אשׁר and שׁ in Jonah — a new article in Vetus Testamentum

As part of my long-term research on the relative clause in Hebrew (see my book in the sidebar), I mulled over the variation of אשׁר and שׁ in the book many, many times. I felt like I had most of the pieces, but there was a critical perspective missing (communication accommodation theory — thanks, Alex!). This is perhaps the most wonderful benefit of teaching—learning from a sharp student. My co-author studied with me at U of T for only a year, but in that time he not only provided me with the key to sorting out the Jonah problem, he wrote an excellent paper on Ezekiel, which is also in press as a joint article with another excellent young scholar, Peter Bekins.

Anyway, Alex’s and my article on Jonah just came out in VT and here it is.

Ecclesiastes—the הבל conclusion and a full translation of the book

John Cook (my co-author on this blog), Phillip Samuel Marshall (Houston Baptist University), and I have finished our Ecclesiastes grammatical commentary for the Baylor series. I believe we began planning this volume way back in 2010, though there were significant interruptions for tenure as well as other projects (not to mention teaching!). But we do not take the Baylor series lightly—we do not see it a simple parsing guide (for which one would probably be better off using a computer application), but as a serious grammatical commentary. And it is very satisfying to have it finished—Ecclesiastes is not a simple book in terms of BH grammar.

A couple posts ago (here), I had asked for input on translation הֶבֶל. The responses were excellent, so much so that in the end we decided to leave the Hebrew in our translation. A literal gloss “vapour” doesn’t work too well, but translating the metaphor often requires culturally-conditional glosses that are anachronistic for the book itself. Because ours is a grammatical commentary with the goal of explaining the grammatical nuances to students of Hebrew (whether intermediate or advanced and seasoned), in the end we decided we did not need to make this choice for our readers. We present some of the options in the commentary and then leave the word as הֶבֶל throughout.

For those interested, I’ve pasted our full English translation below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Gen 3:16, the ESV, and My תשׁוקה for Folks to Stop Using Hebrew Grammar in the Debate

This controversy on the ESV of Gen 3:16 is getting a bit tiring to see in the biblioblogosphere. Here are just a few of the links in the crazy discussion (here, here, here, here, here, here, and for a little fresh air, here).

The debate seems to be about translation theory, translation committees, transparency, theology (complementarianism versus egalitarianism), and an opportunity to seize on something exciting to shake off the end of the summer blues. What the argument is, should not, must be about is serious Hebrew grammar. And yet, statements about the meaning of a preposition (אֶל for Hebrew readers) and even the conjunction waw, which is important (“say hello to my little friend!”) but harder to figure out than most will admit.

After seeing so many links fly by from the biblioblogosphere, I couldn’t help but finally give in a read a few. And now I’m simply tired of seeing the same injudicious use of Hebrew bandied about again and again. So I add my voice to the cacophony, though I suspect it will probably be entirely futile. I’ll try to summarize in just a few points why the ESV’s new “permanent translation” of Gen 3:16 is grammatical defensible, even if I wouldn’t choose it, and then provide my own analysis of the verse. First, the Hebrew and ESV of Gen 3:16—

Gen 3:16 (Hebrew): אֶֽל־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃ ס

Gen 3:16 (ESV): To the woman he said,“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”


My response in a smallish nutshell:

1) Not knowing the ESV translator for this verse, I’m guessing at the underlying analysis. My comments reflect my giving the person a reasonable benefit of doubt. Contrary to (ha ha!) all the hubbub, the “contrary to” is not ungrammatical. Certainly, the “to” in “contrary to” is not the spatial or directional uses of אֶל, which is quite common in the Hebrew Bible. But anyone use knows there way around the accepted research lexica should be able to determine that the English “to” in “contrary to” reflects a still well attested use of אֶל, which is not spatial or directional. To wit, this matches the occurrences in which אֶל is used in the way that Waltke and O’Connor (somewhat ambiguously) refer to as “specification” (Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, §11.2.2. #15). Similarly, see Clines’ Dictionary of Classical Hebrew under אֶל in §3a <coll> in , “with respect to” and especially §7, “about concerning”. The use of Hebrew אֶל in such cases reflects a relational use of the preposition that is quite well matched by the similar use of English “to.” So, whence “contrary”?

