Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

When translating Exodus, I became intimately familiar with every sentence (it is really a tremendous form of close reading), and I noticed something amazing. The cases where Moses speaks Hebrew, he always speaks in what I would call "Moses speak", a strangely ungrammatical and inelegant Hebrew that is distinguished by various errors from the clean prose it is embedded in.

I preserved these grammar errors as best I could in the Wikisource translation Here's Exodus 32:11:

... Why would Yahweh snarl his lip at your people, which you have taken out of the land of Egypt, in great force and with a strong hand?

Why would the Egyptions say, saying, "In bad faith he took them out, to kill them in the mountains, and to annihilate them from the face of the Earth"? Reconsider your snarling, and have mercy on the evil to your people."

Remember to Abraham to Isaac and to Israel, your servant, those who you swore to them in you, and speak to them: "I will multiply your seed as the stars of the sky, and all this land which I have said, I will give to your seed, and they will inherit, forever.

In Hebrew:

וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָה יְהוָה יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּכֹחַ גָּדוֹל וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים, וּלְכַלֹּתָם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה; שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ, וְהִנָּחֵם עַל-הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּך
זְכֹר לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ, וַתְּדַבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם, אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲכֶם כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם; וְכָל-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי, אֶתֵּן לְזַרְעֲכֶם, וְנָחֲלוּ, לְעֹלָם.

The issues are first that it is extremely clunky, especially compared to the surrounding prose. I tried to make an analogously clunky English, but it is best if you compare the Hebrew to the Hebrew. Second, there are mismatches in grammar and content: "Why would Yahweh snarl his lips at your people", it is adressing Yahwen, but then switches perspective. This could be an honorific, like "Why would your majesty reject your own letter?" But if this is so, it should be "Why would Yahweh snarl your lips at your people". I can't read the "his/your" combo as anything other than a mistake.

Next: "Have mercy on the evil to your people" is not a Hebrew idiom--- it just sounds bad. You should "have mercy on your people", you can "reconsider the evil", but you can't "have mercy on evil", because evil is not something you can be merciful towards.

There are other minor things of this sort throughout the passage, like zechor le-Avraham..., which shouldn't be "remeber to Abraham". I translated it exactly like I read it, but I noticed the unusual cluster of grammar errors.

Although there are occasional grammar errors in the Bible, they are never clustered like this, and they never sound so clunky all together like that.

Later, I notice the same pattern in another Moses dialog passage 33:15:

If your presence will not go, do not take us up from this. 16 And how will it be attested how that I am pleasing to you, me and your people? I mean, in your going with us, and distinguishing us, me and your people, from all the nation which is on the face of the Earth.

אִם-אֵין פָּנֶיךָ הֹלְכִים, אַל-תַּעֲלֵנוּ מִזֶּה. וּבַמֶּה יִוָּדַע אֵפוֹא, כִּי-מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲנִי וְעַמֶּךָ--הֲלוֹא, בְּלֶכְתְּךָ עִמָּנוּ; וְנִפְלִינוּ, אֲנִי וְעַמְּךָ, מִכָּל-הָעָם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה

The clunkiness is apparent right from the start, and its the same inelegant Hebrew style that just sounds like Hebrew as a second language. For an explicit example: "mi-col ha-am" should be "mi-col ha-amim", "halo, be-lechta 'imanu" is just a clunky aside, "we-naphleinu, ani we-amcha" should be rephrased, it's all terrible.

The errors and awkwardness are not preserved in any other translation that I read. I kept it, but I worry I might be over-analyzing things that are too ancient to reliably ascertain grammar errors.

But I remember that there is a Rabbinical tradition that Moses is a clunky speaker, and this is actually mentioned in another passage in Exodus, when Moses asks for a spokesman, and is given Aaron.

I am asking:

  • Am I correct in the broken Hebrew interpretation?
  • Are the translations I give an accurate rendering of the broken-ness, or was there more broken-ness I should have included?

I am not looking for anything that claims that Moses was a historical Egyptian speaking person whose words are recorded faithfully, as I find these claims repugnant to reason and scholarly morality. So please, I don't want ancient Egyptian grammar overlayed on top of the existing Hebrew, or anything like that. I just want to know exactly where the Moses grammar mistakes are.

