B. Conklin, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Conklin, Blane, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew (LSAWS, 5; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011). Pp. xii + 106. Hardcover. US$37.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-203-7.

Conklin presents a detailed and systematic analysis of a variety of oath formulas in Biblical Hebrew (BH). The crux of the problem for Conklin began with an observation of contradictory translations of Ruth 1:17b. The NRSV translates the phrase as “May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” In stark contradiction to the NRSV, the NJPSV translates the phrase as “Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” Conklin believed the problem to be of a linguistic nature, so that one should expect a linguistic solution. To discover such a solution, Conklin gathered the oath formulas found in the Hebrew Bible “so that the patterns, tendencies, and divergences may be seen within a larger matrix” (p. 2).

In the opening chapter, Conklin offers a brief survey of speech act theory, the general structures of oath formulas, and an overview of previous scholarship. He perceives a lack of studies focused on the morphosyntax of BH oaths, especially oath formulas with the particle כי as the lead constituent. Conklin desires to offer a “systematic analysis of the morphosyntax of the particles in oaths with regard to the larger morphosyntactic context of these particles in the language” (p. 12). In chapters two to five he examines four elements that constitute oath formulas in BH.

Chapter 2 is devoted to an analysis of the various authenticating formulas found in BH. Conklin identifies five formulas that authenticate the truthfulness of an oath. The five elements are found in about 135 texts. These elements include the raising of a hand, an invocation of one or more witnesses, the explicit use of the verb for swearing, the phrase “thus will X do to Y,” and the phrase “(by) the life of X” (p. 13). Each of the authenticating elements is discussed in turn with multiple examples given across the HB. A few of the elements are divided into subcategories. The raising of a hand is divided into those containing a mention of hand-raising as a reference to oath-taking and those containing the use of hand-raising within the oath itself. The use of the verb שׁבע is divided into three categories: use of the verb in a narrative context, usage within an oath, and use of the verb within an adjuration. The formulaic use of the phrase “life of X” is divided into places in which it occurs outside and within an oath. I am curious as to why Conklin decided to leave out the placing of the hand under another's thigh as an authenticating element (cf. Gen 24:2; 47:29). He also appears to dismiss passages such as Josh 2:8–21 which includes the use of the verb שׁבע, an invocation of a witness, and a possible category of “by the life of X.”

Chapter 3 evaluates conditionally formulated oaths. Conklin begins with a brief survey of scholarship concerning conditional-clauses using the particle אם. He uses data gathered from 34 conditional אם clauses in 1 Samuel as a baseline for his examination of conditional oaths with אם and אם־לא in the Hebrew Bible. He bases his working assumptions on an aspectual view of the Hebrew prose verbal system in which certain forms entail either foregrounding or backgrounding and all the forms can be used for multiple temporal situations (p. 33). I am of the opinion that these assumptions limit the possible explanations of the different oath related phenomenon found in his study. For example, in his discussion of nominal clauses and “perfective” verbs in the protasis, the observation that a volitive normally appears in the apodosis could explain why a negative apodosis was often elided in oath contexts. In these cases the “irreal” nature of the apodosis would be understood or at least familiar. After a detailed comparison between conditional clauses and conditional oaths, Conklin concludes that both types of conditional oaths “fit the description of regular conditional clause protases” (p. 44).

Conklin devotes chapter 4 to oaths marked with כי. He follows the pattern of comparison established in chapter 3. Conklin challenges the consensus view that the particle in oath formulas is emphatic or asseverative. He concludes that the particle functions as a complementizer in oaths and stands in for the verb “to swear” (p. 59). His analysis of twelve syntactically “maddening” texts is one of the more insightful sections of the chapter. His conclusions provide a helpful starting point for future research, not only for the usage of the particle in oath formulas, but also for a re-evaluation of the use of the particle in the Hebrew Bible.

In chapter 5 Conklin examines fourteen oaths that do not use a conditional protasis or כי as an introduction to an oath. Ten of the fourteen oaths contain no formal marker. He briefly returns to where he started and asks if the type of authenticating elements (ch. 2) determined the way in which an oath formula was marked. He concludes a lack of meaningful correlation between the authenticating elements and the marking of an oath formula (p. 65). The bulk of the chapter contains his discussion of the alleged function of כי־אם as an oath marker. He surveys the modern origins of the assumed function of compound particle before discussing the twelve texts that are usually thought to attest an asseverative function. He concludes that these texts demand “an analysis of the two particles as distinct particles” and that they “fall into the category of oaths marked by כי” (p. 75). In an appendix, Conklin surveys oath formulas in three groups of Semitic languages.

Conklin's work whets the appetite for more analysis of the different phenomenon related to both oath formulas as well as conditional clauses. His labor is a valuable aid for a better understanding of the syntax of various oath formulas, from the common to the unusual. I see this work as a starting point for those wishing to evaluate oaths in their discourse setting. One of the difficulties in works such as this is ensuring that it flows in a readable manner. At times Conklin overwhelms the reader with great amounts of data and information. He provides tables and overviews at valuable intersections. However, more tables would be beneficial in drawing the data together. The flow of the study would have benefited by incorporating concluding remarks after each category. Also, I anticipated Conklin to return to Ruth 1:17b and offer a final assessment after his detailed study of BH oath formulas.

Despite these remarks, the new understandings presented in this study represent a much needed linguistic foray into the study of oaths and their morphosyntatical setting. This work is well placed in Eisenbrauns' Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic series. This series continues to offer groundbreaking works in the area of West Semitic studies.

Joshua E. Stewart, Luther Rice University