Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- what that darned thing is

That darned thing that westerners have been calling an infinitive in Hebrew and Arabic for lo these many centuries now, is not an infinitive.  You can tell that by how it is used in Biblical Hebrew.
It’s a aspectless verb with gerundive properties.  Here’s an example: Genesis 4:13:
וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־יְהוָֹה גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשׂוֹא:
The first letter is mi, in this case meaning “beyond”.  So Qain says “my sin is great beyond  bearing.” 
Actually, the rabbis interpret it in Midrash Rabbah Breshit 22:11, turning it around on Gd:  If You’re omnipotent, why is my sin too great for You to bear with?  Why would You punish me?  Well, actions have consequences and sometimes they’re bad; Qain’s punishment is one of those consequences and he needs to put on his big kid pants and deal with it.   So “beyond bearing” is adverbial, modifying “great”.
The grammatical point is that using the aspectless verb avoids the connotations of any aspect, and it also avoids having a specific agent, allowing the midrash to work.
Next, Leviticus 11:31.
אֵלֶּה הַטְּמֵאִים לָכֶם בְּכָל־הַשָּׁרֶץ כָּל־הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהֶם בְּמֹתָם יִטְמָא עַד־הָעָרֶב:
This is an example of “at the time of”: “at the time of their dying.”  Time expressions are always adverbial.  Progressive is only suitable to a generalized extended time, od, “still.”  In this verse the time period is specific to the action: the period it takes the vermin to die.
Now, why is it important to translate b’motam with a gerund instead of saying “when they died”?  This is the fussiness of Biblical Hebrew, especially when it comes to legal issues.  Define “when they died”.
Even in the 21st century that definition is under debate.  TV shows regularly generate drama by having a character’s brain function flatline, while the machines are still making the heart pump and the lungs fill with air and empty. There’s always a debate after that as to what  the patient really meant by “extreme measures.”  We all have our own opinions on what’s right.
Five thousand years ago, they couldn’t debate the issue.  They didn’t have the monitors.  They definitely wouldn’t hook them up to vermin if they had them. There was no way to determine the time of death.  So a gerund works because if you think the vermin are dying, you get straight away from them so as not to become tameh.  Because, as you know if you read the Fact-Checking blog, that affects your ability to participate in society.
Because of the requirements of the progressive aspect relative to time expressions, we can’t use it for this more precise meaning.  The gerund steps in where other verb forms fear to tread.
Note the difference between b’motam and, say, va-y’hi b’et she-met.  In b’motam we’re not certain of the actual point of death.  The va-y’hi clause is the opening of a story, and we are certain that the death already has taken place; this is a temporal “localization” to be followed by events so important in themselves, that it’s also important to remember when they happened (as opposed to where they happened for a geographical localization). 
Torah has examples of several ways of saying things, but they don’t all mean exactly the same thing.  What they mean exactly, depends on the grammar.
And we owe it to the grammar to admit that it is what it is, not to slap on it convenient labels that apply only to other languages.  So from now on I’m going  to call the verb form in b’motam a gerundive when I describe its function, but remember for the next few lessons that it has this function because it is aspectless.  This coordinates with some things I will get into starting in lesson 145.  It all connects up, and it’s all different from what you were taught before.

And now another twist of the  knob.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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