Question... was there not enough time for Hebrew to have developed?

[Oct 24/2006]

Someone sent in this question:

Dear Mr. Miller,
I very much enjoy your web site, which is a terrific resource.  I was wondering whether you happen to have on the site or know of a resource to respond to a question I received from a friend challenging the historical reliability of the Old Testament.

The friend told me that the language of biblical Hebrew is a species of Canaanite, and therefore the language must have developed over generations in Canaan; yet Abraham should have spoken some different language because he came from Ur and there shouldn't have been enough time for Hebrew to have developed by the time Moses is supposed to have written the first five books (because they had not spent enough time in Canaan).  The alleged upshot is that the OT story could not be true because the language in which it is written is incompatible with the history it relates. 

I have found it difficult to find much discussion of this issue on the Internet.  If you happen to have any thoughts or suggestions, I would very much appreciate hearing them.

Thanks again for your excellent site, and best regards.

I  did a little research and here's what I came up with:

First, what do we know about the background and language of Abram/Abraham?

Abram was from Ur in Sumer (or the family had migrated to Sumer from Haran), and our best estimates of his timeframe center around the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC (2000-1800 BC). The descriptions of his experiences fit what we know of the land at that period:

"The story of Abram begins in Genesis 11, where his family relationships are recorded (Gn 11:26–32). Terah, Abram’s father, was named after the moon deity worshiped at Ur. Terah had three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran, the father of Lot, died before the family left Ur for Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Terah took Lot, Abram, and Abram’s wife Sarai from Ur to go to Canaan, but settled at the city of Haran (Gn 11:31). It is stated in Acts 7:2–4 that Abraham heard the call of God to leave for a new land while he was still in Ur. It may be that Terah went along in the migration prompted by his son but never fully deserted the idolatries of his past. Terah is expressly identified as having served other gods (Jos 24:2).... Most place Abraham toward the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (1900–1800 B.C.) or the end of the Early Bronze Age (2150–2000 B.C.).  After Terah’s death, God told Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” This command was the basis of a “covenant,” in which God promised to make Abram the founder of a new nation in that new land (Gn 12:1–3). Abram, trusting God’s promise, left Haran at the age of 75. Entering Canaan, he went first to Shechem, an important Canaanite royal city between Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal. Near the oak of Moreh, a Canaanite shrine, God appeared to him (12:7). Abram built an altar at Shechem, then moved to the vicinity of Bethel and again built an altar to the Lord (12:8). The expression, “to call on the name of the Lord” (RSV), means more than just to pray. Rather, Abram made a proclamation, declaring the reality of God to the Canaanites in their centers of false worship. From Bethel, Abram continued journeying into the arid south, the Negeb desert area... Because of a famine in Canaan, Abram went to Egypt and while there attempted to portray his wife as merely his sister in order to preserve his life (12:10–20). In Hurrian society, the culture of Haran, special privileges were attached to a man who married his natural or adoptive sister. The wife-sister relationship suggests that Abram was high in Hurrian society and that Sarai also enjoyed superior status. Later the Scripture states that she was indeed his half sister (20:12). Yet his use of half of the truth to conceal the other half was clearly a lie. Abram resorted to a cultural expedient but found that the expedient did not work well. Without God’s intervention, Sarai could have been absorbed into the royal harem, and the promise of offspring for Abram would have gone unfulfilled. Abram left Egypt and went back to his “altar-pulpit” near Bethel and to a renewal of his relationship with God...  [BEB]

"Abraham was a descendant of Shem and the son of Terah, and became the ancestor of the Hebrews and other peoples (Gen. 17:5). His personal history is recorded in Gen. 11:27b–25:12, and appears to comprise one of eleven Mesopotamian tablet sources underlying the book of Genesis. This section was probably entitled “Abram, Nahor, and Haran” (11:27b), and the narrative concluded with a typical Mesopotamian colophon, indicated by the phrase “these are the family histories [AV “generations”] of” in 25:12. The colophon seems to include a characteristic scribal attempt at dating in the reference to the time when Isaac lived at Beer-lahai-roi (25:11), and also appears to indicate that these family records had been at some time in the possession of Ishmael, the brother of Isaac. This material, summarized in Acts 7:2–8, stated that Abram was born in Ur of the Chaldees, where he lived with his parents and brothers, and subsequently with his wife Sarai. .. Much of the contemporary cultural background has been illumined by archeological discoveries relating to the Middle Bronze period (ca 1950–1550 B.C.) in which Abraham lived. He was apparently born at Ur somewhat after the close of the magnificent 3rd Dynasty (ca 2070–1960 B.C.), and migrated early in the 19th cent B.C. when northern Mesopotamia was under strong Amorite influence. In the Balikh Valley S of Harran sites such as Peleg, Serug, and Terah preserved the names of certain patriarchs, while Nahor occurred in the Mari texts as Nakhur, the location of some Habiru. ... From the archeological evidence it is apparent that Abraham was the product of an advanced culture, and was typical of the upper-class patriarch of his day. His actions are set against a well-authenticated background of non-biblical material, making him a true son of his age who bore the same name and traversed the same general territory, as well as living in the same towns as his contemporaries. He is in every sense a genuine Middle Bronze Age person.. [ISBE]

"Leaving Ur and Haran, Abraham exchanged an urban-based life for the seminomadic style of the pastoralist with no permanent home, living in tents (Gen 12:8, 9; 13:18; 18:1; cf. Heb 11:9), unlike his relations near Haran (Gen 24:10, 11). However, he stayed at some places for long periods (Mamre, Gen 13:18; 18:1; Beersheba, Gen 22:19; Philistia, Gen 21:3, 4), enjoyed good relations with settled communities (Gen 23:10, 18 mentions the city gate), had treaty alliances with some, and spoke on equal terms with kings and the Pharaoh (Gen 14:13; 20:2, 11–14; 21:22–24). He is represented as having owned only one piece of land, the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23). Wealth flowed to him through his herds, and in gifts from others (Gen 12:16; 20:14, 16), so that he became rich, owning cattle, sheep, silver, gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys (Gen 24:35). He may have traded in other goods, for he knew the language of the marketplace (Genesis 23). His household was large enough to furnish 318 men to fight foreign kings (Genesis 14). He was concerned about having an heir, and so looked on Eliezer his servant before sons were born (Gen 15:2), and took care to provide for Isaac’s half-brothers so that his patrimony should not diminish (Gen 24:36; 25:5, 6; cf. 17:18). While Sarah was his first wife, Abraham also married Keturah, and had children by her, by Hagar, and by concubines (Gen 25:1–6). His burial was in the cave with Sarah (Gen 25:9–10). [REF:ABD]

"Journeys between Babylonia and the Levant were certainly made in the period 2100–1600 B.C. Kings of Ur had links with north Syrian cities and Byblos ca. 2050 B.C., and in Babylonia goods were traded with Turkey and Cyprus ca. 1700 B.C. A detailed itinerary survives for a military expedition from Larsa in southern Babylonia to Emar on the middle Euphrates, and others trace the route from Assyria to central Turkey. If Abraham was linked with the Amorites, as W. F. Albright argued, evidence that the Amorites moved from Upper Mesopotamia southward during the centuries around 2000 B.C. cannot invalidate the report of Abraham’s journey in the opposite direction, as some have jejunely asserted (e.g., van Seters 1975: 23). Where the identifications are fixed and adequate explorations have been made, the towns Abraham visited—Ur, Haran, Shechem, Bethel, Salem (if Jerusalem), Hebron—appear to have been occupied about 2000 B.C. (Middle Bronze I)...  Genesis presents Abraham as a tent dweller, not living in an urban environment after he left Haran (cf. Heb 11:9). [REF:ABD]
"In Canaan, Abraham had sheep and donkeys like the Mari tribes, and cattle as well. This difference does not disqualify the comparison (pace van Seters 1975: 16), for the Egyptian Sinuhe owned herds of cattle during his stay in the Levant about 1930 B.C. Like Abraham, Sinuhe spent some of his life in tents, and acquired wealth and high standing among the local people (HI:ANET, 18–22; note that copies of this story were being made as early as 1800 B.C.). To strike camp and migrate for food was the practice of “Asiatics” within reach of Egypt, so much so that a wall or line of forts had to be built to control their influx (ca. 1980 B.C., see ANET, 446). The story of Sinuhe relates that the hero met several Egyptians in the Levant at this time (HI:ANET, 18–22); the painting from a tomb at Beni Hasan depicts a party of 37 “Asiatics” (ANEP, 3), and excavations have revealed a Middle Bronze Age settlement in the Delta with a strong Palestinian presence (Bietak 1979). Military contingents brought together in coalitions traveled over great distances to face rebellious or threatening tribes, as in the affair of Genesis 14. In an era of petty kings, interstate rivalry was common and raids by hostile powers a threat to any settlement. To meet the persistent military threat, many cities throughout the Near East were strongly fortified during the Middle Bronze Age; fortification provided well-built gateways in which citizens could congregate (Gen 23:10, 18). [REF:ABD]

Haran itself was a large commercial city (as a main temple city and royal city of Ebla), and Abraham's family must have been significant people there (probably landholders):

"Harran is referred to in texts from the Ur III period c. 2000 BC as a temple (é.h̬ul.h̬ul) for the worship of Sin the moon-god, and its occupation is confirmed by archaeological evidence. Its strategic position made it a focus for Amorite tribes according to Mari texts of the 2nd millennium BC, and later an Assyrian centre fortified by Adadnirari I (c. 1310 BC) with a temple embellished by Tiglath-pileser 1 (c. 1115 BC). Harran rebelled and was sacked in 763 BC, an event used by Sennacherib’s officials to intimidate Jerusalem (2 Ki. 19:12 = Is. 37:12). The city was restored by Sargon II, and the temple repaired and refurnished by Esarhaddon (675 BC) and by Ashurbanipal. After the fall of Nineveh (612 BC) Harran became the last capital of Assyria until its capture by the Babylonians in 609 BC. The Chaldean Dynasty’s interest in the Babylonian temples led to the restoration of the Sin temples at Harran and at Ur. At the former the mother of Nabonidus (who lived to 104), and at the latter his daughter, were made the high priestesses. It was a thriving commercial city in contact with Tyre (Ezk. 27:23)." [NBD3]

"Haran. A city by this name has been continuously occupied in this area since at least the 3rd millennium B.C. The Mari texts reflect life in the area during the early 2nd millennium B.C. very similar to that of the biblical patriarchs. Its continuous occupation may be due to its strategic position at the crossroads of trade routes going between the major commercial centers of that part of the world. This fits well with the biblical account of Abraham’s prosperity, and the ease with which the patriarchs traveled and sent messengers to the area after settling in Canaan (cf. Gen. 24)... With Ur this city provided sites for famous temples of Sin, the moon-god. Assyrian rulers repeatedly added to the city, used it as a provincial capital, and embellished its temple. After Nineveh fell (612 B.C.), the final Assyrian government was located in Haran until defeated by the Babylonians in 609 B.C. The Babylonians restored the worship of Sin in both Ur and Haran. Nabonidus’s mother (who died at age 104) was high priestess in the temple at Ur, and later his daughter was high priestess in the temple at Haran." [ISBE]

"Haran is situated about 100 km N from the confluence of the Euphrates and the Balikh (a tributary of the Upper Euphrates) and 80 km E of the city of Carchemish on the winding upper Euphrates river. It is located at the confluence of the wadis which join the Balikh in winter, also at 80 km W of the city of Guzana or Gozan (Tell Halaf) and halfway between Guzana and Carchemish on the E-W road which links Nineveh on the Tigris and the E Mediterranean countries, at the point where the N-S route along the Balikh crosses. “The city of Nahorin Gen 24:10, mentioned as the place where Rebekah’s parents lived, may be identified with “Nakhur,” which is often mentioned in the Mari tablets as well as in the Middle Assyrian documents of the 7th century B.C. According to Albright it is located below Haran in the Balikh valley, judging from the name of a town Til-Nakhiri, “the Mound of Nakhur,” in the above documents (FSAC 115, 236–237). It was probably another town, different from the city of Haran, but still in the Haran district. In Assyrian documents we see more names of towns similar to the names of the people in Terah’s family: e.g., Til-Turakhi, “Mound of Terah,” probably also located on the S Balikh like Til-Nakhiri, and Serugi “Serug,” modern Seruj, some 55 km W of Haran. “ [REF:ABD]

Abraham's UR would have been a place of considerable culture, learning, and commerce--even after the fall of the 3rd Dynasty:

"A few years later Ur-Nammu of Ur defeated Utu-hegal to found the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, which lasted until ca 2000 b.c. An able general and administrator, Ur-Nammu conquered Lagash and extended his power over Nippur, Uruk, Adab, and Larsa. He also built or rebuilt temples and ziggurats all over Sumer, repaired canals, and restored Ur’s foreign trade. He is credited with the first known law code in history. Unfortunately the extant text of this code is brief, containing only a large part of the prologue and five short paragraphs of law.... From a broken tablet describing Ur-Nammu’s arrival in the underworld it appears that he died defending Ur against the Guti. In any event, his sixteen-year reign was followed by the forty-eight-year reign of his son Šulgi. Šulgi extended the royal power of Ur over Elam to the east and even over Asshur to the far north. His queen, an able woman with the Semitic name of Abisimti, continued as dowager under Šulgi’s successors. Šulgi, like Ur-Nammu undertook many building projects throughout his realm… Šulgi was succeeded by his two sons Amar-Sin and Šu-Sin, each of whom reigned for nine years. They both served apprenticeships as governors of lesser cities during Šulgi’s reign. Both Amar-Sin and Šu-Sin faced increasing migrations of Amorites, which virtually amounted to invasions of whole tribes. Abraham’s ancestors probably came to Ur from their original home in Haran at this time. During the rule of Ibbi-Sin, who followed Šu-Sin, droves of Elamites joined the Amorites. Although Ibbi-Sin held on to his throne for twenty-four years, the power of Ur waned, and the cities that it once controlled were forced one by one to fend for themselves. With the downfall of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur came the rise of the Amorite city-states, which soon led to the 1st Dynasty of Babylon and its illustrious king Hammurabi. His accession marks the end of Sumerian political control of Mesopotamia.... The 3rd Dynasty of Ur was the most prosperous and most literate of the Sumerian period, if not of the entire history of Mesopotamia. A century of relative peace allowed business, agriculture, and the arts to develop. Ur’s population is conservatively estimated at about 300,000. Roughly fifteen thousand cuneiform tablets have been published of the approximately 100,000 excavated from many cities during this period. They contain information regarding every conceivable aspect of life; family affairs, government, religion, business, agriculture, medicine, law procedures, arts and crafts, building, mathematics, and various types of literature… [ISBE]

And UR would have been of mixed language by the time of Abraham as well:

