Thursday, March 2, 2017

21st Century Bible Hebrew -- aspect and structure

The real end of Genesis 1:1.
א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ:
Translation:     At the beginning Gd created the heaven and the earth
So bara is a lamed alef verb in the qal binyan, a transitive verb in perfect aspect, 3rd person masculine singular.
Why is it in perfect aspect?
“Why” is a dangerous question in grammar because a lot of times there’s no answer.  But here, the answer is Rule 2 of Sapir-Whorf Linguistic Theory, which I discuss on the Fact-Checking blog. It’s there because it shows the meaning given to this verse by the culture that passed it along.
The context of this verse is Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3. This is a narrative, in an oral tradition, with specific concerns and addressing specific aspects of the culture that spoke Biblical Hebrew (I’m just going to say BH from now on) on the street (“as a vernacular”).
In oral traditions, episodes and narratives have an opening and a closing. “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” are examples.
In Torah, a number of episodes open and close with a perfect aspect verb and that’s what we have here.  We also have a perfect aspect verb in Genesis 2:3, in fact, we have the same verb as here, bara.
This is an example of using a perfect aspect verb to mean completion. The episode is completely closed off by the perfect aspect verbs, separated from the rest of Torah. The rest of Torah records all sorts of things that the culture felt were important: here, it’s creation.  This is the only story in Torah that is specifically “about” creation.
How do I know this is perfect aspect? Well, I’ve learned a lot of Hebrew in the last 40 years, so I know what the conjugation of the verb is in qal perfect aspect. Here it is and don’t leave the post after you’ve looked at it because I have to point something out.
Notice the shva under the first letter in 2nd person plural.
OK I have two things to point out.
First and most important to remember is that perfect aspect is called “the suffix aspect” by some grammarians. That’s because all the indicators of person, number, and gender are in the suffixes. The third root letter is alef and everything after that indicates person number and gender.
THESE SUFFIXES ARE THE SAME FOR ALL PERFECT ASPECT VERBS. MEMORIZE THEM and you will win a huge battle in figuring out BH.
The second thing I have to point out is not important for grammar but it’s important for understanding the history of the Hebrew Bible. The grammar is the same everywhere. There are parts of the Jewish Bible that are NOT in Hebrew; they are in Neo-Babylonian (which is probably not what you expected me to say but we are in the 21st century now). The Hebrew in the Bible uses the same grammar consistently as I will show by pointing out examples outside of Torah for some of the grammar points.
The use of the same grammar as the vernacular BH means that all the contributors to the Hebrew of the Jewish Bible spoke the same language in the same way. They didn’t speak Mishnaic Hebrew and then write in BH; they couldn’t. They had no grammar books to learn from; you did when you learned Modern Hebrew or French and you still got points taken off when you got the grammar wrong, as I know from my own experience.  BH had to be learned on the street and new material in that language could be produced only as long as BH was spoken on the street.  Which stopped some time during the Babylonian Captivity.  Think about it.

And NOW we'll move on.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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