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SBL Paper on Object Marking in Biblical Poetry

November 17, 2014

I will be presenting a paper on the use of object marking in poetry during the Biblical Hebrew Poetry section in the late afternoon session next Monday at SBL. This paper is a first crack at the issue of why poets use object markers so infrequently. My preliminary survey of 30 Psalms shows that the distribution of object marking follows the definiteness and animacy scales as expected, and I conclude that the poets are using DOM naturally, just much less frequently. I propose two possible explanations:

(1) The poets are working with nonstandard or peripheral dialects in which DOM is simply used less frequently than the standard dialect

(2) The discourse structure of poetry does not require object marking to the same extent as prose, particularly narrative, since participant tracking is not as important.

I conclude by applying the method to examples of late poetry with unusually high counts of the object marker.

Here is a draft of the paper I will be reading if you are interested:




Biblical Hebrew Poetry
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: Room 24 B (Upper level) – San Diego Convention Center (CC)Theme: Linguistic Approaches to Biblical Hebrew Poetry
This session showcases research dedicated to linguistic analysis of biblical Hebrew poetry, the goal of which is service to the task of exegesis.

John Hobbins, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Presiding
Peter Bekins, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion
Object Marking in Biblical Hebrew Poetry (30 min)
Vincent DeCaen, University of Toronto
Octosyllabism in Biblical Hebrew Poetry: Toward a Tetrametrical Analysis (30 min)
Break (5 min)
Scott Redd, Reformed Theological Seminary
Constituent Postponement and Defamiliarization in Biblical Hebrew Verse (30 min)
Joshua E. Stewart, Luther Rice University
Text-Linguistics and the Hebrew Psalter (30 min)
Richard Benton, Respondent (10 min)
Discussion (15 min)


HSS 64 on sale now

November 1, 2014

I haven’t been posting very regularly since I finished my dissertation; however, I wanted to announce that I have revised the work as a monograph that has now been published as Transitivity and Object Marking in Biblical Hebrew in the series Harvard Semitic Studies, volume 64. Eisenbrauns has included the title in their November Web Sale, so grab your copy while they are hot!

Transitivity and Object Marking in Biblical Hebrew

Most of the revision involved refining the theory chapters (condensed from four to three) and exploring some further implications of the study in the concluding chapter. Chapters 4 and 5, which discuss the phenomenon of asymmetric and symmetric case alternation, are substantially the same as their counterparts in the dissertation, though I added a short section on object marking in LBH near the end of chapter 4.

I have a number of related projects underway, including an article on object marking in the Mesha Stele soon to appear in the journal KUSATU, an article comparing object marking in the first-millenium NWS dialects to be finished soon, and my SBL paper in San Diego, which will discuss possible reasons for the infrequent use of object marking in Biblical Hebrew poetry.



On the Importance of a Comma

August 12, 2013

You may be surprised to know that when I teach in undergraduate and adult ed situations, I actually deemphasize the importance of knowing Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew for reading the Bible. I do this for two reasons: 

First, the people to whom I am speaking will likely never attain proficiency in any of these languages; therefore, I want to reassure them that they can have a meaningful experience reading the Bible in English. 

Second, in the circles within which I have travelled, I have found that appeals to “the original languages” are typically empty rhetorical devices designed to privilege one reading over another with the benefit that nobody listening can actually check you.* Indeed, nine times out of ten the statement “what the Hebrew/Greek actually means here…” will be followed by some world-class bullcrap. 

That said, I also give the caveats that you should always check a couple different translations as a control and you should always be suspect of innovative readings that play off of a single word or turn of phrase. One important issue to understand is that English may be ambiguous where the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek is not and vice versa. 