"Kramer’s comment is of interest: “Our new piece, therefore, puts it beyond all doubt that the Sumerians believed that there was a time when all mankind spoke one and the same language, and that it was Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom, who confounded their speech. The reason for this fateful deed is not stated in the text; it may well have been inspired by Enki’s jealousy of Enlil and the universal sway over mankind which he enjoyed.” ... Sufficient attention must be paid to the fact that the material is from mythological sources. As with other Sumerian mythology, however, there is historical reference, as Kramer suggests. In the text it is quite clear that at a not-too-remote point in the past a linguistic change occurred in which Sumer, once unified, experienced a breakup of language. We cannot, of course, date this with any precision. But the fact that the text comes from about the time of the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur is suggestive of the connection. During the reign of Shusin, the fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, there began serious incursions into Sumer by Amorites from the Arabian desert.   These inroads and attacks on Sumerian cities up and down the Euphrates valley were soon supplemented by attacks from the east by Elamites. The attacks ultimately led to the downfall of the Third Dynasty of Ur about 1960 B.C., the event that marked the political end of Sumerian civilization. The Semitic family of languages spoken by the invaders was different from the language of the Sumerians, which had been spoken for at least a thousand years continuously since Sumerian civilization began about 3000 B.C. Kramer notes, “Sumerian was an agglutinative tongue unrelated to the inflected Semitic family of languages of which Hebrew forms a part.” There had, of course, been periods of Semitic control of Sumer during the third millennium B.C., the best known being the Old Akkadian period (c. 2360-2180 B.C.). During this period Semites overran the whole of Sumer under their greatest king, Sargon I. A Sumerian revival occurred about 2100 B.C. when the Neo-Sumerian king Gudea re-established Sumerian power and culture at Lagash. This Semitic factor does not, however, diminish the point under consideration. It only suggests that the breakup of the Sumerian language perhaps went on progressively over a period of time. The disintegration and mixing of the language reached its climax with the invading Semites and the fall of Sumerian civilization corresponding with the overthrow of Ur III about 1960 B.C. The connection is plausible since Gen 11:7 notices the linguistic breakup of the “land of Shinar” paralleled in Sumerian poetry. ... Finally, in both cases this breakup of language is due to the power and action of deity. But, although the texts do not clearly say so, the breakup was brought on by historical causes, including the invasion of the land by Amorites and Elamites and the normalization of their speech in Sumer. This is consistent with the Biblical pattern of judgment since elsewhere in Scripture the processes of’ history are regularly used to accomplish divine purposes. The Biblical narrator states only the origin and primary source of the judgment (God) and the final result (confusion of language). He does not state the intervening causes. Thus the narrative is compressed, being only as detailed as was appropriate to the writer’s purpose. [The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.  22/1 (March, 1979) 20]

Abram/Abraham was wealthy, upper-class, well-travelled, in constant interaction with the peoples of Canaan, and probably seen as a ruler/leader among the various peoples in Canaan:

"This leads to a study of his ascription as “Abraham the prince” (Gen 23:5, AV) or the נשׂיא, a title given by a group of foreigners living among the Canaanites who also held land rights in the same region de facto. This was after Abraham had lived in the area for sixty-two years (cf. Gen 12:4; 17:17 ; 23:1 ) when the “sons of Heth” (Hittites) under Ephron who owned the field and cave of Macpelah in a district of Canaan treated Abraham with respect as the head of a clan residing as their neighbors... “We look on you as a mighty leader among us” (Gen 23:6), they said, and there is no hint that Abraham’s dealings with them were unexpected, insincere, or contrary to accepted local custom. Whether this phrase is taken as a superlative or as an acknowledgement of his affiliation to God by men of another religion, the use of the term nasi clearly denotes a position of dignity and leadership. It is similarly used in early texts of the chiefs of the Midianites (Josh 13:21; Num 25:18) and Shechem (Gen 34:2), which, with Edom, were all tribes involved in the promise made to Abraham (17:4–8 }). The title is later applied to David and Solomon (1 Kings 11:34) as to the chief political authority, comparable to the later “king” (melek) (Exod 22:28)…. Moreover, the suggestion that the term may well include the idea of official selection by the people would be appropriate in a situation where ten named ethnic groups all lay claim to adjacent territory in the same area as that promised to Abraham (Gen 15:18–21). Such groups would normally make local alliances for defence as did Abraham during the time of the raid on Sodom by a covenant-association with Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner specified as part of the local “Amorites” (14:13, 21 ). By such an agreement the parties rendered themselves liable to provide forces to assist an injured colleague. That Abraham was the acknowledged leader on this occasion may also be shown by reference to them as dependent on Abraham’s division of the spoil (14:24 ), and to him is attributed both the reception of the intelligence information and the military leadership in which his initiative and stratagem culminated in a surprise night attack resulting in complete victory. He was acknowledged as leader of the group both by the king of Salem and by the king of Sodom and such leadership may not have resulted solely from his affinity to Lot whose cause he was espousing…. It was, however, not only those living within the bounds of the land promised to Abraham by the covenant land-grant who reacted to Abraham as the leader of the group occupying defined territory. Abraham is portrayed as the head of a substantial family group who had acquired possessions and dependents before entering Canaan (Gen 12:5). He was a person of independent means, well able to provide for his family (cf. 24:22 ). His wealth was increased by gifts given by the king of Egypt (12:16, 20 ) so that he could be called “a very rich man” (13:2 ). The Hebrew כּבד here also denotes the honor and respect due to a man of high position, thus demonstrating that he was not simply a poor wanderer. … Difficult though the episode in Egypt may be to interpret, Abraham was still held in awe by the royal household there even after the so-called “deception of an innocent pharaoh” was known (Gen 12:10–20). A major Egyptian ruler would have dismissed an insignificant foreigner without recompense. This accords with the evidence of the attitude of other external rulers to him… There is evidence too that another foreign ruler, Abimelech, king of Gerar “in the land of the Philistines,” was prepared to deal with Abraham as one of equal status and to enter with him into a covenant-treaty which included provision of territorial rights (Gen 20:15). It is more likely that this was conceived as an inter-state relationship rather than an inter-individual relationship since, when the terms were considered to have been broken by Abimelech’s unwitting action over Sarah, the divine curses which guarded such agreements were thought to fall not merely on Abimelech as an individual but on his city-state (20:7, 9 ) and the penalties to be paid publicly are duly prescribed (20:16 )… The status of Abraham can be examined further, for it may not be without significance that Abraham as a leader (נשׂיא) undertook the responsibilities normally associated with the ruler of a small state or with that of a provincial governor appointed by a great king. The role of the latter in the second millennium B.C. is reasonably well known from the Mari correspondence. His title šāpit̮̣um (Heb שׁפט) denotes “the one who governs” on behalf of the supreme ruler who has given him the office. Such a person was customarily addressed as “lord,” being a superior person of dignity (as Abraham was addressed by the Hittites, Gen 23:6, 11, 15) who worked through a chief steward who had wide administrative powers (as did Abraham through Eliezer, Gen 15:2). The office and title of šāpit̮̣um occurs in the Ebla texts ca. 2300 B.C. and appears to be the form perpetuated in Palestine in the time of the regional “governors” (a better translation than “judges,” Judg 2:16–18). The latter, like Abraham, were held to be sub-governors acknowledging the Lord God as “the supreme Governor of all the earth” (Gen 18:25; cf. Judg 11:27). The extent of the governorship varies according to local requirements and conditions, though it was always geographically defined. In exercising their responsibilities some governors worked through local chiefs (abu bîtīm = “father of the house” [clan]), who could administer territories in the name of the local king or deity. Provincial governors were usually granted lands by the overlord for their maintenance in lieu of salary. This may have significance for understanding the full purpose of the divine land-grant made to Abraham and his successors. The responsibilities and duties of the governors differed little from those of the local city-state rulers, who were occasionally employed in a similar role.... The governor was also involved through agents in commercial activity, and such may be reflected in a few of the indications from which it was once argued that Abraham was a merchant-prince" [DJ Wiseman, Bibliotheca Sacra —V134 #535—Jul 77]

"His relations with foreigners while staying near Shechem, in Egypt, Gerar and Machpelah, portray him as a respected leader of a group with whom they dealt as with an equal. He acted as acknowledged leader of a coalition which rescued his nephew Lot who had been taken from Sodom by a group of ‘kings’ (Gn. 14). Stress is laid on his life, not so much as a ‘pilgrim’, but as a ‘resident-alien’ (gēr) without a capital city. He was a wealthy man with servants (14:14) and possessions (13:2), living amicably among Canaanites (12:6), Perizzites (13:7), Philistines (21:34) and Egyptians, and negotiating with Hittites (23). [NBD3]

Abraham would have been of "Aramean" stock (the peoples of/around Haran at that time, not strictly an ethnic group per se), with influences of Amorite/Hurrian peoples:
"Haran was an Aramaean city and was famous for its worship of the lunar Sin-and-Nikkal cult. This system was an offspring of the cult found in Sumerian Ur. Sin and his wife Nikkal were not only revered here, but throughout Canaan and even in Egypt. [BEB].

"At the time of Terah and Abram, the culture of the people of NW Mesopotamia, in the region around Haran, was a mixture of Hurrian and Amorite elements on a Sumero-Akkadian foundation defined and illustrated by the Cappadocian tablets, the Mari documents, the Code of Hammurapi, the OB letters from Babylon, and the Nuzi tablets of the 15th century B.C. [REF:ABD]

When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it,  2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name  3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us.”  4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.  5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous." [Deut 26.1ff]

"wandering Aramean. The creedal statement contained here emphasizes the nomadic character of Israel’s ancestors. The original homeland of Abraham and his family is generally identified as Paddan Aram or Aram Naharaim. The mention of Arameans in relation to Abraham and Jacob is likely a reference to scattered tribes of peoples in upper Mesopotamia who had not yet coalesced into the nation of Aram that appears in later texts. Based on other examples from cuneiform literature, the name Aram may in fact have originally been that of a region (cf. Sippar-Amnantum of the Old Babylonian period) that was later applied to people living there." [REF:BBC]

"Abraham then moved to Harran in northern Syria (upper Mesopotamia), and it is to this region that he sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac and to which Jacob went for the same purpose. Once again, personal and place names found in this area (e.g., Serug, Terah, Nahor, Jacob) echo those in Genesis. Particularly striking proof of the antiquity of the biblical tradition are names like Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob, which are Amorite imperfects. De Vaux observes that the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “belong to onomastic types which were well known before the Israelites emerged as a people and, what is more, they appeared in the very regions from which the patriarchs came according to the Bible.” “One is bound to conclude that these traditions have a firm historical basis” (Early History, 199, 200). More recently A. Malamat (Mari, 31) has affirmed that the patriarchal names common to Mari and the OT constitute “a most potent argument in favour of the antiquity of Israel’s proto-historical core.”.. The Amorite background of the patriarchs may explain their close relationship with the Arameans (e.g., Laban’s family), who were probably descended from the Amorites who appeared to have settled in this area in the early second millennium (cf. de Vaux, Early History, 200–209). Another striking feature of the patriarchs is their lifestyle. They are not Bedouin who migrate across deserts on camels, nor are they traders on donkeys, although they own donkeys and keep to the trade routes. Rather, they are seminomadic: they move from place to place when the situation demands it but stay for longish periods in one place making agreements with local townspeople. Their main occupation is keeping flocks and herds, but sometimes they sow and raise crops. Studies by Rowton (OrAnt 15 [1976] 17–31) and Malamat (JNES 35 [1976] 13–20) suggest that patriarchal society was dimorphic, i.e., a tribal grouping partially settled in towns or villages but partially on the move with their flocks. Such social groupings have doubtless existed throughout Middle Eastern history, but it is striking that the texts from Mari (c. 1700 B.C.), which lies between Ur and Harran, exemplify this type of existence. Not only does patriarchal society seem to be organized like Mari’s, but many Mari terms (e.g., pasture land, inheritance, tribes, leaders; cf. Malamat, Mari, 33) find parallels in the Bible. While it would be wrong to insist that these parallels demonstrate that the patriarchal age is contemporary with Mari, as dimorphism is a recurrent phenomenon, the differences between patriarchal society and that of the monarchy period in Israel suggest that Genesis enshrines valid historical reminiscence of earlier times." [WBC, Gen 16-50]


Now, let's switch gears from Abraham to languages...

If Abraham's family was from Haran (and spoke early Aramean-Aramaic natively), and moved to Ur in Sumer, then they would have had to develop (as all immigrants have to) facility in the language of that area: Sumerian (and Akkadian, but they probably already knew that well enough to move to the largest center of commerce in the known world of the

Haran was on the major trade route connecting Anatolia and Assyria; the main languages of that thoroughfare (c. 2500-1500) would have been Old Akkadian (East Semitic) and the probably-related (Eblaite, also now considered to be a border language between East & Northwest Semitic, and close to Old Akkadian), and its successor (in the North), Old Assyrian. A well-heeled merchant in Haran around 2000 BC could have been understood (in business dealings) as least as far east as Nineveh, as west as Anatolia.

Sumerian was the local language of Ur, but Akkadian had become the international language of commerce/diplomacy, long before Abraham's family moved back to Haran. Growing up as a child in Sumer, Abraham might have heard Aramean/Aramaic-type language (i.e., early Aramaic) spoken at home, Sumerian with his playpals, and Akkadian in the marketplace. If he was able (as upper class) to attend beyond-basic schools, then he would have been further exposed to the 'massively multi-lingual' nature of the ancient world. As he grew to adulthood (and as the Semite invasions/influxes continued to affect his world), his language usage would have skewed more to Akkadian (for communications with foreigners/merchants), with some exposure to the newer Semitic dialects.

When the family moved back to the Haran (of that time), the Akkadian would have been essential for the commerce at the crossroads of the two international trade-routes there, and the (perhaps) vaguely-remembered from childhood Aramean/Aramaic-ish would suddenly become useful and vital again. The other peoples there (e.g., non-Semitic Hurrian and various Amorites) would have interacted with him in Akkadian mostly, but their dialects would have influenced their Akkadian (as is the case in most bilingual exchanges today), as they 'did business' with Abraham and his kinfolk, and therefore would have influenced his Akkadian as well.

In addition, Old Cannanite was also moving into Haran territory before Abraham's return, due to migrations from Palestine to this area. Canaanite terms already show up in Babylonian texts in  the first part of the 2nd millennium. Abraham and his family might have actually known some Canaanites in UR, since Canaanite names are present in Babylonian texts of the time.

