Tense-switching in LBH

In my previous series of posts, one of my hesitations in applying tense-switching to biblical poetry was the assumption that the syntax of biblical narrative and poetry are somehow “synchronic”. The Hebrew found roughly in Genesis-Kings is referred to as Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH) or Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) and is generally assumed to be a formal literary southern urban (most likely Jerusalem) dialect. This is certainly not proven beyond a doubt, but while other  dialects may creep in depending upon the source of the text or the purpose of the author, the dialect across these books seems highly standardized. One of the standard features is the consistent use of verbal morphology combined with word order, what Niccacci terms tense-switching, to indicate tense/aspect and prominence.

Even within SBH, the system begins to break down a bit as we move from narrative proper to direct speech, but what happens when we move completely away from SBH to another dialect, such as Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH)? Jan Joosten has a helpful article (“The Disappearance of Iterative WEQATAL in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal system,” Pages 135 – 147 in Biblical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic Setting, Eisenbrauns, 2006) in which he argues that, while still used as a future/modal, the past iterative function of weqatal has all but disappeared in LBH and is being replaced by weyiqtol

For instance, notice the chain of weyiqtols in 2 Chr 24:11 where we would expect weqatal:

2Chr 24:11 וַיְהִ֡י בְּעֵת֩ יָבִ֨יא אֶת־הָֽאָר֜וֹן אֶל־פְּקֻדַּ֣ת הַמֶּלֶךְ֮ בְּיַ֣ד הַלְוִיִּם֒ וְכִרְאוֹתָ֞ם כִּי־רַ֣ב הַכֶּ֗סֶף וּבָ֨א סוֹפֵ֤ר הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וּפְקִיד֙ כֹּהֵ֣ן הָרֹ֔אשׁ וִיעָ֙רוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אָר֔וֹן וְיִשָּׂאֻ֖הוּ וִֽישִׁיבֻ֣הוּ אֶל־מְקֹמ֑וֹ כֹּ֤ה עָשׂוּ֙ לְי֣וֹם ׀ בְּי֔וֹם וַיַּֽאַסְפוּ־כֶ֖סֶף לָרֹֽב׃12 וַיִּתְּנֵ֨הוּ הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ וִֽיהוֹיָדָ֗ע אֶל־עוֹשֵׂה֙ מְלֶ֙אכֶת֙ עֲבוֹדַ֣ת בֵּית־יְהוָ֔ה 

11 And when the chest would be brought to the king’s officers by the Levites, when they saw that there was much money in it, the king’s secretary and the officer of the chief priest would come and would empty the chest (weyiqtol) and would take it (weyiqtol) and would return it (weyiqtol) to its place. Thus they did day after day, and they collected money in abundance. 12 And the king and Jehoiada gave it to those who had charge of the work of the house of the LORD…

Joosten notes that it is possible that these are wayyiqtol‘s which have been mispointed, since in Kings we do have examples of weqatal followed by wayyiqtol as an iterative (in fact, such a construction is in the similar account in 2 Kg 12:11). However, usually the Masoretes mistakenly point weyiqtol as wayyiqtol, not the other way around. Further, the abundance of examples of weyiqtol as an iterative in LBH texts supports the pointing of the MT. 

This change seems to be part of a larger realignment of the verbal system as it moves toward Mishnaic Hebrew. The wayyiqtol form is gradually falling out of use, and if we look forward to the Isaiah Scroll from Qumran we see that the scribe consistently replaced wayyiqtol with a qatal form. Note also that the Isaiah scroll replaces iterative weqatal with weyiqtol. In LBH narrative, we already see weqatal (ie conjunctive waw + clause initial qatal) as a non-iterative past tense.  This is the normal narrative tense in Official Aramaic, which already dropped the wayyiqtol, and will become the narrative tense in Mishnaic Hebrew. For example, take Ezra 3:10:

Ezra 3:10 וְיִסְּד֥וּ הַבֹּנִ֖ים אֶת־הֵיכַ֣ל יְהוָ֑ה

10 And the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord 

I think we can pull a few things from this. First, wayyiqtol is the special case. Most likely, the preterite was used clause initially in narrative contexts because this position is iconic for sequence, but it then became a frozen form so that the waw was reinterpreted as part of the verb, thus it is proper to speak of wayyiqtol as a verbal form. Obviously, there is no possibility of a non-clause-initial wayyiqtol

However, to speak of weqatal, x-qatal, weyiqtol, and x-yiqtol is to combine (and perhaps confuse) the semantics of the verbal morphology with the pragmatics of word-order. Here I agree with John Cook that wayyiqtol and weqatal should be seen as two separate things. The past iterative use of weqatal flows from the modality of the perfect, just as the past iterative use of x-yiqtol flows from the modality of yiqtol. Hence there is no problem with an iterative weyiqtol. The word-order has to do with whether the verbs are sequential or not. Both weqatal and weyiqtol are clause initial, thus iconic for sequence (note that I’m not saying marked for sequence). It seems to me that there is no reason why the classical dialect could not have used weyiqtol for foregrounded iterative action, it just chose weqatal as the standard form. This gives a nice symmetry to the system since x-yiqtol is used as past iterative in non-sequential circumstances, while x-qatal is reserved for circumstantial clauses. However, once the simple past use of weqatal begins to encroach, it makes sense to move to weyiqtol instead.

So, we see that the system of tense-switching doesn’t quite hold for LBH. It is not unreasonable to assume that similar differences would be found in dialects that differ geographically from SBH as well. For instance, northern dialects may be more influenced by Aramaic which did not use weqatal as an iterative either. Thus, while I agree that the syntax of poetry should not differ greatly from that of prose, we cannot assume that SBH is necessarily the prose dialect we should be using as a baseline reference.

OK, I swear I’m done with Niccacci now. Really.

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

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