2) The notion of “contrary” (ignoring the “to”) cannot not derive from the preposition, but may reflect a legitimate interpretation of the word order in the poetic verse. There are four lines (two bicola) that work together:

Line A הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ
Line A’ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים
Line B וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ
Line B’ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ

Line A sets the stage, but has nothing particularly notable about the word order. Line A’ has a Focus-fronted PP (בעצב), which is likely meant to reinforce that it is not just in the pregnancy but also in the birth that there will be עצב. Line B also has a fronted PP (אל אישׁך), which is likely Focus-marked—but why? The ESV has apparently (and I say this with great hesitation, since I don’t know the translators from Adam and Eve) interpreted the *word order* (not the preposition) to signal a contrastive meaning. And if so, they would be right, but not entirely so. As punctuated in the ESV, the contrast is one with the husband, which results in this logical set: your desire will be with [your husband, not your husband]. (On my reading of word order variation, see here and this article.)

But the grammar does not signal a contrast just with the husband (following clause) but also with the children (preceding clause). In the context of the immediately precisely clause, the fronted PP “to your husband” is intended to establish a contrast between בנים and אישׁך—the woman’s desire (not sexual, just powerful emotion) will suffer tension, between her motherly love of her children, whom she pained for over 9 months, and her husband. Line B’ also has a Focus fronting, the “redundant” subject pronoun הוא. Tragically, into the already tense family conflict, the curse suggests that the husband, rather than comforting the woman or navigating the tension, will exacerbate them by pitting himself again the children and משׁל-ing over the woman.

Like most curses, I take these to be etiological—they provide an origin story for what was/is often the case (over-bearing, insensitive husbands), not what must be the case.

3) Notable in my analysis is the lack of any mention of the Hebrew ו (waw). The ו at the beginning of Line B (as well as Line B’) simply indicates the beginning of a new clause. It is a clause-edge marker, as I’ve argued before (see here and here under “hypotaxis”). This poor little conjunction cannot bear the weight of some of the functions I’ve seen assigned to it —it does *not* mean “connection” and “continuation”, it does not signal a contrast. These things are the product of the juxtaposition of clauses and/or word order. We must resist over-reading the poor little ו.

4) My point in all this is not really to explain Gen 3:16, although it is a good excuse (and I have notes on this verse going back over 15 years, but never thought them worth working up into an article).

Rather, my interest is to provide mild chastisement for those serious about how we use Hebrew in discussing Bible, theology, and even translation. First, all translations are imperfect; argue about them based on the ideologies they may reflect and promote, or their literary-poetic merits, but resist the temptation to reconstruct the translators understanding of the source language. Second, Hebrew is often misunderstood and misused (e.g, the preposition לא and the conjunction ו in this entire Gen 3:16 hullabaloo) and such behaviour should cease by those who are sensible (and all sensible people should simply ignore those who perpetuate such mistakes). all too often, such things devolved into a Hebraist version of the blind arguing with the blind.

I recognize that many connect the discussion of the ESV Gen 3:16 to larger issues and to that I say—have your beef with complementarianism or egalitarianism or just plain Arianism, but in 99% of the cases, leave Hebrew grammar out of it.

Ecclesiastes’ use of הֶבֶל?

In our Baylor commentary (BHHB series), J. Cook, P.S. Marshall, and I currently follow Michael Fox’s (A Time to Tear Down & A Time to Build Up, 1999) rendering of הֶבֶל as “absurd”. Below I have excerpted the comment on הבל in Eccl 1:2 as it currently stands:

The denotation of the noun הבל ‘breath, vapor’. As used in Ecclesiastes, it must be a metaphor, since it makes little sense for Qohelet to assert that ‘everything’ is literally ‘vapor’. What the metaphor means, though, has long been and remains the subject of some debate. The following are those English glosses most commonly proposed: “ephemeral,” “worthless, trivial,” “empty, nothing,” “incomprehensible,” “deceit,” and “senseless, nonsense” (see Meek 2016 for an exhaustive survey). Some suggest that the word is used in more than one way in the book (see, e.g., Crenshaw 1987: 57; Miller 2002 offers a variation on this). Others disagree: Fox, for example, argues that the term must have a single dominant meaning around which the book’s argument coheres (1999: 35); he proposes that Ecclesiastes’ use of הבל parallels Camus’ idea of “absurd,” that is the “disjunction between two phenomena that are thought to be linked by a bond of harmony or causality, or that should be so linked … Absurdity arises from a contradiction of two undeniable realities” (1999: 31).

(By the way, Meek’s survey of the approaches to הבל is quite good: Russell L. Meek. 2016. Twentieth and Twenty-first-century Readings of Hebel הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes. Currents in Biblical Research 14(3): 279-97.)

And yet I have some reservations about “absurd”. First, it feels anachronistic, though perhaps that’s simply because Fox builds on Camus rather than any other ancient source. Second, absurd is always abstract and sometimes a more concrete meaning for הֶבֶל seems to fit just fine. The question is, what less abstract meaning?, and then, is it really ok to render the word with multiple English glosses? I, too, would like to find a single gloss that fits and so signals the book’s coherence, since I agree with Fox that the author of Eccl has used the word for the argument’s leitmotif.