The people of that time (as is generally the case outside of North-American today!) were generally bi-lingual and frequently multi-lingual!  This would be obvious in the matters of "kings and commerce", but every well-off family was in the world of commerce... Leaders and merchants sometimes were multi-lingual, and often used interpreters/translators, especially in the case of messages from new lands:

Before we move to the situation after he migrated to Canaan, let's look at some the data behind my summary above:
"People brought up within a western society often think that the monolingualism that forms a routine part of their existence is the normal way of life for all but a few 'special' people. They are wrong. Multilingualism is the natural way of life for hundreds of millions all over the world. There are no official statistics, but with around 5,000 languages co-existing in fewer than 200 countries  it is obvious that an enormous amount of language contact must be taking place; and the inevitable result of languages in contact is multilingualism, which is most commonly found in an individual speaker as bilingualism. [HI:WAL, 360]

"Bilingualism or, more generally, multilingualism was a pervasive fact of life throughout the ANE, as it is in much of the modern world. At Ugarit [a single city!], as is well known, no fewer than eight languages in five scripts are attested. (The fact that there are three papers in this volume devoted to one or another aspect of bilingualism at Ugarit is thus perhaps not surprising.) At Hattusa, too, some eight languages are attested, albeit, interestingly, not the same eight. Nearly (or officially) monolingual nations and societies are, and always have been, the exception rather than the rule. [John Huehnergard, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 62 (2003), Book review section, pp.294-298]

"...there are many societies in which at least some members grow up speaking two or more languages fluently (often members of minority ethnic groups, who learn from birth both the language of their own group and the dominant language). [John Huehnergard, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 62 (2003), Book review section, pp.294-298]

"Pardee notes that while hymns seem always to be written in Hurrian, the ritual texts are written in Hurrian, in Ugaritic, or in a mix of both languages, for no obvious reason. Since there is nothing to suggest that the Hurrian and Ugaritic parts of the mixed-language texts were written by different scribes, Pardee concludes that these few texts indicate that some scribes, at least, received a bilingual education." [John Huehnergard, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 62 (2003), Book review section, pp.294-298]

"As Mesopotamian kings turned their political ambitions to empires, the need for translators arose. Scribes, already trained in the spoken and written forms of two languages, were the natural choice to assume this task. However, there is little indication of how scribes achieved proficiency in additional languages. At the time of the Akkadian Empire, references to translators of the languages of Melukkha and Kutha appear. The Ur III king Shulgi boasted that in his palace he alone knew how to speak Elamite and Amorite. The Mari tablets of 1780 BCE mention the presence of translators in trading caravans. In the Middle Babylonian period translators were needed to deal with the Mitannian army. International activity between Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Hittite empires in the middle and late second millennium necessitated translators from cuneiform into Egyptian. Texts from the Egyptian city of Amarna (Akhetaten) refer to cuneiform scribes learning Egyptian, as well. The appearance of the title "head of the translators" indicates that there was an organized cadre of these professionals.” [OT:CANE:2274]

“Tablets from the Old Assyrian trading colony at Kanesh (modern Kultepe) demonstrate that some merchants were literate, having received training sufficient to enable them to send letters and maintain business records. However, most merchants hired scribes to do this work for them.” [OT:CANE:2273]
"Sumerian was a living language in the third millennium BCE. Akkadian competed with and eventually replaced Sumerian, becoming the lingua franca of the entire ancient Near East during the second millennium BCE." [OT:DLAM, 14f]

"In the second millennium, the language of international communication was Akkadian cuneiform, used far beyond the region in which it was a language of everyday speech. It was, for example, used in correspondence between Egypt and the Hittites. Either both countries had scribes highly competent in Akkadian cuneiform, or (less probably) both courts employed bilingual Babylonian scribes. One letter to the Pharaoh, exceptionally written in Hittite [tanknote: a non-Semitic language], addresses the recipient scribe directly and requests a reply in the same language, indicating that some Egyptian scribes could both read and write Hittite. A literary composition of the thirteenth century attests the knowledge of foreign languages amongst Egyptian scribes; the writer takes the opportunity of working in odd phrases to demonstrate his mastery of Canaanite. For example, after describing how the scribe of the commissariat arranges provisions for an expeditionary force sent into Palestine to crush a rebellion, he attributes to the Bedouin looking on, the comment sopher yodea, Canaanite for 'a shrewd scribe!'. [CBGR, 104]

"From 2000 to 1750 B.C. there was a considerable trade in western Asia between Anatolia and Assyria [tanknote: much of which would have gone through Haran], between Mari on the Euphrates and states to the east and west of the Euphrates, and between western Asia and Egypt. Some of the donkey caravans were quite large, up to 500 animals, divided into smaller groups under the charge of individual attendants. After the 19th century B.C. the much stronger mules replaced donkeys, and by the 11th century B.C. camels replaced the mules. Documentary evidence verifies these caravans from Egypt and Assyria. One famous group of 37 Asiatics who visited Egypt about 1900 B.C. is portrayed on the tomb of Khnum-hotep at Beni-hasan. Genesis 37 mentions Ishmaelite caravan traders bearing gums, balm, and myrrh on their way to Egypt." [BEB]

"In the light of frequent messenger activity between mutually unintelligible language speakers, the problem arises as to how precisely the messenger verbalized his message in such diverse linguistic environments. Was the messenger expected to be conversant in more than one language? If not, did he travel with an interpreter or was an interpreter assumed to be waiting on the receiving end? The frustration of the language barrier surfaces when Ashurbanipal notes the arrival of a messenger from a land which had not formerly communicated with Assyria: "The tongues of the East and of the West, which Assur had poured into my hand - there was no master of his language, and [his] tongue remained strange, so that they could not understand his speech." The ability of Shulgi in responding to foreign ambassadors is certainly not normative: "I answered in those five languages while in my palace no one else could understand foreign tongues."… (Shulgi B 217-218. Note Wenamun's first words when he is cast ashore on Cyprus (Wenamun 2.76-78): "I greeted her (the princess) and I said to the people who were standing around her: 'Isn't there one among you who can understand Egyptian words?' And one of them said: 'I understand!' And I said to him: "Say to my lady that . . . .") [OT:MASW, 163]

"Interpreters are already attested in the Sargonic period (eme-bala), with their office inscribed on seals and having their own supervisors. Their presence among the Assyrian merchants in Cappadocia is not unexpected (targumannum), and interpreters are known for foreigners in an Old Babylonian text. From this point on, they are attested down through the NeoAssyrian period. Their relatively important status has been suggested in the light of some data… Gelb notes that the evidence for translators is most abundant in the earlier period and declines from the end of the second millennium onward; if this is not a result of the accident of discovery, he notes that the rise of Akkadian as a lingua franca may have diminished the need for translators. We might add, however, that even in the first millennium, when the Assyrian empire began to find Aramaic a desirable language of diplomacy, it was to their advantage to be able to address their vassals in their native language (2 Kgs 18:26-28).12” [OT:MASW, 164/5]

“In the [Sumerian] tablets, the Sumerians were found listing all the items of their experience in long inventories. Thus they carefully listed all the names of plants, animals, fish, and even grammatical constructions in long texts running to many tablets. They had even developed multi-lingual dictionaries, which listed terms in Sumerian with their equivalents in Akkadian, Hurrian, and even Hittite. In the last several years, archaeologists have found such lists at Ebla in North Syria. These tablets give equivalent words in Sumerian and Eblaite (a previously unknown West Semitic language).” [NIEBF, p. 337]

"Shortly before 2000 pressure for migration began to build in the area of western Arabia and southern Palestine. Wars and, in areas of declining fertility, the pressure of overpopulation may have been the cause for this. The main destinations of these migrations had for some time been Syria and Mesopotamia. Many tribal groups long remained nomadic shepherds, while others engaged in the cultivation of grain as seminomads or transhumants. Still others managed to gain a foothold in the cities, often even seizing the political leadership there. The Northwest Semitic and Old Canaanite dialects which they spoke never became written languages, as far as we know, although many Canaanite words are found in the Babylonian texts, primarily those from early second millennium Mari on the middle Euphrates. On the evidence of their Canaanite names, many Old Canaanites came to Babylonia as mercenary soldiers and workers at the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur, soon after 2000. There they were called "Amurru" (= west)-people; accordingly, many today refer to them as Amorites. In Babylonia, too, many Amurru people rose through military command to positions as rulers of cities, and even kings of larger areas. Since new waves of Canaanites continued to come to Babylonia over many decades, the mass of Amurru-people remained a dependent population, often of low status." [Soden:20f]

"Aramaic was originally spoken by Aramean tribes who settled in portions of what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, a region bounded roughly by Damascus and its environs on the south, Mt. Amanus on the northwest and the region between the Balikh and the Khabur rivers on the northeast. The Arameans were a Semitic people...Though Aramaic was spoken during the second millennium BC, the first extant texts appear at the beginning of the first millennium."

"By the time of the Amarna period [tn: 14th century BC], people of the eastern Mediterranean regions had been bilingual--in some regions multilingual--for centuries; they wrote Mesopotamian languages, but conversed in their local languages." [OT:CANE:2412]

So, Abraham moves into Canaan somewhere in the 19th/18th centuries BC., starts interacting with the residents, and raising his household. What was 'happening'
linguistically there, at the time?

[But first we need to speak of a few linguistic preliminaries and background information. We have two issues to address in our question: (1) what language(s) were used (i.e., spoken and perhaps written) in the land by Abe, Inc; and (2) what scripts were used to record those languages?

The distinction is important so I need to cover a few basics, just to level-set us (see [HI:RTP]):

1. A language can be the native spoken language and yet not be a written language (i.e., no one has 'assigned' written shapes to any of the sounds, syllables, "punctuation", or words of the spoken communication). And writing is not simply a method to transcribe speech--it often has abilities to communicate much larger scope of meanings than oral speech (e.g., literary genre, formal elements).

2. A spoken language can be written in many different scripts--the connection is almost arbitrary. For example, the Latin/Roman alphabetic script can be used to write spoken English, French, Spanish, German, etc; and--via 'transliteration'--be used also for Hebrew (e.g. when we write 'beth Israel' for the Hebrew equivalent), Akkadian, Arabic, etc. Someone has to do the 'mapping' of written symbol/shape to spoken element, but it is a tangible and finite task of 'encoding'.
"There is a big difference between script and language, though they tend to be confused. A language consists of a system of sounds. It does not have to be written down. Indeed languages were spoken for millennia before writing was invented and there are still today some unwritten languages (e.g. in India and South America). Any particular language can be represented more or less satisfactorily in any system of writing. One could invent a new system of writing one's own language but one would have to face up to the difficulty of reconciling several conflicting demands on the system. One such demand is the need to keep things simple, so that the new writing system is not so complex as to be unlearnable, but there is also a need to represent all the sounds of the language distinctively, so that the system is unambiguous. ... The writing systems of the ancient Near East prior to the invention and spread of the alphabet from c. 1700 BC onwards included a large number of syllabic signs, i.e. with each sign representing a syllable. They were developed from forms of pictographic writing in which small pictures stood for objects and concepts. These had been in use, principally in Egypt and Mesopotamia, since before 3000 BC. Syllabic writing became widespread and new forms of syllabic writing continued to be developed (e.g. Hittite, Cretan, Byblian). ... A syllable normally consists of at least two sounds, most commonly a consonant followed by a vowel. Since all languages have far more possible syllables than they have individual sounds (/ba/, /be/, /bi/, /bo/, /bu/, /da/, /de/, /di/, do/, /du/ are all separate syllables), syllabic systems involved a very large number of signs. The total number of cuneiform signs in the system used in Mesopotamia, for example, is almost six hundred, though some of these retain a pictographic type of function, representing whole words. Many signs had more than one sound-value. Fortunately much smaller repertoires of signs and restricted variations of value were current at any one time and the context would usually show what was intended." [HI:RTP:201]

3. Written scripts are divided into different types, corresponding (roughly) with the unit-of-speech being encoded: word (word-signs), syllable (syllabic), or sound (alphabet).

4. [Pictograms/logograms/ideograms are in a different class--they are encoding thoughts-in-themselves as opposed to thoughts-in-specific-sounds-or-forms, so to speak. You can write a sentence in Egyptian Hieroglyphs or Sumerian logograms, but you could read it aloud with multiple/different sounds (since the thoughts could be expressed in speech via different words/phrases), but a Greek or Canaanite sentence could only be properly pronounced one basic way (the sounds encoded in the  script have to be 'sounded out' according to the rules of the script).

5. Word-sign languages use a discrete symbol for each specific word or phrase  (like if I  used a cracked-heart symbol to mean "broken heart"--but it couldn't mean 'sad-heart', too--I would need a SECOND symbol for that specific phrase/word). Syllabic forms use a discrete symbol for each syllable (e.g. using "Q" to always mean the sound "qu", or "4" for "for" in text messaging]. Alphabetic forms use a discrete symbol for each individual sound (e.g. "qu" would take 2 symbols, and "for" would take 3 symbols). Note: there are many alphabetic scripts which are 'incomplete' and do not encode all the spoken sounds individually (e.g., MB Phoenician didn't encode the vowel sounds, so the "B" consonant could be ba, be, bi, bo, bu, b-*.*). Hebrew and Aramaic were the first languages which began encoding vowels into the alphabet (see [OT:ITB],
[HI:RTP, 203]) and the Greeks are generally credited with adding all of the vowels into the alphabet later.

6. Of course, most languages will mix these types during their development, and a modern bumper sticker, tee-shirt, or Internet email might combine all of these types!

7.  Basic script adoption by a people (or individual, for that matter) can be quick. Given a cross-language lexicon (ideally with access to a bilingual translator), a competent writer could begin producing their original language in a new script almost immediately. And, given that script adoption was often a compulsory act after military loss(!) and more often required to buy/sell large quantities of goods (requiring bilingual contracts) with an international partner, this was a frequent, frequent process in the ANE. But, as with the spoken language, they might continue using their native script for internal matters, and the 'compulsory' or 'advantageous' script for transactions with outsiders.

8. An astute reader might already see a problem for these folks: translating a word-sign document into a syllabic or alphabetic script might take considerably more space! One word-sign character for "the river that runs from mountain X into lake Y" might require considerably more characters to write (like it did here!).

9. Many of these spoken languages also changed scripts over time. Sumerian originally was written in word-signs and pictographs, but later used the Akkadian cuneiform syllabic script for encoding. Hebrew originally used the Phoenician script, but later moved to the Aramaic square script. And in the pictographic languages, many of the older pictograms were 'recycled' to refer to specific words, syllables, or individual signs.

Now, let's move on into]

The first thing we need to look at for the period 2500-2000+ BC is the importance of the Ebla empire for the linguistic background.

