Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Moshavi, Adina and Tania Notarius, eds., Advances in Biblical Hebrew Linguistics: Data, Methods, and Analyses (LSAWS, 12; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2017). Pp. xii +411. Hardcover. US $69.50. ISBN: 978-1-57506-481-9.

At a time when Biblical Hebrew linguistics has come under question as a legitimately distinct enterprise, the appearance of a volume of this sort is very welcome.[1] The essays contained therein originated at the session of Sixteenth International Congress in Jerusalem (July 28th–August 13th, 2013) entitled “Biblical Hebrew (BH) in Light of Theoretical and Historical Linguistics.” The subtitle of the volume is telling of the aim of the collection, but perhaps inadvertently highlights the unevenness among the essays in terms of data, methods, and analyses. To put it succinctly, essays vary from those that focus on a single datapoint to those that cover phenomena across the Hebrew Bible; from those that appear to have no methodology to those which begin with a rigorous theoretical model; and from those that propose little more than “what ifs,” to those that systematically classify and account for the data. In all, the collection nicely illustrates the current state of affairs in Biblical Hebrew linguistics.

The opening essay by the editors, “Biblical Hebrew Linguistics: Perspectives on Data and Method,” aside from providing a summary of each of the volume contributions, discusses briefly the issue of data and method in Biblical Hebrew linguistics. With regard to data, Moshavi and Notarius advocate that corpus-linguistics, philology, and typology all help to alleviate the difficulties encountered in Biblical Hebrew data, with its text-critical challenges, inevitable “gaps” in data, and its ranging dialects and time periods. On method, Moshavi and Notarius warmly encourage the trend toward a “nonapproach” approach to linguistic study—that is, approaches which combine insights from various linguistic theories rather than adopting one exclusive theory. On the one hand, I can appreciate their sympathy with this sort of approach, as it escapes the confines of separate and usually mutually exclusive if not hostile theories in order to focus on the real matter at hand, the analysis of human language. On the other hand, a “nonapproach” or “atheoretical” stance is completely at variance with the very definition of linguistics as the scientific study of human language. Advocacy for this type of work within the cross-disciplinary area of Biblical Hebrew linguistics will undoubtedly turn into a pseudo-linguistic approach in the hands of many. That is, because Biblical Hebrew linguists operate in two fields—linguistics and Hebrew studies—it will be that much more difficult and impractical for them to engage with linguistics devoid of theory in a sound manner rather than simply devolving into a classical philological analysis in which ad hoc hunches replace scientific principles about language. That my concern is valid is well-illustrated by the unevenness in the volume contributions, which include some essays that are highly theoretical and/or linguistically rigorous to those whose appropriateness in a volume on advances in Biblical Hebrew linguistics is suspect.

In “Linguistic Change through the Prism of Textual Transmission: The Case of Exodus 12:9,” Noam Mizrahi explores how linguistic and textual study complement one another in examining the textual tradition of Biblical Hebrew. In particular, he examines the variant reading נו in 4Q11 in Exod 12:9 versus the MT נא “raw.” Rejecting as impossible or unlikely previous explanations such as that it is an orthographic variant, phonological variant, or scribal mistake, Mizrahi proposes linguistic forces at work leading to a disambiguating change of נא to נו in 4Q11. Specifically, he suggests with the loss of pronunciation of the א, the ו was added to restore a biconsonantal form in a way analogous with תא > תו “room.” The homonymous relationship of נא “raw” and נא “please,” along with decline of the latter form in post-Biblical Hebrew, resulted in a scribe choosing to replace נא with נו, which was the then current pronunciation of the word for “raw” and would not risk confusion with the homonymic function word “please.”

Aaron Hornkohl's essay “All is Not Lost: Linguistic Periodization in the Face of Textual and Literary Pluriformity,” enters the debate over whether any evidence of diachronic linguistic development can be discerned in the biblical text, specifically as a rejoinder to those skeptical that biblical texts can ever provide usable data reflecting the language state of the composer of the text. Hornkohl's approach is to push back on the naysayers the burden of proof to demonstrate, rather than merely claim, that the MT does not provide usable data of diachronic language change. To this end he reviews several findings showing that certain orthographic, phonological, and morphologic features consistently line up with conventional distinction of standard Biblical Hebrew and late Biblical Hebrew, as represented by philologically late books. To these points he adds two illustrative cases in which textual criticism and literary criticism might shed light on the distribution of early and late forms in BH, underscoring the multi-prong analysis required to adequately explain the data. In the end, one wonders, however, whether this constitutes a linguistic argument or merely fighting assertion with assertion.

In “Aramaic Influence and Inner Diachronic Development in Hebrew Inscriptions of the Iron Age,” Yigal Bloch presents a cautious but insightful examination of evidence of Aramaic inscriptions and Aramaic influence on Hebrew inscriptions in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River in the Iron Age (ca. 900–586 BCE). He presents seven fairly compelling cases of Aramaic words in the relevant epigraphic finds. In four epigraphic finds from Judah, Bloch posits Aramaic language influence and evidence of common linguistic change in Hebrew and Aramaic, albeit at different times.

“Linguistics of Writing Systems and the Gap in the Hebrew Scribal Tradition,” by William Schniedewind, illustrates how insights from linguistic analysis of writing systems help elucidate the effects of the Babylonian gap on Hebrew scribal culture. Rejecting the naive view that writing systems are merely transcriptional of spoken language, Schniedewind highlights the social aspect of writing, noting that the scribal community and their fate were “integral to the history of Hebrew” (p. 116). To illustrate this point, Schniedewind points to evidence of the break in scribal tradition. In particular, he examines the preservation of standard Biblical Hebrew idioms in late Biblical Hebrew parallel texts alongside the native use of the same construction in late Biblical Hebrew with a different meaning. He contends that the gap in scribal tradition explains why the majority of “difficult” hapax legomena are in standard Biblical Hebrew, whereas the hapax legomena in late Biblical Hebrew are easily elucidated by the contemporary languages of Aramaic, Persian, and Greek. That the former are generally explained by recourse to Ugaritic and Akkadian suggests, according to Schniedewind, that, just as knowledge of those languages was all but lost by the fifth-century, so likewise knowledge of the Hebrew hapax legomena from the sixth century and earlier was lost through the scribal gap. One wonders, however, whether the “difficulty” of these earlier hapax legomena might have more to do with the modern scholarly struggle to understand Ugaritic and Akkadian versus later Aramaic, Persian, and Greek, than with a scribal gap. Finally, Schniedewind also attributes to the gap and lost knowledge of standard Biblical Hebrew the misinterpretation of some earlier grammatical constructions in late Biblical Hebrew, such as the asseverative l (e.g., Gen 23:5, 11, 13–14), enclitic mem in Ps 29:6 and other places.

In “The Second-Person Nonnegated Jussive in Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Northwest Semitic,” Tania Notarius examines purported cases of the non-negated Jussive in Biblical Hebrew in the context of the development of the imperative-hortatory systems in Northwest Semitic. She concludes, rightly in my opinion, that aside from Judg 5:21 as an archaic preservation of the form (and the possible example in Ezek 3:3), the form does not appear in BH. This is in contrast to Ugaritic poetry, which she identifies as the most archaic stage, in which the Jussive has a full paradigm (i.e., including second-person non-negated forms) alongside the imperative paradigm. According to her, the El-Amarna data suggest that both the imperative and third-person Jussive encroach upon the non-negated second-person form by means of extension or borrowing (i.e., mimicking Akkadian constructions). At a third stage, attested by Ugaritic prose and Biblical Hebrew, the second-person non-negated form has vanished and the second-person imperative forms a suppletive paradigm with the Jussive forms. At a final stage, beginning in late Biblical Hebrew, the Jussive and imperfect prefix forms collapse together, creating a new opposition between the imperative and imperfect forms. I would add that at this last stage, the system has in a certain sense come full circle. It would make an interesting study to trace whether the second-person non-negated prefix forms in post-biblical Hebrew show any indication of encroachment by the imperative or third-person forms, as Notarius posits happening at an earlier stage.

Frank H. Polak contributed the essay “Participant Tracking, Positioning, and Pragmatics of Biblical Narrative.” Participant tracking tends to hinge on discourse accessibility or relative social status of participants. Polak contends that the BH narrator may also more fully reference a participant as a means of positioning the character as the one who wins the day, so to speak. More fully, according to Polak, means that the participant is referred to by name versus pronouns or simply verbal agreement inflection. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon Polak discusses is the dialogue between Abraham and Yhwh over Sodom (Gen 18). Polak notes how both Abraham and Yhwh are overtly referred to at the opening of the dialogue, but as Abraham pushes his plea beyond the normal bounds and gains the “upper hand” (p. 163), overt references to Yhwh drop versus the continued overt reference to Abraham.

Gregor Geiger's essay, “Nominal and Verb-Second Clauses Not Introduced by Waw: A Text-Linguistic Classification,” focuses on the text-linguistic function of nominal and non-verb-initial clauses lacking the ubiquitous waw conjunction in Biblical Hebrew prose. Unsurprisingly, he finds that in the main these clauses provide additional information about people, places, and things or events. For some of the cases that fall outside these categories, Geiger admits that he has no explanation (p. 186). In all cases, he admits that “I do not have a theoretical explanation for this phenomenon” (p. 187)—a disappointing conclusion to the study. The thinness of the analysis seems largely due to the thinness of the theoretical starting point and lack of rigor in carrying out the study. Geiger employs the basics of Weinrich's text-linguistic theory, following Niccacci. It seems much more could and perhaps should be done with these clause types, but this essay does not bring us to any satisfying or sure results.

In “Verticality in Biblical Hebrew Parallelism,” David Toshio Tsumura treats grammatical relationships between parallel lines, employing as a launch point Jakobson's observation that subjects and predicates might at times be broken across parallel lines. Although some of the verses he analyzes are quite intriguing, grammatically speaking, his analysis leaves much to be desired in terms of clarity. Much of the obscurity has to do with the lack of a linguistic theory with which to approach the data and uncertainty about how his “vertical grammar” concept relates to other more well-known concepts like enjambment. For example, he examines Ps 8:5 and explains how the מה in the first line might be treated alternatively as elided in the second, doing “double duty” in the two lines, or modifying “the composite phrase ‘a human being, namely a son of man’ as a whole” (p. 193). It is unclear how Tsumura is linguistically distinguishing ellipsis, double-duty, and the issue of interrogative scope ambiguity in the absence of a syntactic theory that treats such matters. Judgments against an ellipsis analysis such as “would be too mechanical,” or “seems natural” (p. 195) are hardly the sorts of judgments in which a linguistic study should be engaging. Aside from highlighting the intricacy of BH poetic lineation, Tsumura's article perhaps most clearly in the volume demonstrates the shortcomings of engaging with such grammatical matters without a syntactic theory in hand.

Galia Hatav's contribution, “Infinitive Absolute and Topicalization of Events,” treats the construction known commonly as the tautological infinitive, in which the infinitive absolute appears with a finite verb of the same root and binyan. Hatav contends that alongside the focus function for the construction previously identified by Harbour (1999), it has a topicalization function in certain cases. Hatav adopts Habour's (1999) syntactic analysis of the tautological infinitive as a cleft construction in which a verb is “doubled” resulting in a “reduced version” of the finite verb, which may or may not appear clause initially in the canonical topic/focus position. As her analysis involves word order, topic, and focus, she adopts Robert Holmstedt's approach to these presented in his “Word Order and Information Structure in Ruth and Jonah: A Generative-Typological Analysis” (JSS 59/1 [2009]: 111–39). All in all, Hatav's ultimate claim is rather small: to supplement the analysis of Harbour by positing topicalization as an addition function of the tautological infinitive. At the same time, the theoretical rigor, helpful summary of Harbour's and Holmstedt's theories, and her recognition that every theory “leaks,” all model the sort of sound linguistic research of which more is needed.

