Recycling . . . its not just about the environment!

Perhaps it is the combined effect of information explosion beginning the end of last century combined with the unending pressure to publish or perish, but too often scholars find themselves covering the same old ground that has already been well-covered by past scholars. It is not simply that we are engaged in the same sorts of debates (Indeed, my work on the verb admittedly focuses on one of the most longstanding debates in Hebrew grammar!), it is that we too quickly forget the ideas that earlier scholars have advanced—usually unsuccessfully, which explains their forgotten state. Unfortunately, the rapid digitization of these old resources makes such absent-minded recycling even more egregious.

A simple example is the term “consecutive preterite” in Jo Ann Hackett’s Hebrew grammar. In the preface (“How to Use This Book”) she explains that, “Several years ago, John Huehnergard and I together came up with the term ‘consecutive preterite’ for the verb form that is usually called the ‘converted imperfect’ (2010: xx). When I first read that statement in a blog review, it struck me as an unlikely to be “new” term. A quick Google search turned up the following cases of this term, admittedly predating Hackett’s use by far enough to have been all but forgotten:

“vav-consecutive preterite” (William Green, A Grammar of the Hebrew Language 1889, p. 334)
“consecutive preterite” (Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah 1892, vol. 1 p. 94)
“consecutive preterite” (G. R. Driver, Problems of the Hebrew Verbal System 1936, p. 138)

More serious cases of forgetfulness, however, are those in which whole ideas or theories are overlooked as having been tried and found wanting. This seems to be the case for Elizabeth Robar’s recent JSS article “Wayyiqṭol as an Unlikely Preterite.” Robar’s basic argument is that wayyiqtol is “a narrative present, that is, a relative present (deriving past time reference from the narrative’s reference time) with perfective aspect” (2013: 34). This argument is not substantially different from S. R. Driver’s defunct analysis of ויאמר as “and-he-proceeded-to-say.” Although there are some nuanced differences, Hughes (1970: 17) correctly identified Driver’s understanding of the wayyiqtol as an “historical present,” and Robar (2013: 34 n. 18) gives passing notice that her ideas track with Driver’s (1998: 27) and Zevit’s (1988: 31). And there is good reason that Driver’s historical-present analysis of wayyiqtol was never widely adopted, foremost of which is that Bauer shortly thereafter (1910) advanced the theory that wayyiqtol preserved a prefixed preterite common Semitic conjugation, perserved as such in Akkadian. It is hard to understand how Robar’s comparison of Biblical Hebrew wayyiqtol to the “neo-Semitic” modern Aramaic dialects could be more plausible than the preterite connection based on historical-comparative study of ancient Semitic.

But further, the details of Robar’s case are problematic at every turn, illustrating that the historical present explanation continues to be untenable. Her handful of “irregularities” such as ויעשׂה instead of the expected apocopated ויעשׂ in 1 Kgs 14:9 do not prove that morphologically the wayyiqtol form is “part of the same paradigm as yiqtol,” even as her footnote of caveats demonstrates (2013: 33 and n. 17). Her comments on syntax are apparently an effort to demonstrate that wayyiqtol does not act like many preterites do in other languages; but she thereby neglects to factor in that it is a NARRATIVE preterite (that it does not appear in relative or other subordinate clauses does not argue against it being a preterite but supports its identification as a NARRATIVE form). At the same time, however, she conveniently appeals to its narrative status to defend restricted role as a narrative PRESENT (2013: 25, 34). The examples of non-preterite meaning for wayyiqtol are all unconvincing: not a single one of them demands a non-preterite rendering (e.g., even 2 Sam 14:5 makes perfect sense as ‘A widow am I, my husband DIED’ not ‘IS DEAD’). It is hardly a boost to her argument that her “clearest example of a non-preterite wayyiqtol” comes from Job 14:16–17—as if the verb TAM of Job is clear otherwise! But even if such examples as this last are granted her as problematic, she refuses to entertain the possibility that the partial homonymy of the past narrative wayyiqtol and imperfective yiqtol paradgims perhaps may have led to periodic confusion among the tens of thousands of occurrences of the conjugations in the Hebrew Bible!

Theoretically Robar’s ideas fly in the face of common wisdom in linguistic studies of TAM (tense-aspect-mood systems). First, her identification of wayyiqtol as a perfective aspect, present tense form is extremely odd (2013: 34): quite a few linguists claim that there is a fundamental incompatibility between perfective aspect and present tense (see Bache 1995: 289; Bhat 1999: 17; Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca 1994: 126; Smith 1997: 185), apart from the notable exception that proves the rule of reportative speech (e.g., Jones runs to third base; C. S. Smith 1997: 185; see Cook 2012: 74). However, such highly marked and limited exceptions cannot provide any precedent for as extensive of a “narrative present” usage as wayyiqtol, according to Robar’s theory, would represent.

