Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Notarius, Tania, The Verb in Archaic Biblical Poetry: A Discursive, Typological, and Historical Investigation of the Tense System (Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics, 68; Leiden: Brill, 2013). Pp. xix + 351. Hardback. €125.00. ISBN 978-90-04-25336-0.

This work is a revision of Notarius's 2007 Hebrew University dissertation. In it she aims to advance the discussion of the Biblical Hebrew verbal system on several fronts, including semantics and discourse-pragmatics, poetic employment of the verbal forms, and diachronic change in the system. The work is divided into three parts. In the first, she introduces the relevant issues and some history of the analysis of the Biblical Hebrew verbal system, and she sets out her methodology. In the second, she analyzes the traditional corpus of “archaic” Biblical Hebrew poems, including, treated in the following order: Deuteronomy 32, Exodus 15, Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22, Genesis 49, Balaam's oracles in Numbers 23–24, Deuteronomy 33, and 1 Sam 2:1–10; in the third, she discusses her methodology of identifying archaic elements and summarizes her findings in this regard from the corpus of “archaic” poems.

As stated in her subtitle, Notarius approaches the corpus of archaic poems discursively (i.e., through discourse analysis), typologically, and historically. Discursively, she adopts Carlota Smith's theory of discourse modes,[1] adding to Smith's list of five modes (narrative, report, description, information, and argument) four additional speech modes: hymnal, prophetic, proverbial, and quoted (pp. 51–52). The principles by which she determines these various modes include the communicative situation, pragmatic intentions, temporal patterns, aspectual arrangements, and principles of text-progression (p. 31). Once discursive motivations for particular verbal functions have been excluded through this approach, Notarius draws on typological data on the development of verbal forms and historical data from Semitic studies to explain various verbal functions as “archaic” (p. 270). By this method she identifies the following 11 features found in the corpus of “archaic” poetry she analyzes as “archaic”: preterite יקטל, imperfective יקטל, lack of predicative active participle, lack of conditional and purposive וקטל, limited use of perfect in narrative, perfect ו)קטל) for simple past in report, lack of the system of consecutive tenses, second-person jussive in affirmative sentences, the jussive in non-volitive sentences, lack of complementary syntactic distribution between volitive and non-volitive forms of the prefix conjugation, lack of the lengthened imperative (p. 297). Notarius draws the following conclusions about the corpus of archaic poetry: first, archaic features appear consistently in Deuteronomy 32, Exodus 15, Judges 5, and the two epic poems in 2 Samuel 22 (verses 5–20, 33–46), making them representative of the archaic language type; second, they appear inconsistently in Genesis 49, and Deuteronomy 33, indicating that these poems “mix” different language types; third, the oracles of Balaam in Numbers 23–24 feature a mixture of archaic and innovative features, pointing to the compositions as being at a “transitional stage” from the archaic to classical verb system; and fourth, though the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2) is too limited to draw definite conclusions, it seems nevertheless to represent “a relatively late innovative language type” (pp. 296–7).

Notarius assumes a lot of background knowledge on historical and typological research on the Hebrew verb, which can be frustrating to the reader. In contrast to the full chapter on her discursive method (pp. 28–68), she only briefly discusses the historical-linguistic context of the Hebrew verb, and offers sparse introduction to the typological study of verb systems. These appear in part 3 (chap. 12), after she has already carried out her discursive analysis in part 2 in which she concludes multiple times that certain features are “relatively archaic” (pp. 83, 121, 141, 171, 226, et al.). Reading the book linearly, therefore leaves one at a bit of a loss in part 2 as to the basis of these conclusions, since methodologically the discursive analysis alone is insufficient to make such judgments and the typological and historical bases are not introduced until part 3.

Methodologically the most pronounced difficulty of Notarius' treatment is that she “presupposes that verbal forms in poetic texts should be analyzed according to the same universal parameters as verbal forms in prose texts” (p. 28). Although I agree that we should not presume two distinct verbal systems, one in poetry and one in prose, this approach leads Notarius frequently to compare features of the verb in the archaic poetic corpus with classical Hebrew prose. She seems to overlook that some of her “archaic” features might just as easily be attributed to the poetic character of her corpus. It is quite obvious to readers of Biblical Hebrew that the system of consecutive tenses or the lack of conditional or purposive וקטל are less frequent in poetry of whatever date than they are in prose. What one would like to see is a comparison of the poems in the “archaic” corpus with recognized “late” poems, such as selections from the book of Psalms. Although Notarious states that comparison among verb forms and their functions must be between “similar discourse conditions” (p. 269), this does not solve the problem, since it is still eminently possible that a prose report is still distinct literarily from a poetic report, etc. Instead, Notarius does not appear to acknowledge that “poetic style” can be a possible explanation for the use of a given verb form.

Finally, Notarius' study suffers from the same problems that plague other recent studies of the Biblical Hebrew verb;[2] namely, she presumes that the meaning of the verb form in the context is fairly obvious intuitively. This leads her to the problematic use of morphology to prove her case in some instances and the ignoring of morphology in others. For example, she argues that the forms תענינה and תשׁיב in Judg 5:29 are imperfective based on the energic nun and the “long” form exhibited in each, respectively. Thus she concludes that these are historical presents in their “report” context, rather than being preterite verbs expressing past, perfective. At the same time, she ignores the morphology of the consecutive imperfect forms in Deut 32:22, which suggests a past, perfective rendering, on the basis that this is not in narrative mode, but “conversational framework” that demands a future-tense rendering (pp. 86–7).

In the end, Notarius' work is a helpful illustration of Smith's powerful discourse mode theory applied to the Hebrew verbal system. She is less successful, however, in confidently identifying specifically archaic features.

John A. Cook, Asbury Theological Seminary

[1] Carlota Smith, Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). reference

[2] See John A. Cook, “Current Issues in the Study of the Biblical Hebrew Verbal System,” Kleine Untersuchungen zur Sprache des Alten Testaments und seiner Umwelt 17 (2014), 79–108. reference