So, for the one or two readers out there — here’s a question: does “haze” work? It keeps a connection to the apparent etymology “vapour, breath” but connects to a metaphorical use in English (“it was hazy to me”). Does “it’s a complete haze” capture the dissonance between creation’s order and the human inability to fully discern it for the benefit of prosperous and righteous living that is at the heart of Ecclesiastes?

If so, tell me why.

If not, tell me why.

Update on our projects

It has been over a year since we’ve posted on this blog. That does not mean, though, that we’ve been idle.

First, we both went through promotion reviews this last year and can now drop any qualifiers to our professorial status. For John, I had no doubt of the positive outcome.  For my part, I considered it a trial run and was more than pleasantly surprised by the success.

Second, we (with Phillip Samuel Marshall at Houston Baptist) have finished our Ecclesiastes commentary for Baylor (in the BHHB series). This follows the Ruth and Esther volumes for me (see left sidebar) and the precedes the Biblical Aramaic volume that John is finishing.

Third, we’ve seen some articles come out in print and others finished an submitted. More importantly (because ultimately, our research serves our teaching), we have drafted most of our Intermediate Biblical Hebrew textbook, to follow our Beginning Biblical Hebrew (again, see the sidebar), a large part of our Advanced Biblical Hebrew textbook, and we have both begun drafting respective primers on BH syntax and the BH verbal system. Finally, a reflection of our stance on the use of linguistics to study BH, we have also initiated a volume we’re calling Linguistics for Hebraists, which will include introductions to various linguistic theories (including case studies) aimed at the student of ancient Hebrew.

As some of these projects are completed, we hope to return to a few more blog posts in the next year (at least, more than the zero of last year!). For my part, I’ll be throwing out a few ideas very soon in posts following this one.

2014 summary, with a new article posted

After a very crazy year (not all of it academics-induced), I can at least say two positive things: First, I had a wonderful year teaching (I am teaching through our BH textbook this year, which is very fun, and I taught a graduate course on Ezekiel, which was challenging and deeply satisfying). And second, though I have not blogged much at all, I have been productive (as has John, but he’ll have to tell you in his own post). Last year witnessed the appearance of my article with my doctoral student, Andrew Jones (see the post here), a just released article on the grammar of זֶה (more on that below), and a soon to appear article on “edge constituents” (i.e., left and right dislocation, topicalization, and extraposition).

The article on זֶה appeared in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures last week and represents one of the last little puzzles I needed to solve before finishing my book on the relative clause (almost done!). This was a very satisfying article to write, since I both solved my problem to my satisfaction and used both sets of skills sets I received in my academic training — linguistics with C.L. Miller-Naudé and close textual reading with M. F. Fox. You can get the article at the JHS site, or I’ve posted it right below.

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2014. Analyzing זֶה Grammar and Reading זֶה Texts of Ps 68:9 and Judg 5:5. The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 14, no. 8: 1-26. (PDF link)

The article on edge constituents represents the fruits of many years labor. I first addressed left dislocation and topicalization for a regional SBL paper way back in 1999. My conclusions back then were not entirely adequate, so I left the issues simmer for over a decade before picking them back up in 2013 and 2014. Though the nearly 50 pages of the KUSATU article (which should appear very soon) do not say *everything* about these issues that should be said, I provide what I consider to be an accurate framework for understanding the syntax and function of the constructions in BH. I will post the article here (as well as to my academia.edu page) when it appears.

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2014. Constituents at the Edge in Biblical Hebrew. KUSATU: Kleine Untersuchungen zur Sprache des Alten Testaments und seiner Umwelt 17, 109-156.

Additionally, I have begun drafting a descriptive grammar of the War Scroll (1QM) with another doctoral student in our program, John Screnock. I will post a few of the spin-off articles here, when they are further along in the press cycle.

Finally, John Screnock and I finished and submitted our Baylor Handbook on the Book of Esther! Phew.

All things considered, 2014 was a busy year. Mostly good, some frustrating. I hope 2015 is more of the good and less of the frustrating.

New Article in the Journal of Semitic Studies

The latest issue of the Journal of Semitic Studies (2014; 59/1) is out and has an article that I wrote with my doctoral student, Andrew Jones.

Robert D. Holmstedt and Andrew R. Jones. 2014. “The Pronoun in Tripartite Verbless Clauses in Biblical Hebrew: Resumption for Left-Dislocation or Pronominal Copula?” Journal of Semitic Studies. 59(1): 53-89.

This article is related to this earlier post, as well as this JBL article that came out last Fall.

For the full article, see here and scroll down.