I found an excellent example of this in my vacation reading. I checked out several books on teaching methodology including Teaching the Bible as Literature (Christopher-Gordon, 2002) by Roger Baker, which I hoped might have a couple activities worth borrowing. In the foreword, Baker illustrates his approach to the Bible with some tales of Elijah (1 Kgs 18-19) culminating with the wind, earthquake, and fire passing him on the mountaintop, followed by a “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12; KJV). Baker comments:

Notice how “still small voice” is punctuated. There is no comma between still and small. Instead of the voice being still and small, it is, after all, a small voice. It is “still” a small voice, in the English translation. 

English ‘still’ may indeed function as either an adverb or an adjective. Further, adverbs usually occur in the spot before the adjective. The lack of a comma, therefore, leaves the grammatical function of ‘still’ ambiguous, and if Strunk and White were responsible for translating the KJV then I would agree wholeheartedly that this was a significant omission.

Since the KJV is generally a word-for-word translation, however, it is highly unlikely that the translators intended to render the adjective דְּמָמָה from the phrase קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה as the adverb ‘still, yet’ (Heb עוֹד).** Indeed, if you check the NRSV translation you will find “a sound of sheer silence” with no adverb, which should give you pause about this theory (see also the LXX φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς and the Vulgate sibilus aurae tenuis).*** 

That said, something about this did interest me, which led to a day-long rabbit trail reading about the history of English punctuation and the KJV. In short, the punctuation in the original 1611 KJV seems to be inconsistent at best, and an attempt was made at standardization for the 1769 text. Of course, English punctuation in general was still in a state of transition during this period. In the 16th century, its function was primarily rhetorical rather than grammatical — similar to the Masoretic system, punctuation was intended to guide the oral performance of the text. For instance, in the Matthew-Tyndale Bible (1537), 1 Kgs 19:13 reads (see here; you want pgs 22-23): 

“And after the fyre / came a small still voice.” 

There are only two punctuation marks used in this text. The period (.) marks the end of the sentence and the forward slash (/) indicates the major pause similarly to the athnach. The shift toward a more grammatically precise punctuation system can be attributed to those continental humanists who “demanded a more exact disambiguation of the constituent elements of a sentence” (Parkes, Pause and Effect:Punctuation in the West, Univ of California Press, 1993, 88). This approach was apparently introduced to English by Ben Jonson’s 1616 English Grammar (see here) which was published posthumously in 1640.

So what is going on with the KJV? First I checked to be sure that “still small voice” was original to the 1611 KJV here. Next I looked for precursors. Interestingly, the Geneva Bible (1599) reads “A still and soft voice,” one of the options Baker would have preferred for a double adjective. The other version that influenced the KJV translators was the Matthew-Tyndale I quoted above, which read “a small still voice.”

See the difference there? They put ‘still’ in the second slot so that it would be read unambiguously as an adjective. Why didn’t the KJV just copy this exactly? My best guess is it has to do with the word-for-word thing. The Hebrew is קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה with דְּמָמָה the word usually translated as ‘still’. Since the order of adjectives is ‘still’ then ‘small’ in the Hebrew source, the KJV translators opted for “still small” in the English despite the possible ambiguity. 


* Unless I am sitting there, of course. Note also the legitimating function of referring to them as “the original languages”. 

** Note that this Hebrew phrase is interesting in its own right, but that is a post for another day. 

** Baker cites this translation later, but doesn’t seem to take it into account. I am also confused as to why he added the caveat “in the English translation” above. Is he suggesting that the translation somehow has its own meaning independently of the source text? 

Rollston on Jerusalem Inscription

July 11, 2013

Christopher Rollston has posted on the recent Jerusalem inscription including a nice line drawing to support his reading. He reads from left-to-right m q l ḥ n [r š] with the root qlḥ ‘pot’ the central word. From his line drawing, Rollston’s trained eye sees more of a circle on the top of the q then mine did. Typologically, he dates the script to the 11th century rather than the 10th. 

