Usage Determines Pronunciation, Even of Obscure Old Testament Names

My post on Puritan names brings up an incidental point. I have heard preachers and laypeople alike trip up many times over the pronunciation of obscure Old Testament place and people names. I myself recently flubbed “Kibroth-hattaavah” in Sunday School. Who can blame us? These words just aren’t normal!

People often say, however, “I wonder how this word is supposed to be pronounced,” and the impression I get is that they believe the answer comes from a true knowledge of Hebrew or Greek. If I can find out how people in Bible times pronounced a word, I’ll know how I should pronounce it.

But we’re very unlikely to pronounce many ancient names the way they were pronounced by ancient people (and some of them even disagreed!). Our language does not include some of the sounds they commonly used. Pronouncing certain words “correctly” could actually be offensive; people might think you were getting ready to spit.

There’s a better way to pronounce Bible proper names. It starts with recognizing that Kadesh-Barnea, Kiriath-Jearim, and Maher-shalal-hashbaz are now, effectively, English words. It doesn’t matter—for purposes of preaching in English—how they were pronounced by ancient Jews or Greeks. The “right way” to pronounce them is determined by all the Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and—dare I say it—Catholic speakers of English who read the Bible today. What do most of them say? Usage determines pronunciation.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 Comment

  1. Don Johnson on May 27, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Mark, I tell our people to say the name real fast, real confidently, and everyone will think, “so that’s how it’s supposed to sound, I never knew that.”

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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