Ebla was a city in northern Palestine, which built and ran a powerful empire until its gradual conquest by the Akkadians (under Naram Sim). It had an extensive commercial network , which survived all the various changes in political landscape (i.e., Akkadian, Mari, Hittite, Amorite). Haran was a royal city of Ebla, with tribute obligations and political allegiance. There would have been much, much interaction between the land of Haran/Harran and Ebla:

"Ebla. Ancient Syrian city-state identified with the contemporary site of Tell Mardikh. According to one text discovered there, Ebla was a huge city, with a population of 260,000. That a quarter of a million people could crowd into a city the size of Old Jerusalem is explained by the fact that many of the farmers and workers lived in the surrounding area in tents or possibly in beehive houses made of clay brick. Such beehive villages are found even today in the vicinity of Tell Mardikh. Only the palace, the treasury, the storerooms, and the essential facilities and personnel for operation of the city-state, would as a rule be located within the city walls. Even so, the population density in the city would be extremely high. Ebla was a commercial center, manufacturing items of textiles, wood, ceramics, gold, silver, and other metals. A large number of the clay tablets unearthed are economic documents, recording transactions with many other cities, stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt and from Cyprus to Iran (Persia)." [BEB]

"In a paper read in 1986... I showed, to the best of my ability, that the term empire applied to the political formation headed by Ebla is indeed fully appropriate and that its structure and institutions conform to the generally accepted definitions of an empire... Ebla dominated at that time a territory of about 85,000 sq km (32,800 sq mi) in northern Syria and northwestern Mesopotamia. Approximately half of it was controlled and exploited directly by the state apparatus of Ebla through territorial governors (lugal), from twelve to sixteen in number, numerous local overseers (ugula), and still more numerous agents (maskim) of various dignitaries. The other half (mainly in the north, on the Euphrates, and in Osrhoene, but interspersed with direct Eblean possessions) was ruled by a great number of client kings, all of whom carried the same title (en) as their Eblean overlord but markedly differed among themselves as to their actual standing. The client kings had to swear allegiance to the king of Ebla, to pay him a fixed amount of tribute in precious metals, cattle, cloths, and artifacts, and to deliver, when required, teams of corvee workers." [EBLA3:51f, Astour; he also lists Harran as one of the five 'royal cities' on page 59, and notes that Harran sold sheep to Ebla's commercial rival--and largest customer!--Mari, on behalf of Ebla, p.60]

"Ebla bordered in the southwest on Hamath and in the northwest on Emar. But it had contacts also with other city-states of upper Mesopotamia, for instance, with Abarsal... It is possible that the kings of the cities situated between the Euphrates and the Belikh--Irridum and Harran--were dependents of Ebla. But the latter had important cultural and trade ties also with towns lying much farther to the southeast: Kakmium and Gasur beyond the Tigris (Gasur, latter the Hurrian city of Nuzi...)...One should especially stress Ebla's connection with Kis in the northern part of Lower Mesopotamia. It seems that it was mainly Ebla (along with Mari) which secured for Mesopotamian traders the road to the forests of the Lebanon and the Amanus and to the silver and copper mines of Asia Minor." [EBLA4:11f, Diakonoff]

"Recent discoveries at Tell Mardikh (ancient Ebla), south of Aleppo, have revealed, during the Early Bronze Age, a thriving and highly sophisticated Syrian culture. The finding there of a major archive of clay tablets has added a new dimension to our understanding of the international relationships in the third millennium BC. For, although relatively few of the texts have been translated so far, it is clear that by about 2500 BC Ebla exercised some form of political control as far south as Damascus, and had commercial ties over an even wider area. This would help to explain the increasing number of Syrian objects found at sites in the north of Palestine, which must now be taken as evidence for the establishment of active commercial relations between the two regions. " [OT:PPC:39]

Although the famous Ebla palace archives were destroyed somewhere around 2250ish BC, Ebla continued its extensive merchant activities for another six centuries, albeit under the political control of others. The Ebla archives were monthly transaction reports of tribute and political interactions between Ebla its client kingdoms and allies. The archives which archaeologists recovered only covered the Northwest area of Eblaite empire, and so the extensive trade relations with Palestine, Egypt, and Anatolia are only known from non-Eblaite materials (of which there are plenty). The expansion of the Akkadian empire under Naram Sim (last couple of centuries of the 3rd millennium) ensured that the Akkadian which Abraham would have known from UR would become the lingua franca of the 2nd millennium.  Even as late as the Hurrian-Hittite conquests of Syria-Palestine, Ebla was destroyed and then immediately rebuilt as the Hittite headquarters there! [Ebla4, A History of Ebla, Michael Astour]

Linguistically, Eblaite (which would have been used in Haran the royal city, during Ebla's heyday) is so similar to Old Akkadian that it is unclear whether it is an East Semitic (like Akkadian) or a West Semitic (like Canaanite/Phoenician) language. But it is very, very close to each of them--a speaker might easily have been able to 'work through' a conversation with someone in either background. Notice some of the variant expert opinions:

“Prior to the discovery of cuneiform texts at Ebla, a third-millennium Canaanite language was postulated but unproved. Now Eblaite is tentatively identified as Old Canaanite because of its affinity with later Canaanite dialects. Eblaite was in use among urban peoples of Syria [tanknote: includes Haran]. Amorite was apparently the language of the rural people…Eblaite likely differed only dialectically from Amorite, and linguistically there is little distinction between Amorite and Canaanite dialects until the middle of the second millennium…” [POTW:167f, Schoville, 1994; TN: if you could speak Amorite, you could understand Canaanite--and vice versa--during the time of the Patriarchs]]

"Earlier articles in this series have pointed out interconnections between Eblaite and later attested Northwest Semitic languages, especially Ugaritic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. In the present essay, I wish to put forward additional items for comparison, all from the realm of the lexicon. As the reader reads the following information, I ask that he or she keep in mind my previously stated opinion that Eblaite is to be linked with Amorite and Aramaic in a Sprachbund to be called Syrian Semitic, part of the Northwest Semitic (or West Semitic) branch. ... It is noteworthy that in the lexical items presented there is a high degree of coherence between Eblaite and Aramaic...As I stated at the outset, my previously expressed view on Eblaite is that it is to be grouped with Amorite and Aramaic to form a Syrian Sprachbund. The exact relationship among these languages cannot be described more specifically; we plainly lack the necessary data to state anything more specific. But the links between Eblaite and Aramaic, which have been pointed out both in my earlier study and in the present article, are not unexpected. The role of geography is important here, for the language that inherited the spatial domain of Eblaite 1500 to 2000 years later was Aramaic. It is only natural that this Semitic language should play an important role in the elucidation of the Eblaite vocabulary. .." [Ebla4:199, 207; Rendsburg, 2002]

"Initially, Eblaite was thought to be an early form of West Semitic because of the location of the site in northwest Syria, well outside Mesopotamia proper. However, at this time  [c.2004] there is a general agreement among Assyriologists that Eblaite represents a form of East Semitic and , possibly, even an early dialect of Akkadian." [ HI:WAL:223, Huennergard and Woods]

"According to the present data [c.1985], Eblaite is a very archaic language of the Semitic family in the Afrasian linguistic phylum. It seems that the number of isoglosses connecting it with Northeast Semitic Akkadian is almost equal to the number of isoglosses with West Semitic languages (according to M. Dahood with Canaanite, according to E. Lipinski with Aramaic; however note the important isoglosses with Arabic and South Semitic). All this proves that Eblaite was a part of the Common Proto-Semitic dialect continuum, with a position between East and West Semitic." [Ebla2:29, Diakonoff, 1990]

"Eblaite is a border language. To simplify a complex situation one may think of Ebla as located between East Semitic Mesopotamia and Northwest Semitic Syria-Palestine." [Ebla2:127, Gordon, 1990]

"Taken as a whole, it seems that throughout Northern Syria, from Ebla to the Euphrates and the Tigris, the same names or name types were used. Therefore, the evidence is that the same language and the same tradition prevailed. ... We must therefore conclude that on the sole basis of personal names it would be very difficult to distinguish the language of Ebla from the Old Akkadian of Kish" [Ebla1:16f, Archi, 1987]

Now, anything that has this much in common with both the emerging languages of Palestine and the languages of Syria (and NW Mesopotamia) has got to be the best candidate for "proto lingua franca' of the late 3rd millennium. Even the Akkadian conquests would not change this that much, since Eblaite might already BE a 'dialect' of Old Akkadian. But the sheer mass of isoglosses between Ebla and more southern (later) languages (i.e., Canaanite, Hebrew, Arabic) indicate either a semi-genetic relationship (an ancestor-kinda thing) or a very high density of language-facilitated interactions, such as commerce, empire, or diplomacy.

Either scenario suffices for this analysis: the languages of Abraham's childhood days in Ur (i.e., Old Akkadian) and Abraham's adult days in Haran (i.e., Eblaite, early Aramean, Amorite-ish) would have provided an excellent base for (a) carrying on commerce in Palestine in the early 2nd millennium; and for (b) learning specific Canaanite variants while in the Land.


Now, we need to get some feel for what is being used in Canaan during the 2nd millennium, without reference to the Patriarchs. We do have some extra-biblical sources here, but only two are particularly 'dense' enough to make a difference: the Amarna Tablets ( 1385-1355 BC) and the texts of Ugarit (1300-1190 BC).

We should note at the outset that although both of these time frames are either during or right after the Exodus/Conquest period (depending on your view of when the Exodus occurred), they represent linguistic elements with were in contact with the pre-Sojourn Patriarchs. This linguistic interaction would result in borrowing (especially lexical), before Israel went into Egypt.

[Of course, Egyptian itself is evidenced in Palestine of this time, too: “The story of Sinuhe describes some of the traffic that went in and out of Egypt and provides evidence that Egyptians and the Egyptian language were a part of patriarchal Palestine.” [OT:AOT, 91]]

First, the data of the Amarna Tablets. Most of what we know about Canaanite dialects in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC comes from the Canaanite 'embedded' in the Akkadian of the Amarna tablets (there are also the proto-Sinaitic and proto-Canaanite inscriptions which contribute just a bit to the discussion--I will mention them in with Amarna):

"The language of the central area of Northwest Semitic during the second millennium BCE is known indirectly through a number of ancient Egyptian sources, especially the so-called Execration Texts from the twentieth to nineteenth centuries BCE, some Proto-Canaanite inscriptions and seals from the eighteenth century BCE onward, the El-Amarna letters from the fourteenth century BCE, and the pseudo-hieroglyphic texts from Byblos, from the first half of the second millennium BCE... The 379 letters from Tell el-Amarna began to be discovered in 1887 – they are cuneiform tablets through which the lords of the Mesopotamian states and the vassals of the Egyptians in Syria and Palestine communicated with the rulers of Egypt. Many of them have come from the central and southern areas of Byblos, Gezer, Jerusalem, and Megiddo. They date from around 1385-1355 BCE and usually include Canaanite glosses and other signs of influence from the scribes' mother tongue on the Akkadian which they wrote.” [HI:HHL, 33]

"AMARNA. (Tell) el-Amarna is the modern name of Akhetaten, capital of Egypt under Amenophis IV (Akhenaten) and his immediate successors, c. 1375–1360 BC. The ruins lie some 320 km S of Cairo on the E bank of the river Nile. The site extends about 8 x 1 km and has been partially excavated. The impressive remains include temples, administrative buildings, tombs with wall paintings as well as the buildings of many prosperous estates with houses often of uniform plan. .. The importance of Amarna for biblical studies lies in the series of letters written in cuneiform on clay tablets found by chance in 1887. With subsequent discoveries, the number of documents recovered now totals about 380. The majority are letters from various Asiatic rulers to the pharaohs Amenophis III and IV in the period c. 1385–1360 BC; nearly half come from Palestine and Syria. They supply important information concerning the history of the area, providing a vivid picture of the intrigues and inter-city strife which followed the weakening of Egyptian control shortly before the Israelites entered the land. ... Our knowledge of the political geography of Palestine at this time is helped by references to various local rulers, such as Ammunira of Beirut, Abimilki of Tyre, Akizzi of Qatna and Abdi-tirši of Hazor. Some of these names can be correlated with contemporary texts from Ugarit (Ras Shamra). In addition to the local historical evidence, these letters are important for the wider implications of alliances between Egypt and the rulers of Mitanni and Babylon, often concluded, or supported, by marriages between the ruling families. References to an Egyptian official named Yanhamu, who attained high office, remind one of the position of Joseph, though the two cannot be identified. Yanhamu’s name is a Semitic form, and one of his functions was the supervision of the grain supply during a time of scarcity for the pharaoh’s Syrian subjects. The tablets are also of great linguistic importance. All but two are written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the whole ancient Near East in this period. The presence at Amarna of Mesopotamian literature (myths of Nergal and Adapa, a story of Sargon of Akkad) and lexical texts including a list of Egyptian and Akkadian words indicates the influence of Akkadian, and this is supported by the discovery in 1946 of a fragment of the Gilgamesh Epic (c. 1400 BC) at Megiddo. The letters from Palestine and Syria are written mainly in local W Semitic dialects of Akkadian, and they provide valuable information about the Canaanite language in its various local forms before the arrival of the Israelites. Letters from King Tushratta of Mitanni have also added considerably to our knowledge of the non-Semitic Hurrian language." [NBD3]

"The Amarna letters were written in cuneiform signs on clay tablets. The cuneiform script was already known in northern Syria in the 2d half of the 3d millennium B.C. (at Ebla). The Canaanite cuneiform tradition is rooted in the north Mesopotamian [tn: includes Haran] and north Syrian traditions of the OB period (18th–17th centuries B.C.) (Anbar and Na˒aman 1986–87). Almost all the letters in the Amarna archive are written in Akkadian, i.e., an East Semitic language. Thus, letters exchanged between the Egyptian pharaohs and their vassals in Canaan were written in a language that was foreign to both. Akkadian (i.e., Babylonian) had acquired in the 14th century B.C. the status of an international language (lingua franca), by which kings reigning all over the Near East were able to communicate. ... The art of reading and writing cuneiform was known only to a relatively small group of experts who studied this craft for a period of many years. The diffusion of the Amarna letters all over Canaan and the many local variants show that expert scribes were situated in all of the important kingdoms. Since all diplomatic correspondence was in their hands, they attained a high social position and had certain influence on the direction of foreign affairs. A number of letters (EA 286:61–64; 287:64–70; 286:62–66; 289:47–51; 316:16–20) illustrate how important it was at that time to find ways to flatter and patronize the Egyptian royal scribes. .. A small number of letters to “great kings” were written in their local language, i.e., Assyrian (EA 15), Hurrian (EA 24), and Hittite (EA 31–32), while the rest were written in Akkadian, although the dialect of these letters is sometimes regarded as “peripheral.” That is because the language of these letters has retained certain archaic features, such as sign forms, logograms, vocabulary, and grammar, which were considered “classical” in earlier periods but have already disappeared from the cuneiform tradition of Mesopotamia and have been preserved only in the western periphery (Moran 1987: 22–24). .. Two cuneiform traditions may be detected in the Canaanite and north Syrian letters. The one is Hurro-Akkadian, which is typical of tablets emanating from the north, that is, Hurrian-speaking kingdoms that were governed and influenced by Mitanni (Wilhelm 1970; Izre˓el 1985; Moran 1987: 24–27). The other tradition is widespread in all areas of Canaan and was strongly influenced by the current West Semitic language. The grammar of these documents was so deeply transformed by the local language and dialects that the letters may be regarded as being “West Semitized” (Rainey 1975: 395). The Canaanite Amarna letters (with the exception of the letters from Jerusalem and Tyre: see Moran 1975a; Grave 1980: 216–18; 1982: 178–79) may be regarded as eastern in their vocabulary and as western in their grammar (Moran 1987: 27). It goes without saying that they constitute a very important source for the study of the dialects current in Canaan in the 14th century B.C. (Moran 1950; 1960; 1965; Rainey 1971; 1973; 1975; 1978; Izre˓el 1978)." [REF:ABD]

