Thursday, September 22, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- are we there yet?

When Biblical Hebrew needs an agentless statement, it has several options, but each of them has a specific meaning.  Nifal reports legal decrees.  Qual reports unexpected or counter-intuitive legal situations, and narrative incidents with important consequences.  Hufal is used for legal definitions which imply that a court will rule a certain way or, in narratives, official or customary actions.
There’s one more agentless binyan I haven’t talked about, and I left it for last because it is the least common, and I didn’t get much of a clue to it until I had thoroughly worked over Leviticus.
When Yosef is talking to Paro, he says this:
כִּי־גֻנֹּב גֻּנַּבְתִּי מֵאֶרֶץ הָעִבְרִים וְגַם־פֹּה לֹא־עָשִׂיתִי מְאוּמָה כִּי־שָׂמוּ אֹתִי בַּבּוֹר:
That’s a duplicate unconditional using the pual. Yosef is telling a story. This is a climactic point in the story, but by no means the end; if the kidnapping had been the end of the whole narrative, Yosef would not be talking to Paro’s chief butler in jail now. But there’s more to it in two ways.
One is that the kidnapping is not the central issue of the narrative. It was crucial to the situation, but using the pual says “but wait, there’s more” that is required to get to the real point of the narrative.
Because it is used in a duplicate unconditional, it also cuts off a consequence in Jewish law. Yosef was 17 years old and legally an adult and nobody but him or a Jewish court has a right to take out an exclusive services contract on him. Yosef is saying that  he’s not working in the jail because he was contracted out by a court, which can happen if he committed a theft but couldn’t make restitution. He’s there because somebody else committed a crime – the capital crime of kidnapping for sale – BUT the pual also means he doesn’t have the evidence to convict. And anyway, that’s not what the narrative is about; it’s about saving Egypt from starving.
There’s another example in Genesis that shows what I mean even better.
 וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָם:
You can see that the verb is in imperfect aspect, and in fact it’s the narrative past. The point of it being in pual is that while the material part of creation is finished, one more thing has to happen. What is it? Shabbat. The pual points out that while it feels like we’re finished, and the verb says “they were finished,” nothing is finished until Shabbat exists. (There’s a midrash for that.)
All the same, while the point of the story is establishing Shabbat, that wouldn’t mean much if there was no material creation including people, and so this verse is not a throw-away.
When it comes to laws, pual has a different role. Here’s one example, Leviticus 27:26.
אַךְ־בְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר יְבֻכַּר לַיהוָֹה בִּבְהֵמָה לֹא־יַקְדִּישׁ אִישׁ אֹתוֹ אִם־שׁוֹר אִם־שֶׂה לַיהוָֹה הוּא:
“BUT a firstborn that y’vukar…” Now, if it’s a firstborn, why would it use pual?
The pual in laws is on the road to being a hufal. There’s a stopping point for a discussion about whether it really is a firstborn that qualifies for the consequences. Mishnah Bekhorot chapter 1 is all about the situations that disqualify it. If it falls into one of those classes, it isn’t treated as a firstborn no matter how much evidence exists that the dam never gave birth before.
And so everything works out. These forms don’t show up where they show up just for variety. They each have a special application. They make us stop and pay attention, in the legal sense all the more so as there are consequences to acting hastily with incomplete facts. Some of the consequences are deadly, as you saw with mot yumat. 

Just as aspectless verbs have a reason for being, so do agentless verbs.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment