Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Barrick, W. Boyd., BMH as Body Language: A Lexical and Iconographical Study of the Word BMH When not a Reference to Cultic Phenomena in Biblical and Post-Biblical Hebrew (LHBOTS, 477; London, New York: T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. xiii+193. Hardcover. £65. ISBN 9780567026583.

In this highly researched monograph, Barrick seeks to establish the meaning of the term bmh when it appears in non-cultic contexts in the Hebrew Bible and in Post-Biblical Hebrew. Barrick utilizes a methodology that comprises both lexical study and an examination of ancient Near Eastern artifacts. The latter is claimed to contribute to understanding the mythological usage of the term in its ancient cultural context. Barrick contends that the traditional understanding of the term as “high place” may be inaccurate when the term appears in non-cultic contexts. He then suggests ways that this information may affect the traditional understanding of the term when it is used in cultic contexts as well. Using information drawn from cognate languages and both Biblical and Post-Biblical Hebrew, Barrick posits that the non-cultic, or “secular” cases point toward an anatomical meaning for the term. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this monograph is Barrick's attempt to resolve the quandary presented by a term that is seen to exhibit a topographical meaning in cultic contexts and an anatomical meaning in so-called “secular” contexts.

Barrick begins chapter 1 by critiquing the history of interpretation of the term bmh. He claims that the usual translation of the Hebrew word bmh as “high place” in English, beginning with Coverdale, harks back to the Vulgate, where it is brought into the Latin as excelsus. The Latin term signifies high-ness, be it metaphorical or concrete. Barrick then notes that modern scholars have carried on with the concrete topographical understanding, even though there is no known verbal root in Hebrew for bmh, depending instead upon a hypothetical root meaning “to be high.” The reconstruction of the hypothetical root is but the first of a plethora of complicated philological analyses that are a hallmark of this volume, making it a highly technical read.

Barrick carries on, describing cognate Akkadian and Ugaritic philological discoveries from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to Barrick, Akkadian lexicographers saw the topographical plural bamâtu as cognate with bmh, translating it as “summits” or “heights.” Similarly, when the Ugaritic term bmt was discovered in the early twentieth century, it also was seen as “heights.” W. F. Albright's translation, which associated the term bmt with the Akkadian term bamtu, meaning “back” or “trunk,” soon replaced this translation of the Ugaritic term bmt. Nonetheless, Barrick notes that some form of topographical or anatomical high-ness is involved with efforts to explain the nature of bmh in relation to the eighty of one hundred plus occurrences of bmh in the MT that refer to places where cultic acts were performed. He also notes that, according to the biblical examples, bmh were not necessarily built on hills, nor is there enough archaeological evidence to claim they were built upon natural elevations. Hence, Barrick is keen to overturn the traditional understanding. However, he does not propose a plausible alternative at this point in the volume.

Barrick sees two main problems with the traditional understanding. He addresses both from the perspective of “root meaning,” as discussed by James Barr.[1] First, he agrees with Barr, who claims that while the etymology of a given word can reveal the past history and meaning of the word and give clues to its sense in a text, it is insufficient to claim that this sense is to be applied to the term in every known usage. Secondly, Barrick refers to Barr's claim that a “root meaning” is either “a historic statement referring to origins” or “an abstract statement generalizing the meanings [of a word] in usage.”[2] Since the etymological evidence is thin (as mentioned above, the Hebrew root has been reconstructed: there are no actual examples) the second option must be considered. However, as Barrick observes, consolidating the evidence has occurred via the exegetical tradition that was influenced by the Vulgate rather than by a careful study of the terms as they are used in the original Hebrew text.

Thus, in this volume Barrick seeks to rectify the situation by examining the textual evidence in which the term bmh is found in non-cultic or “secular” settings. Chapter 2 is devoted to cognate evidence from Semitic sources and from Greek. Chapter 3 covers Biblical and Post-Biblical Hebrew evidence. Chapter 4 discusses possible exceptions and chapter 5 moves the discussion in a theoretical direction with sections on Semantic Speculation and Etymological Speculation. A brief introduction to each of these chapters is now in order.

In chapter 2, Barrick collates evidence from Semitic sources (Ugaritic, Akkadian and Eblaite) and from the Greek. The first Semitic possibility is the Ugaritic term bmt. Barrick explains that bmt is used as an anatomical term, although the specific area of the body is debatable. He engages with the views of several scholars, including W. F. Albright and P. H. Vaughan (whose work Barrick has declared “unsatisfactory” in the preface to this volume).[3] Examples range from CAT 4.247, which is an inventory of foodstuffs that includes a list of various cuts of meat, to CAT 1.5 VI II–25, which describes El's self-mutilation upon hearing the news of Baal's death. Again, each example is argued in detail, including copious footnotes. The second Semitic possibility comprises two Akkadian terms: bamtu and bamâtu. Here the evidence is clearer: bamtu is an anatomical term while bamâtu is a topographical term.