"Akkadian, firmly entrenched as the lingua franca of the Near East during the Amarna age, is the basic language of the Amarna Tablets. As might be expected, these documents have thus assisted scholars in solving certain grammatical and lexical problems inherent in the Akkadian of the period, even though Amarna Akkadian exhibits numerous linguistic archaisms. At the same time, however, the epistolary materials often reveal Amorite, Egyptian, Hittite, Hurrian, and (most importantly) Canaanite linguistic substrata, reflecting the mother tongues of the native scribes. All the Canaanite Amarna Letters display a mixture of Akkadian and Canaanite dialects, although a few are almost completely Canaanite with only the thinnest of Akkadian veneers. Amarna Canaanite and the Ugaritic documents from Râs Shamrah have helped immeasurably to establish the nature of proto-Hebrew and to trace its development into the classical language of the OT. Often the Canaanite Vorlage was all-pervasive, reaching not only into vocabulary, grammar, syntax, morphology, and phonology but also into phraseology and mode of expression, so that, e.g., when a scribe from Byblos wished to verbalize the concept of “from time immemorial” he did not write, in standard Akkadian parlance, ištu labiriš (or, as in later times, ultu ulla), but coined the phrase ištu dārīti, an Akkadian rendering of such Canaanite equivalents as Heb mē‘ôlām. Canaanite scribes also frequently glossed Akkadian words and phrases with their Canaanite counterparts. For example, the difficult Akk ḫuḫāru, “trap, snare,” which appears often in the Byblian letters, is usually explained immediately thereafter by Can kilūbu (=Heb kelûḇ), which has the same meaning. Needless to say, the scribes themselves did not always agree as to proper procedure in various matters. The Jerusalem Amarna correspondence, for example, exhibits scribal peculiarities demonstrating it to be the product of a scribal tradition different from that of the other Canaanite Amarna dialects." [ISBE]

"From inscriptions that predate the abecedaries of the Izbet Sartah ostraca (twelfth century BC), some fifteen Proto-Canaanite signs representing consonantal phonemes are identifiable with some degree of certainty. As these match the Proto-Sinaitic data, as well as the data from the later West-Semitic languages, it may be assumed that the original Proto-Canaanite consonantal inventory was similar to, if not identical with, the Proto-Sinaitic inventory and that the two groups of texts represent the same language, or two or more languages/dialects descended from a common ancestor. ... Virtually all other aspects of the linguistic description of Canaanite dialects are derived from the texts written in Akkadian cuneiform (tn: Amarna texts)." [HI:WAL:288f]

And then the texts of Ugarit (which was a colony of the Phoenicians). The language (which did not last) was not a direct ancestor of Hebrew (or of anything, actually), and is not equated with (and perhaps is not to be grouped with) "Canaanite". It would have shared the common Semitic lexical stock, and so its vocabulary should show up in Hebrew and other downstream Semitic languages:

"UGARIT is modern Ras Shamra, located 1 km from the Mediterranean Sea and 10km N of Syrian Latakia. C. F. A. Schaeffer began excavations in 1928, first at Ugarit’s port by the bay of Minet el-Beida, then at Ras Shamra until 1969. M. Yon has directed the work since 1978. Although occupied as early as the 7th millennium BC, the site flourished in the 2nd millennium. In the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 BC) the city-state controlled a region of 2,000 square kms, including a large agricultural plain and an excellent port (Yon). It enjoyed a moderate Mediterranean climate. Historical archives begin with King Niq-maddu II (1360–1330 BC) followed by the Hittite domination of the region through the intermediary Carchemish at the end of the 14th century. The Hittite-Egyptian treaty (c. 1270 BC) allowed the kingdom to develop with an increasing centralization of power. The king controlled a large palace that formed the centre of a fortified acropolis within the city. This and the towering temple of Baal were the two most impressive landmarks. Ugarit disappeared shortly after 1200 BC for reasons unknown but perhaps related as much to climatic change and internal problems as to any invasion from the sea (Dupont). .. Excavators of Ugarit have unearthed thousands of inscriptions from the Late Bronze Age. Texts preserving Egyptian, Cypro-Minoan, Hurrian and Hittite languages occur, but most of the clay tablets preserve writing in Akkadian and Ugaritic languages. Ugaritic script represents one of the earliest alphabets, composed of twenty-nine letters written in cuneiform. The Ugaritic language is one of the earliest West Semitic languages attested by a sizeable corpus and variety of inscriptions. Rivalled only by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the texts from Ugarit represent the most important collection of written evidence yet discovered for better interpreting the OT. Study of the Ugaritic language has demonstrated a flexibility in the use of prepositions and other syntactical features, and has expanded the West Semitic vocabulary of known words and their usage. When applied to biblical Heb., this has provided for new interpretations of difficult texts and rendered unnecessary many textual emendations of previous generations. .. Although the citizens of Ugarit distinguished themselves from ‘Canaanites’, they shared a common culture. Religious, epistolary, lexical, administrative, legal and contractual texts have been discovered at Ugarit (Pardee and Bordreuil)." [NBD3]
“Ugaritic. This is the West Semitic language of the Canaanites. It records in a shortened, nearly alphabetic script the legends and religious literature of the period 1800 to 1400 B.C. Many Ugaritic words—and some whole expressions—are identical with those in the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible.” [NIEBF, 338]

"The origin of the sea-faring Phoenicians is obscure, though according to Herodotus (1. 1; 7. 89) they arrived overland from the Persian Gulf area, via the Red Sea, and first founded Sidon. The earliest archaeological evidence of their presence may come from the ‘proto-Phoenician’ finds at Byblos (ancient Gubla or Gebal, Ezk. 27:9, modern Gebail) dated c. 3000 BC. This important site has been excavated since 1924 by the French under Montet and Dunand. Byblian ships are depicted on Egyp. reliefs of the time of Sahure in the 5th Dynasty (c. 2500 BC) and there can be no doubt that by the 18th century there was an extensive trade in timber and artistic commodities between Phoenicia and Egypt. The Phoenicians by this time had settled in their first colonies along the coast at Joppa, Dor (Jdg. 1:27–31), Acre and Ugarit (Ras Shamra). They chose easily defensible natural harbours and gradually dominated the local population as at Ras Shamra (level IV). ... For some centuries Phoenicia was under the economic and quasi-military control of the Egyptian 18th and 19th Dynasties, and Arvad was among the places claimed to have been captured by Tuthmosis III (c. 1485 BC). Nevertheless, the letters written by Rib-Addi of Byblos and Abimilki of Tyre to Amenophis III at Amarna in Egypt show that, by c. 1400 BC, Ṣumur and Berut had disaffected and with Sidon, which appears to have maintained its independence, were blockading Phoenician cities. When the ‘sea-peoples’ invaded the coast c. 1200 BC, Byblos, Arvad and Ugarit were destroyed and the Sidonians fled to Tyre, which now became the principal port, or, as Isaiah claims, the ‘daughter of Sidon’ (23:12)." [NBD3]

"... Ugarit was a major commercial center that linked the ancient Near East to the Aegean. Ugarit is named in documents found at Ebla, Mari, Alalakh, Bogazkoy, Tell Aphek, and Amarna, while documents from Ugarit evidence the city's political and commercial relations with Crete, Cyprus, Hatti, Egypt, and various Syro-Palestinian city-states. Written communication between Ugarit and places external to the city-state was carried on in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the time. Ugaritic was used for matters of concern internal to the city-state. ...  Given Ugarit's destruction in the early twelfth century BCE, there were no direct ties between it and the ancient state of Israel (tn: assumes late date of Conquest). ... Scholars concur that Ugaritic is a Northwest (also called Syro-Palestinian) Semitic language, the subgrouping of ancient Semitic languages of which Classical Hebrew was a member. Scholars disagree, however, on whether Ugaritic should be classified along with Hebrew as a Canaanite Northwest language or belongs to a separate and otherwise unexampled branch of the Northwest Semitic language family. ... Although Ugaritic is not a direct ancestor of Hebrew and may not even be a member of the Canaanite language family..." [REF:BB, 227-229]

"Linguistically, however, Ugaritic is considerably more archaic than any of the well-attested Northwest Semitic languages, and probably descends directly from a Levantine 'Amorite' dialect. All indications are that it is not more directly related to East Semitic (Akkadian) than to West Semitic. ... From rare mentions of Ugarit in texts from other sites (Mari, el-Amarna), it is clear that the inhabitants of the city were of so-called Amorite stock, for they bear Amorite names and maintained cultural relations with the other Amorite kingdoms of the eighteenth century BC. ... The Ugaritic language was only one of at least eight languages (and/or writing systems) in use at Ugarit. The one other Semitic language attested is Akkadian, the international lingua franca of the time, in which approximately 2,000 texts are written in syllabic cuneiform... A number of texts have also been found in Sumerian, Hittite (written in standard syllabic cuneiform and in hieroglyphic), Egyptian, Hurrian (written in Ugaritic consonantal cuneiform and in standard syllabic cuneiform), and Cypro-Minoan (not fully deciphered). " [HI:WAL:288f]

"The classification of Ugaritic as a NW Semitic language is generally accepted. Its position within NW Semitic, however, has been a matter of considerable debate; some scholars consider Ugaritic to be a dialect of Canaanite, while others, noting that it does not participate in a number of Canaanite innovations, argue that Ugaritic represents a separate branch of NW Semitic distinct from both Canaanite and Aramaic. [REF:ABD, s.v. "Languages"].


Okay. So Abraham moves his household (with entourage etc) down to Canaan. Of the two main routes south to Hebron from Haran, one actually went through Ebla. He goes first to Shechem, a royal Canaanite city, where he is allowed to construct a monument(!). As we noted in the background material on Abraham above, he moves about the land in constant interaction with leaders, rulers, foreigners, locals, etc. -- with no apparent difficulty of communication.

Let's look at some aspects of this:

1. As a first-generation immigrant, he would have spoken Aramean (early/proto Aramaic) and Old Akkadian at home, probably, but the local Canaanite (once he had learned the differences between his Eblaite and it) in local public dealings [i.e., the burial plot negotiations], and Old Akkadian in foreign/formal relationships [e.g., Abimelek, Pharaoh]. He probably had some interpreters available to him for hire (as noted in the passages about translators traveling with merchants), perhaps for other languages such as Egyptian (cf. Hagar the handmaid of Sarah--she had to be communicated with somehow, but she might have been bilingual like most other people were at the time) or even Hittite [but he would have also had some dealings with the Hurrian language back in Haran, as noted earlier]. We should note, however, that Akkadian will be the main communication vehicle for Egyptian-foreign correspondence within a century or two or three  of Abraham's sojourn in Palestine
(cf. 14th century Amarna tablets, in Akkadian from Palestine/Anatolia/Syria/Mesopotamia to Egypt).

2. [Note: Abraham could just as easily have spoken Old Akkadian (Eblaite-looking) at home, instead of my scenario of Aramean. It would not affect the force of the basic argument: he and his household learned Canaanite--for basic immigrant reasons--during the two centuries they were in the land. This is not very hard to do... " It is possible that Abraham first spoke a dialect of Akkadian, then Canaanite. Jacob probably learned Aramaic while with Laban. The Hebrew language may have taken its distinctive form while the Israelites were in the land of Goshen. The Bible does not tell the story of its development, but the earliest inscription in Hebrew, the Gezer Calendar from Solomon’s time, was written in good Hebrew.” [PCE2, 63]]

3. We should also note that moving from Abraham's early-Aramean/Amorite language to early-Canaanite/Ugaritic would not require that much movement actually, because the languages were still 'together' (i.e., basically the same). They wouldn't turn into seriously separate languages until after the Exodus:  “The differences between Aramaic on the one hand and the Canaanite languages and Ugaritic on the other seem to have gained general acceptance nowadays. However, the distinction between these two major groups is not valid before the end of the second millennium, as in the earliest stage of the Northwest Semitic languages they had not yet diverged.” [HI:HHL, 12] and "At the close of the second millennium, the differences between two families, Canaanite and Aramaic, became more pronounced, and both developed independently throughout the first millennium BCE.” [HI:HHL, 3f]. In other words, learning early-Canaanite might have been a VERY simple matter of learning some local idiomatic changes, similar to differences in English usage between Toronto Canada, the rural southern US, and Brooklyn NY. There is no barrier to Abraham and his family adopting the local differences, although they would have still 'mixed in' their own elements of Old Akkadian in places.

4. Abraham is 75ish when he and his group gets there, and spends another couple of decades in/out of the land. But his son-by-Sarah Isaac is a second-generation immigrant, and probably grows up with a 'household' Aramean and 'commerce' Akkadian, but with a much more local-savvy and fluent Canaanite. Isaac spends more of his life in Canaan than his father Abraham did, and so his Canaanite is probably better than his Akkadian and Aramean/Aramaic. As with many  second-gen immigrants, his local-language would be slightly modified by his home-language. However, his bride (Rebekkah) moves from the ancestral family's homeland around Haran/Nahor, and she would speak Aramean (while she learned the local dialects herself, for matters of domestic commerce and homestead management) and this would keep Isaac from losing his Aramean language skills.

5. Isaac has two main sons: Esau and Jacob. Esau is so comfortable in the local Canaanite speech that he can marry into those languages (specifically Hivite and Hittite, cf. Gen 36.2-3). How much Akkadian these guys know is uncertain, but since Akkadian had already become the lingua franca of the ANE by then, it is likely they had to keep this facility current--they actually probably used it weekly in trade with traveling foreign merchants. Family records would have been kept in Akkadian, including genealogies, inheritance allotments, deeds, contracts, family history, etc. [
"His personal history is recorded in Gen. 11:27b–25:12, and appears to comprise one of eleven Mesopotamian tablet sources underlying the book of Genesis. This section was probably entitled “Abram, Nahor, and Haran” (11:27b), and the narrative concluded with a typical Mesopotamian colophon, indicated by the phrase “these are the family histories [AV “generations”] of” in 25:12. The colophon seems to include a characteristic scribal attempt at dating in the reference to the time when Isaac lived at Beer-lahai-roi (25:11), and also appears to indicate that these family records had been at some time in the possession of Ishmael, the brother of Isaac." [ISBE] ]

6. Jacob, however, flees Canaan and moves back to the ancestral homeland. He lives there for a couple of decades, speaking Aramean daily--and honing any lost skills. As in charge of a large sheep-farming enterprise, he would have likely made use of his Akkadian skills, but his Canaanite abilities might have been underused. At the end of this sojourn, as he returns to Canaan, there is a conflict with Laban and a covenant is created between them. In Genesis 31.45ff, monuments are set up to witness to the covenant, with Jacob naming his in Hebrew (basically his version of Canaanite, at that point) and Laban's in Aramaic--the languages had diverged enough by then, but Jacob could understand both. [“In the Pentateuch there occurs one short phrase in Aramaic. Uttered by Laban (Gen. 31:47), it is the name he gave to the heap of stones that was the memorial to the covenant made between him and Jacob. There are traces of Aramaic in some Egyptian inscriptions of the New Kingdom [tn: c. 1570-1293 BC]. Otherwise, little is known about the language before its first inscriptions appeared about 1000 B.C.” [PCE2, 61]]

7. All of the twelve sons of Jacob (except Benjamin) are born in Aramaic-speaking Syria before the middle of the 2nd millennium, and return to Palestine with various levels of Aramaic and Jacob's Hebrew-Canaanite skills. During their lives before the Sojourn in Egypt, they would have become fluent in both Jacob's Hebrew (which basically looked like a dialect of the Canaanite Abraham had to learn) and local dialects. The various stories about their interactions with the locals (mostly negative, apparently) presumes that they were conversant in the local languages.

