DABHVSinP – Part 8: Conclusion

Sorry for the long delay, but I was pulled onto other projects at home (like caring for my wife who unexpectedly had to have her gall bladder removed). I could go on with this series forever, but I will try to wrap it up with this post. I am not completely satisfied with my findings, but I need to move on with my dissertation and get off of this rabbit trail.

In my last post I looked a bit at the way direct speech differs from biblical narrative in respect to tense-switching as a means for expressing grounding. The most obvious difference is that biblical narrative style uses a chain of syndetic clauses with very few explicit logical or temporal connectors. Thus tense-switching seems to be the predominate method of implying subordination. However, in the example of direct speech most of the clauses were asyndetic, the only exceptions being the couplets joined by parallelism and the use of the qatal > wayyiqtol shift to express subordination. As I turn my attention to poetry, it is parallelism that may be the biggest stumbling block for the usefulness of tense-switching as an explanation for the unique use of the verbal system.

Since Kugel’s work on parallelism, scholars have been more inclined to view poetry and prose as poles on a continuum. Kugel argued both that parallelism is not restricted to poetry and that a good amount of biblical poetry doesn’t use parallelism. He went on to argue against the standard distinction of a poetry corpus within biblical literature, but most scholars have not followed him that far. Still, it is important to recognize that prosaic elements exist within poems and vice versa. You may remember the use of parallelism integrated seamlessly into Jacob’s speech in the last post.

Thus, to the extent that a poetic text includes prosaic features, we would expect the syntax to work as it does in prose. Where a psalm is heavily influenced by narrative, as in Psalm 78, I think it is fitting to consider whether shifts from wayyiqtol to other verbal forms have a discourse-pragmatic function of expressing grounding. However, to me this seems to be a small % of texts and not extremely useful for explaining the verbal system in the psalms as a whole. And, even though a psalm like 78 is influenced by narrative, it is not exactly the same as narrative (even in direct speech). How do we account for the poetic features? Should we see a narrative framework with poetic features intruding, or a poetic passage with some wayyiqtols thrown in to give it a narrative feel?

Take a series such as Ps 78:14-15 (Niccacci’s translation):

14 וַיַּנְחֵ֣ם בֶּעָנָ֣ן יוֹמָ֑ם and [He] led them with a cloud in the daytime,
וְכָל־הַ֝לַּ֗יְלָה בְּא֣וֹר אֵֽשׁ׃ And all the night with a fiery light.
15 יְבַקַּ֣ע צֻ֭רִים בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר By cleaving (‘ was cleaving’) rocks in the wilderness,
וַ֝יַּ֗שְׁקְ כִּתְהֹמ֥וֹת רַבָּֽה׃ he gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.

Niccacci sees the shift wayyiqtol > yiqtol from verse 14 to 15 as grounding, and he takes the yiqtol as past imperfective (I think this would be better translated as a past habitual: “He would cleave rocks in the wilderness and give them drink abundantly as from the deep.”) However, we would expect wayyiqtol > (waw)-xyiqtol to signal a switch to past habitual, not a clause-initial yiqtol. Niccacci argues that here we do have xyiqtol, but that a sentence initial pronoun has been dropped through ellipsis, thus poetry has intruded on the narrative. However, consider the sequence in verses 49-50:

49‏ יְשַׁלַּח־בָּ֨ם ׀ חֲר֬וֹן אַפּ֗וֹ He let loose on them his burning anger,
עֶבְרָ֣ה וָזַ֣עַם וְצָרָ֑ה wrath, indignation, and distress
מִ֝שְׁלַ֗חַת מַלְאֲכֵ֥י רָעִֽים׃ a troop of angels of disaster
‎50‏ יְפַלֵּ֥ס נָתִ֗יב לְאַ֫פּ֥וֹ He made a path for his anger
לֹא־חָשַׂ֣ךְ מִמָּ֣וֶת נַפְשָׁ֑ם He did not spare them from death
וְ֝חַיָּתָ֗ם לַדֶּ֥בֶר הִסְגִּֽיר׃ But their lives he handed over to the plague

