Review of V. Ber, The Hebrew Verb HYH

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Viktor Ber, The Hebrew Verb HYH as a Macrosyntactic Signal (Studies in Biblical Hebrew; Berlin: Peter Lang, 2008). Pp. 334, Paperback, US$86.95. ISBN 978-3-631-57130-9.

In this well-researched and largely convincing volume, Viktor Ber joins the distinguished line of scholars who wrestle with the enigmatic nature of the Hebrew verb היה. Ber currently teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Prague. He is also a member of a research team at Charles University, also in Prague, working in the area of hermeneutics of Old Testament narratives and legal texts. His work in linguistics has been influenced by Wolfgang Schneider and Eep Talstra, who figure prominently in the theoretical orientation of Ber's analysis.

The work as a whole is concerned with a very specific-but extremely common-syntactical construction in Biblical Hebrew (BH): the use (or non-use) of the verb היה (appearing either as ויהי or as והיה) with a ב- or a כ- prefixed infinitive. Those readers who may be more familiar with classical or clause-based syntactical analyses, often consider these constructions to be, in the words of W. Gesenius, an “equivalent of a temporal clause” (GKC §164g):

The infinitive with בְּ may usually be rendered by when, as, or whilst; the infinitive with כְּ by when, as soon as…, or, when referring to the future, by if; the infinitive after מִן by since (ibid.).

While Ber does not contradict this viewpoint, he also notes that often temporal expressions are composed of merely a ב- or a כ- prefixed infinitive, without the verb היה appearing before it. He further notes that, occasionally, the temporal expression (or, in his nomenclature, the “temporal adjunct” or “TA”) may appear after the main clause. He argues that, from a fuller, broader perspective integrating a discourse-linguistic methodology, more can be discerned by the use of the construction.

The idea is, [sic] that the speaker/author could theoretically choose from three possibilities, when in need of updating or specifying the time reference for the action or state expressed by a given clause:

  1. ויהי / והיה + TA + the clause (to which the temporal reference relates).
  2. 0 + TA + the clause (to which the temporal reference relates).
  3. The clause (to which the temporal reference relates) + TA.

My task is therefore to analyze all occurrences of three various syntagmas that are at least in a limited sense analogical…. So if the analogy of the three syntagmas is basically possible, we can ask: Is there any difference between the constructions in BH? Is for example the constructions with ויהי used only for rhetorical reasons? Or can a pattern be found when the construction with ויהי is preferable over that with fronted TA or with post-verbal TA? If indeed there is some difference in Hebrew, can it be expressed by a different translation (e.g. into English) of each of those constructions?

These are very helpful and clear questions and this work is a very good attempt to find their corresponding answers.

The study is organized in a logical and clear manner. For those unfamiliar with “text-linguistic” or “discourse-linguistic” approaches to the study of BH syntax, the first chapter, “Introduction” (pp. 13-35), provides a good prologue to the questions and concerns of the method, focusing, of course, upon the use, meaning, and syntactical constructions employing the Hebrew verb היה. Ber traces the scholarly understanding of syndetic היה forms (either ויהי or as והיה) from the clause centered perspectives of W. Gesenius, Joüon and Muraoka, R. Meyer, and Waltke and O'Connor, through the discourse/text-linguistic approaches of Wolfgang Schneider, Alviero Niccacci, Wolfgang Richter, R. Bartelmus, G. Vanoni and J. P. Floss, W. Gross, and Christo H. J. van der Merwe. In each case, Ber provides a clear overview of each scholar's understanding of what the verb means in each construction, as well as how it functions within BH narrative. I was particularly grateful for the discussions of Vanoni, Floss, and Gross, since I was less familiar with these scholars and their inclusion in this volume has caused me to want to read their work.

In the second chapter, “Evaluation, goals and method,” Ber lays out the purpose of the present volume. He opens by quickly reviewing the previous chapter's highlights and providing his own critique. From a discourse-linguistic perspective, the presence of ויהי (when it does not function as a true verbal form, as in, e.g., וַיְהִי אִישׁ אֶחָד מִן־הָרָמָתַיִם 1 Sam 1:1) serves as a “macrosyntactic signal,” that is, it serves as a way that an author/narrator marks particular sections or blocks of text. As such, ויהי very often functions as a paragraph opening, that is, it marks the beginning of a major block or section of narrative text. It also serves, most of the time, to connect the following block or section either to the preceding section or to the temporal time period that the “temporal adjunct” designates. Finally, it serves to structure the text as a whole. From Ber's perspective, however, while these various conclusions are correct, they remain rather “vague” and “minimalistic” and in need of refining and defining.