8. They all leave Canaan and move into the Goshen area of Egypt. At this point they already have the/a Hebrew language 'done'. It is essentially the Canaanite they learned as immigrants, modified somewhat by their 'home tongue' of Aramaic/Aramean and by their "commerce tongue" of Old Akkadian/Eblait-ish). In Egypt, it will pick up some Egyptian influences--but not a lot, since they were in a more isolated-subculture. So, Hebrew will end up (by the point of the Exodus) essentially a language born from immigrant/commercial experiences:
“The Hebrew language is a highly mixed tongue, the child of several parents. It is the result of a fusion of Akkadian, Canaanite, and Aramaic…  [PCE2, 63]

“For example, the Book of Genesis contains many Egyptian expressions as well as a few early Akkadianisms. “ [NIEBF, 340]

“Hebrew belonged to the Semitic group of languages. It was directly related to such ancient Semitic languages as Aramaic, Akkadian, and Ugaritic…” [NIEBF, 338]

“The spread of Akkadian as the language of administration throughout the Near East led to contacts with Indo-European languages and also facilitated the borrowing of hundreds of its lexical items by languages like Hebrew.” [HI:HHL, 13]

"Within the Canaanite group, Hebrew has a special place, almost half-way between Phoenician and Old Aramaic, and, in its turn, a centre of innovations which spread throughout the neighbouring areas.” [HI:HHL, 43]

"Akkadian is one of the major parents of the Hebrew tongue, and many obscure words and phrases in Genesis have been clarified by comparing Hebrew and Akkadian. Some features of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary have been made more intelligible by tracing them back to Akkadian.” [PCE2, 58]


Okay. So Israel goes into Egypt--and then what happens?

1. Well, their Hebrew/Canaanite dialect would be dramatically (but not totally) cut off from major northern language influences. There is no indication that the Hebrews did not continue to visit Palestine, on ventures of trade or in military service to Egypt. And certainly, the Hebrews would have been a good market for traveling traders in Goshen. Commercial contacts would have continued, but at a significantly reduced pace--compared to living in the Land.

2. As immigrants again, they would have spoken Hebrew at home, Hebrew in the vast majority of internal commercial and administrative transactions, various Canaanite dialects with Syrian, Palestinian, Arabian, and Mesopotamian traders, perhaps some Egyptian by the leaders (who would have dealt with the Egyptian government and perhaps even successors to Joseph's role/function), but reduced amounts of Akkadian. But we must also remember that some of the people who go down to Egypt (of the 70/75) would have been already married to Canaanites/Amorites and/or descendants of Ishmael/Esau; and brides for the next generation would need to have been sought elsewhere for a couple of generations in Egypt. In other words, they would have HAD to marry outside the Hebrew language (e.g., into Egyptian, Canaanite, South Semitic, early Aramaic), because the answer to the question "Why can't you just find a good Jewish girl, my son?" would have been "because the only three are already spoken for, Mom."

3. Until the time of the "New Pharaoh who knew not Joseph," their Hebrew would have been largely 'conservative'--changes would be more likely to come from within than from without. Hence, an early "Canaanite with proprietary extensions and multilingual loanwords" would have morphed into a "Hebrew with general overlap with other, now-developed-further Canaanite dialects (e.g. Phoenician, Aramaic, Moabite, etc.)". Hebrew differences (called 'innovations' by linguists) are considered to be more a result of this 'in-bred' conservatism, than a result of interaction with other languages at this period:
"If, in various ways, we recognize in Hebrew elements that differentiate it from the neighbouring Canaanite dialects, we do not believe that these are derived from the Aramaic or Amorite that the Israelites might perhaps have spoken before they settled in Canaan, but instead that they result, for example, from linguistic conservativism, from independent linguistic developments within Hebrew, and from dialect diversity..” [HI:HHL:56]
4. The period of oppression at the end of Israel's sojourn in Egypt would not have altered this much, but we don't really know how long a period that was. It did involve a dispersal throughout the land (to building sites at the store cities [Ex 1.11]; and later to get straw [Ex 5]); and at least by the Passover event, the Hebrews could communicate with their wealthy Egyptian neighbors to ask for precious articles (Ex 11.2).

5. At the end of the Exodus, the family leaders would have been "daily life" conversant in Egyptian, fluent in what will be called by scholars "archaic Hebrew", and carrying a lexical stock chock full of Akkadian, old Aramaic, various flavors of Canaanite, some Hurrian influences (from Haran background?), and a smattering of South Semitic. They would have maintained their family records (since that would have still been used for inheritance law during the stay in Egypt), and they may have actually "formalized" or "semi-standardized" the stories of their past--as many immigrant and nomadic peoples do. Hebrew ethnic ritual did not begin with "Why is this night different from all other nights?"--ethnic and cultural identity has long been 'entrusted' to the stories of a people's past. Abraham the child would have heard his grandfather and grandmother tell stories of the people in his family tree--at the dinner table, around the community campfire, and even in what is called 'kinship diplomacy' (where geneallgically-based blood ties formed a basic 'implied' contract of loyalty).  [We will deal with what script was used for recording these, in Part Two of this article... ("WHAT?!  You mean there's a part TWO of this long-winded thing?!  Forty years in the wilderness for US too, eh?!!")]

6. They would also have had information sources available to them about other lands and other peoples. The often coincidence of commerce and hospitality to foreigners means that personal stories, family histories, and info about foreign lands would be shared. The early part of the genealogies of Esau (Gen 36), for example, could have easily occurred in simple trade contracts between Edom and Israel-in-Egypt. [Edom obviously knew they were kinfolk when Moses petitioned them for access through their land, on the Kings Highway--Num 20 and  Deut 2.]

7. A generation of wandering in the wilderness (Numbers) would have further 'isolated' Hebrew (but not a lot in one generation), although they would still have had trade contacts with desert caravans, semi-desert traders (like the Ismaelites/Midianites who bought Joseph as a slave for resale in Egypt, cf. Gen 37), "gift shops" at some of the oases (smile), minor Bedouin-like camps, and the stream of Midianites (Moses' kinfolk) that would have visited on occasion. The Canaanites of Palestine would probably have been 'too busy' to do much trading south with them, since they were in massive turmoil, with either the Hittite invasions (if you accept the early date of the Exodus) or the Sea-Peoples invasions (if you accept the late date).

But we need to note something about Moses and his influence now...

Moses grows up in the household of Pharaoh's daughter and in Pharaoh's court  and learned all the 'wisdom of the Egyptians'.
"growing up in Pharaoh’s court. Growing up in the household of Pharaoh would have involved certain privileges in terms of education and training. This would have included training in literature and scribal arts as well as in warfare. Foreign languages would have been important for any work in diplomacy and probably were included. One of the qualities that Egyptians prized most was rhetoric (eloquence in speech and argumentation). Literary works such as The Eloquent Peasant show how impressed they were with someone who could speak well. Though Moses would have been trained in rhetoric, he did not consider himself skilled in this area (4:10–12)." [REF:BBC]

But in this process, he would have interacted with future leaders of numerous city-states, even from Canaan. Much information about the Land--and much language acquisition--could be had in such an educational process. Here's Hoffmeier's data:
"For some, the whole notion of Moses being reared in the Egyptian court seems like a legendary feature. But a closer look at the royal court in the New Kingdom suggests otherwise. Thutmose III (1457 - 1425 B.c.) initiated the practice of bringing the princes of subject kings of western Asia to Egypt to be trained in Egyptian ways so as to prepare them to replace their fathers upon their death. This policy is laid out in the following text which deals with the tribute from Retenu (Syria-Palestine): "Now the children of the chieftains and their brothers are brought in order to be hostages of Egypt. Now if anyone of these chieftains die, then his majesty will have his son go to assume his throne." References to the presence of the sons of Syro-Canaanite kings in Pharaoh's court and possible allusions to the inauguration of the practice by Thutmose III are found in some of the Amarna letters. Aziru of Amurru, in order to show his loyalty to Egypt says, "I herewith give [my] sons as 2 att[endants] and they are to do what the k[ing, my lord] orders" (EA, 156:9 - 14). Meanwhile, Arasha of Kumidu claimed: "Truly I send my own son to the king, my lord" (EA, 199.15 - 21). Jerusalem's king, Abdu-Heba, maintains that his legitimacy as king was due to his appointment by Pharaoh, stating "neither my father nor my mother put me in this place, but the strong arm of the king brought me into my father's house (EA, 286.10 - 5)." From this statement it might be inferred that Abdu-Heba had been a prince schooled in Egypt before his appointment to the kingship of Jerusalem.

"Perhaps in the absence of a son, or one old enough to be sent to Egypt, a king's brother might be sent to Egypt instead, as Biryawaza of Damascus reports: "[I] herewith [s]end [m]y brother [t]o you" (EA 194.28-32). In addition, the Amarna Letters, and other New Kingdom documents, abound with references to daughters of kings from the Levant, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia going to Egypt to marry the pharaohs to seal a diplomatic marriage.

"Thus, foreign princes and princesses were no strangers to the Egyptian court of New Kingdom. Among the titles of Akhenaten's vizier, the Semitic-named Aper-el, recorded in his recently discovered tomb at Saqqara is hrd n k3p, "child of the nursery" The k3p seems to have been connected to the palaces of Egypt and appears to have had an educational component to them, the mnc or mnct being the tutor. Little is known about this institution in the Middle Kingdom, but it flourished in the New Kingdom and was open to foreigners, Nubians and Semites alike. In a study of the children of the nursery during the Eighteenth Dynasty, Betsy Bryan observes that among them "were also children of foreign rulers who were sent or taken as hostages to Egypt to be 'civilized' and then returned to rule as vassals." She also points out that some of the children of the nursery went on to be court officials, with a few attaining high positions in the government. Aper-el was an alumnus of the k3p, a foreigner, too, who reached the highest administrative post in the land after he or his father came to Egypt as part of the Egyptian program for maintaining its Asian empire.

"According to Bryan, nurseries were located "throughout the country" wherever there were royal residences, and thus the hrdw "were raised in the confines of palaces within Egypt," and they "obviously had advantages not available to many." The picture of Moses in Exodus 2 being taken to the court by a princess where he was reared and educated is quite consistent with the emerging information about the k3p in the New Kingdom, the only period for which there is evidence of foreigners being included in this royal institution." [OT:IIE:142f]

KA Kitchen has consistently pointed out that the technical treaty forms present in the Pentateuch (which only fit in the 2nd millennium), require an author of unique background and one with fairly wide language and political skills:
"How Could Brickfield Slaves Produce International-Format Documents? The particular and special form of covenant evidenced by Exodus-Leviticus and in Deuteronomy (and mirrored in Josh. 24) could not possibly have been reinvented even in the fourteenth/thirteenth centuries by a runaway rabble of brick-making slaves under some uncouth leader no more educated than themselves. The formal agreeing, formatting, and issuing of treaty documents belongs to governments and (in antiquity) to royal courts. Private citizens had no part in, and no firsthand knowledge of, such arcane, diplomatic procedures. Their only role was to hear the content of a treaty (if they were vassals of a suzerain-overlord), and obey it through their own ruler. So also today, treaties are agreed to by heads of state, and implemented by them; and any bills are picked up by the long-suffering taxpayers with never a sight of the original interstate document responsible for the cost.

"So, how come documents such as Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy just happen to embody very closely the framework and order and much of the nature of the contents of such treaties and law collections established by kings and their scribal staffs at court in their respective capital cities in the late second millennium? This is socially and conceptually a million miles away from serfs struggling to build thirteenth-century Pi-Ramesse (and Pithom) in the sweaty, earthy brickfields of Exod. 1:11-14 and 5:6-20! No Hebrew there could know of, or would care about, such high-level diplomatic abstractions.

"Even a runaway rabble inevitably needs a leader. To exploit such concepts and formats for his people's use at that time, the Hebrews' leader would necessarily had to have been in a position to know of such documents at first hand —either because he knew people who shared such information with him or because he was himself involved with such documents. There is no other option.

"In short, to explain what exists in our Hebrew documents we need a Hebrew leader who had had experience of life at the Egyptian court, mainly in the East Delta (hence at Pi-Ramesse), including knowledge of treaty-type documents and their format, as well as of traditional Semitic legal/social usage more familiar to his own folk. In other words, somebody distressingly like that old "hero" of biblical tradition, Moses, is badly needed at this point, to make any sense of the situation as we have it. Or somebody in his position of the same or another name. On the basis of the series of features in Exodus to Deuteronomy that belong to the late second millennium and not later, there is, again, no other viable option. [OT:OROT:295]

"What about upbringing ? Exod. 2:10 notes the full adoption of the boy by his princess patron; that implies his becoming a member of the ruling body of courtiers, officials, and attendants that served the pharaoh as his government leaders under the viziers, treasury chiefs, etc. Such a youth would need to be fully fluent in Egyptian (not just his own West Semitic tongue); so he would be subjected to the Egyptian educational system, learning the hieratic and hieroglyphic scripts. This is typical enough during the New Kingdom, especially in the Nineteenth (Ramesside) Dynasty of the thirteenth century. One may cite a papyrus from the Fayum Harim (under Sethos II, grandson of Ramesses II), in which a leading lady writes to the king: "Useful is my Lord's action in sending me people to be taught and trained to perform this important task. . . . For those here are grown-up children, people like those my Lord sent, able to act, able to receive my training. They are foreigners like those brought to us under Ramesses II your good [fore] father, and they would say, 'We were quite a number in the households of the notables,' and could be trained to do all they were told to do."

"In the Fayum, these youths may have been set to weaving rather than school; but the attitude expressed applies across the board — and its outcome is the considerable number of foreigners (especially Semites and Hurrians) who served at court and beyond. These included the personal cupbearers of Pharaoh (who became his right-hand men, in conducting royal enterprises like temple building, stone quarrying, gem mining, etc.), directors and scribes of the harem, royal seal bearer, court herald, high steward of the chief royal memorial temples, generals, and so on.' A Moses would be simply one among many. Both Sethos I and Ramesses II signed treaties with the Hittite kings; the surviving one of Ramesses II shows the format so familiar in the whole "Hittite" corpus. What is more, the documents in that case were not just sent to Egypt by the Hittites for Egypt's approval. The scribes at both courts produced drafts to be exchanged for mutual approval or amendment before the final document was settled. So anyone in Egypt's "foreign office" would be able to learn of such documents in this epoch. Including a Moses, if there was one, and at court and (as a foreigner, with foreign language potential) quite likely to be in the "foreign" department. This last suggestion has to be just that, but it does explain how a Hebrew leader might later come to use this convenient and appropriate framework for the Sinai covenant." [OT:OROT:297f]

Depending on the timing of the Exodus, of course, Moses would have been familiar with the Amarna correspondence (or other cycles of such reports from abroad) and other documents carrying data about Palestine (e.g., Excretion Texts), and Akkadian would have been part of his background too. Given this, it is no surprise that Moses can have interchanges with the Midian family (probably east of the Gulf of Aqaba, perhaps South Semitic speakers), and write letters to the rulers of Edom, asking for passage.

So, Moses clearly adds a lot to the multi-lingual equation, although he is 'too late to the party' to influence Hebrew itself--it has grown into its form over a couple of centuries before his birth.


