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Sounds of Silence in Biblical Hebrew: A Lexical Study

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AbstractThis article explores the semantic resources of biblical Hebrew, when it comes to speaking about silence. The aim is to reach more clarity concerning the sense and function of pertinent lexemes, and to contribute to a better understanding of the “semantic field” of silence. It is demonstrated that biblical Hebrew had several verbs with the sense “to be silent” (= abstain from speech), but no noun corresponding to the English word “silence” (denoting a situation characterized by the absence of speech or by the complete lack of audible sounds). However, the domains of silence and stillness overlap. Thus, when the biblical writers wanted to describe a situation of “silence”, they could choose one of several words associated with the wider concept of stillness.

1. Barrado Pedro "“El silencio en el Antiguo Testamento: Aproximación a un símbolo ambiguo.”" Estudios Biblicos 1997 Vol 55 1 5 27
2. Blau J. "“Über Homonyme und angeblich homonyme Wurzeln”" VT 1956 Vol 6 241 248
3. Baumann A. Botterweck J. , Ringgren H. "“ דָמָה dāmāh II”" Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 1978 Vol vol. III Grand Rapids Eerdmans 260 265 (first published in German [1977] in: Botterweck, J. and H. Ringgren [eds.], Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testamentvol. II, pp. 278-283)
4. Bois Reiner de Towards a New Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew Based on Semantic Domains Paper held at SBL, 2000 [ , at March 16, 2011]
5. Bois Reiner de "Lexicography and Cognitive Linquistics: Hebrew Metaphors from a Cognitive Perspective" DavarLogos 2004 Vol 3 2 97 116
6. Cohen David Dictionnaire des racines sémitiques ou attestées dans les langues sémitiques 1994 Leuven Peeters Fasc. 4
7. Dahood M. "“Textual Problems in Isaiah”" CBQ 1960 Vol 22 400 409
8. Eidevall Göran Eidevall G. , Scheuer B. "“Horeb Revisited: Reflections on the Theophany in 1 Kings 19”" Enigmas and Images: Studies in Honor of Tryggve N. D. Mettinger 2011 Winona Lake Eisenbrauns 92 111 ConBOTS 58;
9. Levine Baruch "“Silence, Sound, and the Phenomenology of Mourning in Biblical Israel”" JANES 1993 Vol 22 89 106
10. Murtonen A. Hebrew in its West Semitic Setting. Part One: A Comparative Lexicon 1989 Leiden Brill
11. Newsom Carol Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition 1985 Atlanta, GA Scholars HSS 27;
12. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English 2010 8th ed. Oxford University Press
13. Schick G. V. "“The stems dum and damam in Hebrew”" JBL 1913 Vol 32 219 243
14. Torresan Paolo "“Silence in the Bible”" The Jewish Bible Quarterly 2003 Vol 31 3 153 160
15. Torresan Paolo "“Dumah, demamah e dumiyyah: Il silenzio e l’esperanza del sacro nella Bibbia ebraica”" Bibbia e oriente 2004 Vol 46 2 85 101
16. Van der Merwe , Christo H. J. Lemaire A. "Biblical Exegesis, Cognitive Linguistics and Hypertext" Congress Volume Leiden 2006 Leiden Brill 255 280 VTSup 109;
17. FN1 1)I will occasionally use the term “semantic field”, mainly because it has been deployed in previous studies of this topic. However, this usage does not entail a commitment to some version of semantic field theory.
18. FN2 2)The first definition of “silence” given by the Oxford Advanced Learned Dictionary(s.v.) is “a complete lack of noise or sound”.
19. FN3 3)The second definition of “silence” in the Oxford Advanced Learned Dictionaryis: “a situation when nobody is speaking”.
20. FN4 4)For a representative example of this genre, see Torresan, 2003. For references to literature relating to theological aspects of the theme of silence in the Hebrew Bible, see Torresan, 2004, pp. 85-86, n. 2 (a footnote that covers almost two full pages!).
21. FN5 5)See the studies of Schick (1913), Baumann (1978 [1977]), Levine (1993), and Barrado (1997).
22. FN6 6)For practical reasons, I will cite the English version of Baumann’s article, although it originally appeared in German.
23. FN7 7)Baumann, p. 260.
24. FN8 8)Somewhat confusingly, Baumann (pp. 261-62) refers to this verb as “ charash”, without making any explicit differentiation between homonyms.