Finally, Barrick brings in the Greek term βωμός, which is the standard Greek term for “altar.” In this conversation, Barrick engages with the findings of Vaughn, examining how βωμός, as a Semitic loan word, might have found its way into Greek vocabulary, and with those of J. P. Brown, who thinks the reverse might be true.[4] At this point, Barrick includes a rather lengthy historical and philological discussion regarding known sacrificial practices in both the Semitic and Greek cultures. Because this discussion focuses upon sacrificial issues, it detracts somewhat from his goal of examining the non-cultic uses of bmh. More relevant to the subject at hand is the use of the Greek term βωμός as a translational equivalent of bmh in the Septuagint, which is an important part of Vaughn's work. Barrick concludes that the Ugaritic term bmt and the Akkadian term bamtu are likely to be etymologically related, and that on this basis, the “secular” Hebrew bmh is likely to belong to the same etymological family, sharing an anatomical meaning (p. 33). He then speculates about how the Akkadian term bamâtu might fit with the previous terms. While this chapter contributes some valuable information for Barrick's overall thesis, it would be useful if the overwhelming amount of philological, historical and cultural evidence were presented in a more orderly fashion, something that might be accomplished by adding more introductory and summary sentences at the section and paragraph levels.

In chapter 3, Barrick examines the biblical and post-biblical examples of the “secular” term bmh. In many ways, this is the heart of the thesis. His goal is “…to locate the ‘secular’ bmh within the semantic matrix demarked by…other Semitic words” (p. 36). Here Barrick is referring to the anatomical terms: Akkadian, bamtu and Ugaritic, bmt mentioned above. To these he adds the Eblaite term bu-ma-tum. The relationship with the Akkadian topographical term bamâtu is also to be explored.

The Hebrew evidence consists of eighteen passages in the MT and Qumran texts (fifteen occurrences and three duplicates), while the post-biblical evidence consists of passages from Ben Sirach, and Qumran biblical and non-biblical texts. The passages are unevenly grouped into eight sections. Unfortunately, the lack of strong introductory sentences at the section level leaves the reader struggling to understand the rationale for the inclusion of certain examples in each set: are they grouped based upon historical information, literary context, topic or other criteria? (Both historical and topical information are important to Barrick's thesis). Secondarily, how does each section relate to the others? These are key issues for following Barrick's line of reasoning.

Chapter 3, section A includes Deut 33:29; 1QM 12.10 (and 19[1Q33].2 and 4QMb[4Q492]1.3–4); and Sir 9:2. Barrick assigns an early date to Deut 33:29 and gives it an anatomical meaning based upon contextual information: the passage describes a defeated enemy cowering at the feet of the victor. He declares that 1QM 12.10 (and 19[1Q33].2 and 4QMb[4Q492]1.3–4) are of later origination but are conceptually identical. He then notes that Deut 33:29 and Sir 9:2 share a metaphorical idiom, based upon the idea “to have mastery over.”

Section B is meant to deal with Job 9:8b. However, Barrick dives into this section with a five page exposition regarding the mythological understandings of Canaan. The first example of the use of iconographic evidence, Figure 2, The “Baal au Foudre” from Ugarit, is used to illustrate mythological concepts from the greater ANE context. Only then does Barrick associate the Ugaritic myth of Baal's victory over the sea-god Yamm with Job 9:8b. For this section in particular, a strong introductory sentence would help to steer the reader through a maze of linguistic and iconographic information.

In section C, Barrick explores the relationship between the descriptions of the theophanic coming of Yahweh in Mic 1:3 and Amos 4:13 and the ANE Storm God imagery where gods such as Adad, Hadad, Baal, and Teshub, are described in the same literary terms. Barrick concludes that Israel's poets shared a similar mythopoeic pattern with their ANE counterparts. This section includes Figure 3, a drawing of the Hittite deities carved in rock walls at Yazilikaya, which provides visual information for integrating ANE sources with biblical text. Section D explores the theophanic tradition in Hab 3:19 and 2 Sam 22(Ps 18):34.

In Chapter 3, section E (Deut 32:13a; Isa 58:14aβ–bα; Sir 46:9b; and 4QpsEzekb 4.12 Song), Barrick discusses dating issues surrounding the Song of Moses and discusses a posssible mythic dimension to the term bmh in these examples. Sections F (Isa 14:14a) and G (1QIsaiaha 53.9a) also present various linguistic arguments regarding the term bmh in their respective contexts. The text in section H (4QShirShabb[4Q492] 1.2.2) has the distinction of being a newly published text. It does not, however, bring clarity to the discussion.

