While many Hebrew students pay close attention to the vowel pointings of the Masoretic Text (MT), many more overlook them altogether. However, if students were paying close enough attention to the vowel pointing, they would see that the Hebrew vowels sometime lengthen in places that one would not expect. This vowel change becomes troublesome to alert Hebrew students because the “box” or “paradigm” they learned for a certain ending doesn’t match what they see in the MT. Perhaps an example will be good here.
In class a few weeks ago, we were studying Deuteronomy 4:3. Here’s the Hebrew text…
עֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ הָֽרֹאֹ֔ת אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה בְּבַ֣עַל פְּע֑וֹר כִּ֣י כָל־הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הָלַךְ֙ אַחֲרֵ֣י בַֽעַל־פְּע֔וֹר הִשְׁמִיד֛וֹ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ מִקִּרְבֶּֽךָ׃
The word that I want to look closely at is the last word of the verse, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ. This word is the combination of the segolate noun קֶ֫רֶב with the מִן preposition (the נ of the מִן having assimilated into the ק), and the 2ms pronominal suffix. However, the question is whether this is the 2ms suffix on a singular noun (ךָ ְ) or whether this is a 2ms suffix on a plural noun (יךָ ֶ). If it is singular, then the word has a segol rather than a vocal shewa. If it is plural, then the word is missing a yod, the evidence of a historic long vowel. Why on earth does Hebrew want to change the vowel pointing that we teach elementary Hebrew students?
Well, I’m glad you asked, because this particular word exhibits characteristics of any word in any language that may be used in song lyrics or musical notation. Let me now give you an English example to point out what I mean.
In the final verse of Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” the lyrics say this,
“Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Due to the musical notation and flow of the song, when we sing these lines, we typically say, “Love so amazing, so DEE-EEVINE.” In other words, we take a short “i” sound of “DiVINE” and make it a long “e” sound because the musical phrasing has forced us vocally to adjust the pronunciation. Now, we obviously don’t have accent marks in English to help us do this, we just do it. In Hebrew, the Masoretes have preserved this kind of musical phenomenon so that we have direction for memorizing the Hebrew text through cantillation.
In the Hebrew text above, the word in question (מִקִּרְבֶּךָ) indeed carries the 2ms suffix on a singular noun. The reason we get a segol rather than a vocal shewa is because the form is “pausal.” Pausal forms are word forms that change their vowel pattern (usually by lengthening a short vowel or by revealing the original vowel of a ‘reduced’ vocal shewa) because of a heavy disjunctive accent, in this case, a silluq. Many pausal forms will also occur with an athnach accent.
While the seemingly flippant change of vowels in Hebrew may be frustrating at first, we must be reminded that apart from English being our heart language, pronunciation issues like this would trip us up as well. If they trip us up, how much more would they confuse an outsider? Think if someone was trying to learn English and they just learned the word “divine.” They attend church on Sunday morning and hear “dee-eevine.” They wonder the same thing we wonder about Hebrew accents, “Why did they just change that vowel sound?” Well, it’s a phenomenon of lyrical language. It’s not Hebrew being mean to you.
Deuteronomy 4:3 is a small example of many (many!!!) more in the Hebrew Bible. Russell Fuller (Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, forthcoming) points out that the Masoretic accents were intended for singing the Scriptures. Therefore, we should expect that the location of the accents may adjust the pronunciation of certain words depending on where they fall in the lyrical notation. These pausal forms may or may not be exegetically important. However, a proper understanding of this use of the Masoretic accents certainly helps relieve some of the frustration with learning why the Hebrew vowels do what they do. Remember, it’s not Hebrew being mean to you. It’s just how lyrical language works.