A Linguistic Profile of the Book of Esther (SBL 2013)

A doctoral student in my department, John Screnock, and I are co-presenting a paper in the SBL Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew section in Baltimore on Sunday. The paper is a much shortened version of a large section of our introductory chapter in the Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible volume on Esther that we are writing (the volume is now 99% drafted).

Since we have finished the paper much sooner than I typically do, I have posted the paper and handout below. (It’s a relief to anticipate a flight without finishing my paper—what an odd feeling.)

See you in Baltimore!



Hebrew verb theory . . . ten years gone

The relief of having finally gotten my work on the Hebrew verb into print is finally sinking in (available here). I reflected towards the end of this ten-year-long project of revising, expanding, and reinventing parts of it that it is a project (due to the nature of the topic) about which one has to pronounce a stopping point not a finishing point (Those familiar with Vendler’s situation aspect categories will get the allusion). I honestly thought I’d tire of the whole topic once finished, and admittedly I am weary of the theoretical discussion and eager to spend the next ten years or more applying the theory to the text in a way that will merge directly into more far-reaching exegetical issues. I have in mind work like my forthcoming article on the verb in Qoheleth or my work on the Qohelet volume for the Baylor Handbook of the Hebrew Bible, co-authored with my co-blogger Robert Holmstedt and Phillip Marshall. Of course, teaching language and exegesis classes in addition to ongoing work on the Accordance syntax project has given me ample opportunity to see how my theory works out in practice.

However, in this post I want to briefly step back into the fray of the discussion. For a while it was a quiet scene, other than the periodic discussion on another blog (see the discussion on John Hobbin’s blog) or the requisite bi-yearly flare up on the b-hebrew list (yes, I confess I’m a lurker there). I say “flare up” because usually it ends with the same folks talking past each other followed by a moderator shutting it down (and rightly so).

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What’s in a category?

To paraphrase Shakespeare, “What’s in a category, a grammatical form by any other name would serve the same functions.” Andrason’s recent JHS article (here) and Randall Buth’s response/review of it (here) have me thinking again about categories. Randall has been quite vocal in critiquing the traditional approach to the Hebrew verb (e.g., see the discussion at Hobbin’s blog), which has revolved around the question of whether they express tense, aspect, or mood/modality, which he calls “over-simplistic labels.” Rather, he claims, “the Hebrew yiqtol conjugation can be a Tense and an Aspect and a Mood as the situation demands.” This is because tense-aspect-mood/modality (TAM) are intertwined within verb forms. The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) makes the same point in its introductory entry on tense-aspect:

“An alternative to seeing tense, aspect and mood as grammatical categories in the traditional sense is to regard tense-aspect-mood systems as wholes where the building-blocks are the individual tenses, aspects, and moods, such as the Past and the Progressive in English. These will be referred to as grams, and it is assumed that on the cross-linguistic level they represent a restricted set of gram types.” (here).

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Verbs in Habakkuk 3

The theophanic vision report in Habakkuk 3* contains variations among verb forms that seem to defy explanation. For some scholars the solution is simply to ignore the variation. For example, note the treatment of the verb tense-aspect-mood (TAM) in some major English versions/ translations of the vision report of 3:3–15 (comprising 32 verb forms in all): NRSV, NIV, and NKJV translate all the verbs with past forms; while the REB, NAB and JB use mostly present verbs; and the NASB and NLT both show a split between present verbs in verses 3–7 as past verbs in verses 8–15. Recently de Regt (2008: 92) argued for a future temporal reference for the verbs vision based on treating the Perfects as “prophetic perfects.”

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