Mazar and Inscriptions

July 10, 2013

In my previous post, I assumed that Shmuel Ahituv, a well respected epigrapher, had contributed to the reading of the latest inscription found in Jerusalem since he is quoted authoritatively in the press release. However, the letter read as is quite clearly r, an odd mistake. Then I remembered this:

“Archaeologist revises read of ancient seal impression”

Note that Mazar erred by reading the seal from right-to-left, but it was a reverse image (it was the seal itself, not the impression). As I think about it more, I think she has made the opposite mistake this time by reading from left-to-right as “Canaanite” in combination with the ridiculous Jebusite narrative. George Athas is correct that this seems to simply be Hebrew read right-to-left as one would expect. See my previous post for the problems with drawing conclusions about language or ethnicity from script typology.

New Inscription from Jerusalem

July 10, 2013

I was just reminiscing about the summer of 2008. Remember the new inscriptions from Zincirli and Khirbet Qeiyafa? Well, it has been a while since anything interesting was pulled out of the ground with writing on it, but Jim Davila posted an IAA press release this morning for an inscription on a large pithos dated to 10th century Jerusalem.


The script is described as “Canaanite” and Ahituv (I assume) reads it from left-to-right as m q p ḥ  n [l]   n which means ???? (note the press release reads h but I assume a diacritic has dropped because it looks like to me). Well, beggers can’t be choosers, right? The shapes of the mem and nun are consistent with other 10th century writing (see Ahiram and Gezer Calendar). The qaf and pe are oriented toward the right rather than the left, which suggests the left-to-right order. The qaf looks more like a resh to me, though, so an alternative reading could be m r p ḥ n.

As always with these sort of things, the headline teases “Inscription from the Time of Kings David & Solomon” while the press release explains the fact that it does not seem to be Hebrew by attributing it to one of the “non-Israeli” [huh?] residents of Jerusalem like our good friends the Jebusites. You can’t seem to get rid of those guys.

Of course, this analysis wrongly conflates script with language while completely confusing things by invoking ethnicity. What is described as “Canaanite” script is better understood as simply the typologically older common script used across the region — it does not necessarily indicate that you are a Canaanite (a term that is problematic in itself). Distinctive national scripts begin to develop from the 10th into the 9th centuries, but as the Tel Fakheriya bi-lingual demonstrated, the typologically older script was still in use into the 9th century as well.

UPDATE: Just noticed that George Athas has also given some comments on the inscription. He also reads the qaf as a resh. I am not sure why Ahituv read it as a qaf which I would expect to look more like a line with a circle on top, but perhaps the reading is not Ahituv’s. George further notes problems with the pe, which he tentatively reads as tsade. I noticed that the pe seems too “closed”, but I don’t really see a tsade at all. It needs some “squiggle”. I would further note that having only seen a hi-res photo I am just having some summer armchair epigrapher fun with this, so take my opinions with a large grain of salt.

A Midrash on את

March 1, 2013

I presented my dissertation lecture yesterday afternoon (in lieu of a formal defense we present a public lecture and take questions), and I thought it appropriate to open with a midrash on את. The human mind is endlessly searching for patterns and meaning. Randomness is anathema. Potato chips look like Abraham Lincoln. The virgin Mary appears on grilled cheese. And so, both grammarians and interpreters have often felt that the use of את to mark an object phrase must have some meaning. The following is a midrash on את which I came across somewhat by random (HT: Davar Akher). 

Sefer HaBahir 1:32

דרש ר’ ישמעאל לר”ע מ”ד את השמים ואת הארץ אלמלא לא נאמר את היינו אומרים שמים וארץ אלהות הן א”ל העבודה נגעת אבל לא בררת כן דברת אבל את לרבות חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות ואת לרבות אילנות ודשאים וגן עדן

Rabbi Ishmael expounded to Rabbi Akiva, “Why does it say את השמים ואת הארץ? Had it not said את, they would think that השמים and הארץ were gods!”

