Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

E.J. Revell, The Designation of the Individual: Expressive Usage in Biblical Narrative (Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology, 14; Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1996). Pp. 432. Cloth, US$45.67. ISBN 90-390-0161-8.

This book is a “must” read for biblical scholars. It is grounded in sound linguistic methodology and abundant in exegetical insights that result from a close reading of the Hebrew Bible. As the author notes at the end of his book (p.382), if biblical scholars are interested in what the text meant and in using the linguistic clues of the text to decipher this meaning, then it is absolutely imperative to obtain knowledge of these clues. Revell has produced a volume that provides a virtual repertoire of such information.

It is essentially a work on Biblical Hebrew linguistics, but Revell has generally avoided the use of abstract linguistic terminology, thus producing a volume that is accessible to a much wider audience. The study “describes and analyzes the way individual characters are referred to or addressed in the biblical narratives” (p.11). It considers designations in all three persons, singular and plural. The corpus of study includes Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings, which are regarded as a relatively homogeneous narrative. It is a study based on a linguistic approach that exhaustively analyzes the data so that one cannot accuse the author of “cherry-picking” examples to prove a thesis. Revell deals with all the evidence, even the difficult evidence, which very infrequently resists his description. Although the book is a model of sound methodology, the results of the study are obviously provisional, being limited to the narrative of three books.

Revell tackles two fundamental problems in biblical studies directly. First, scholars often concern themselves not with the text as it is but with an assumed text. Frequently, evidence used to prove such a reconstructed text comes from the different ways participants in the text are designated. For example “man of God,” “Elijah the prophet” and “Elijah” are all used to track a particular participant in portions of Kings, with scholars concluding that variation in designation reflects variation in sources. This may well be true, but Revell studies the text as it is to see how participants are tracked in the narrative and thus determine whether or not there is a coherent linguistic system for such identifications. His study clearly proves that there is one for this corpus.

The second problem dealt with in the book is the vague term “emphasis,” which is invoked by commentators as a kind of panacea for all kinds of observations of oddities in the biblical text. Revell prefers the phrase ‘expressive usage’. Usage is expressive when a number of factors are determined: the social situation in which the term occurs, “the range of terms available for use in that situation, and the extent to which the term chosen is consistent with the usage expected in that situation or is unexpected” (p.18). He demonstrates the difference between that expressive usage that is marked and therefore “immediate for” or “central to the concerns of ” a speaker, and non-expressive usage, which is unmarked. Revell clearly puts the study of features like emphasis on a sounder linguistic footing.

Revell begins with a study of the structure of Israelite society and the designation of its members, since much of the linguistic data in the text is shown to be socio-linguistic and depends on the social roles of speakers and their addressees. Thus it is important to note the difference between a king and a servant, since there are linguistic forms of deference and status, which would be unintelligible unless one is aware of the social context. One of the significant finds of Revell is shown at the end of the book when he observes that the first person singular pronouns ('anoki and 'ani) are not free variants, but are motivated by social situation. The short form marks immediacy. Consequently in the mouth of the speaker it draws attention of the listener and marks the speaker as socially superior. When the long form is used, the speaker shares a more egalitarian status with the addressee.

Revell deals with the ways participants in narrative are tracked. He describes various types of designations proceeding from the compound type (usually a personal name with an epithet), which mark extreme referentiality, to the simple forms (names or various nominals) to the simplest (pronouns). In narrative he finds the general pattern: A major participant being introduced with a compound designation followed by the use of a simple designation or pronoun. Immediacy is marked by renominalization, frequently when a new phase of action occurs. This often occurs in dialogue. A particularly striking example is found when the names of David and Saul are repeated in four successive speeches (1 Sam. 17:32-37). The feature also happens in action settings such as the scene when the expression “Jabin, King of Canaan” is repeated in three successive clauses to show his complete defeat (Judg. 4:23-24). Renominalizaton also may indicate the reintroduction of a participant in a narrative after a lapse of his or her appearance, or it may highlight one act in a series (Judg. 4:18). This is an important point because previous linguistic studies (e.g., Longacre) often assume renominalization of a verbal subject to indicate a new thematic division such as a paragraph. But this is only one function of such a linguistic feature.

