Why is there no backward verb gapping in BH poetry?

A while ago I was in a discussion about Proverbs 13:1 in which my counterpart suggested that בֵּ֣ן (“son”) should be repointed as the verb בין (“understand”) because otherwise there is no verb in the first clause. My first thought was that this is a simple case of verb-gapping, where the reader is expected to supply a verb in the first clause based on the second clause. This is the way most modern translations read:

Prov 13:1 בֵּ֣ן חָ֭כָם מ֣וּסַר אָ֑ב וְ֝לֵ֗ץ לֹא־שָׁמַ֥ע גְּעָרָֽה 
A wise son [listens to] a father’s instruction, a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.

However, after some research I found that, while gapping the verb in the second colon based on the first is quite normal, the opposite is either rare or non-existent. O’Connor, in his Biblical Hebrew Verse Structure, says that leftward verb gapping (I prefer backward since you don’t get confused about right-to-left vs left-to-right script issues) may occur (p129), but finds only 2 possible cases within his corpus, Jd 5:3 and Dt 33:4-5 (p404). This got me searching for other cases of backward verb gapping.


Before getting into the details, I should define what I mean by gapping. Biblical Hebrew poetic structure is normally divided into lines which are further divided into cola. A line is generally comprised of two cola. A colon is subdivided into “elements” of meaning and the two cola of a line are normally structured so that each element has a complement in the other colon as described by the ubiquitous term “parallelism”.

A normal colon has 3 elements, but sometimes 2 or 4. In the literature a line may be thus analyzed as 3+3, indicating that it has two cola of 3 elements each. The elements themselves are labeled alphabetically as a,b,c with the corresponding element across the seizura as a’,b’,c’. For example:

Prov 10:5 אֹגֵ֣ר בַּ֭קַּיִץ בֵּ֣ן מַשְׂכִּ֑יל נִרְדָּ֥ם בַּ֝קָּצִ֗יר בֵּ֣ן מֵבִֽישׁ 
a: He-who-gathers   b: in summer   c: a prudent-son 
a’: He-who-sleeps b’: at harvest   c’: a son-who-brings-shame

Some poets evidently preferred a strict regular parallelism abc || a’b’c’, but this could be varied. For instance, a fourth element could be introduced such as abc || a’b’d where d has no strict complement in the first colon, and as a result c has no strict complement in the second.

This is sometimes labeled as incomplete parallelism or ellipsis and also includes unbalanced lines of 3+2 or 2+3 structure where no compensating element is introduced. Gapping is a type of incomplete parallelism where the poet relies on the reader to supply a missing element from the other colon in order to understand its full meaning. It is most often the second colon that has the missing element. DN Freedman gives an example of gapping from Is 1:3 in a short article from Bible Review:

Is 1:3a יָדַ֥ע שׁוֹר֙ קֹנֵ֔הוּ וַחֲמ֖וֹר אֵב֣וּס בְּעָלָ֑יו
The ox knows his owner, and the ass the crib of his master
a:knows b:the ox c:his owner
[gap] b’:the ass        d: the crib of        c’:his master

This is the most common use of verbal gapping – forward/rightward gapping. The synonymous parallelism between elements b:b’ and c:c’ allow the reader to supply the verb (the a-element) in the second colon. Freedman argues that this is also a case of backwards gapping, where the d-element “crib” should  be supplied to the first colon:

The ox knows his owner’s crib, the ass knows the crib of his master.

It is true that the new d-element can also be gapped backwards, but I am not sure about this example. It is more likely a ballast element to maintain the 3+3 structure. A better example is probably Lam 5:6:

Lam 5:6 מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ נָתַ֣נּוּ יָ֔ד אַשּׁ֖וּר לִשְׂבֹּ֥עַֽ לָֽחֶם׃
To Egypt we put out a hand, to Assyria to be satisfied with food

The verb is gapped forward, and the thought of the first colon is grammatical but incomplete, in my opinion, without reference to the infinitival phrase in the second. If we follow Geller’s suggestion of transforming the poetic couplet into a prose sentence, the full idea would be “We put out a hand to Egypt and Assyria in order to be satisfied with food.”  


