Hebrew Verb Apectual Or Temporal?

I have been interested in a discussion we got into in advanced Hebrew grammar class over the nature of the Hebrew verb. Several have argued for a more aspectual theory of verbal systems in Biblical Hebrew, while others have argued for a more temporal approach.

Now, we need to understand what the debate is all about. No one is arguing that the Hebrew verbal system doesn’t have aspect or doesn’t have tense. What we are discussing is what the primary function of the Hebrew verbal system is.

I agree with my professor that certain distinctions need to be made. For example, we cannot go into this discussion without first distinguishing between poetry and prose. Poetry is a whole different animal than prose, and hence, needs to be treated differently. Also, we need to understand the difference in discourse functions. For example, we need to understand differences between direct and indirect discourse. Without these proper distinctions, we are not able to truly understand the foundational nature of the Hebrew verbal system.

Also, what was fascinating is what happens when poetry becomes narratival. All of the sudden you start seeing things that are typical of prose, such as wayyiqtols. For example, in class we looked at Psalm 106:Atr”WbG>-ta, [:ydIAhl. Amv. ![;m;l. ~[eyviAYw: rB’d>MiK; tAmhoT.B; ~keyliAYw: br”x/Y<w: @Ws-~y:B. r[;g>YIw:byEAa dY:mi ~lea’g>YIw: anEAf dY:mi ~[eyviAYw: rt’An al{ ~h,me dx’a, ~h,yrEc’ ~yIm;-WSk;y>w:AtL’hiT. Wryviy” wyr”b’d>bi Wnymia]Y:w:

He delivered them for the sake of his name in order to show them his strength.

He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up. He brought them into the watery abyss as through the wilderness.

He delivered them from the hand of those who hate them. He delivered them from the hand of their enemies.

The waters covered their enemies. Not one of them remained.

They believed his word, and sang his praise.

It is interesting how, although this is clearly poetic, but, yet, their are wayyiqtols at the beginning of every verse! Hence, there seems to even be a distinction between narratival poetry and poetry itself!

One of the important lessons that I learned in discussing this issue is the importance of diachronics and synchronics. For example, forms change in their meaning. While there may be some question about whether Hebrew is aspectual or temporal in Biblical Hebrew, no one questions that Hebrew is temporal in later forms of Hebrew. Hence, we have to take into account how the Hebrew verb as developed. The Biblical time period for writing of the scriptures spans from the Late Bronze Age c.a. 1400 or 1200 B.C.] all of the way down to The fifth or fourth century B.C. A language that is in existence for that long can certainly undergo changes, and, in fact, we know that Hebrew has.

Also equally important is the synchronic approach. For example, you cannot mix the usages of the verb in the books of Ezekiel and Genesis in order to try to understand the Hebrew verbal system. The reason is very clear. If there is all of this time period in which the Hebrew verb is changing, then to mix the two is to engage in a category error, and, more precisely, a diachronic fallacy.

However, what fascinated me is the importance of diachronics in the study of the Hebrew verbal system. Usually when you are discussing the meaning of grammatical constructions, synchronics takes priority. However, if there is some kind of diachronic change in the Hebrew verb, then we must take that into account.

Now, after all of these distinctions, you may be thinking that I am now going to solve the problem. Actually, no, this is one of the perplexing problems in Hebrew grammar. However, it is something about which I have been thinking a whole lot, given that I would like to write my doctoral dissertation on this topic. It is also interesting that other material such as Ugaritic and the Amarna Letters must be taken into account when this issue is discussed.

Also, it was amazing to me to see the level that poetry, prose, and differences in discourse played in this whole debate. In fact, I learned that this is one of the major criticisms of Waltke and O’Connor’s An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, namely that, in their discussions, they never get beyond the clause level. In fact, our professor told us that Dr. Cynthia Miller [who did her doctoral dissertation on the discourse functions of Hebrew at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago] is doing an update to Waltke/O’Connor.

Hence, trying to recognize these distinctions is part of what I think it is going to take to understand the foundations of the Hebrew verbal system. It is food for thought as I consider my doctoral dissertation.


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