In one of the more lengthy essays in the volume, “Clause Combining in the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1–43): An Example of Archaic Biblical Hebrew Syntax,” Bo Isaksson systematically analyzes the Song of Moses using his clause-combining semantic approach to clause combining, word order, and the verbal system. Central to his approach are: (1) the contention that clauses are semantically combined in relations such as addition, temporal succession, circumstantial clauses, and consequential by means of “switching” grams; (2) grams are distinguished by both conjugation (e.g., suffix and prefix forms) and word order—notably, short prefix forms are clause initial while long prefix forms are not; and (3) the waw conjunction signals an “additive” clausal relationship. There is much to commend Isaksson's essay in that his approach is an attempt to treat comprehensively the intertwined factors of clause construction and combining, and he carries out a philologically sensitive reading of the entire poem. With such a great amount of detailed analysis, one can easily squabble with details (e.g., a deficient understanding of dislocation, p. 250). However, a couple of general or repeated issues emerge that are worth pointing out. For one, in my opinion, Isaksson does not fully contend with the ambiguities of clause boundaries, which would seem to be a crucial matter in a study of clause combining. For example, elliptical structures are suggested numerous times, without due attention to possible alternative explanations, particularly the possibility of phrasal apposition (e.g., vv. 2, 21 on pp. 240, 251). Second, there is a certain oddity in Isaksson's analysis of כי clauses within the context of a clause combining study: while he proposes freely a variety of semantic relationships among clauses that are asyndetic or marked with waw, with the appearances of כי he expresses uncertainty about the meaning, contending that it is a general subordinating conjunction (e.g., pp. 252, 258). It seems strange that overt marking of clause connections semantically would be more ambiguous than those that are unmarked or minimally marked. The analysis is more disturbing yet when he points out a minimal pair of suffix clauses with and without כי, on the basis of which he proceeds to downplay the contribution of כי to the interclausal relationship altogether (pp. 251–2). Finally, this latter oddity raises the question of whether Isaksson's proposed semantic relationships among clauses are really grammatically based or whether it is pragmatic in character. All too often in his analysis it is possible to counter that the semantic relationship between the two clauses is not grammatically motivated by gram switching or the like, but is merely a matter of the contents of the two clauses that remain paratactically related.

In “The Syntactic Pattern: Qtol → Wəyiqtol and the Expression of Indirect Command in Biblical Hebrew,” Lina Petersson revisits the pattern of qtol followed by wəyiqtol, which Joüon-Muraoka identify as a construction consisting of a “direct” followed by “indirect” volitive.[2] Petersson, drawing on Cynthia Miller's taxonomy of indirect speech, argues that this construction should be seen as an indirect speech, which is embedded in direct speech.[3] The main difference from the other three types of indirect speech, which she adopts from Miller, is that the indirect speech clause is not subordinated to the direct speech, but paratactically connected. This study leads to a couple of interesting insights related to the central argument. First, her findings buttress Cynthia Miller's idea that waw can serve as a speech complementizer.[4] Second, her taxonomy illustrates both the relatedness and distinction between indirect speech with directives and final directive clauses (i.e., “indirect volitives”). Her footnote from Palmer is particularly intriguing, noting that cross-linguistically these two constructions tend to be similar.[5]

In “The Scope of Negation Inside and Outside the Biblical Hebrew Prepositional Phrase,” Cynthia L. Miller-Naudé and Jacobus A. Naudé examine scope ambiguities of negatives with respect to prepositional phrases. Their examination helpfully brings some order to seemingly similar constructions that syntactically are quite distinct. The distinctions among the categories revolve around the scope of the negative (constituent or clausal) as well as the ambiguities with identifying null and unmarked structures in clauses. For example, they examine negatives in front of prepositional phrases, and classify the examples into several different categories, including constituent negation (including in fronted focus position or canonical position), negation of an elliptical clause in which on the prepositional phrase remains, and negation of a prepositional phrase that constitute an unmarked relative clause. For negation within a prepositional phrase, they adopt the view that the negative retains its normal function (as opposed to the view that, e.g., ב preposition + the negative לא = ‘without’). Syntactically they identify negation of a bare noun, a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase, or a sentence for examples involving a negative within the prepositional phrase. All of these they analyze as zero headless relative clauses, arriving at a “unified” analysis for all cases. At this point, I do wonder whether their tentative push towards a unified analysis is actually necessary: the account would remain at least as linguistically elegant to retain the distinction between constituent analysis for nouns and noun phrases, which can be complements of prepositions, and positing the relative structure in cases where the negated item cannot be the complement of a preposition, namely, prepositional phrases and sentences.