share|improve this question
Fascinating observation (though I've not actually sat down and run through the translation myself). You've acknowledge the potential for difference due to what would have been an Egyptian education for Moses. Moses himself said that he was a poor speaker (in his argument with the burning bush). I guess the question is left to the source/author of Exodus. If it is, as tradition holds, Moses himself, then wouldn't the poor grammar hold throughout and not contrast so sharply with the "surrounding prose?" –  swasheck Apr 4 '12 at 14:51
sidebar, but fwiw many people speak substantially differently from how they write - especially given that writing gives the opportunity for more thought than does (typically) speaking –  warren Oct 25 '12 at 15:50
I can't say I ever noticed this as something "broken" and not just a style of speech. But I wonder if this does not make sense given that Moses was raised as an Egyptian. For him, Hebrew was a second language. –  conceptualinertia Oct 6 '14 at 16:31
I suspected that this was giving a feeling for what an Egyptian accent or Coptic speaking "Hebrew as a second language" people sounded like. I just wanted to confirm with others who read Hebrew that it's not in my imagination. –  Ron Maimon Oct 6 '14 at 18:34

3 Answers 3

Might be 32:11 rather than 34:11. Classical Hebrew does not include consistency of person or voice in the same way that modern English does. Not only is the language different, the idiom is different. You can see this all over the Psalms - what appear to us to be jarring changes of person, voice and subject within a verse or two. Ex 32:11 sounds fine to me, giving the dramatic impression of clipped sentences blurted out by a character who is under some duress.

Re 33:15, sounds like high poetic style to me. You might be back-reading later usage into the text. "micol ha'amim" is common from the time of the Mishna onwards, but "micol ha'am" is perfectly fine high style. (That's the way I remember a particular minister of immigration from the late 1970's speaking when he wanted to sound bombastic ;-)

I would translate starting from the previous verse, "My presence will go with you and I will relieve your doubts", a really short answer, to which Moses replies with a more specific request, "If your presence is not with us, then don't take us out! And how will I know that I've found favor in your view (rhetorical)? When your presence is with us and you differentiate us from everyone else." To which G-d replies with a detailed promise, followed by an even more surprising request from Moses, "Show me your glory!"

Compare this passage with the story of Avraham negotiating over the fate of Sodom. It's another story of a prophet negotiating with G-d in the middle eastern negotiating tradition, upping the price after each concession. Sound familiar?

None of the classical commentators or midrashim suggest your thesis of the text sounding like Hebrew-as-a-second-language. In the above passages, neither targum Onkelos, Rashi or even Kasuto seem to have much trouble the diction. It's an interesting question that you ask, but I think that the answer is no, the text does not use this type of literary device.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! I wish I knew enough about Hebrew linguistics (or just anything about the language beyond the basics). It does seem likely that if there really were something off about Moses' Hebrew that other commentators would have mentioned it. Would their high regard for the man be a reason? Are their other places where Moses' foibles are highlighted? (I'm just tossing out questions to see if anything helps. If not, just ignore them. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Apr 7 '12 at 23:41

Thank you for validating that Moses was quoted directly. He said himself that he was not eloquent. As Rashi said, "heavy of mouth: I speak with difficulty, and in old French, it is balbu, stammerer."

Ex 4:10 ¶ And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I [am] not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I [am] slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.

It is great when internal evidence validates the accuracy and authority of the scriptures.

share|improve this answer
My bias in approaching the Bible is that I believe that it exists in a form today sufficiently intact to be considered infallible. That apparent contradictions are intentional riddles designed to guide us in focusing on different aspects of Christ. That sensus plenior exists in a form which is discernible in a verifiable, and reproducible manner. And that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him. I am unashamed in believing in 6-day creation, a literal Adam and Eve and a universal Flood. It is very satisfying to see the Bible validated by antagonists. Thanks again. –  Bob Jones Jun 14 '12 at 5:52

I have been studying languages for a long time and does not mean that I am an expert.

I can only share that the Torah was not written in Hebrew because Hebrew is only a spoken language in the Old Testament. There was no writing system in Hebrew, the writing system was invented by the Masoretes in 1000 AD which is pattern after the Aramaic script.

The only writing system extant at the time of Moses is the Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

The Torah was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs then translated to Aramaic then to Greek then to Latin/Hebrew.

share|improve this answer

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

Hebrew was a written language in an older alphabet before the 2nd century or whenever the aramaic alphabet was standardized. The ancient writing system is well known in the field. You are assuming that Moses wrote it, which is absurd. The text was written around 6-10th century BC, perhaps likeliest in the time of Ezra, in the pre-Aramaic Hebrew alphabet. The speech of Moses is still strangely rendered, and sounds ungrammatical. –  Ron Maimon Oct 4 '14 at 7:32
This does not answer the question. Also, this is nonsense! –  curiousdannii Oct 5 '14 at 1:21
That Hebrew was a written language in the BC time is well established in the field. The Masoretes established the vowel points used today, but they already had a written language. Look up Paleo Hebrew to see what it looked like in the time of the kings. –  Frank Luke Oct 6 '14 at 13:31

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.