Thursday, May 19, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- variations on va-y'hi

Phew. Two other things about chaser lamed heh verbs and “be”.
When va-y’hi appears with an expression of time, you could translate it as “it must have been [at that time] that [X happened].” Look at the start of the Aqedah story in Genesis 22:1.
וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי:
I translate this as “it must have been after these things that…” Notice the nisah perfect aspect; the beginnings of episodes in Torah often use perfect aspect and so do the ends. Look at the first verse in Torah and at Genesis 2:3. These are the opening and closing of a narrative. (Standard openings and closings are part of Axel Olrik’s Epic Laws.)
BUT there is also vi-hi with different vowels under the same consonants. While va-y’hi appears about 800 times in all of Tannakh, vi-hi appears only about 30 times. You can tell from the context (of course) that this usage is different. You should translate it as “so that it should”. For example, Genesis 1:3 has y’hi, “there should be” light; Genesis 1:6 has “…vi-hi mavdil”, “so that it should separate.” (And notice the hifil progressive for a descriptive/habitual situation.)
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יְהִ֥י רָקִ֖יעַ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַמָּ֑יִם וִיהִ֣י מַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין מַ֖יִם לָמָֽיִם:
Now, the ancient question is, why does it say “there must have been evening…one day” and not “a first day”?
Well, look at the certainty epistemic. It’s based on an imperfect. It’s not complete. There’s narrative tension involved in an imperfect aspect. Once light has been manifested, if you say “first day,” you automatically imply there will be other days. Boom. End of narrative tension. But when you say “one day,” that doesn’t imply anything. Even if there is a next day, it might go up in smoke in the middle, and then Gd would have to start over again.
The certainty epistemic was called “jussive” by Gesenius. That’s because he looked at the first occurrence in Torah, and saw that it was traditionally translated as “let there be light”. In Latin (almost all the linguists of that time were classics scholars first), the terminology for such structures is jussive. So Gesenius called them all jussives. Since he thought of vav prefixes as always meaning “and”, he couldn’t imagine why it would make the terminology unjustified. Not even when he knew for a fact that the traditional translation of most of these forms had absolutely nothing jussive about them.
I’ll rant about more such issues as I go but the main theme is this. I have been studying Arabic for another project and I learned that Arabic supposedly has a jussive verb form. It has nothing to do with second hand commands. It’s the preferred way of negating a past action, “I didn’t go”. Because it has a shortened imperfect, like the Biblical Hebrew certainty epistemic, WESTERN scholars tarred it with the same brush.
The Arabic grammarians had their own name for it, “shortened.” The Arabic grammarians had more input on terminology in their language than Hebrew has had.
Time to take our language back. “Certainty/evidentiary epistemic” describes the function of some occurrences of “shortened imperfect” in Biblical Hebrew, but others are temporal opening statements in narratives and still other things with a similar look are strictly purposive (“so that it divides”). “Shortened imperfect” doesn’t do justice to the range of uses for this grammar.
Help me cause a little trouble in language departments worldwide, and when your teacher of Hebrew or Arabic starts talking about “jussive” get up and give them a lecture on why they are using it and what it says about their real understanding of the language. And then go find another teacher.

From now on, things will be different.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved


  1. Why do you translate it as `It Must have ` when it is plainly `And after this happenings ....

  2. Read the entire series. You can't jump into the middle of a textbook and understand what is going on.