The most common examples of backward verb gapping are like Song 4:8, Ps 94:3, and Prov 31:4a-b:

Prov 31:4a-b אַ֤ל לַֽמְלָכִ֨ים ׀ לְֽמוֹאֵ֗ל אַ֣ל לַֽמְלָכִ֣ים שְׁתוֹ־יָ֑יִן
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine.

In these cases the backward gapping of the verb is anticipated by the use of the vocative followed by repetitive parallelism of the a and b elements. Cynthia Miller read a paper at SBL in which she concluded a vocative is often used to “hold the spot” of the gapped element. Thus in a backwards gap the vocative prepares the reader/listener to wait for the verb.

In Proverbs 13:1 there is no such placeholder. Instead it reads much more like a standard 3+2 “forward gapped” line, just flipped backwards as a 2+3:

  a’: a scoffer   b’: does-not-listen c’: to rebuke. 
  a: A wise-son [gap] c: a father’s-instruction

In theory, it seems to me that this is not too great of a stretch of the principle of gapping, but are there any other examples of such a use (where the first clause cannot be explained as a nominal predicate)? O’Connor suggested Jd 5:3:

Jd 5:3 אָֽנֹכִ֗י לַֽיהוָה֙ אָנֹכִ֣י אָשִׁ֔ירָה אֲזַמֵּ֕ר לַֽיהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל 
I – to the lord, I will sing, I will sing to the Lord God of Israel.

However, I could also see this more naturally as a 4 + 4 where the repetition of אָֽנֹכִ֗י provides ballast for אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

a: I b: to the Lord c: I d: I-will-sing
d’: I-will-sing b’: to the Lord e: God-of-Israel  

One other possible example that is cited is Job 4:10, which is read as a tri-colon:

Job 4:10 שַׁאֲגַ֣ת אַ֭רְיֵה וְק֣וֹל שָׁ֑חַל וְשִׁנֵּ֖י כְפִירִ֣ים נִתָּֽעוּ
The roar of the Lion, the voice of the fierce lion, and the teeth of the young lions are broken.

However, this reads more like a verb-final sentence with a compound subject. There is no c-element in the first two cola holding the place for the gapped verb and there is no clear seizura. It does remind us that verb final sentences are possible so it is not a huge stretch to expect the reader/listener to sort out all the nominal clauses and modifiers before getting to the verb (unless the listener is Mark Twain). 

The best example of backward verb gapping I could find is Prov 24:5:

Prov 24:5 גֶּֽבֶר־חָכָ֥ם בַּע֑וֹז וְאִֽישׁ־דַּ֝֗עַת מְאַמֶּץ־כֹּֽחַ
A wise man [gap?] in might, and a man of knowledge increases strength

Most versions translate the first colon as “a wise man is strong”, but the preposition makes בַּע֑וֹז adverbial not adjectival which I think precludes it from being a simple predicate (I am willing to hear counter arguments on this one). As it is he has to be doing something “mightily” or the gapped verb must govern ב. Unfortunately, מְאַמֶּץ seems to be a piel taking a direct object in the second clause (since אמץ is an intransitive verb), in which case it is not governed by בַּ. So מְאַמֶּץ cannot be supplied directly to the first colon exactly as it occurs in the second. Perhaps it could be read as the qal stative, “The wise man is strong in might, and a man of knowledge increases strength”.

Still, that seems like a lot of work just to find one example of backward verb gapping without a placeholder. And I haven’t even brought up the fact that the verb in Prov 13:1 needs not only to be gapped, but also negated! If you think you have a good example for me, send it my way.

Explore posts in the same categories: Poetic Structure

One Comment on “Why is there no backward verb gapping in BH poetry?”

  1. […] verb has been gapped in one of the lines (For a discussion of gapping see the beginning of this post). Miller’s corpus contains the 123 such lines from the book of Isaiah, of which 69% are […]

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