25. FN9 9)Baumann, p. 261.
26. FN10 10)Baumann, p. 262.
27. FN11 11)Baumann, p. 261.
28. FN12 12)As regards the biblical texts, this has been demonstrated by Torresan (2004), who lists an impressive amount of different kinds of situations where words or phrases related to silence are employed. Interestingly, Torresan’s main focus lies on the stems dmm/ dmh/ dwm.
29. FN13 13)Barrado (1997).
30. FN14 14)These are the subdivisions made by Barrado, and used by him as headings in the article (in my translation): the narrative silence; the administrative silence; silence in diverse situations; the impossible silence; silence/muteness in combination with other physical defects; the silence of fear and shame; the silence of resignation and impotence; the silence of Sheol and death; God’s silence; silence related to negative aspects; silence as a sign of wisdom; the numinous and reverent silence.
31. FN15 15)Three dictionaries have been used throughout this study: DCH, Ges 18 , and HALOT. In addition, it would have been interesting to integrate results from the promising project called the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (SDBH, accessible at, with its focus on semantic domains. However, at present a majority of the lexemes discussed in this study are not covered by SDBH. For the principles behind this new online dictionary, one of them being that the traditional distinction between dictionary and encyclopedia cannot be upheld, see de Blois (2000; 2004) and Van der Merwe (2006).
32. FN16 16)I have thus included a number of lexemes linked to the verbal stems dmm/ dmh/ dwm, although some of them do not denote “silence”, according to my analysis. However, among potentially relevant verbs in biblical Hebrew I have decided to exclude one of the most frequent, šqṭ. The main reasons are: 1) recent lexica do not suggest that this verb carries the sense “be silent” (not speak), and 2) this lexicographic decision was confirmed by my analysis of the passages where this verb occurs. One may note, though, that bible translations occasionally opt for “be silent” or the like, as regards the following attestations of šqṭ: Ps 83:2 (Qal); Isa 62:1 (Qal); Job 34:29 (to be read as Hiphil or as Qal?).
33. FN17 17)Judg 3:19; Neh 8:11; Amos 6:10; 8:3; Hab 2:20; Zeph 1:7; Zech 2:17.
34. FN18 18)Cf. Barrado, p. 25.
35. FN19 19)Or twice, if הסו in Neh 8:11 is counted as a Qal form of this verb. Thus DCH(s.v.).
36. FN20 20)The basic sense is probably “to bind”. See HALOTand Ges 18 , s.v.
37. FN21 21)Thus all dictionaries. Personally, I think ḥšhis onomatopoetic, reproducing the “sh” sound that seems to be more or less universal in its function to indicate silence.
38. FN22 22)Judg 18:9; 1 Kgs 22:3; 2 Kgs 7:9. For these cases, HALOT(s.v.) gives the sense “hesitate”. However, I am hesitant to give my consent, since “be still, inactive” fits the context equally well in each case.
39. FN23 23)Baumann, p. 262.
40. FN24 24)In addition to the verbs ḥšh, ḥrš, and dmm(and in addition to the obvious possibility of using a verb meaning “to speak” together with a negation), the biblical authors could also use expressions of the type “shut one’s mouth” (e.g., Isa 52:14) or “put one’s hand over one’s mouth” (e.g., Judg 18:19) in order to describe a person as not speaking, or as not communicating. For a more detailed discussion of the use of this type of expressions, see Barrado, pp. 12-23.
41. FN25 25)So also Ges 18 (“sich beruhigen”) and DCH(“become quiet”). HALOT(s.v.) gives the sense “grow silent” for štq. However, its German Vorlage(HALAT) has “zur Ruhe kommen”, which I find more accurate.
42. FN26 26)See DCHand HALOT, s.v.
43. FN27 27)It should be noted that Ges 18 differs from the other dictionaries also in another respect, as it refers to this homonym as חרשׁ 3.
44. FN28 28)See Ges 18 , s.v.
45. FN29 29)Several other translations would seem to follow the lead of the Septuagint, in their way of rendering ḥršII. See, e.g., NRSV (“do not hold your peace”) and NASB (“do not be silent”).
46. FN30 30)Against the background of the extensive discussion of ḥršII above, the purported contrast between this verb and ḥšhcannot be upheld. According to Baumann (pp. 261-62), ḥšhis associated with passivity, whereas ḥrš“emphasizes active, intentional silence” (p. 262). But the word “intentional” could also be used about ḥšh! Indeed, as we have seen, this is a more fitting characterization of ḥšhthan of ḥršII, since the latter verb, in Qal, sometimes denotes a physical disability (deafness).
