For over a thousand years, students of the Hebrew Bible have been intrigued by the fact that some words in the text occur only once. Medieval Jewish manuscripts mark these unique forms with the Hebrew letter lamed, an abbreviation for the Aramaic word layt, which means “there is no other.” The Masoretes, medieval scholars who sought to preserve and fix the text in its authentic form, made lists of such words, presumably for the benefit of scribes who might otherwise have thought the words wrong just because they were unique. Medieval Jewish interpreters of the Bible described words for which they could find no parallel as “one of a kind,” having no “friend,” “brother,” or even “father and mother.”
Modern scholars too have been impressed with such words in the Bible. They call them hapax legomena (singular, hapax legomenon, which means “once said” in Greek).1 The term was first used by pre-Christian Greeks to identify rare words in their own classic literature.
The most reliable way to determine the meaning of a Hebrew word, or one in any language for that matter, is from its contexts, seeing how it is used in different settings. Different contexts, however, are precisely what hapax legomena lack. Since each occurs only once, each has only one context from which its meaning can be inferred.
Useful insights as to the meaning of a rare Hebrew word can sometimes be derived from ancient translations, which, because they were produced at a time closer to the biblical writings, reflect knowledge not available to us. Unfortunately, this approach is problematic. The ancient translators’ Hebrew text may have been different from ours, or the translators may simply have guessed at the meaning of a word they did not know.
Over the ages, scholars have tried several approaches to the problem of translating a word with only one context. One approach has been to correlate a rare word with other, more common terms. Since similar-sounding letters, such as b and p or d and t sometimes interchange in Hebrew, medieval scholars equated words containing one of these letters with seemingly different words having the other member of the pair.
For example, Lamentations describes how God has k-p-sh me in ashes (3:16). K-p-sh is a hapax legomenon; we don’t know for sure what it means. One conjecture is that it means God has “covered” me with ashes. This is the King James translation. Several scholars, however, have compared the root k-p-sh with the more common and well-known root k-b-sh, which means “subdue.” These scholars suggest that k-b-sh. may be an otherwise unattested variant of k-b-sh. On this basis, the New Jewish Publication Society translation, for example, tells us that God has “ground [i.e., subdued] me into the ashes.”
029Claiming that rare words are often the result of scribal error, modern scholars sometimes correct such “mistakes” on the basis of manuscript evidence or sometimes even pure hypothesis. Thus, in one well-known instance, scholars have puzzled for centuries over the meaning of the root n-l-h in Isaiah 33:1, where the prophet warns that treachery awaits the evildoer when he “n-l-h” his treachery. “n-l-h” is a hapax legomenon without a known meaning. The meaning “finished” seems clearly required by the context, so scholars have suggested that “n-l-h” is really a scribal error for “k-l-h,” which in fact does mean “finish.” In ancient Hebrew script the signs for k and n are very similar and could easily have been confused by an early scribe.
Finding cognates in related languages is still another way to generate additional contexts for unique words. In the Middle Ages, these cognates were usually found in rabbinic or even Arabic texts. Today, archaeologists have provided a far wider array of resources from which to choose, including such ancient Semitic languages as Akkadian, Ugaritic and Eblaite. Cognates are not, however, completely reliable. For example, the German word sterben means “die”; its English cognate is “starve.” The meanings are obviously not identical.
Describing the importance of the Ugaritic texts discovered about half a century ago, one scholar has written: “The meaning of words occurring only once in the Hebrew Bible … but fairly frequently in Ugaritic can now be determined with reasonable certainty.”2 Recent discoveries have not proven as helpful in unlocking the meaning of hapax legomena as this quotation suggests, however. Few inscriptions of any length have been discovered in ancient Hebrew to which we can compare biblical hapax legomena. Even dramatic finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls have not been very helpful in this area. The modern discovery and decipherment of Akkadian, the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians in the second and first pre-Christian millennia, has provided information crucial for understanding only a handful of all the Bible’s hapax legomena verbs. Ugaritic, referred to above, has proved critical in unlocking the meaning of only two hapax legomena verbs. This is not to say that information from these languages is unimportant; indeed, it has proven quite valuable in helping us understand the cultural environment of the ancient Near East in which the Bible was written, and even in gaining a clear insight into the meaning of many biblical words. But the usefulness of these languages for translating hapax legomena is limited, simply because most hapax legomena had been understood before these ancient languages were discovered and deciphered.
Although one might expect that it would be more difficult to understand and translate words for which there is only one context, this is not always the case. Sometimes the information available from a single context is more than sufficient. The verb
Other biblical hapax legomena were used by the ancient rabbis rather familiarly, suggesting that their meanings were clear enough at that time. Indeed, where cognates are useful, the most productive source has been early rabbinic literature (in both Hebrew and Aramaic), which has been known since antiquity. When one adds Arabic, familiar to biblical scholars since at least the Middle Ages, it is easy to see why past students of the Bible have had relatively little difficulty with hapax legomena. Despite scholars’ longstanding fascination with words that occur only once, most such words are not particularly obscure or difficult. In fact, ancient, medieval and modern scholars alike agree as to the meaning of many such words—not the sort of treatment one would expect for words no one really understands.