Second, her use of Fleishmann’s (1990) work requires significant nuancing (2013: 32 n. 15) to the point of appearing to be a case of special pleading. However, at the same time, Robar ignores the significant conclusions Fleishmann arrives at that are contrary to her theory of wayyiqtol, to wit, that the use of the narrative present is inherently unstable and runs contrary to the normal rules of narration (1990: 309–10). As Fludernick (1996: 188) puts it, the extensive use of the narrative present “is not ‘real’ narrative.” Unsurprisingly, such narrative strategies that flout the norm of narration are largely a modernist invention.

All this suggest that at most Robar’s discussion raises the prospect of an already defunct theory as a “what if . . .” and does not in any way advance Driver’s case or substantiate it as in any way superior to the well-grounded comparative-historical argument dating back to Bauer in its most basic form. Such a judgment is in keeping with some basic-sense observations by linguistics about narrative or historical presents: first, historical presents do not generally begin narratives (Fludernick 1996: 187), concerning on which Robar can provide no better answer than GKC (1910: §111) with respect to books and distinct narrative sections beginning with wayyiqtol (e.g., Ruth 1:1; Jonah 1:1; Gen 22:1); second, the narrative present, Fludernick (1996: 189–190) argues, is essentially non-deictic, collapsing a variety of tenses into itself. And yet, in Biblical Hebrew, present-tense pronouncements by the narrator appear in the midst of narrative and are clearly distinguishable from the surrounding narrative events (Gen 19:37–38; Deut 34:25–38). Such is the case because no case can be made for wayyiqtol being a present-tense conjugation, and thus, in its role as a NARRATIVE verb (a point on which Robar and I can agree), etymology aside, it functions according to the usual rules of narrative: it reports past events that contrast with past-perfect, present, and future backgrounded events.

Another sort of recycling involves an almost manufactured problem to solve, such as one finds in the new JBL article on the “problem” of time in Joel 2 by Ronald Troxel. Though there is no dearth of modern scholars who discount verb tenses in poetry and prophetic books (so Barton 2001 on Joel), much of Troxel’s literature review is an interesting rehashing of nineteenth debates on Joel 2. A primary conclusion Troxel arrives at is that the Past Narrative forms in Joel 2:18–19 do indeed express a past narrative, and though the ASV translates otherwise, he is in good company with his conclusion, with the NRSV, NJPS, Keil and Delitzsch, and the translators of the KJV (1611)!

But of course Troxel deals with more than just these two verses. He analyzes the poetic description of the locust plague/Yhwh’s army in 2:3–11, concluding that the alternation of Imperfect and Perfect forms is quite reasonably within their traditionally recognized role of gnomic expressions. It is a bit disappointing both (1) that Troxel did not bother to read more carefully my article in the volume he edited (Cook 2005) in which I dismiss such cavelier treatement of gnomic perfects as overly simplistic, and (2) that his discussion is not more straightforward than it is.

Certainly he is right to draw attention as he does to the word order: more than half of the clauses (and poetic stichs) in 2:3-11 begin with a prepositional phrase, clearly departing from the basic word order of BH regardless of one’s theoretical stance on the issue. However, the Perfect forms in this passage are hardly troublesome, especially if instead of treating as some gnomic/habitual description, as Troxel does, one compares it with vision reports (e.g., Habakkuk 3). Thus the Perfects largely serve to express present states, whether with stative lexemes or by virtue a present perfect interpretation. Consider my (woodenly literal) renderings of those verses with a Perfect verb (marked in italics):

לְפָנָיו אָכְלָה אֵשׁ וְאַחֲרָיו תְּלַהֵט לֶהָבָה

‘Before it fire has devoured;
after it flame licks/is licking’. (v. 3a)

מִפָּנָיו יָחִילוּ עַמִּים כָּל־פָּנִים קִבְּצוּ פָארוּר׃

‘Before it the people writhe/are writhing;
all the faces have gathered pale’. (v. 6)

לְפָנָיו רָגְזָה אֶרֶץ רָעֲשׁוּ שָׁמָיִם
שֶׁמֶשׁ וְיָרֵחַ קָדָרוּ וְכוֹכָבִים אָסְפוּ נָגְהָם׃
וַיהוָה נָתַן קוֹלוֹ לִפְנֵי חֵילוֹ

‘Before it earth is (become) agitated;
the heavens have quaked.(?)
The sun and moon have become darkened,
and the stars have withdrawn their light.
And Yhwh has given his voice before his army (v. 10-11a)

Only the one instance of רעשׁו in Joel 2:10 can in any sense be called problematic, especially if we compare it with the similar descriptive passage in Jeremiah 4, in which רעשׁ appears as a participle (Jer 4:24). But it is useful to compare the entire descriptive passage (Jer 4:23–26), in which the Perfect forms are employed in a similar pattern as Joel 2, alternating with null-copula clauses: the null-copula expressions are interpreted as past temporal reference within the narrative framing Perfect ראיתי, and the descriptive Perfects are interpreted as past perfects, i.e., past-time state resulting from a previous event (again, Perfects are in italics).

