The language of daily commerce and interaction in Nehemiah’s Jerusalem was Aramaic. But Nehemiah was very passionate about Hebrew. He even cursed, beat, and pulled out the hair of some fathers whose children hadn’t been taught Hebrew. Why?
In Nehemiah chapter 8, we read of a day when a great crowd of people camped out in Jerusalem. Part of the day’s program was for the crowd to listen to a reading of the Law of Moses.
The readers were the priest Ezra and his assistants. Verse 8 (ESV) adds:
“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, [b] and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading…”
Footnote [b] reads “Or with interpretation, or paragraph by paragraph.”
The “Law of God” must mean some portion of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), since the time allocated for the reading was about half a day (v3) and all the people were standing (v5).
What is the meaning of the words “gave the sense” (v8) and “with interpretation” (footnote b)?
Bible scholar F F Bruce, tells us that the word translated ‘interpretation,’ is the Hebrew word mephorash, and that it
“… is the exact equivalent of the Aramaic mepharash, which was actually employed as a technical term in the diplomatic service of the Persian Empire to denote the procedure when an official read an Aramaic document straight off in the vernacular language of the particular province concerned. (The Aramaic term occurs in Ezra 4. 18, where R.V. margin rightly reads ‘translated.’)”[i]
Targum. The ‘reading’ included not only translation into Aramaic, but also explanation in Aramaic. Bruce says this may be “the earliest recorded example of a targum or oral paraphrase of the Hebrew text of scripture.”
The official language of the Persian empire was Aramaic. This is why in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the footnotes often mention Aramaic. Very little of the OT is in Aramaic. This is where the text is in Aramaic: Jeremiah 10:11; Daniel 2:4-7:28; Ezra 4:8-6,18; 7:12-26.
The language of Abraham and of his grand-nephew Laban was Aramaic, while that of his grandson Jacob, in Canaan, was ‘the lip of Canaan,’ which we know as Hebrew. This is why Laban and Jacob gave different names to the pillar of memorial they erected, to mark their treaty of peace, described in Genesis 31:47
Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed.
An insight into the use of Hebrew and Aramaic can be gleaned from the narrative in 2 Kings 18:17-37. This passage records how the Assyrian Rabshakeh (‘chief noble’) whose army surrounded Jerusalem spoke loudly in Hebrew to King Hezekiah’s emissaries to urge them to surrender. Wary that citizens on the walls might hear him and be discouraged, the emissaries asked him to speak in Aramaic, the language of diplomacy, not in Hebrew, “the language of Judah” (v26).
About 115 years later, an event occurred which forced a reversal of the language of the people of Judah.
AIn 586 BC, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon destroyed the (first) Temple. And he exiled most of Judah’s population. This was when the people of Jerusalem/Judah became displaced and had to begin using Aramaic, the language of Assyria (ancient Syria) – though the words of the prophets of the period, such as Jeremiah, were recorded in Hebrew.
Now I return to Nehemiah. Nehemiah 13 tells us Nehemiah became very incensed that about half the children born to returned exiles who had married local women could not speak “the language of Judah.” He was so mad, he cursed them and beat them and pulled out their hair (13:25)!
Why was Nehemiah so annoyed that the children didn’t speak Hebrew?
Because there was no translation of the scriptures into the local language. It was important for the nation to have many who were fluent in Hebrew, so they could learn, obey and teach the will of God (Ezra 7:10).
[i] Bible scholar F Charles Fensham, citing H H Schaeder, tells us that
“The root prs [in mephorash] means “to break up” and this may refer to the breaking up of the language while it is translated. We must recognize that the Jews who spoke Aramaic needed someone to translate the Hebrew of the law for them in their own vernacular.”