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.