Growing interest in valency and argument structure of Biblical Hebrew verbs makes “The Locative Alternation in Biblical (and Modern) Hebrew” by Edit Doron and Keren Dubnov a valuable contribution, particularly in terms of methodology. Grouping verbs in terms of abstract conceptions of action and examining the types of argument alternations they allow for goes back particularly to Beth Levin's landmark book English Verb Classes and Alternations.[6] Doron and Dubnov examine Biblical Hebrew “verbs of putting” and “verbs of removal,” all which involve an agent putting/removing a locatum to/from a location. They classify these verbs into those that allow alternation of the locatum and locative argument structure, noting that a “striking” feature of BH is that the preposition is identified in both alternations (e.g., מלא can mark the locative or the locatum with ב preposition, e.g., מִלֵּא בו מים and מִלֵּא אותו במים). Their study is both a model of rigorously applying a linguistic theory and illustrating their findings with ample data. I did find curious their inconsistent accounting for binyan shifts and their intersection with the alternations they discussed. This is illustrated well by their table on page 335, in which they list verbs that can be used as a change of state or locative verb. In two of the cases they note that the alternation involves shifts in binyan, either between Qal and Piel or Qal and Hifil. However, they fail to note that in two other cases there is also a binyan shift, between Qal and Nifal and Qal and Hifil. This seems an accidental oversight, since they note some such shifts in the chart. It is significant in that the binyanim are central to valency shifts, and such an oversight may contribute to analyses that are less than fully explored, such as the analysis of קרע as a change of state verb (1 Sam 15:27) and locative verb (1 Sam 15:28): the former example is Nifal whereas the latter is Qal. What precisely is the distinction that should be made between change of state verbs and passive voice verbs, which is another possible analysis of the example?

Finally, Nicolai Winther-Nielsen's essay on valency, “Corpus-Driven Valence: Give and the Meaning of נתן, Nātan, in Genesis,” is the converse of the preceding: versus the previous essay's theoretical interests in verb classes in BH, Nicolai is interested in how analysis of valence or argument structure of verbs might be leveraged to help the online learner of BH. The corpus-driven, syntactic- and semantic-based approach to vocabulary learning that Nicolai advocates (versus lexica based) is to be celebrated. At the same time, advocating as he does a Role and Reference Grammar theoretical perspective, Nicholai is well aware of the significant hurdle to make the approach student friendly. As such, he advocates developing “informal” and pedagogically aimed “conceptional graph” notations for verbs, as in his sample case of נתן, which provide a student in place of glosses with a summary of the semantic roles and syntactic structures that the verb is capable of expressing.

John A. Cook, Asbury Theological Seminary

[1] Jacobus Naudé, Tania Notarius, Adina Moshavi, and John A. Cook, “Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew SBL Program Unit,” Ancient Hebrew Grammar, 7 November 2016, reference

[2] Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, trans. T. Muraoka (Subsidia Biblical, 27; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2006), §116. reference

[3] Cynthia Miller, The Representation of Speech in Biblical Hebrew Narrative: A Linguistic Analysis (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 2003). reference

[4] Cynthia Miller, “The Pragmatics of Waw as a Discourse Marker in Biblical Hebrew Dialogue,” ZAH 12 (1999), 165–91. reference

[5] Frank R. Palmer, Mood and Modality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). reference

[6] Beth Levin, English Verb Classes and Alternations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). reference