He replied, “Good Lord! You have laboured, but you have not sifted, and so you have spoken; however, את includes sun and moon, stars and constellations; את includes trees and vegetation and the Garden of Eden.”

The midrash concerns the use of את for the phrase את השמים ואת הארץ in Genesis 1:1. Rabbi Ishmael gives a reasonable grammatical argument: had השמים and הארץ not been overtly marked as direct objects, it would have been grammatically possible to read the phrase in apposition to אלהים as the subject. This is a common explanation for את; when it is used it must be necessary to distinguish subject from object. Its grammatical function is indeed to indicate the object, but when one considers the distribution of את broadly, this is not a likely explanation for the variation in its use. There are numerous examples where את is used when ambiguity between subject and object is low or where it is absent in cases where ambiguity may be high. 

Rabbi Akiva scolds Rabbi Ishmael for his interpretation, but not on grammatical grounds. Akiva’s midrash (see also Baba Qama 41b) plays on the fact that the object preposition את is a homonym of the comitative preposition את ‘with’. The idea is that wherever an object is marked by את, this also implies that there is something unsaid that should go along ‘with’ it. Here, את is alerting us that את השמים ואת הארץ should be taken as a hendiadys that includes all of the subsequent “structural” creation up to Eden (I assume his omission of birds, fish, animals, and humans was intentional). This is a good midrash, but a midrash nonetheless. 

I have argued in my dissertation that the distribution of את is not random, but I wouldn’t say that its presence is particularly meaningful in the normal sense of the word. Fundamentally, את is a grammatical marker of the direct object, and the variability in its use is largely a by-product of the way object marking systems develop. 

Dead Space

January 14, 2013

The last couple years have been extremely busy. My dissertation took a bit of a rabbit trail, but I am very pleased with the results of the extra year of research. The dissertation is now complete and has been accepted, so I will formally become Dr. Bekins this June. I have posted a link to the dissertation under the pages sidebar if you are interested.

In the meantime, I have also been participating in the Accordance Syntax database project, teaching 2-3 courses per semester at Wright State University, working up several papers for submission for publication, and doing all my duties as dad and husband. So…. the blog has been the one to suffer. I hope to begin posting periodically again, but don’t keep your fingers crossed. Until then, you can read about all the wonders of ʾet.

CAL seems to be back online

June 21, 2011

I just noticed that the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, which was offline for approximately six weeks due to a ‘hacker’, is now back on-line.

What exactly would a hacker want with an online Aramaic lexicon? Apparently to save a trip to Half-Price Books:

We apologize for the unavailability of our system during the six weeks between early May and mid-June, 2011. The CAL server was struck by a hacker from an ISP in London, UK precisely on the day that Dr. Kaufman left the country, apparently simply because he or she wanted a complete copy of our online version of Sokoloff’s DJPA and wanted to save the $100 for the second edition and received instead an early draft of the first edition, while totally comprimising the system

What’s the deal?

June 20, 2011

A few days ago, Chip Hardy (DailyHebrew) linked to an article by NT Wright discussing the KJV and the protestant theological basis behind translation of the Bible into vernaculars along with the issues that arise. In that article, Wright oddly states, “Jesus’ first followers were in any case already almost certainly bilingual. Their mother tongue was Aramaic (a language which developed from the classical Hebrew of the scriptures, a few hundred years earlier)” (emphasis mine).


This was followed yesterday by an article on NPR concerning Karen Stern of Brooklyn College and Jewish Aramaic tomb graffiti (circulated by Jack Sasson circulated via Agade). The article begins as follows:

Aramaic is the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East, the
linguistic root of modern day Hebrew and Arabic. (Emphasis Mine)

“Once you understand Aramaic,” says Karen Stern, “you can read
anything. You can read Hebrew, you can read Phoenician. I always call
it the little black dress of Semitic languages.”

Again, I say, “What?”

Apparently, Classical Hebrew developed into Aramaic which then morphed back into Modern Hebrew and Arabic.