A Discourse approach to the BH Verbal system in Poetry – Part 1

In a recent series of posts, Phil Sumpter at Narrative and Ontology explored Alviero Niccacci’s approach to the verb in biblical Hebrew poetry, which is summarized in his essay “The Biblical Hebrew Verbal System in Poetry” (Pages 247-268 in Biblical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic Setting, edited by Steven Fassberg and Avi Hurvitz, Eisenbrauns, 2006). He also posted an anonymous response recently, continuing the topic. Phil was specifically working with Ps 24:2 where we find the couplet:

כִּי־ה֭וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ For he founded it (the earth) upon the seas
וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ׃ and upon the rivers he established it

Here we have the common phenomenon in Hebrew poetry of a switch from a qatal verbal form in the first colon to a yiqtol form in the second without any apparent change in the temporal reference (since they both describe the main event). Adele Berlin describes qtl // yqtl as grammatical parallelism (Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, 36) and groups it with other phenomena such as negative // positive, singular // plural, or active // passive. However, the difference in these other cases is that the poet chooses contrasting forms for variation, but still uses them normally. For instance, Jer 20:14 is an example of both positive // negative (cursed be // let it not be blessed) and passive // active (I was born // my mother bore me):

אָר֣וּר הַיּ֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֻלַּ֖דְתִּי בּ֑וֹ Cursed be the day on which I was born
י֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יְלָדַ֥תְנִי אִמִּ֖י אַל־יְהִ֥י בָרֽוּךְ׃ the day on which my mother bore me let it not be blessed

So even if qtl // yqtl is an instance of grammatical parallelism, then it seems to me that the forms must still have some intrinsic TAM value that cannot be completely cancelled out in the name of poetry. Thus Niccacci’s instinct, with which I agree, is that the verbal forms in poetry must have some basic relation to the verbal system of prose. It seems odd that poets would have felt free to grab any morphological form they wanted just for variation of style once they had set the appropriate tense in the first colon.

Obviously, scholars have been wrestling with this problem for eons and there are a few solutions. The yiqtol could be translated as a present tense and taken as a sort of historical present  (upon the rivers he establishes it). Conversely, the yiqtol could be taken not as a normal “imperfect”, but as the older short prefixed preterite form (a simple past tense) which has generally fallen out of use. What intrigued me about Niccacci’s solution is that he invokes the foreground :: background distinction that has so far largely been applied to classical narrative. My current hazy dissertation topic is concerned with salience in discourse, so I am reading on foreground :: background anyway, and I was finally able to get a copy of Niccacci’s article as well (it was checked out from our library), so in the next few posts I would like to discuss the merits and demerits of his approach as I see it.

Explore posts in the same categories: Poetic Structure, Semitic Verbal System

14 Comments on “A Discourse approach to the BH Verbal system in Poetry – Part 1”

  1. Mike Aubrey Says:

    This will be an interesting series. You have my full attention.

  2. Calvin Says:

    As Mike has said, you have my full attention. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  3. Peter Bekins Says:

    I look forward to getting your comments back, thanks for tuning in.

  4. John Hobbins Says:

    Exciting, Pete. You have teed off your series beautifully.

  5. Andrew C Says:

    Be sure to check with Anson Rainey regarding his thoughts on Niccacci’s approach! {grin}

    I just remember his unleashing on a presenter a few years back at SBL for relying on Niccacci’s approach; something he believed was not warranted. It made for a very fun Q&A, although not so much for the presenter!

  6. Thank you for this post. Discussing interesting things in the Hebrew Bible such as poetry, and plays on words, is really interesting. I hope you have many more posts like this!

  7. David Kummerow Says:

    Hi Pete,

    Rainey is right — Niccacci’s approach has some quite fundamental problems. See:

    Gross, Walter. 1999. “Is There Really a Compound Nominal Clause in Biblical Hebrew?” Pages 19-49 in The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Approaches. Edited by Cynthia L. Miller. Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic 1. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

    Further reading on the topic of salience in BH would include:

    Andersen, T. David. 2006. “Topicality and Functional Voice in Hebrew and Moronene, with Application to Translation.” PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary.

    Cook, John A. 2004. “The Semantics of Verbal Pragmatics: Clarifying the Roles of wayyiqtol and weqatal in Biblical Hebrew Prose.” Journal of Semitic Studies 49: 247-273.

    Heimerdinger, Jean-Marc. 1999. Topic, Focus and Foreground in Ancient Hebrew Narratives. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 295. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

    Kasten, Douglas L. 1994. “Salience in Biblical Hebrew Narrative.” MA diss., University of Texas at Arlington.

    Lunn, Nicholas P. 2006. Word-Order Variation in Biblical Hebrew Poetry: Differentiating Pragmatics and Poetic. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

    In this area you must read Andersen’s dissertation.

    Apart from the books and essay, I have the others as pdf. Send me an email if you don’t have access to these works and I can supply you with a copy.


  8. Peter Bekins Says:


    Thank you for the bibliography. Some I have read, some is on my list, and some I had forgotten about. I agree that Niccacci has some major problems. I am largely interacting with him as a starting point since Phil brought him up, but my larger goal is to look at discourse methods and how/if they can apply to poetry. My secondary goal is to try to understand background/foreground and get some feedback as I try to distill a dissertation proposal, so thanks for the help.


  9. I’ve only just discovered this! Technorati really is useless :( I will endeavour to read up on all your posts on the matter. Thanks for interacting!

  10. I found this really helpful: So even if qtl // yqtl is an instance of grammatical parallelism, then it seems to me that the forms must still have some intrinsic TAM value that cannot be completely cancelled out in the name of poetry.

    Here you differ from Berlin, who says that the grammar is meaningless.

  11. […] Part 1: A Discourse Approach to the BH Verbal System […]

  12. Having been immersed in Job since February, I missed this series but starred it for later absorption. I add my thanks to those of the others. Personally I have felt that ‘anything goes’ when translating verbs in poetry and I have largely interpreted them according to my then current whim! Perhaps after reading your series I will be able to be more discreet in my choices.

  13. […] in dialog. On a similar topic is Pete Bekins’ somewhat recent series of posts which begins here. I’ve been hoping to have the chance to interact some with what Pete has written, but other […]

  14. Can you please give me your email David Kummerow? Mine is cristianratza@gmail.com. Thanks a lot.

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