Why alphabetical order varies slightly in Hebrew (and why this matters)

The Hebrew alphabet in the conventional order. Read right to left, top to bottom. ‘Ayin and pe are at the far right and second from right, respectively, in the fourth row.

The Hebrew alphabet developed out of the Phoenician alphabet and it generally follows the same order for the letters.  However, there is evidence in the Hebrew Bible of a slight variation in which the order of the sixteenth and seventeenth letters, ‘ayin and pe, is reversed.  This is significant, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

We know about these different orders because about a dozen compositions in the Bible are acrostics, in which consecutive lines (or half-lines, or pairs of lines, etc.) begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

In Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145, in the first poem in Lamentations, and in the poem about a noble wife at the end of Proverbs, ‘ayin precedes pe.

But in Psalm 9-10, in the second, third, and fourth poems in Lamentations, and in the Septuagint text of the poem about a noble wife, the pe line precedes the ‘ayin line.

So why the occasional variation in alphabetical order in the case of these two letters, as attested by these few compositions?  Many different theories have been advanced; I’m most convinced by the one that Julius Boehmer proposed over a hundred years ago.  He suggested that alphabetically consecutive pairs of letters that formed two-letter words—these are relatively rare in Hebrew—were used in magical texts:  ‘ab (father), gad (good fortune), hu’ (him), etc.  No two-letter words could be formed from samek + ‘ayin, the fifteenth and sixteenth letters in the conventional order. But transposing ‘ayin and pe yielded sap (basin, goblet) and ‘ets (wood).

If the order of ‘ayin and pe was reversed for these purposes, this could have led to a second alphabetical order coming into limited circulation.  This alternative order is seemingly reflected in a few biblical acrostics. But of course the biblical authors were using it without any magical intent.  And that is where we see the significance of this other order.

If Boehmer’s theory is true,* this would be one more example of how the biblical authors made use of the cultural goods they found around them to tell the story of God’s dealings with their own community, appropriating and redeploying those goods without prejudice as to their origins or previous uses.  Psalm 29, for example, depicts Yahweh as a storm god, using language that might previously have been applied to Baal—the imagery certainly was.  Canaanite temples had three parts: an outer court, an inner sanctuary, and a most holy place at their core; Israel’s tabernacle and temple followed this same pattern.

Clearly God and the people of God, according to the way their story is told in the Bible, were not bothered by the idea that certain forms or images might have been somehow “tainted” by associations with idolatry.  Psalm 24 proclaims that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and in the case of the alphabet, that might even include an order that originally arose from a desire to create magical incantations.  These possible origins don’t taint the letters; as an alphabet, they’re simply a neutral tool that can be used to tell the story of God, even as part of the inspired Scriptures.

So we today are free to use cultural forms, images, stories, and designs from a variety of sources in order to communicate the message about God’s work in our world in ways that our listeners will find accessible and meaningful.  So long as we do not duplicate any previous message that is contrary to God’s purposes, the forms are freely available for our use.  “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

*While Boehmer’s proposal is now over a hundred years old, I do not feel that any more plausible explanation has been advanced.  For a survey of the issue, see Homer Heater, “Structure and Meaning in Lamentations,” Vital Old Testament Issues (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), pp. 157-159, available online at this link.