How many hapax legomena are there? Scholars have produced several lists, but no two agree exactly. There are several reasons for this. First, one must decide what to do with words that themselves occur only once but are related to other, more frequent words. Can the English word sing truly be considered a hapax legomenon if it occurs alongside the word song? To avoid such confusion, scholars generally distinguish absolute hapax legomena, which are not related to any other words, from non-absolute hapax legomena, which are. More difficult problems in identifying hapax legomena are posed by those passages that are repeated in the Bible. Chronicles, for example, contains much of the material found in Kings, while Psalm 18 is essentially the same as 2 Samuel 22. Similarly, the description of the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 35–39 uses almost exactly the same words God previously used to command its construction in Exodus 25–31. Where a word occurs in two identical passages and nowhere else, such as the words commonly translated “ledge” in Exodus 27:5 and 38:4, “ivory” in 1 Kings 10:22 and 2 Chronicles 9:21, and “ankle” in 2 Samuel 22:37 and Psalm 18:37, it is easy to understand why some people might regard them as occurring only once—they have only one context—whereas others would say they occur twice. Other disagreements are caused by words that occur several times but only in one biblical passage; the word for “sack” appears 14 times in Genesis 43–44 but nowhere else; “sweep” occurs twice in Isaiah 14:23 but nowhere else.
Once these technical problems have been 030resolved, it is possible to draw up a list of the Bible’s hapax legomena.
The Hebrew Bible contains about 300 absolute hapax legomena and over 1,200 non-absolute hapax legomena, the present number depending on how you define the term.
From a list of hapax legomena, we also learn that these words are not spread evenly throughout the Bible but rather are concentrated in certain books. The Song of Songs,a for example, has a larger proportion of such words than any other book of the Bible; Chronicles, a historical book, contains the fewest. Poetic books consistently have more hapax legomena than do prose books. This is hardly surprising, given poetry’s tendency to use less common language. One can carry this analysis further: The book of Job has the second highest proportion of hapax legomena of all books in the Bible; even within this book, however, rare words are distributed in identifiable patterns. God uses hapax legomena four times more often than Job does, whose own speeches contain more hapax legomena than any of his three friends. It seems both reasonable and appropriate that God’s vocabulary is more erudite than that of mortals.
Why some words occur only once has also been a cause for much discussion. Medieval scholars considered this an accident. But we know these words must have been understood, or biblical authors would not have used them. The fact that they are rare simply demonstrates that only a small fraction of ancient Israelite literature has survived.
In fact, the reason for a word’s frequency lies neither with Hebrew nor with the Bible. All texts, indeed all bodies of linguistic material, whether written or oral, contain a certain number of words that occur only once. The Hebrew Bible’s 300 or so absolute hapax legomena represent roughly one quarter of the Bible’s total vocabulary. In the context of other literatures, this is a relatively small proportion. For example, 55 percent of the words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and 47 percent of those in Mark’s Gospel are hapax legomena. These differences result, in part, from the Hebrew Bible’s much larger size. The longer a work, the more likely that previously used words will be repeated, even as new, hitherto unused words are added. In any event, the Bible clearly does not contain an unduly large proportion of rare words.
While it is true that the Bible comprises only a small part of ancient Israelite literature (the Bible itself mentions other books, as in Joshua 10:13), a certain proportion of the vocabulary in any work—typically between one third and two thirds—will, by statistical necessity, be rare. (About 60 percent of the words in this article occur only once!) Hapax legomena are simply a fact of linguistic life.
Statisticians have shown that words that are rare in part of a language, such as in a particular book, are probably rare in the language as a whole. This does not mean they are necessarily difficult. English words like aspirin or zebra occur much less frequently than book or table, yet we understand them equally well. The words brother, see and half occur only once in this article but are not likely to have caused problems for most readers. Some words are rare by nature. One cannot, therefore, assume that a word has been miscopied just because it is infrequent. In fact, biblical scholars often rely on the working principle that where one must choose between two possible readings, the more difficult should be preferred, since scribes are more likely to have “corrected” a rare word they thought was wrong than to have “created” a new word by miscopying one that is common.
All this is not to say that we understand every word in the Bible (obviously, the opposite is the case), only that rare words are not necessarily difficult. Indeed, the meaning of common terms can sometimes be quite problematic. The noun ahavah, which is derived from a well-known root meaning “to love,” occurs about 40 times in the Hebrew Bible; yet some scholars have suggested it should be translated “leather” in Song of Songs 3:10, so that it will fit with the other more concrete descriptions in that verse. As a result, one occurrence of a common word which seemed perfectly clear can be turned into a hapax legomenon. Of course, we cannot prove whether such an interpretation is correct or not. (Of the recent translation I examined, only the New English Bible seems to accept it.)
For all the attention hapax legomena have attracted, the fact that each occurs only once would seem to be a less useful datum than scholars over the past thousand years have thought.
For over a thousand years, students of the Hebrew Bible have been intrigued by the fact that some words in the text occur only once. Medieval Jewish manuscripts mark these unique forms with the Hebrew letter lamed, an abbreviation for the Aramaic word layt, which means “there is no other.” The Masoretes, medieval scholars who sought to preserve and fix the text in its authentic form, made lists of such words, presumably for the benefit of scribes who might otherwise have thought the words wrong just because they were unique. Medieval Jewish interpreters of the Bible described words for […]