After reviewing the evidence, Barrick come to several conclusions. First, he explains that the examples point toward an anatomical use of the term bmh in non-cultic usage. Secondly, when the term is used topographically, it is in a mythological sense that Israel may have inherited from the vocabulary of the surrounding cultures. Finally, the “secular” bmh is found in the plural construct, while this form is never found when the term is used in a cultic sense.

Since, according to Barrick, the examples in chapter 3 fail to provide evidence in support of the traditional topographical understanding of the term bmt, he devotes chapter 4 to the six remaining examples in order to discover evidence of semantic development in this direction. In this chapter he analyses Mic 3:12b(Jer 26:18bβ; Num 21:28; Ezek 36:2 and 2 Sam 1:19a and 1:25b. Although 2 Sam 1:19a and 1:25b are most likely to support an anatomical understanding or the alternative option (the term is comparable to the topographical Akkadian bamâtu), Barrick finds the evidence presented in these two examples to be too weak to support the traditional topographical understanding of the term bmh. He then declares “…it must be concluded that that understanding rests upon no sure evidential foundation and must be abandoned” (p. 106).

In chapter 5, Barrick draws his thesis to its conclusion. In section A, he engages in semantic speculation regarding the meaning of the “secular” bmh. Barrick notes that in his 1997 study, J. A. Emerton does not try to advance a “primary” meaning of this word, but rather rejects the idea. Additionally, in agreement with both Barr and Barrick, Emerton thinks that known usage should be the determining factor.[5] While Emerton is more cautious, Barrick is comfortable with drawing some preliminary conclusions from the word bmh in these examples of actual usage. First, he asserts that the examples support a primarily anatomical meaning. Secondly, he notes that the specific part of the body referred to by the term has undergone semantic development from “back,” (similar to the Ugaritic cognate) to “body” by the time of the first temple. Third, the term has significant mythological overtones. Finally, topographical references are most likely metaphorical, thus a topographical meaning cannot be sustained.

In section B, Barrick engages in etymological speculation from three perspectives. First, he discusses the consonantal spelling of bmh, secondly he addresses the vocalization of bm(w)ti and, finally, he addresses the treatment of the term bmh in the LXX and Targums. He draws several conclusions. For example, he addresses the consonantal spelling of bmh, claiming that the “secular” term is actually a masculine noun from the root bmt, whereas the cultic term is the feminine noun bmh. Additionally, he claims that the Hebrew noun bmt would be cognate to Eblaite, Ugaritic and Akkadian terms that exhibit an anatomical meaning. Finally, in section C, Barrick discusses these findings as they might relate to the meaning of bmh when in reference to a cultic phenomena. If there are indeed two roots, and if the “secular” root carries an anatomical or mythological meaning while the cultic root is ambiguous in meaning, it is necessary to establish the connection between the two terms and to establish the semantic priority of the “secular” term before such a meaning can be attributed to the cultic term. Barrick is clear in his claim that this cannot be sustained, stating, “the quest for the biblical ‘bamoth’ (sensu stricto) in or as ‘high places’ of any sort has no evidential basis and must be abandoned” (p. 120).

Barrick's thesis is well-argued, in that he engages with myriad academic sources and delves into all sides of the argument, whether linguistic, cultural or historical. His research is thorough and extremely well-documented. However, whether or not the traditional understanding of “bamoth” as “high places” will give way to a new rendering is still up for debate. While Barrick argues effectively that the term is ambiguous with regard to heights or high-ness, he fails to present a convincing alternative translation. With regard to presentation, the main problem is the aforementioned lack of consistent introductory sentences at the section level: at times the reader is compelled to read an entire section before the thrust of the section is obvious. Because of the volume of technical information and advanced argumentation in each section, the lack of introductory sentences results in a rather difficult read at times. Thus, this is a volume for the serious scholar. ANE scholars, particularly those interested in historical philology and cultural studies, will appreciate this volume, as will those interested in Hebrew lexicography.

Elizabeth Hayes, Fuller Seminary Northwest, Seattle WA

[1] J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 100. reference

[2] Barr, Semantics, 158. reference

[3] W. F. Albright, “More Light on the Canaanite Epic of Aleyan Baal and Mot,” BASOR 50 (1933), 13–20; P. H. Vaughan, The Meaning of “bāâ” in the Old Testament (SOTSMS, 3; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 6. reference

[4] Vaughn, Meaning, 22; J. P. Brown, “The Sacrificial Cult and its Critique in Greek and Hebrew (II),” JSS 25 (1980): 1–21. reference

[5] John A. Emerton, “Biblical High Place in Light of Recent Study,” PEQ 129 (1997): 116–132. reference