‏ רָאִיתִי אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה־תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְאֶל־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵין אוֹרָם׃
‏ רָאִיתִי הֶהָרִים וְהִנֵּה רֹעֲשִׁים וְכָל־הַגְּבָעוֹת הִתְקַלְקָלוּ׃
‏ רָאִיתִי וְהִנֵּה אֵין הָאָדָם וְכָל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם נָדָדוּ׃
‎‏ רָאִיתִי וְהִנֵּה הַכַּרְמֶל הַמִּדְבָּר וְכָל־עָרָיו נִתְּצוּ מִפְּנֵי יְהוָה מִפְּנֵי חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ׃ ס

I looked at the land, and hey, (it was) empty and void,
(I looked) to the heavens, and their light was no more.
I looked at the mountains, and hey, (they were) quaking;
and all the hills had been shaken.†
I looked, and hey, there was no one;
and all the birds of the heavens had fled.
I looked, and hey, the fertile land (was) a wilderness,
and all its cities *had been torn down* before the Yhwh, before the wrath of his anger. (Jer 4:23-26)

Note: The interpretation of this verb (the only occurrence of hitpalpel of קל ‘be light, trifling’) is uncertain, but the sense may easily be past perfect, that the hills have proven no match for the quaking of the oncoming army.

The patterns Troxel notes in Joel 2 are therefore not all that surprising or difficult. But more importantly, the TAM for the verbs are not simply in the vague, grey overlapping region of “gnomic” but well within their “normal” TAM range of meanings. In other words, we need not wrestle with this as an example of how poetry departs radically from the prose grammar—except perhaps in word order!

Recycling may be good for the environment, but in scholarship simply recycling ideas and remanufacturing issues once solved is wasteful and does little to advance our knowledge other than perhaps through the need to refute such work. Quite unfortunately, this problem is not new, as it calls to mind the following century-old statement as somewhat apropos:

Every decade or half decade sees a new book upon the subject; the
same authors are ransacked; the same evidence is marshaled; the same
references and footnotes are transferred, like stale tea-leaves, from
one learned receptacle to another. (pp. 1-2)
from Alfred Zimmern, “Was Greek Civilization Based on Slave Labor?” Sociological Review 1909.

Bache, Carl
1995 The Study of Tense, Aspect and Action. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Barton, John
2001 Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary. 1st ed. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Bauer, Hans
1910 Die Tempora im Semitischen. Beiträge zur Assyriologie und semitischen Sprachwissenschaft 81: 1–53.

Bhat, D. N. S.
1999 The Prominence of Tense, Aspect, and Mood. Studies in Language Companion Series. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca
1994 The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cook, John A.
2005 Genericity, Tense, and Verbal Patterns in the Sentence Literature of Proverbs. Pp. 117–33 in Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients: Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Ronald L. Troxel, Kelvin G. Friebel, and Dennis R. Magary. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns

2012 Time and the Biblical Hebrew Verb: the Expression of Tense, Aspect, and Modality in Biblical Hebrew. Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Driver, S. R.
[1892] 1998 A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew and Some Other Syntactical Questions. 3d ed. Reprint, with an introductory essay by W. Randall Garr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Fleischman, Suzanne
1990 Tense and Narrativity. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Fludernik, Monika.
1996 Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London: Routledge.

Gesenius, W. and G. Kautzsch
1910 Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. A. E. Cowley ed. Oxford: Oxford University.

Hackett, Jo Ann.
2010 A Basic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson.

Hughes, James A.
1970 Another Look at the Hebrew Tenses. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 29: 12–24.

Keil, Carl Friedrich and Franz Delitzsch
1989 [1892] Commentary on the Old Testament. Translated by James Martin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Robar, Elizabeth
2013 Wayyiqṭol as an Unlikely Preterite. Journal of Semitic Studies 58/1: 21–42.

Smith, Carlota S.
1997 The Parameter of Aspect. 2d ed. Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Troxel, Ronald L.
2013 The Problem of Time in Joel 2. Journal of Biblical Literature 132/1: 77–95.

Zevit, Ziony
1988 Talking Funny in Biblical Henglish and Solving a Problem of the Yaqtúl Past Tense. Hebrew Studies 29: 25–33.

Posted in Hebrew Semantics, Hebrew Syntax, Historical linguistics, Linguistics (theory or typology), Verbal System, Word Order. Comments Off on Recycling . . . its not just about the environment!
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