The Preposition “Beth” In The Hebrew Psalter -- By: Mark D. Futato

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 41:1 (Fall 1978)
Article: The Preposition “Beth” In The Hebrew Psalter
Author: Mark D. Futato


The Preposition “Beth” In The Hebrew Psalter

Mark D. Futato

That the Hebrew preposition b means both “In” and “from” is considered to be a firmly established fact among Semitists, according to Nahum Sarna.1 “There is no need to multiply examples since the meaning ‘from’ for both b and l in Hebrew is widely received,” says Mitchell Dahood.2 Apparently this phenomenon was first recognized in the tenth century A.D. Saadia, a pioneer Hebrew grammarian among the Jews, formulated “the functional interchange” of the prepositions b and min in the Hebrew Bible.3

Centuries later the work of Saadia has seemingly been confirmed. The source of confirmation has come from the discoveyr and decipherment of Ugaritic. Ugaritic lacks the preposition min which means “from” in Hebrew. It is obvious enough that the concept of separation or removal needs some vehicle of expression in Ugaritic in spite of the absence of min. In 1934 Charles Virolleaud expressed the idea that in the absence of min, b and l expressed “from” in Ugaritic.4 H. L. Ginsberg suggested that b, and l would have had one pronunciation when meaning “in” or “to” and another when meaning “from.” (This view never gained general acceptance.) Several years later (1941) C. H. Gordon posited that b had two opposite meanings viz. “in” and “from.” Subsequently in The Ugaritic Manual (1955) Gordon cited this same phenomenon as occurring in the Hebrew Bible. This then is a brief account of how the preposition b has been accorded the meaning of “from” in the Hebrew Bible among most Senlitists.

I say “most” for this point of view is not uncontroverted. Initial criticism was leveled by E. F. Sutcliffe in 1955. Sutcliffe draws an analogy with the use of prepositions in French. The sentence, Il l’a pris sur la table, would translate into English as, He took it from the table. It is clear, however, that sur means “on/over” and not “from” in French. Another example is the following: Il l’a pris dans sa pouche, would translate, He took it from his pocket; although dans certainly means “in” and not “from” in French. Therefore with regard to both the French prepositions sur and dans as well as the Hebrew/Ugaritic prepositions b and l Sutcliffe says, “The conclusion to which we are lead is that neither preposition ‘means’ from, but that b...

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