Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- perfect commandments

So Dr. Cook tells us that Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language with the same features as its relatives, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Canaanitic, and so on, some of which are dead languages. Biblical Hebrew has an aspect verb system with perfect and imperfect. Both forms can have a future meaning, but that depends on the syntax and use of vav.
You now know about the narrative past, so you know that the vav at the start of a verse often doesn’t mean “and.” It might signal narrative past, it might signal a relative or coordinate clause.
You also know that an imperfect without vav might have a future meaning.
You know about oblique modality, so you know that vav with a perfect aspect verb is often a subordinate clause when followed by the subject.
Now I’ll give some information about use of perfect and imperfect that has gone under most people’s radar. Dr. Cook referred to one example but what I’m going to say now isn’t in his dissertation.
When you have vav plus perfect aspect verb in the 2nd person singular (or maybe plural), you have a commandment. This happens in the laws of Passover, in the instructions for building the tabernacle, and so on.
Why do some commandments use perfect aspect?
It’s due to that permansive connotation of the perfect aspect, which it shares with other Semitic languages.
Other commandments use imperfect aspect, and there are two classes.
When a verse starts out ki or im, followed by a 2nd person imperfect verb, this should be translated “if X”, where X is the verb for an action that kicks off consequences. It will be followed by the consequences, such as paying a fine. You see this a lot in Exodus 21 and 22.
If there is no ki or im, just a 2nd person imperfect, this is a commandment included in the recitation from of old, BUT the Israelites and Jews never made a Federal case out of investigating it. There are two important examples.
One is the cities of refuge, with verses in both Numbers and Deuteronomy. The peculiar case of the cities of refuge is that three of them were on the east bank of the Jordan. The west-bank tribes only went there once, which is recorded in Joshua 22, to object to the eastern tribes building a copy of the cairn set up on the west bank using stones taken from the bank of the Yarden River. The westerners did not stay long enough to check up on the easterners’ implementation of Jewish law. Without evidence that the three eastern cities of refuge were being used in the manner prescribed by Torah, the westerners could not use perfect aspect in the related verses.
The other is circumcision. The law is in Leviticus and it uses imperfect aspect. To verify that this had been comprehensively implemented would have required physical inspection. There is no law in Torah requiring such an inspection at any point in a man’s life. There is the statement in Joshua 5 that he had to circumcise all of the generation of the Wilderness, who were not subjected to the procedure during the wanderings; there is also the constant description of the Pelishtim (who were actually Greeks, see the Fact-Checking posts on this blog for the last couple of months) as “uncircumcised” as a distinction from Israelites or Judahites. There are rulings in Mishnah about when a circumcision has been validly performed. But not until Shulchan Arukh in the 1500s CE is there a ruling about who is responsible for making sure that a circumcision takes place. It’s the father, if you want to know.
You can catch me out on this if you go back to Exodus 12 and read the Hebrew carefully, taking notes on where these verbs occur, and then research them out into Mishnah, Gemara and, as I said, Shulchan Arukh. I haven’t done all the work yet either. If you’re interested, we can work on it together, and put the results in a new page on the blog.

All right, onward!
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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