Notice that both of these verses begin with initial yiqtols, but there is no tense-switch from or back to wayyiqtol for the foreground. Instead, the sequence is yiqtol (יְשַׁלַּח), yiqtol (יְפַלֵּ֥ס), qatal (לֹא־חָשַׂ֣ךְ), xqatal (הִסְגִּֽיר). The temporal reference remains past tense during the entire section, and it is hard to see how the yiqtols can be taken as imperfective. Rather, we seem to have a yiqtol used as a simple past tense, which opens up the possibility that back in verse 15 יְבַקַּ֣ע was really just a simple past tense also. Thus, it could be that what we have there is not the poetic feature of ellipsis obscuring the normal narrative syntax of wayyiqtol > xyiqtol indicating a switch to background information (which is a weak argument in the first place), but merely the use of a different, albeit rare, past tense form – the short preterite.

When we turn to look at the normal situation in poetry, parallelismus membrorum (see here), I think that this solution becomes more appealing. Nicholas Lunn has written a fine dissertation investigating word-order in biblical poetry. He found that the word order of the first colon, the a-colon, largely tends to follow the standard order (ie VSO, with the expected shifts for pragmatic reasons of topicalization or focus). However, the b-colon often deviates from this with an unexpected word-order. Lunn explains this with the concept of defamiliarisation. This is a device by which poets purposefully make language more difficult to understand in order to prolong the process of experiencing the art. This is evident not only in word-order, but also in the choice of rare words which seem to occur more frequently in the b-colon, and I would add, perhaps also rare verb forms such as the old short preterite. It is no coincidence then that the most common switch seems to be qatal > yiqtol, and not the opposite.

Further, the relationship between the cola in parallelismus membrorum is different than sequential clauses within a narrative or discourse where an idea is developing progressively. Often, the point of a b-colon is to stop and repeat the same idea using synonymous (or antithetical) language. In such a situation, I don’t know that it is proper to think of one clause as being subordinate to the other. take for example Psalm 78:5:

5‏ וַיָּ֤קֶם עֵד֨וּת ׀ בְּֽיַעֲקֹ֗ב And he established a testimony in Jacob
וְתוֹרָה֮ שָׂ֤ם בְּיִשְׂרָ֫אֵ֥ל And a law he appointed in Israel.

Here both cola refer to the same event, but the merismus “Jacob and Israel” has been split and expanded into two cola (which is a common feature of biblical poetry). Therefore, the switch from wayyiqtol to qatal probably should not be taken as a signal of background or subordination, but a by-product of the insertion of parallelism into the flow of thought. This happens in narrative texts as well, take Gen 21:1:

21:1‏ וַֽיהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר And the Lord visited Sarah as He said
וַיַּ֧עַשׂ יְהוָ֛ה לְשָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃ And he did to Sarah as He spoke.

The next verse picks up again with a wayyiqtol and continues the narrative. Another reason why I don’t think tense-switching between parallel cola should be taken pragmatically as a mark of backgrounding is the great number of parallel cola that do not switch tense at all. For example, Psalm 78:16:

16‏ וַיּוֹצִ֣א נוֹזְלִ֣ים מִסָּ֑לַע He caused streams to come out of the rock
וַיּ֖וֹרֶד כַּנְּהָר֣וֹת מָֽיִם and he caused water to flow down like rivers.

Here we have synonymous parallelism, but both cola use wayyiqtols. I can see no difference in the context between the function of parallelism here and elsewhere, but perhaps I am missing something.