Another interesting result in the study is the variation of usage for rulers and kings. When they are represented as agents of an action, their personal names are used; when patients, their titles. When there is reason to stress the status of the ruler, this rule is ignored. This shows an important principle of usage, i.e., a clause reflects the viewpoint of the subject. At the same time it is clear from the usage in the explicit narrative sections that the narrator's viewpoint intrudes. For example, Saul is treated differently than David. He receives a compound designation only once in an ironic context in which lack of respect is shown for him (1 Sam 18:6). When his royal title is used in other situations it ironically indicates that Saul is not functioning as a legitimate king (e.g., 1 Sam 22). This is an extremely important point that perhaps could have been highlighted more in the book. Not only is a designation significant, but also its absence. For example the fact that David is rarely designated “King” in 2 Samuel 11-12 speaks volumes about the narrator's understanding of kingship.

Revell shows that when a priest's title is not used in an address to him, lack of respect is shown. Moreover when compound designations of God are used, instead of a simple one, a study of the context indicates that attention is being directed to the deity. This certainly has ramifications for texts outside the corpus.

Revell addresses the number of verbal forms with collective nouns and then with compound nominals. He shatters the assumption that the use of the plural verb with a collective noun indicates that the writer was thinking of the collective as a number of individuals. What determines the plural form of the verb is expressive usage. Moreover, it marks the verbal action of the collective noun as foreground (a singular verb with a collective is thus background). The use of the singular verb at the beginning of a series (introductory background) and the use of the plural verb to continue a series (sequential foreground) (cf. 1 Sam 12:18-19; 2 Kgs 23:30) is thus explained. Similar background/foreground constraints affect the use of a singular verb with compound nominals. The singular verb marks the first noun of the compound construction as thematic actor in ensuing narrative.

Number variation in the first and second person forms are analyzed. A first person singular pronoun sometimes is used in a speech delivered by a plural group and the plural pronoun is occasionally used by a single speaker. Revell is able to show that the relative social status of speakers and addressees determine this usage. Similarly when an individual is addressed in the second person with a plural verb, it is a delicate way of communicating information, showing deference to a superior. Conversely a group may be addressed by a singular verb in order “to heighten the impact of the speech on individual members,” thus underlining the urgency of the speech.

The final chapters deal with the use of deferential speech and vocatives. They illustrate the importance of socio-linguistic conventions. Whereas the use of the 2nd person in conversation between two individuals marks the speech as close and personal, the use of the third person by one party marks the speech as distant and respectful. Lack of respect can be shown, for example, when Michal addresses David as the king of Israel and not as “You” after his dance before the ark (2 Sam 6:20). The use of the third person deliberately conveys Michal's coldness to her husband's public display. Similarly when David uses the third person and deferential forms to address Saul after the latter has called him “My son,” it is clearly “a disdainful rebuff.” Such a comparison of deferential speech is interesting when Revell compares this to divine-human communication: The same socio-linguistic conventions do not operate on this level. According to the author this is because the speech on this level is so personal it approaches that used in a family. “Such distanced presentation was evidently so foreign to so personal a relationship.”

As is evident throughout the book, the author would not have been able to produce this work if he had not expanded the traditional linguistic domain of the sentence to the text, and also taken note of the social context of situation. Thus, this book is able to show the importance of discourse analysis or text linguistics and socio-linguistics for understanding Biblical Hebrew. It is not surprising, therefore that Revell uses the categories of foreground and background to explain the grammatical phenomena of singular nouns with plural verbs and compound nouns with singular verbs. This is a feature which needs to be taken into consideration by more grammars of the language (Van der Merwe et al. is a recent exception).

The positions advanced in the book bear exegetical significance. The above examples of interchanges between David and Michal and David and her father show how important knowledge of linguistic conventions is for understanding the text. Even a sophisticated commentator like Fokkelman seems to miss the significance of David's response to Saul--and many interpreters might think that Michal is still being respectful to her husband in her comments. But this is to confuse the standards of usage in our society with that of ancient Israel.

This book should serve as a call for similar explorations of other parts of the biblical corpus. I couldn't help but think of the application of some of Revell's insights to variation in the use of the 2nd person singular and plural forms to the vexed problem these forms pose in the book of Deuteronomy.

Stephen G. Dempster, Atlantic Baptist University