The Exodus and Wanderings occur, and the now-led-by-Joshua Israelites are about to enter Canaan. Their Hebrew is a distinct dialect at this point, but still not so far away for the original Canaanite as to not be understood by the locals. They are able to converse with Rahab of Jericho (Josh 1-4), the Gibeonites/Hivites (Josh  9), and later--in Judges--with their temporary captors (e.g., Aram Naharaim, Moab, Philistines, Canaanites from Hazor, Midianites, Amalekites, etc). In fact, the bible describes how they assimilated to the peoples--just like Abraham would have done centuries before (without the polytheism, though):
"The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.  6 They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods." [Jdgs 3.5]

The Phoenicians (by whom  they would have been influenced earlier, pre-Sojourn--remember, Ugaritic is related to Phoenician--and the genre/forms that are often said to have been 'borrowed' from Ugarit are also typically present in Phoenician [REF:BB, the chapter on Phoenician]) would have been a 'resumed' influence. These folks will have been pushed north by this time, though, due to the invasions of the Sea Peoples and/or Philistines to the south coastal area. Israel will still remember its Aramaic, and their hybrid of this will be distinguished from Phoenician and from Aramaic within a couple of centuries--but wasn't at the time of the rise of the monarchy.
"For some centuries Phoenicia was under the economic and quasi-military control of the Egyptian 18th and 19th Dynasties, and Arvad was among the places claimed to have been captured by Tuthmosis III (c. 1485 BC). Nevertheless, the letters written by Rib-Addi of Byblos and Abimilki of Tyre to Amenophis III at Amarna in Egypt show that, by c. 1400 BC, Ṣumur and Berut had disaffected and with Sidon, which appears to have maintained its independence, were blockading Phoenician cities. When the ‘sea-peoples’ invaded the coast c. 1200 BC, Byblos, Arvad and Ugarit were destroyed and the Sidonians fled to Tyre, which now became the principal port, or, as Isaiah claims, the ‘daughter of Sidon’ (23:12)." [NBD3, "Phoenician"

"Within the Canaanite group, Hebrew has a special place, almost half-way between Phoenician and Old Aramaic, and, in its turn, a centre of innovations which spread throughout the neighbouring areas. Although revised over the following centuries, the oldest biblical texts contain sections dating from the twelfth century BCE. Despite its size, however, the Hebrew Bible does not include every Hebrew word from biblical times. The earliest inscriptions in Hebrew date from the tenth century BCE… For H.L. Ginsberg (1970), it is even possible to speak of two contrasting groups, one 'Hebraic' the other 'Phoenic', with the former including Moabite and possibly Ammonite and Edomite as well.” [HI:HHL, 43]

"Part of the Canaanite family of languages, Phoenician bears a great deal of resemblance to ancient Hebrew. It is even possible that Phoenician was Hebrew, a fact that could be masked by different writing schemes." [OT:ITB, 22-24]

"The language spoken in the region [tn: of Phoenicia] is included in the Northwest Semitic group, and is closely related to Hebrew (less so to Aramaic). It can be traced essentially from a local dialectical development of Amorite (also called the Northwest Semitic of the first half of the 2nd millennium), characterized in part by elements that developed indigenously and in part by elements common to Hebrew. — in a number of instances, the word used in Phoenician is the same as, or similar to, the word used in Hebrew poetry or parallelism)." [ISBE]

At the close of the second millennium, the differences between two families, Canaanite and Aramaic, became more pronounced, and both developed independently throughout the first millennium BCE.” [HI:HHL, 3f]

But the Philistines themselves are linguistically 'invisible' to us--and provide no evidence of linguistic innovations in/to Hebrew:
"Could the Philistines write? Of course they could. They must have been able to write. The question arises because we can’t produce a single specimen that can be identified positively as Philistine writing. We don’t even know what language the Philistines spoke. ... We know the Philistines could write because writing was well-known in the ancient world and the Philistines were a great ancient civilization. ... Many large caches of ancient texts have been found by archaeologists, and occasional inscriptions are continually uncovered in excavations. Scholars have identified and translated texts in Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, Hittite, Hebrew, Moabite, Aramaic and Greek, just to name some of the best known Near Eastern languages—but not Philistine. ... The absence of Philistine inscriptions is especially anomalous because we know so much about the Philistines, not only from the Bible, but from innumerable excavations where they left their remains and from the walls of Egyptian temples where they are depicted." [BAR 08:04 (July/Aug 1982). "Did the Philistines Write?", by Robert R. Stieglitz]

And then, as Israel gained ascendency over her neighbors (e.g., Moab), they would be required to learn to language of the victors--archaic Hebrew:
“Moabite is preserved mainly in the inscription of King Mesha (c. 835 BCE), as well as in various small fragments, such as the text from Kerak, and seven (possibly nine) seals. Its similarity to Hebrew in many respects is so striking that it has even been suggested that the Mesha inscription was the work of an Israelite scribe.” [HI:HHL, 42]

What this means is that we would expect to find archaic Canaanite words/forms in the earliest parts of the Hebrew bible--reflecting a dating for the Exodus (later) around the 13th century--and this is indeed the case:
“The end of the second millennium BCE sees the appearance in writing of some of the languages which would later be classed as Canaanite or Aramaic. The oldest parts of the Bible, like the Song of Deborah (Jg 5) and other archaic passages, might originally have been written in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries BCE.” [HI:HHL, 35]

“Though the limited Canaanite literature curtails research into the language, the Ugaritic materials have revealed that many words and phrases in the poetry of the Old Testament, especially the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, are basically Canaanite. Parallel phrases and similarities of poetic structure have helped to establish the antiquity of the Song of Miriam (Exod. 15), the Balaam Oracles (Exod. 22-24), the Blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49), and the Song of Moses (Deut. 33).” [PCE2, 62]

"The upheavals which rearranged the political geography of Syria-Palestine during the transition from LB II to Iron I (that is, about 1400–1200 B.C.E.) produced corresponding changes in the linguistic map. It is probably during this period that Hebrew can be said to have emerged as a distinct language (although the continuity of many earlier Northwest Semitic features must not be ignored). .. Some poetic passages of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exodus 15; Judges 5) have been dated to this early period on the basis of certain archaic features of their language, but no extrabiblical text identifiable as Hebrew survives from this period." [REF:ABD]

In fact, non-biblical evidence (generally inscriptional) supports the 'archaic' substrate (i.e., Iron Age Hebrew)  in much of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew bible:
"The language of these nonbiblical Hebrew texts is not appreciably different from the stratum called Classical Hebrew found throughout the Primary History and in segments of the Major Prophets from the Hebrew Bible. The inscriptional record thus places beyond cavil the conclusion that the MT preserves significant samples of the language of Iron Age Judah in its successive phases." [REF:ABD]

"Biblical Hebrew is the language of the Hebrew Scriptures. ... A variety of related languages and dialects, more or less closely related to Hebrew, were recorded at the time the Hebrew Scriptures were being written. The Iron Age (1200-540 B.c.E.) forms a convenient watershed in the history of Syro-Palestinian languages, though the significance of the year 1200 should not be exaggerated: the earliest Biblical Hebrew had a great deal in common with Ugaritic and Amarna Canaanite. ... The extrabiblical linguistic material from the Iron Age is primarily epigraphic, that is, texts written on hard materials (pottery, stones, walls, etc.). The epigraphic texts from Israelite territory are written in Hebrew, in a form of the language which may be called Inscriptional Hebrew; this "dialect" is not strikingly different from the Hebrew preserved in the Masoretic text." [OT:IBHS:8]

After the period of ascendency, Hebrew will continue to develop and influence, and indeed, after the division of the Kingdom, will itself develop into two dialects: northern and southern. [Remember, the northern kingdom had an 'aggressive' relationship with the Phoenician cities (e.g. Jezebel of Tyre, wife of king Ahab!), although it should be mentioned that David and Solomon had fairly open relations with Tyre during the Temple planning/construction]. One can expect that northern Israelite language to reflect such intense interactions:
"During the Iron Age, Hebrew existed in at least two dialects: northern, or “Israelian” (a term coined by H. L. Ginsberg), and southern, or “Judahite.” Evidence of the northern dialect is epigraphic and spotty; the southern dialect, by contrast, is abundantly attested in inscriptions and much of the text of the Hebrew Bible. ... Israelian Hebrew is the language of the Samaria ostraca, administrative documents written on pottery fragments unearthed during excavation of the northern capital. The ostraca fall into two groups, datable to 795–794 B.C.E. and 776 B.C.E., respectively (Jaroš 1982: 57). Their texts are brief and formulaic, offering a poor sample of the language. But their consistent use of the date formula bšt (h)- (followed by a number or numerals), “In (the) year x,” shows that the language, at least with respect to this formulaic feature, follows the usage of Phoenician as opposed to Judahite, which employs the form šnh for “year” (see DISO, 312–13). Other inscriptions found in the region of the N kingdom may also give evidence of the language (see, e.g., TSSI, vol. 1, pp. 15–20). ... J. W. Wesselius has recently (1987) asserted that the language of the Deir ˓Alla texts is Israelian Hebrew, and that the fragments of a story about Balaam written in ink on plaster found at the site constitute the first-known literary text in the language of the N kingdom. Morphological details of those texts make the argument linguistically problematic, and its acceptance must await the verdict of scholarly judgment. ... With the deportation of the N kingdom in 722 B.C.E., Israelian Hebrew became a negligible dialect, and it eventually vanished altogether." [REF:ABD]

"In a general sense, the emergence of Hebrew as a discrete language corresponded to the emergence of Israel as a discrete polity in the central hill country of Palestine in the last centuries of the second millennium BC. By the tenth century BC, two Hebrew states had been established, Israel to the north in the Samarian hills and portions of central Transjordan and Galilee, and Judah to the south in the Judaean hills with its capital at Jerusalem. The modest corpus of surviving inscriptions from the northern kingdom is sufficient to show that its dialect displayed features that were significantly different from that of Judah, as it is known from a more generous inscriptional corpus and, indeed, from the Hebrew Bible itself." [HI:WAL:320]

As the northern kingdom was influenced by Phoenicia, so too was the southern kingdom later influenced by Assyria and Babylonia. ... And the rest is history...


Now, let's back up a minute and notice something: this pattern of interaction (expected/predicted from the narrative texts of the biblical history) seems to have occurred:
“For example, the Book of Genesis contains many Egyptian expressions as well as a few early Akkadianisms. Numbers, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth contain very early Canaanite words and expressions, as well as some of the oldest Hebrew in the Old Testament, such as the Song of Deborah in Judges 9. The former prophets (1 Samuel through 2 Kings) record some spoken Hebrew of the monarchy. The latter prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) have a vocabulary all their own, with both Aramaic and Babylonian influences. The books of the Persian period (Ezra through Daniel) show a considerable Aramaic influence. “ [NIEBF, 340]

Indeed, the presence of early Aramaisms in some of the early biblical passages has some interesting implications for dating these texts. We know that Genesis 24 in  the Patriarchal narrative , is literally "filled with Aramaisms" [Rendsburg's phrase, JBL, Spring 2002, p.24]. Rendsburg states in the article that these are deliberate, conscious, artistic features, introduced by an author in the 11-10th centuries BC--to lend authenticity to the account.

There are two problems with Rendsburg's  'apply an antique font to the thing' scenario: (1) how much would an Iron Age scribe of monarchic Israel even know about Middle Bronze Aramaisms(!); and, more importantly, (2) why in the world would someone paint such a positive picture of their major enemies of war at that time?!
"Beyond their linguistic value, Aramaic texts are a valuable resource for understanding the historical background of the Bible. That this should be so is clear from its ample references to Israelite interaction with Arameans. According to Deut 26:5, Israel's ancestors were related to the Arameans, a point supported by the genealogies of Genesis, which describe Aram as the grandson of Abraham's brother (22:20-21).2° It is, therefore, hardly surprising to find that the patriarchs interacted with their relatives from that region on several occasions, most notably going there in order to find suitable (i.e. related) wives (Gen 24:1-10; 28:1-5). Both Bethuel and Laban, the fathers of Rebekah and of Leah and Rachel, are called Arameans (Gen 25:20; 31:20). ... During the monarchy period, Israel had numerous and complex relations with the Arameans. Saul is said to have fought them along with several other neighboring peoples (1 Sam 14:47), including the Ammonites, who hired Aramean mercenaries for their conflict with David (2 Sam 10:6-19). He also defeated Hadadezer, the ruler of Zobah (2 Sam 8:3-10). King Solomon fought with Rezon, who fled from Zobah and then ruled over Damascus (1 Kgs 11:23-25). After the Israelite kingdom split near the end of the tenth century, the Israelites were at various times subordinate to (1 Kgs 15:8-20; 20:34; 2 Kgs 10:32; 12:17; 13:7, 22) or dominant over (1 Kgs 20:34; 2 Kgs 13:25) the Arameans."  [REF:BB, 102]

"According to the stories of ancestry in Abraham and Jacob, northern Syria, across the Euphrates, is the cultural and ethnic source for the Israelite and Transjordanian populations. Although this conception serves a later Israelite view, it is not easily explained by first-millennium circumstances. Syria of the Euphrates basin was never directly involved in Israelite affairs, unlike Damascus or even Hamath. Northern Syria has no symbolic value evident for the first millennium, as suggested for Ur of the Chaldeans. Harran was a last refuge of the Neo-Assyrian dynasty and held personal interest for the Babylonian King Nabonidus during the late-seventh and sixth centuries, as pointed out by Van Seters, but this prominence offers a geographical tag at best, even if the accounts are from this period. It is not clear how by its own lights Harran explains the idea of an ethnic link with the southern peoples." [OT:MAB, 230]

"It is rather odd that the patriarch of the ancient Israelites should be identified (in Deut 26.5) with one of their arch enemies--the Arameans." [OT:MAB, 283]
Essentially, this argues for a pre-Judges date for these passages/Aramaisms in Genesis (i.e., before they entered into direct conflict with each other).


So, where does this leave us, relative to the spoken language component?

Well, it looks like there's really no problem here, given the high degree of multilingualism, the constant interaction of languages, the social status/function/background of Abraham, the necessities of day-to-day life of immigrants, and the education of Moses.... 400-600 years is plenty long enough for a pre-existing dialect of Canaan to develop into a more specialized dialect of Canaan (i.e., Hebrew).

[By comparison, my USA English of 2006 is not the same English as would have been spoken/written by Thomas Jefferson back in the 1700's--only three centuries have transpired and I would have difficulty even reading some of his words. And at 600 years, I am into the beginning of the 1400's in England--just before Modern English emerges from Middle English, and just as Chaucer's has written his Canterbury Tales (mostly incomprehensible to a modern English speaker).]

But let's quickly survey the "Part Two" issue--that of scripts.

