Reviews of

The Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew: A New Synthesis Elaborated on the Basis of Classical Prose

In Eisenbrauns, HB/OT, Jan JOOSTEN, Kurtis Peters, Linguistics, Simor Ltd on June 10, 2013 at 11:44 am

2013.06.10 | Jan Joosten. The Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew: A New Synthesis Elaborated on the Basis of Classical Prose. Jerusalem Biblical Studies vol. 10. Jerusalem: Simor Ltd, 2012.  ISBN: 965-242-009-10.

Review by Kurtis Peters, University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Simor Ltd and Eisenbrauns for kindly providing us with a review copy.

There was little doubt that Joosten’s new volume, The Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew, would be thorough, well-researched, well-reasoned and well-positioned to become a standard for future scholarship. Such has come to be expected from Joosten, and such is the nature of this new monograph. His scope was ambitious, not only because he deals with a vast body of material, but also because dealing with the Hebrew verbal system is like tugging on a sweater’s thread – one takes on much more than intended. One can try to examine the uses of YIQTOL forms, for example, but that begs questions of diachrony (differentiation of yaqtul and yaqtulu forms), modality and volitivity (differentiation of YIQTOL forms from often identical jussive and cohortative forms), syntax (when to swap YIQTOL and WEQATAL forms), etc. Every problem reveals a whole host of other problems. However, Joosten leaves no stone unturned and attempts to address each of these muddy issues in a way that is convincing and accessible for all readers.

His chapters are grouped under three parts – Part One: Forms and Functions; Part Two: Verbal Usage; and Part Three: Perspectives and Open Questions. It is under Part One: Forms and Functions that one finds the following arrangement – Chapter 1: Preliminaries, where he sets out his linguistic methodology and his vision for the rest of the book; Chapter 2: The Verbal Paradigm, in which he scrutinizes the various verbal forms with an eye to place them within some kind of harmonious organizing framework; Chapter 3:Varying Verbal Meanings, where he demonstrates the different forces that may act on verbs and construe verbal meaning, including pragmatics, word-order, and temporal adverbs; Chapter 4: Inter-Clausal Relations, which naturally looks at the range of clause types (circumstantial, volitive sequences, etc.) and their interaction with verbal meaning.

Chapters 5 through 9 come under Part Two: Verbal Usage. Here we find chapter 5 devoted to WAYYIQTOL, chapter 6 to QATAL, chapter 7 to the predicative participle, chapter 8 to the relationship of YIQTOL to WEQATAL, and chapter 10 to the volitive paradigm. In each of these Joosten tackles the expected problems of how each of these forms is used in actual texts, and produces lengthy biblical citations to buttress his arguments.

Part Three: Perspectives and Open Questions contains three chapters devoted to answering any lingering questions about the verbal system. Chapter 10: Verbal Forms in Textual Perspective inverts the perspective of Part Two and now views the verbal system from the vantage point of features like pragmatics, word order, tense-aspect-mood relationships etc. Chapter 11: Developments in Late Biblical Hebrew is straightforward, noting how the meaning of particular verb forms and syntax shifts diachronically and shades toward later Qumran and Mishnaic Hebrew. The twelfth and final chapter, Verbal Usage in Poetry, suggests that the results of the current work may be applied cautiously to poetry in Hebrew. Joosten here allows both for poetry to flout expected rules for poetic effect, but also allows for the fact that the verbal system in poetry does conform at least to some kind of discernible structure related to what is found in Hebrew prose. There is, therefore, no cause for throwing the verbal system baby and bathwater out together as soon as one stumbles into poetry.

The contribution of this volume to the field of Hebrew language scholarship is thus relatively straightforward. It is, as the title suggests, that this volume is both a new look at old problems, as well as a synthesis of most of the significant topics related to the Hebrew verbal system. It follows in a line after the likes of Gesenius, Waltke and O’Connor, and Joüon and Muraoka, where they engage with the verb and its uses. However, there has been much published on the subject since these predecessors, and Joosten brings it all together in one place. As such, there is no attempt at any sustained argument that can be traced throughout the book, but rather many smaller localized discussions on a given focal area. Some recurrent arguments include allowing for historical change in the language, seeing the predicate participle as a full part of the verbal system, and the bonded relationship of YIQTOL and WEQATAL being different in kind from the relationship of QATAL and WAYYIQTOL. It is for a new summary of these kinds of issues, presented by a trustworthy scholar, that people will wish to consult this volume.

There remains, therefore, no question as to Joosten’s scholarship or the content of the book. There are, nevertheless, some significant shortcomings in this volume, primarily with respect to presentation. The reader will quickly discover that the chapters regularly overlap in confusing ways and inhibit effective consultation of the book as a whole. The chapter on the verbal paradigm reads like a miniature version of the whole of Part Two: Verbal Usage. Even the chapter titles are themselves sometimes vague, as can be seen above. While it is clear that Joosten sees a difference between Part One: Forms and Functions and Part Two: Verbal Usage, that clarity is not well-communicated throughout the book. Indeed, most of the information in Part One, for that matter, seems to be reiterated in Part Two.

The reader will also be left head-scratching as to the hierarchy of sections within the individual chapters. There is no numbering or lettering system for sections and sub-sections. Instead, difference in font size and bold typeface is employed, and not always very clearly. To be fair, there is a detailed table of contents provided in the back pages, which lays out the chapter structure. It only seems strange that this was the substitute for making the structure obvious within the chapters themselves.

Furthermore, while there is, as expected, a Scripture index, a subject index is sorely needed. This need is all the more acutely felt because of the overlapping information provided in various chapters (e.g. the uses of QATAL being discussed in depth in at least four different chapters). Presumably, Joosten’s intended audience consists of students and scholars of Biblical Hebrew, and presumably these people would treat a monograph on the verbal system as a reference work. As a reference work, one needs clearly delineated sections and chapters, and ideally a subject index so that she or he can quickly find the desired information. It is hard to imagine that this volume would provide such ease of access.

Joosten’s prose is reasonable and persuasive. He admits diachrony; he includes participles in the verbal system; he permits pragmatic factors to override expected verbal meanings rather than creating new paradigms for them; he is entirely sensible and his arguments are well-crafted. What remains to be seen is whether his readers will be able to navigate the book’s structure enough to appreciate it. It is sincerely hoped that they will. If not, one can only hope that a revised edition will soon be in the making and more widely distributed.

Kurtis Peters
University of Edinburgh
kurtis_peters [ at ]

  1. […] There have been  many attempts to explain the function of the Hebrew verb. One recent undertaking is by Jan Joosten in his book The Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew: A New Synthesis Elaborated on the Basis of Classical Prose. Doubtlessly a significant book for the study of Hebrew, Kurtis Peters has posted a review here. […]

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