnished with oil every morning and evening, after having burnt throughout the night and consumed its oil, usually, no doubt, got feebler or went out towards morning (comp. Leviticus 24:2-3).”
The mark of location, where the ark of God was, is given to note the place of the lamp of God, and to distinguish it from other sources of light in the temple complex. The lamp of God refers to the candelabra associated with the Holy Place as it is put near the ark of God, which was situated in the Holy of Holies. The Holy Place and the Holy of Holies were divided by a mere curtain. Both had restricted entrance. Into the Holy of Holies, only the High Priest entered; and that, only one day in the year, during the Day of Atonement. “Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle (i.e., the Holy Place), accomplishing the service of God. But into the second (i.e., Holy of Holies) went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people” (Hebrews 9:6–7, see also, Leviticus 16 and 23).
The expression before the lamp of God went out, however, marks a moment in time, more than a location. The Pulpit commentary has, “the lamp is mentioned as fixing the exact time. Though it is said that the seven-branched candelabrum was ‘to burn always’ (Exodus 27:20), yet this apparently was to be by perpetually relighting it (ibid. 1Samuel 30:7–8); and as Aaron was commanded to dress and light it every morning and evening, and supply it with oil, the night would be far advanced and morning near before it went out.”
To suppose that the boy Samuel would have been allowed to sleep in either of these sacred rooms is inconceivable. Yet sadly, that is precisely what most of the Hebrew Bible translations into English, and all the translations into Spanish (including our own Reina Valera 2009) have done. Forty-five of my Bible translations into English and Spanish have made this error. The reader is left to think that Samuel, the boy Prophet, was sleeping either in the Holy Place or the Holy of Holies in the temple: “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was” (ESV). All these translations, to one degree or another, put the emphasis of this Scripture on where Samuel was lying rather than on when these events took place.
Beside the KJV, four other translations make it clear that the matter was one of time, rather than place. Except for Webster, the rest have dropped the elliptical explanation that Samuel had laid down to sleep.
(AMPC) “The lamp of God had not yet gone out in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was lying down.”
(NKJV) “and before the lamp of God went out in the tabernacle of the LORD where the ark of God was, and while Samuel was lying down,”
(TS2009) “And the lamp of Elohim had not gone out in the Hěḵal of יהוה where the ark of Elohim was, and Shemu’ěl was lying down to sleep.”
(Webster) “And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep.”
We will now turn to the Masoretic text 𝕸 to explain the virtue of the KJV, in not having young Samuel sleeping in either the Holy Place or in the Holy of Holies.
The original or Paleo Hebrew was written with consonants and what looks like run on sentences where it was difficult to distinguish the end of one word and the beginning of the next.
Beginning with about the second century AD, and over the next eight centuries, a group of Biblical scholars, the Masoretes, developed a system of vocalization, accentuation and marginal notes called the Masorah (מָסוֹרָה). Two major purposes of these additions where to (1) avoid any further tampering with the text, and (2) provide both a pronunciation guide as well as exegetical notes on the Hebrew Bible. This work of clarification was mostly achieved through accents which, among other things, served as punctuation marks and to note syntactical relations. Some have suggested that the oral tradition that led to this Masorah dated from the time of Ezra.
The accents in the Masorah
Emmanuel Tov explains, “The tradition of the accents is ancient … ‘They read from the book, from the law of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8) … “And giving the sense”—this refers to the accents, טעמים” (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, p. 63).
Generally, the accents are divided into disjunctive (those used to separate sentences into smaller clauses) and conjunctive ones (which indicate words that go with each other). Or, in a related sense, the disjunctive accents call for a pause between words; the conjunctive, for the elimination of pauses. There are more disjunctive than conjunctive accents, and both together include over twenty such marks (this depends on the various authorities).
A hierarchy of levels exists among the disjunctive accents. Such, that the Athnach marks the remote subordinate (i.e., from the first word in the sentence to the word with the Athnach) and divides or separates the sentence from the near subordinate (i.e., the word after the one marked by the Athnach to the end of the sentence), which in turn is marked by the Silluq and by the Soph Pasuq (both of these are usually placed side-by-side to mark the end of the sentence).
Next, both sentence halves are divided again, into near and remote subordinates, by such disjunctive accents as the Tiphcha, Little Zaqeph and the Segolta. These segments may in turn be divided once again, by such accents as the Tebir, Pashta, Zarga or Rebia. Finally, when it is needed, those sentence fragments may be divided by the Geresh, Pazer, or Great Telisha. Of course, many sentences do not have sufficient length for all these sections. The divisions, it is important to note, are not based on word count, but rather on meaning. Sometimes, musical requirements overturn syntactical ones (as occasionally also happens with modern hymns).
As a student of the Hebrew Bible, I began by checking my guesses with the simplest of these divisions, the use of the Athnach (that divides each sentence in two), in Genesis 1. Once I got the hang of that, I moved on to Genesis 2, where I was pleased to get almost all these divisions correctly. Once I began with the more arduous task of learning how to mark off parenthetical statements, that was another story altogether. I have been examining multiple books and papers on the subject, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future, in an effort to understand these complex rules.
The parentheticals in the Masorah
As I love to learn by doing as well as by studying, I was able to confirm two basic rules on how accents are utilized to set apart parenthetical statements in the Hebrew Bible: (1) such expressions begin with the word that follows the disjunctive accent in question, and (2) ends with the word containing the next disjunctive accent of a higher hierarchical order. Professor Fuller kindly provided a third one, (3) “[if] the words after the parenthesis go with words before the parenthesis” (personal correspondence, 21 December 2020) then this also helps confirm the parenthetical expression. The matter is complex, as the same accents are not used to mark parenthetical expressions, but rather vary following additional rules.