We have already worked through the spoken language issue, and the script issue is parallel to it, but simpler. "Script is Easy" (cf. Remo's "Down is easy" Indeed, it's not really a problem, since scripts have been known to be adopted "semi-instantly" upon being conquered (or vice-versa)! For example, the Hittite empire did not seem to use writing until it conquered northern Syria, with its Mari-related scribes. It had access to Assyrian traders (with their scripts) for a long time in Anatolia, but didn't seem to adopt it. But the second they conquer this area, they have the scribes there create a hodge-podge script for their language!
"According to our knowledge, Assyrian merchants brought cuneiform to Asia Minor about 1900. They wrote their Old Assyrian letters and documents in cuneiform, in a style which deviated considerable from Old Babylonian. After about 1500 the writing customs in Assyria changed sharply. ... When the Hittites, Luwians, and Paleans came to Asia Minor they were not writing their languages, as far as we know, nor did they even adopt the writing style of the Assyrian merchants. After about 1600, however, some royal inscriptions allow us to recognize the influence of the scribal school in Old Babylonian Mari. " [Soden:36f]

"The principal writing system used for the Hittite language was cuneiform, inherited by the royal scribes of the Hittite capital from a branch of the cuneiform scribal tradition associated with northern Syria. The date and circumstances of its adoption are not uncontroversial, but the generally followed view is that the Old Kingdom monarch Hattusili I (c. 1650-1620) adopted it from scribes captured during his military campaigning in Syria. These scribes adapted the phonetic values of some of the cuneiform signs to accommodate phonemes found in Hittite that were not found in Akkadian or Sumerian, the principal languages for which cuneiform was employed." [REF:BB:186]

So, script adoption can be very easily/quickly done, since it is the province of the scribal class--and not of the ordinary speaker. Scribes can kludge together odd assortments of language and script, as history shows.

In our case, the general flow seems to be something like this:

1. Abraham enters the land writing Akkadian (early 2nd millennium), and begins interacting with the neighboring peoples--one of whom is Phoenicia.

2. It is in THIS specific period that consonantal alphabets, and semi-alphabets emerge (for the first time in history anywhere)--in Palestine (but remember that international correspondence will be in Akkadian for another 700-800 years). They seem to have been influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphics, but changed this by assigning sounds to the symbols, instead of phrases or concepts.

"Around 1800 B.C.E., we find examples of what is commonly called "proto-Canaanite." Because the symbols used to write Proto-Canaanite number around thirty, proto-Canaanite must have been written either in true consonantal writing or in true alphabetic writing, but because the writing system has not been fully decoded, we do not know which of these two systems was used. ... Proto-Canaanite (like other "proto" languages) is a language whose existence is posited to account for later languages. In this case, the Canaanite languages share certain features, and so scholars assume that these Canaanite languages all developed out of an earlier language, proto-Canaanite. ("Canaanite" languages are the languages once spoken in and around ancient Canaan, now parts of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.) Latin could have been called proto-Romance, because the Romance languages (Spanish, French, etc.) share traits that they inherited from Latin. But because so much is known about Latin, it merits a name that defines it beyond the languages that it preceded. By contrast, little is known about proto-Canaanite, and not much more about the earliest proto-Canaanite writings. ... What we do know is that during the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C.E., consonantal writings begin to appear. These writings have been preserved on pottery shards and even on a dagger dating from roughly 3,800 years ago. Though the meanings of these writings have been lost, the writing seems to be consonantal in nature. ... By 1000 B.C.E., however, we see Phoenician writings in what is clearly a consonantal script. ... At any rate, thousands of inscriptions from Byblos (north of Beirut on the Mediterranean shore) dating from the 11th century B.C.E. attest to a fairly standardized 22-letter Phoenician consonantal alphabet. This Phoenician alphabet would continue to be widely used for over half a century, basically in its original form. ... The incredible advantage of a consonantal alphabet such as Phoenician is that only approximately two dozen symbols are required. The major disadvantage is that, because it does not record vowels, it is somewhat difficult to read. This difficulty, the final impediment to a writing system usable by the masses, would be eliminated by the Hebrews, in the first stage of Hebrew writing.  [OT:ITB, 22-24]

“The Proto-Canaanite pictographic texts from Shechem, Gezer, and Lachish (seventeenth to sixteenth centuries BCE), like the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem (c. 1500 BCE), again pictographic, are the oldest examples of alphabetic writing in the Northwest Semitic area. The signs used are often acrophonic, and it is clear that the inventors were acquainted with Egyptian hieroglyphic texts.” [HI:HHL, 17]

"There is general agreement that the alphabetic script was invented by Semites in the Levant sometime between 2000-1700 B.C. Diringer regards the Hyksos as the likely candidates for this honor, but the claim cannot be proved. The actual origin of the alphabet is still shrouded in mystery. One thing is clear: the earliest inscriptions available utilize a fully developed system of writing. The two basic hallmarks of an alphabet, the one-sign, one-sound principle and the acrophonic principle, are present in these inscriptions." [Bible and Spade (1980) Volume 9 (vnp.9.2.41-9.2.43).]

3. The patriarchs might have picked some of this up, since it was such a useful tool for ordinary peoples/exchanges.
"The Canaanite Script. Our knowledge of a script is dependent on inscriptions that provide specimens of it. The specimens of early Canaanite script are limited but are extremely significant. They have all been found in the Levant since 1929 and are comprised of three chronological groups. In the oldest group are three samples, dated in the eighteenth to seventeenth centuries B.C. They are (a) the Gezer Potsherd found in 1929, (b) the Shechem Stone Plaque found in 1934, and (c) the Lachish Dagger discovered in 1934. ... The next group belongs to the late fifteenth to early fourteenth centuries B.C. They are (a) the Oblong Seal of Lachish, uncovered in 1935; (b) a similar seal found at Lachish; (c) Lachish Censer Lid found in 1936; (d) the Lachish Bowl No. 1; (e) the Tell el-Hesi Potsherd discovered in 1891; (f) the Tell el-’Ajjul Pot discovered in 1932; and (g) the Beth-Shemesh Ostracon brought to light in 1930. ... The latest group is from the thirteenth century and includes (a) the Lachish Ewer found in 1934; (b) the Lachish Bowl No. 2 from the same year; (c) Lachish Sherd No. 6, also 1934; (d) a few bowl fragments; (e) Megiddo Golden Bracelet; (f) Jerusalem Temple Foundation Stone Inscription; and (g) the Raddana Jar Handle found near Ramallah in 1969. ... Diringer notes the curious parallel of the first group with the Patriarchal period, the second group with the Conquest, and the last group with the period of the Judges. Although he refrains from claiming that these inscriptions were written by Hebrews, they certainly show that a full-fledged alphabet was being used as a means of recording items of interest during the time contemporary to the events recorded in the Pentateuch. G. E. Mendenhall has observed, “It is not widely enough known that in the time of Moses the Canaanites were familiar with at least eight languages recorded in five completely different systems of writing.” [Bible and Spade,  9:2 (Spring 1980) p. 42]

4. Then, when they re-enter the Land in the Conquest, the alphabetic script of Phoenicia/Canaan has developed  full-blown and is used in Canaan (with variations),  and is then quickly adopted by Hebrew scribes.
"Actually the type of script on the inscriptions definitely known to have been authored by Hebrews was only slightly different from that employed by the older Canaanites. The older signs were more conventional, angular, and pronglike in palaeo-Hebrew; but the consonants were the same, the direction of writing was the same (right to left), and there were no vowels." [Bible and Spade,  9:2 (Spring 1980) p. 45; Tanknote: this might suggest that Israel took the older script with them into Egypt first, and only later adopted the later scripts.]]

"Alphabetic writing began in the Near East during the first half of the second millennium BCE. At that time several writing systems were already used in the area and two of them had already been in existence for approximately 1500 years. In Babylon and Assyria the cuneiform script, which originated from Sumeric hieroglyphs, was used to indicate syllables, words and terms (ideographic writing), and in Egypt hieroglyphs were used to signify words, syllables and consonants. In the second millennium BCE, cuneiform and hieroglyphs were also used for alphabetic writing: that is, writing based on a limited number of signs, each indicating one consonant. Clay tablets discovered in Ugarit, dating from approximately the 14th and 13th centuries BCE, as well as single inscriptions discovered in the land of Israel, dating from the 13th or 12th century BCE, were written in the alphabetic cuneiform. Fragmentary inscriptions from the 17th-12th centuries BCE, in alphabetic hieroglyphs (acrophonic script: that is, a script in which each picture indicates the first consonant of the noun it describes), were also found in Israel. At that period, an Egyptian cultural influence was prevalent in the area. Longer inscriptions in alphabetic hieroglyphs were found in Sinai, in a place called Serabit el-Hadim. They date from the first half of the second millennium BCE. These inscriptions are also known as Proto-Sinaitic, or Proto-Canaanite. The beginnings of this script are unknown and there are several theories regarding its origin. The most widely accepted theory is that it was derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Ugaritic script had 30 signs and the Proto-Canaanite had approximately, which means that both these scripts had more than the 22 signs used in the Hebrew script today. In the ProtoCanaanite script, the lines were written in various directions – upwards, downwards, right and left, as well as backwards and forwards (a way of writing called boustrophedon, meaning 'ox turn' in Greek). The posture of the individual letter-signs was also irregular and they could face different directions. ... Among the linear alphabetic scripts which derived from the ProtoCanaanite script were the Western Semitic scripts – the Phoenician script and its descendants, the Aramaic script and the ancient Hebrew script which Jewish literary sources term Dacatz or Rdatz; the Southern Semitic scripts – the ancient South Arabic script and the Ethiopian script; and the ancient Greek script, from which all the European alphabetic scripts have derived. ... Proto-Canaanite inscriptions from about the 13th century BCE had a smaller number of signs. By that time the number of consonants in the western Canaanite dialects had diminished. Towards the middle of the 11th century BCE the Canaanite hieroglyphs turned into linear letter-signs: that is, each letter was made up of a small number of lines, either straight or bent, and the pictures had become abstract forms. This script was used by the Canaanites who inhabited Phoenicia. Scholars name the Canaanite script of the mid-11th century BCE 'Phoenician script'. At that time the Phoenicians used 22 letter-signs of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet which designated only consonants; vowels were not indicated. Around that time the direction of writing from right to left and the position of the letters were also fixed." [HI:BHS:3ff]

5. Hebrew contributes some innovations to the script (e.g., using some of the consonants as vowel markers), but essentially it was a "don't re-invent the wheel" approach (as was fairly common in such areas in the ANE).
"So as we have seen, by the year 1000 B.C.E., the Phoenicians were writing in a 22-letter consonantal script. Their script represented an enormous improvement over previous syllabic and logographic writing systems, because the 22 letters could be easily learned. However, while it was much easier to write in their script, reading was not so easy, because their system did nothing to indicate the vowels in a word. ... The Hebrews, however, solved this problem. They took three letters, w (now called vav ...  though it was written differently back then), h (now called heh), and y (now called yud), and used them to represent vowels (in addition to their consonantal sounds), as described immediately below. These letters, traditionally called matres lectiones ("mothers of reading"), may originally have been intended as mere aids to reading, for differentiating identically spelled words, but they provided the final piece of the puzzle of writing, completing a process begun 2,500 years earlier. [OT:ITB, 22-24]

"The Israelite tribes who settled in the country were influenced by the Canaanite culture which prevailed in the area of Syria and the land of Israel, and adopted the Canaanite script around the 12th century BCE. The most ancient inscriptions with features differing from the Phoenician script, which are attested in Hebrew inscriptions from then on, are Moabite inscriptions from approximately the middle of the 9th century BCE. The most famous inscription is to be found on a black granite stele erected by Mesha King of Moab, in which Omri King of Israel is mentioned. The fragment of an inscription mentioning Meshes father, Kemoshyat King of Moab, has also been found, as well as another fragment of an inscription in ancient Hebrew letters from approximately the same period. So far no earlier inscriptions in Hebrew script have been found. ... In its early stages, the Hebrew script differed from the Phoenician script mainly in a certain cursive tendency, reflected in the curving to the left of the downstrokes in the 'long-legged' letter-signs, as well as in the consistent use of a Waw with a concave top and of the x-shaped Taw." [HI:BHS:3ff]
So, this is not a real issue (but I don't think your friend is really asking about scripts--just the spoken language)....


Okay, let's try to do some summary:

  1. The family of Terah was originally from Haran (Northwest Mesopotamia), and migrated to Ur (during one of the many Semitic migrations).
  2. They were fairly high in the societies from which they came, and would have been familiar with the nations between Haran and Ur (e.g., Mari).
  3. Abraham's life fits the description of an upper-class patriarch of his day.
  4. He would have been multilingual, with skills in early/proto Aramaic (from Haran), Ebaite (from Haran), Akkadian (from everywhere), and Sumerian (from Ur).
  5. The family likely knew (and associated with) other Semites in UR (some even from Canaan and from Syria).
  6. The family records in Genesis fit the pattern of Mesopotamian tablet sources.
  7. All the nations of the ANE were linked by travel, by trade, and by political alliances--exposure to multiple cultures and languages would have been a constant experience for wealthy merchants (like his family).
  8. Haran was a royal city, in dependence on Ebla, and therefore with the ability to communicate in Eblaite (half way between West and East Semitic).
  9. It also was a major trade-route city.
  10. In Canaan, Abraham was accepted as royalty by locals and foreign leaders, and acted as such.
  11. As an immigrant in Canaan, he would have had to have learned the local language of trade (the international language was Akkadian, which he would have already known).
  12. His children and grandchildren would have grown up in Canaanite language dialects, so learning it was no different than for second-generation immigrants today.
  13. They marry into Canaanite families, and have constant interaction with them.
  14. Hebrew is said to have been spoken by the grandkid Jacob, but it would have looked just like Canaanite (with many other elements mixed in ).
  15. As such, Hebrew didn't develop "from scratch"--it was basically local modifications to an existing language. This increment of change happens in each generation.
  16. [Centuries later, Hebrew and Canaanite will still be close enough to allow communication.]
  17. Arameans are thought today to have come from the oldest Amorites, and biblical names reflect this Amorite heritage. And we know that Old Canaanite language elements had moved to Haran shortly before Abraham/Terah moved there.
  18. Multilingualism (in speech) was everywhere--it was fact of life in the constant migrations, trade and changing political landscapes.
  19. And accordingly Multilingualism in writing was also present, but often restricted to upper-class, who could afford in-house scribes or who could contract them from piece work.
  20. Canaanite language was known in Egypt, as was Hittite and Akkadian (and others).
  21. During the Sojourn in Egypt, Hebrew would have continued to develop, without as much Canaanite influence. It would still have been Canaanite, but its differences would be emerging.
  22. When the Israelite enter Canaan, their language is still close enough for basic communications with the locals--but it is now "Hebrew-Canaanite".
  23. In fact, the dialect differences between Hebrew and Canaanite of this time, might not be any more significant than the differences of dialects between the northern tribes and the southern tribes (after the division of the monarchy).
  24. Overall, the linguistic character of the Hebrew bible exactly fits the events described therein. The elements we expect to find (e.g., Akkadianisms and Aramaisms in Genesis, Ugaritic/Phoenician elements in Judges) are indeed present--there is no 'incompatibility' at all.
  25. The script issue is actually oblique to the question, but it too fits the data well.


So, given all this, I have to conclude that the data we have about language usage, patterns, and adoption in the ANE support the general portrayal of/in the Hebrew bible. Since Hebrew began with a 'borrowed' Canaanite language, the only developments necessary to make it "Hebrew" (i.e., incremental innovations) could easily have occurred in a couple of generations--and we have several centuries in which this could have occurred.

I hope this helps,
Glenn Miller

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