Thursday, April 6, 2017

21st Century Bible Hebrew -- piel binyan pt 1

Genesis 1:2.
ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם:
Translation:     The earth was empty and chaotic and dark above the depths and a spirit of Gd was wafting back and forth above the water.
All right, m’rachefet is in the piel binyan and the progressive aspect, and the combination almost creates a cognitive dissonance.
First, let me explain piel because it’s crucial to Torah. If you look at other material on BH, it probably calls piel “intensive”.
That’s old-think, and I come not to use old-think but to bury it.
The main thing about piel that you care about right now it that sometimes it means repeating an action. But it always means a punctuated repetition, not a continuous one. (There’s another binyan that has the continuous connotation.)  Because repetition leads to skill, piel can mean being skilled at a given action. There are other meanings which I will get to when it’s important.
You can’t really speak of being “skilled” at wafting, so something else is going on here.
Because piel means interrupted repetition and progressive means continuous action, we have a cognitive dissonance. That is where I get the “back and forth”. While wafting, Gd’s spirit passed over the same place more than once.
Which created a cognitive dissonance for a rabbi about 2000 years ago. Gd’s spirit is infinite, but the idea of back and forth suggests a non-infinite body, like a cloud, moving over a surface such that it doesn’t cover some parts. So right there he started blowing his mind.
Then he realized that at this point, there’s no “above” the waters. It’s waters, then it’s heavens, the way there’s no distance between ocean water and atmosphere.  Yet Gd’s infinite spirit is somehow between them. That’s when he really blew his mind. “In a few days, he was taken from the world.” Another rabbi met him in the interim period and noticed that his behavior was abnormal. There’s more to the story and I’ll tell it later.
So remember this first part of the definition of piel and then remember one thing more.
The reason I translated the progressive aspect with an “ing” ending has to do with another important way it is used in Torah. It’s close to being a pure verb form that ignores timing and relates to another almost pure verb form.
BUT since this narrative took place in the past, I have to translate “was wafting”. Because it no longer does this. Or does it? That’s the puzzle of progressive.
Actually, that’s the problem of translating. No two languages have all the same concepts. English is a language that uses tenses, and tenses are always very concerned with establishing the relationship in time between what is being said and what is being talked about.
Semitic languages are different. There are ways of expressing time relationships, but they aren’t inherent in the verb. Even though perfect aspect reflects completed action, it’s not necessarily tied to the past.  This particularly comes out in the commandments all through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

New verse next time, I promise.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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