Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Essentials of Biblical Hebrew Syntax

Technical post alert: I am interested in feedback from Hebrew-savy readers, and don't know where else to put my query.

As I began reading the Hebrew syntax textbook I assigned for this fall's "Hebrew Syntax and Exegesis I" course, it quickly became apparent to me that requiring students to read the whole thing carefully, or spending most of the semester talking about syntax as I have done in the past with Greek, would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Don't get me wrong, John C. Beckman's, Williams' Hebrew Syntax (3rd ed.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007) is fine for what it does. As a "traditional, sentence-level syntax that concentrates on the meanings of morphological categories" rather than "discourse-level analysis," the book is a clear, succinct and remarkably comprehensive resource (although its 19 categories for the [non-existent] Hebrew genitive is dwarfed by Wallace's 33 categories for the Greek genitive case). But most of the book describes what can happen in Hebrew; its main value is in explaining difficult and unusual constructions and linking to reference grammars. As with most syntaxes, long lists of categories threaten to drown the reader in second-order linguistic jargon instead of helping them learn to follow the linguistic cues of Hebrew.

Rather than reading about all the different possibilities, it is better by far to read Hebrew, and discuss unusual constructions as they surface in the Biblical text (where one can draw on a syntax as a resource). After all, the whole point is to help students learn to love reading Hebrew over the long term, and to read it well.

As I finalize my syllabus, then, I need to decide which elements of Hebrew syntax are essential for second-year students to learn because they can transform the way we read the text or because they are debated--or as is normally the case, both. While we will spend most of our class time reading Hebrew, there are a few places where it is helpful to stop and talk syntax because of its potential exegetical pay-off. Here is my list:
  • Subjects, complements and adjuncts
  • Construct relationships - We don't need a gazillion categories; it does help to be aware of the possibilities.
  • Word order, topic and focus
  • Narrative sequence and discourse analysis
  • The tense vs. aspect debate in connection with the Hebrew verb system.
Questions: What else am I missing? What are the essentials of Greek syntax, and why is it so much easier to make a short list of the essentials of Hebrew syntax?

1 comment:

Ken Penner said...

How about transitivity and the binyanim?