Some scholars give much importance to the opinions of the Masoretes. The translators of the King James Version are among these. Others discount them altogether or even mock them. None of the scholars, however, negate that the Masoretes intended to indicate the parenthetical expression in 1 Samuel 3:3. Furthermore, many modern scholars have established their own systems of syntactical rules for the Hebrew Bible, ones where the Masoretic accents do not play a role.
But returning to the Masoretes, after diagramming numerous passages, one Biblical verse containing a very clear parenthetical expression came to mind. I have set out parenthetical expressions in English and in Hebrew in bold (emphasis added). In Genesis 31:50 we find: “If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee.” The expression “no man is with us” is parenthetical. Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, is telling Israel that since there are no other men standing by to act as witnesses at that moment, of the pact being made, that God will be their witness.
אִם־תְּעַנֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֹתַ֗י וְאִם־תִּקַּ֤ח נָשִׁים֙ עַל־בְּנֹתַ֔י אֵ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ עִמָּ֑נוּ רְאֵ֕ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים עֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ׃
Note that the expression begins with the word after the Zaqeph (looks like a colon, on the top of the expression my daughters, בְּנֹתַ֔י) and ends with the Athnach (looks like an upward pointing chevron, or the top of an arrow, at the bottom of the expression with us, עִמָּ֑נוּ). Remember that Hebrew reads from right to left.
Fortuitously, the verse in Genesis 31:50 uses precisely the same accents as are utilized in 1 Samuel 3:3 to set aside the parenthetical expression. In Samuel, the King James Version moves the parenthetical to the end of the sentence in order to avoid confusion. In Bible translations, parenthetical signs () are used for a different purpose, that is, to indicate that the words enclosed by parenthesis are missing from some variant manuscript sources.
“And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep” (1 Samuel 3:3).
וְנֵ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ טֶ֣רֶם יִכְבֶּ֔ה וּשְׁמוּאֵ֖ל שֹׁכֵ֑ב בְּהֵיכַ֣ל יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֖ם אֲר֥וֹן אֱלֹהִֽים׃ פ
In summary, both parenthetical expressions begin after the Zaqeph (here after the word יִכְבֶּ֔ה, went out) and end with the Athnach accent (here under the expression שֹׁכֵ֑ב, laid down).
The three accent rules are clearly fulfilled in both examples. That is, the parenthetical expression begins after the disjunctive accent and ends with a disjunctive of a higher hierarchical order; and the topic before the opening of the parenthetical expression continues after it closes.
I will give a third example of a parenthetical expression, one contributed by Dr. Fuller. In Isaiah 38:8 we read: “Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.”
הִנְנִ֣י מֵשִׁ֣יב אֶת־צֵ֣ל הַֽמַּעֲל֡וֹת אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָרְדָה֩ בְמַעֲל֨וֹת אָחָ֥ז בַּשֶּׁ֛מֶשׁ אֲחֹרַנִּ֖ית עֶ֣שֶׂר מַעֲל֑וֹת וַתָּ֤שָׁב הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ עֶ֣שֶׂר מַעֲל֔וֹת בַּֽמַּעֲל֖וֹת אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָרָֽדָה׃ ס
The parenthesis begins after the word with the Pazer disjunctive accent (הַֽמַּעֲל֡וֹת, the T lied on its side on top of the expression, the steps) and ends with the Tebir, the next occurring higher hierarchical accent, the Tebir (בַּשֶּׁ֛מֶשׁ, with the sun). Because in Hebrew, the word order is different than in English, with the sun is the end of the parenthetical expression: which–is gone down–in the steps of—Ahaz–with the sun.
A more literal translation uses the word steps rather than sun dial, “Behold, I will bring back the shadow of the steps which has gone down in the steps of Ahaz with the sun, backward ten steps. So the sun went back up ten steps, by which steps it had gone down!” (LITV). Despite my great love for the King James Version, I appreciate having access to other translations. But as I said in Part I, the occasional better translations do not come from the same Bible version every time. Instead, different translations provide a better rendition of the original from time to time. If I could keep only one translation into either English or Spanish, undoubtedly, for me, it would be the King James Version.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible
College Press Bible Study Textbook Series
Ewald, H. (1891). Syntax of the Hebrew Language of the Old Testament. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Expositor’s Bible Commentary
Fuller, R. T. & Choi K. (2017). Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax: An Intermediate Grammar. Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI.
Guzik, D. Enduring Word Commentary
Henry, M. Commentary on the Whole Bible
IVP Bible Background Commentary
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary
John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible
Keil and Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament
Lange’s Commentary on the Old and New Testament
MacLaren, A. Expositions of Holy Scripture
Park, S.J. (2020). The Fundamentals of Hebrew Accents: Divisions and Exegetical Roles Beyond Syntax. Cambridge University Press. University Printing House, Cambridge.
The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
The Pulpit Commentary
Tov, E. (2012). Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Third Edition, Revised and Expanded). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., Kroeze, J., Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., & Kroeze, J. (1999). A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Wickes, W. (1887). Two Treatises on the Accentuation of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Zewi, T. (2007). Parenthesis in Biblical Hebrew. Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics, Volume 50. Brill, Leiden. Netherlands.