On the Syntax of BH Poetry

Saturday morning I presented a paper at the annual Canadian Society for Biblical Studies. In the paper, I addressed some issues of poetic syntax. Why am I studying poetry? I’m not really that poetic or creative or literarily sensitive. (I will confess that much of what passes for poetry mystifies me, but then I’d probably have rebuked E.E. Cummings and told him to take a course in punctuation.)

Why I’m studying poetry is simply that this is the road some recent linguistics research led me down. I wouldn’t be on this road otherwise. Regardless, I’m interested in getting feedback on my notions. To that end, my paper is posted below.

Holmstedt_Syntax of Hebrew Poetry_CSBS2017

In a small nutshell, I’m attempting to reduce the syntactic options that an ancient Hebrew poetic faced when concluding a poetic line. My argument is that it can be described as a binary choice, between apposition and non-apposition, rather than the six tropes that Michael O’Connor described in his magisterial Hebrew Verse Structure. I see all uses of language through a grammatical lens. My first question when I encounter some conventional use of language is always, “How does that work syntactically?” I take the position that no matter the convention (of prose, poetry, epistolary, etc.), they are always bound by grammar.

So, let me know if I’ve convinced you, even in part.

Reviewing a review of my The Relative Clause in Biblical Hebrew

*edited on May 30 due to a copyright challenge of my posting the PDF of the RBL review for non-SBL members; see here for more discussion*

Writing a book review, especially of a technical monograph, is not an easy task (I wrote on this topic over 6 years ago, here). This is why I have until now hesitated to address Frank Polak’s RBL review (here; no longer posted here for those without subscription–sorry, see my newer post on this change) of my book on the relative clause (Eisenbrauns link). Actually, I had decided not to respond at all until I saw Larry Hurtado’s blog post in which he discussed John Kloppenborg’s review of Hurtado’s book Destroy of the Gods. Since some of Hurtado’s problems with the review of his book are similar to my thoughts about Polak’s review of mine, reading Hurtado’s post prompted me to write this post (which I’ve now finally found the time to do).

I really do appreciate Frank’s deep engagement with my book and I read the review as mostly positive. The first three pages present a good summary of my chapters and his last paragraph is encouraging. If it were not for a major methodological point on p. 4 of the review, I would not be writing this brief post. In the first full paragraph on p. 4, where Polak begins his criticism, he laments that “more place has [not] been given to functional linguistics, in particular in the tradition of Michael Halliday” and he also calls my discussion of what “(a) language” is (pp. 33-35, where I introduced a philosophy of language discussion by Trevor Pateman) “misleading.” Since I can not post the PDF for those without SBL memberships, I quote below from the relevant paragraph:

There can be no doubt regarding the value of Holmstedt’s study. Treatment along similar lines of other phenomena will advance our knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and other Semitic languages most considerably. Still, some details are slightly disappointing. On a general level, it is to be regretted that no more place has been given to functional linguistics, in particular in the tradition of Michael Halliday. I say this in order to underline the importance of a general observation in the opening of Holmstedt’s study (1) concerning the general human preference for expanded phrases and expressions, a tendency to which Halliday has paid much attention in his treatment of expansion and enhancement as general features of syntax. By the same token, the definition of language as a social fact (33–35) seems slightly misleading. Is not language a social semiotic system used in communication by means of audial, grammatical, and lexical entities? Holmstedt finds the foundations of language usage in the personal idiolect, but this assumption is undermined by the communicative context. By contrast, Biblical Hebrew has lost its immediate social context and thus is no more than a “grapholect,” in the terms of Walter Ong. (Polak, review of Holmstedt’s Relative Clause in BH, RBL 04/2017, p. 4)

These criticisms betray a linguistic naivete, in the first place, and a faulty reading of my argument, in the second.

On the use of functional linguistics, I make it clear in my outline of linguistic theory that, while I adopt the data-richness of typological linguistics, I do not adopt the often underlying functional paradigm; rather, I adhere to the generative theory of language. This is an important point in my book (and all my research) because it is a deeply flawed notion I have encountered again and again in Biblical Hebrew studies that one can simply mix and match linguistic theories. This is not so. Linguistic theories are almost always the outworking of very different notions of what human language is and how it works and how linguistic research should be carried out. The assumption behind Polak’s criticism, that I could have easily included functional linguistics, is horribly wrong-headed. (Would that I never encounter it again in Biblical Hebrew studies!—though the realist within me suggests I will have to suffer it again and more than once).

