Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi. A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).  Pp. xii + 228. Cloth,  ISBN 0-521-82609-8. US$45.00.

The authors of this guide to Biblical Hebrew (henceforward, BH) syntax have undertaken the task in response to the need of students in seminaries to cultivate an understanding of the subject, given the multifarious demands of seminary curricula, with little time to expend upon the task. The challenge of this circumstance is compounded by the absence of a textbook at the intermediate level, functioning to introduce students to recent developments in the study of BH syntax.

The overview of BH syntax, as opposed to the larger focus on BH grammar, is defined as the study of “the way words, phrases, clauses, and sentences relate to one another in order to create meaning.” The goal is to achieve a comprehensive description of the syntactical relationships that bind the various components of speech together, without the complexities of the extensive discussions found in works directed at students at an advanced level of study. Toward this end, matters pertaining to an elementary understanding of BH morphology and phonology are omitted with allowance for reference, within footnotes, to introductory grammars for those seeking explanation. Also largely omitted is explanation for complex issues of grammar more suited for advanced reference grammars.

The first chapter and the preface articulate the challenges facing the student, the motives of the authors and the resultant features of the guide. The second, third and fourth chapters deal with matters of syntax pertaining to the various constituents of the clause: nouns, verbs and particles. A fifth chapter is concerned with structures of syntax beyond the level of the clause, identifying the relationships that bind clauses and sentences together. Two appendices identify the various verbal stems with their functions. Included at the back of the volume is a glossary for terms relevant to the description of BH syntax, and indices for ease of reference to the various topics and biblical verses quoted for example.

Within each chapter there is adequate explanation for categories and terms employed in the description of the syntactical relationships between the various components of speech. Where appropriate, detail pertaining to the historical development of the Hebrew language within the context of the Semitic languages receives mention in brief. Also under observation, where possible, is the distinction between categories of syntax and semantics. The second chapter offers ample illustration of these last two features. The chapter begins with mention of the occurrence of endings for nouns indicative of case in early Semitic languages, a feature largely lost in the language of the Hebrew Bible. The discussion proceeds with justification for ‘case’ as an appropriate category for the discussion of the syntactical function of nouns within phrases and clauses, before listing the semantic functions within those categories of syntax. For example, the definition of the syntactical category ‘genitive’ in §2.2 occurs prior to the list of semantic functions ‘possession’ and ‘relationship’ in §§2.2.1 and 2.2.2 respectively. The result is an orderly presentation that is mindful of syntax as a feature of grammatical form and/or function, with each category being admissive of one or more semantic functions.

It seems to me, however, that the distinction between syntax and semantics characteristic of the approach just outlined breaks down later in the guide. The identification of subordinate clauses (§5.2) by the authors proceeds with the observation that BH does not always make a formal grammatical distinction between coordinate clauses and subordinate clauses with the deployment of the appropriate particle of conjunction before the clause. On this point, in my estimation, it is best to distinguish grammatical form (e.g., the presence or absence of a subordinating conjunction) and syntax as an independent system of signification from semantic function (substantival, conditional and final clauses in §§5.2.1-3). This distinction allows for the identification of a function pertaining to discourse grammar and pragmatics (continuity and discontinuity in inter-clausal syntax as indicated by consistency and variation in the choice of a clause-type) in the choice to indicate (or not to indicate) the subordinate relationship of a clause to a preceding or following clause. In this manner, the syntactical cohesion (or lack thereof) in a larger unit of text may be comprehended prior to the identification of the semantic structures of meaning that accompany, and perhaps motivate, the structure of syntax.

Closely related to the preceding observation is the absence of a description of the features of syntax pertaining to the cohesion of clauses beyond the level of the sentence. Given the compact nature of the guide and its target readership, it is inevitable that issues of a more complex nature be omitted. Notwithstanding this feature of an intermediate textbook on BH syntax, it is unfortunate that the fifth chapter does not venture beyond the level of the sentence in its discussion of BH syntax. Recent research–for example, consult the volumes edited by R.D. Bergen (Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1994) and W.R. Bodine (Discourse Analysis of Biblical Literature. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995)–has shed much light on how variations in the type of clause in a sequence of clauses delimit boundaries within texts, introduce new characters in narrative, and even mark the climactic moment in a story.

These shortcomings, however, do not diminish the value of the work and its ability to fulfill the functions appropriate to its design. This work by Arnold and Choi is an admirable endeavour that succeeds in meeting the needs of students seeking a concise guide to the essential elements of BH syntax at an affordable price.

Bernon P. Lee
Grace College and Seminary