In conclusion then, it seems to me that tense-switching as a mark of background ultimately fails to add to our understanding of the use of the verb in poetry. Rather, I think the majority of cases of a switch from qatal > yiqtol can be explained by defamiliarisation. That is, the poet has used a rare preterite form for the b-colon to make it bit more difficult to understand. I do think Niccacci is right to be more sensitive to the past imperfective use of yiqtol, especially in narrative-like contexts. There are some cases where I agree that a past habitual may be a better translation than simple past, and from a quick scan of the Psalms I see many examples where yiqtol is used in obviously past imperfective situations. For example, Ps 39:4:

4‏ חַם־לִבִּ֨י ׀ בְּקִרְבִּ֗י My heart became hot within me
בַּהֲגִיגִ֥י תִבְעַר־אֵ֑שׁ While I mused, fire was burning
דִּ֝בַּ֗רְתִּי בִּלְשֽׁוֹנִי׃ I spoke with my tongue

Again, note that we do not have any of the standard tense-switching constructions here as the other verbs are both clause-initial qatals. In poetry then, I think that we must be more sensitive to the semantics of the verb on its own, rather than expecting the elegant system found in narrative where we can rely on the word-order.

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

10 Comments on “DABHVSinP – Part 8: Conclusion”

  1. A super series – thanks very much. I love this quote “This is a device by which poets purposefully make language more difficult to understand in order to prolong the process of experiencing the art.”

    Is it only art? When we sing the psalms in plainchant we pause half-way through. We used to say – say two hail Mary’s in the pause – but I think now the pause is for us to hear what cannot be written but is framed by the cola.

  2. evedyahu Says:

    I think you are right. Thanks for posting this!
    Do you have anything about Christopher Jero’s thesis? I understand that he did his thesis on the verb in Psalms. I cannot get a hold of him for a copy of his thesis (?).

  3. evedyahu Says:

    Peter, Could you please send me all of your comments on Niccacci in a Word or PDF file?

    I would appreciate it very much. Also – have you had a chance to take a look at Silviu Tatu’s book (The Qatal//Yiqtol (Yiqtol//Qatal) Verbal Sequence in Semitic Couplets – Gorgias Press)?

    See: http://www.gorgiaspress.com/BOOKSHOP/pc-56112-62-tatu-silviu-the-qatalyiqtol-yiqtolqatal-verbal-sequence-in-semitic-couplets.aspx

    His point: “This study argues that qatal and yiqtol verbal forms, when part of the qatal//yiqtol verbal sequence in Psalms’ poetic couplets, can be used primarily for aesthetic reasons, with no individual reference to time or aspect.”

    I think he is wrong. What do you think?

  4. Peter Bekins Says:

    I’m about to head out of town for a few weeks, so it may be a little bit. I work in Mellel so it will have to be a .pdf.

    I have read a paper of Tatu’s, but I only got a chance to skim the book. I am not sure how he nuances it, but I don’t know that every single qatal//yiqtol is aesthtic.

  5. Cristian Says:

    Thanks Peter. PDF is fine. I agree with you on the aesthetic comment!

  6. Phil Sumpter Says:

    I find myself convinced. Now I need to pack out my grammar and figure out what a “short yiqtol” is (as Evedyahu also kindly mentioned on my blog).

  7. Andrew Says:


    I worked through this series and noticed the above comment that you might have these available as a .pdf. If you do, would you be willing to share that with me? I’m about to do some interaction with Greenstein/Niccaci/Rainey/Tropper/etc. on the verbal system in Ugaritic and would appreciate being able to reference your thoughts with a bit more ease.

    BTW, if you feel like slogging through some French, I just heard a talk by Axel van de Sande, basically summarizing his published dissertation on the verbal system. It seems fairly iconoclastic, but definitely thought provoking. In case you’re interested and/or haven’t heard of this book, here’s the Amazon link:


    • Peter Bekins Says:


      I went back through my files, but I don’t seem to have ever summarized these into a .pdf. I am actually teaching a class on biblical poetry this Spring so I was planning on re-visiting the topic of the verbal system in poetry anyway. When I get a chance I will try to edit these files into one and make it available as a .pdf.


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