Working on the basis of the formal approach of Eep Talstra, Ber attempts to work out the functions of the syntactical construction that lies at the heart of his study. Ber chooses Talstra's work as his basis because, in his words, he “is not satisfied with general statements like W-X-Qatal clause (that is, a conjunction + a non-verbal element + a perfect [RLH]) refers to background information in the story, and wayyiqtol clauses (that is, clauses governed by a wāw-consecutive imperfect [RLH]) constitute the main storyline” (p. 45). On the contrary, since the goal for Talstra is to gain the meaning from the syntax, one must not begin with preformed concepts and then try to fit the syntax into those molds. “Talstra probably does not say that notions like setting, climax etc. are totally irrelevant for OT exegesis. He simply does not want to start his research with given notional structure (or so called “discourse types”) and only ex post look for possible syntactic (or “surface-level”) correlates. The method is to study as much of syntax as possible before such claims are made” (p. 45). At this point, Ber defines the central questions that he will ask about the various syntactical constructions of the use (or non-use) of the verb היה (appearing either as ויהי or as והיה) with a ב- or a כ- prefixed infinitive.

Ber plans to look at all occurrences of this construction in the Hebrew Bible. For each occurrence, he defines the following criteria in each case:

  • Syntagma: the basic position of the ב- or a כ- prefixed infinitive, either after ויהי or והיה, or in a “pre-verbal position (without ויהי or והיה)”, or in a post verbal position (after another verb besides היה). This particular characteristic defines the structure of the entire book, as will be clear below.
  • Text-type: whether the wider text in which the construction occurs is a Narrative, or Discursive, or Narrative-Discursive, or a Quotation in the narrative text.
  • Metacommunicative level: the first metacommunicative level is “the level at which the writer addresses the reader directly” (p. 48). Higher metacommunicative levels are levels at which participants in the text are staged to communicate with each other. This criterion effectively defines the difference between “story-line narrative” and “direct discourse”, as well as different levels of discourse within speeches.
  • Subject: what the referent is in any particular case. Syntactically tracking the subject/referent is important for coherence within texts.

With these basic criteria in mind, Ber launches into his analysis in a systematic and lucid way.

He begins, in chapter 3, with an analysis of those cases of “Constructions with ב-infinitive.” In careful steps, he proceeds by looking at each instance of cases with ויהי with ב-infinitive, cases with והיה with ב-infinitive, cases of a fronted ב- infinitive without a preceding ויהי or והיה, and cases of ב-infinitive not fronted. These analyses make up the majority of the book (pp. 55-228). In his one page summary of his findings, Ber notes that cases of ויהי with ב-infinitive are, indeed, paragraph-initial. He also notes that the average length of such paragraphs were three to four clauses, including the ויהי clause. In cases where the ב-infinitive occurs without ויהי or והיה and stands at the front of the clause, these types of clauses frequently occur in discursive texts. Even in cases where such clauses occur in narrative texts, they provide a “discursive flavor”-they help to mark the inclusion of discursive verbal forms (wəqatal, yiqtol) in the narrative text. The third option, cases where the ב-infinitive stands after the verb in a clause, appears as a truly unmarked construction, unlike the other two options. It often lies at the end of a paragraph, and is probably a convenient “marker of conclusion.”

The fourth chapter, in turn, investigates in an analogous way, the “Constructions with כ-infinitive.” This chapter is, naturally, smaller than the previous (pp. 229-313) since fewer examples occur in the Hebrew Bible. Ber's conclusions about these constructions are interesting. As a whole, the instances of ויהי + כ-infinitive are relatively more frequent in narrative texts than the analogous construction ויהי + ב-infinitive. As in the analogous construction, ויהי + כ-infinitive functions as paragraph-initial, and the paragraphs opened with this construction are relatively long, as compared with those initiated with ויהי + ב-infinitive. Unlike post-verbal position ב-infinitive, post-verbal position כ-infinitive is rare in biblical texts.

In his fifth and final chapter, Ber provides a “Summary and further perspectives” of his work (315-321). He returns to the questions he initially asks in his second chapter and offers (sometimes provisional) responses to them. He provides, further, by way of an appendix (pp. 323-328), a look at the relatively rare cases of a double infinitive in the various constructions.

All in all, the book is sound in its methodology and provides a very good introduction to those looking for an entrée into the world of discourse-linguistics of biblical materials. I, for my part, found reading it a compelling and enjoyable experience.

The only criticism of the volume is that, very often, the English syntax of the prose is convoluted and difficult to understand. Examples such as “Another distinction made by Schneider, [sic comma] is that of verbal and nominal clause [sic]. Contrary to commonly used terminology defines Schneider the nominal clause basically as a noun-initial clause…” (p. 22), or “The above classification is by Schneider explicitly applied to the form ויהי, i.e. he does not mention, [sic comma] whether it is valid also in case of והיה …” (p. 23) form the general rule of the exposition, rather than the occasional stylistic error. The often obscure terminology and frequent use of symbols (e.g., “0yqt (neg.) 3sgM Participant in the subject: b” [p. 133]), which has become common in the field of BH linguistics, is continued in this volume as well. One must memorize a series of symbols to make sense of Ber's terse analysis of each case. The use of symbols is, undoubtedly, necessary since otherwise the book would have been much longer. But this convention, compounded with the frequently confusing English syntax of the text, makes for an occasionally puzzling read.

But this minor criticism should in no way be interpreted as detracting from the clear method and consistent analysis that this book demonstrates. Viktor Ber should be congratulated for providing the guild with a compelling piece of work on this frequent syntactical construction.

Roy L. Heller, Perkins School of Theology