47. FN31 31)Arguably, this text is informed by a “holy war” ideology according to which the deity wins the war on his own, while the people can remain passive. Whether these spectators are allowed to speak or not is beside the point. Commentators and translators are, however, divided on this issue. Cf. NASB (“keep silent”), NIV (“be still”), and NRSV (“keep still”).
48. FN32 32)For the sake of completeness, one should also mention the Hitpael form of ḥršII in Judg 16:2 (denoting silence or, more likely, inactivity), and what looks like an adverbial use of a noun ḥereš(חֶרֶשׁ) in Jos 2:1 (translated “secretly” by NRSV).
49. FN33 33) Ges 18 lists two homonyms, HALOTthree, and DCHfour.
50. FN34 34)This critique is also applicable to the alleged stem dmhIII in DCH. The position taken here, regarding the number of homonyms and their lexical senses, coincides largely with that of Ges 18 .
51. FN35 35)See Ges 18 and HALOT, s.v. Cf. the studies of Dahood (1960), Levine (1993). Cf. also Blau, pp. 242-43. Things have developed during the last century. In 1913, Schick described the situation like this: “A comparison of the translations which the leading Hebrew dictionaries give for the stem דמם shows that they unanimously assign to it the meaning to be silent.” (Schick, p. 219, emphasis as in the orig.) See further Cohen (p. 274), who lists nine(!) different DMM stems in various Semitic languages.
52. FN36 36)Thus also HALOT(s.v.), whereas DCHpresents “be silent” as the primary sense. The first entry for this verb in Ges 18 is connected to a state of terrified stupor, “erstarren vor Schreck, bestürzt sein”, whereas the second entry relates to stillness and silence: “sich still halten, schweigen”. For the idea that “be silent” is a secondary sense of dmm, cf. Murtonen, p. 151: “The primary meaning does not seem to be absolute silence, but consequences of a stunning or exhausting experience of which silence or more or less quiet moaning is one”.
53. FN37 37)Other instances where this verb means “be still” include Pss 4:4; 62:6; Isa 23:2.
54. FN38 38)For such an interpretation of Lev 10:3 and Amos 5:13, se Levine, pp. 89-90, 96.
55. FN39 39) HALOTand DCHgive the sense “silence”. Ges 18 has similarly “Stillschweigen”.
56. FN40 40) HALOTlists the senses “quiet”, “silence”, and “silently”; DCHhas similarly “silence” or “in silence”; Ges 18 has “still, stumm”.
57. FN41 41) HALOThas both “silence” and “rest”, Ges 18 only “Schweigen”. Similarly DCH. However, in addition, DCHintroduces a homonym, דּוּמִיָּה II, with the alleged senses “response” and “satisfaction”.
58. FN42 42)For references to the literature, especially as regards the meaning of dĕmāmâin 1 Kgs 19:12, see Torresan, 2004, pp. 85-86, n. 2; cf. also p. 97, n. 108. See also Eidevall, pp. 104-108.
59. FN43 43)See HALOTand Ges 18 , s.v. I have translated the definition of Ges 18 . In the German original, it reads “Ruhe nach dem Sturm”.
60. FN44 44)Thus Levine, pp. 101-102.
61. FN45 45)See DCH, s.v. DCHlists a number of occurrences of dĕmāmâin the Dead Sea Scrolls. In most cases, the sense seems to be something like “whisper” (speaking/singing with a low voice). However, this does not prove that דממה carried that sense in biblical Hebrew. Rather, it gives us valuable information concerning early stages of interpretation of some biblical texts. On a closer examination, all the attestations from Qumran (mainly from the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice) seem to be dependent on one or two of the biblical attestations of dĕmāmâ, and in particular on 1 Kgs 19:12. Apparently assuming that Elijah heard a celestial voice on the holy mountain, the author(s) of the Sabbatical Songs repeatedly used the expression דממת קול (“sound of stillness”) in descriptions of the angelic praise of YHWH in heaven. See Eidevall, p. 106. Cf. also Newsom, p. 313.
62. FN46 46) Ges 18 gives these two senses: “Ruhe nach dem Sturm, Säuseln”. The idea that Elijah heard the sound of a breeze goes back to the Septuagint’s translation of 1 Kgs 19:12: φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς. Cf. NASB: “a sound of a gentle blowing”.
63. FN47 47)Alternatively, rûaḥrefers to a spirit. Cf. the discussion in Levine, pp. 101-102.
64. FN48 48)For this interpretation, see further Eidevall, p. 107.

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