Northern Dialect and Southern Dialect

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Istanbul Museums

The book of Numbers opens with a divine command to Moses: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army. One man from each tribe, each of them the head of his family, is to help you.” With this information, the tribes would be positioned for Israel’s travels in the desert. 

When Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the tribes would similarly be divided and settled in different regions. In the Joshua 15, Judah was allotted land in the south, and in Joshua 16, Ephraim and Manasseh were settled to the north.

Linguistics, the scientific study of language, tells us that languages, when isolated from each other, can evolve into distinct dialects and, over extended periods, into entirely different languages. This phenomenon is evident in the development of German dialects and in the evolution of Latin into the Romance languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian. Similarly, during the Iron II period, Hebrew exhibited variations in pronunciation and vocabulary, indicative of emerging dialects, including those of northern Israelite and southern Judahite communities.

A biblical illustration of this divide is found in the story of Jephthah’s conflict with the Ephraimites in Judges 12. When the Gileadites demanded that fleeing Ephraimites pronounce the word “Shibboleth,” their inability to articulate the “sh” sound, saying “Sibboleth” instead, revealed their regional identity. “The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’ ” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.”

The narrative and poetic compositions within the Bible further illuminate the northern origin of certain texts. The Song of Deborah in Judges 5, celebrating a victory in the northern region and emphasizing the roles of northern tribes, exemplifies this. Similarly, the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, along with the prophecies of Hoshea, are rooted in the north, reflecting the cultural and linguistic nuances of the region.

The Samaria Ostraca are a collection of over 100 inscriptions on clay shards that were found in Sebastia, near today’s Nablus, the site of the ancient royal estate of the Kingdom of Israel. These inscriptions, written in ancient Hebrew on pottery shards, provide tangible evidence of these dialectical differences.

The image above is of the Samaria Ostraca, which provide evidence for a northern Hebrew dialect that differs from its southern counterpart in Judah.