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.)

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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 »

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.