Concerning the mistaken reading of my language argument, I had simply summarized Pateman’s conclusions before moving to the well-trod discussion that the formal notion of “a language” to use in linguistic study is the idiolect (and at this point I used a lengthy and insightful quotation from Jacobus Naudé). [Addition: Note that in generative theory, the idiolect is a formal concept, the “I-language,” that relates to the competence vs. performance distinction. As for the “grapholect” nature of the biblical data, I address this at length in the book and quoting Ong does nothing to address my arguments.] So, in fact, I never asserted anywhere in my book that language is a social fact. I’m not sure why Polak picked up on this issue and made an inaccurate point of it in the review. But it stands out, and I think it’s worth clarifying.

Finally, as a smaller point, Polak misreads my reconstruction of the history of אֲשֶׁר, and actually cites a study by Faist and Vita on the Akkadian ašar used in the Emar texts against me, even though I use that very study as support in building my argument! (I could point out similar issues I have with his comments on שׁ relatives and ה relatives, but I’ll let my book do the work it’s supposed to do).

Again, I thank Frank Polak for the substantive engagement with my admittedly technical, dense, and probably-not-too-fun-to-read study of the Hebrew relative clause. Frank and I disagree on many things related to Biblical Hebrew grammar, but since we met a decade or so ago, we have been able to do so amicably. I am grateful for this.

As a postscript to this review of a review, I will add a few meta comments. I find things like the use of the same data or source by two scholars to criticize each other’s argument ironic and humorous. When I read or experience this, it often provokes a bit of reflection—for a least the duration of a good cup of coffee—about the nature of debate in academia: is it about discovering truth or scoring rhetorical points? Of course, it does not escape me that this post can be accused of engaging in the rhetorical combat! I can only forestall such a conclusion by noting that this post reflects what I have said or written many times, that a clear methodology and a theoretical (self-)awareness are critical if we are to push forward in seeking the truth (on BH grammar, or any other topic). My adamant stance on this, as well as high expectations that arguments and counter-arguments are logical and sensible (two slightly different notions, in my opinion), are undoubtedly at the heart of why I have gained a reputation in some circles as … ahem … someone hard to get along with. I have clearly stepped on a few (dozen) toes (or feet) over the last decade or so. I make no apology for this, since what I have said or written has never been ad hominem or intentionally negative; however blunt my responses have been, they have had the singular goal of sorting out Hebrew grammar better. (And my wife and seven children know I’m actually nice.)

My SBL papers—abstracts and handouts

In a rare occurrence, this year I am actually finished with both my papers and the handouts before I fly to the annual meeting. To celebrate this oddity, I’m posting my handouts here for interested folks, along with the abstracts and the meeting information (for those going to San Antonio). After the conference, I’ll follow-up with summaries of how the papers were received.

#1) Ugaritic and Northwest Semitics unit

Sunday (Nov 20) morning, 9am, Mission A (2nd Level) – Grand Hyatt (GH)

Clarifying Apposition in Ugaritic // The Displacement of “Parallelism”

The juxtaposition of two constituents of the same category, such as noun apposition (e.g., Niqmaddu, the king) or noun-numeral apposition (e.g., thirty (shekels), lapis lazuli), is a fundamental noun modification strategy, alongside adjectival modification, noun cliticization (the bound relationship), and relativization. Though studies of Ugaritic grammar have long noted the use of apposition, particularly with numerals, the distribution and semantics of apposition are worthy of a focused analysis, which I will undertake in this study. Moreover, I will provide an initial investigation into the possible relationship between verb phrase or clausal apposition (types of apposition rarely recognized in Ugaritic or Hebrew studies) and the use of parallelism in poetic texts.

Handout here.

#2) Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew unit

Tuesday (Nov 22) morning, 9a, 303C (3rd Level) – Convention Center (CC)

Parenthesis in Biblical Hebrew

Like other interruptive structures, such as vocatives, exclamatives, and even non-restrictive relatives and appositives, parentheses pose challenges for linguistic analysis. In general linguistics, the terms “parenthesis” and “parenthetical” are used for a wide range of phenomena, which may or may not represent a single linguistic construction (Burton-Roberts 2006). It is thus not surprising that there has emerged no consensus on how parentheticals relate to their the adjacent or surrounding clause with which they share an apparent connection. This general state of confusion is well-represented in the only full study of parentheticals in Biblical Hebrew (Zewi 2007)—parenthesis is described as simultaneously “syntactically unattached” and “maintain[ing] a certain syntactic connection”, and a wide range of arguably disparate Hebrew constructions are cited as varieties of parenthesis. The current study is an attempt to bring some order to the relative chaos and so present a coherent analysis of parenthesis in Biblical Hebrew.

Handout here.

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.

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.