Thursday, June 1, 2017

21st Century Bible Hebrew -- certainty epistemic vs. narrative past

Genesis 1:4
 
ד וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ:
 
Transliteration: Va-yar elohim et-ha-or ki tov vayavdel elohim ben ha-or u-ven ha-choshekh.
Translation:     Gd must have manifested the light for it was good, for Gd separated the light and the darkness.
Letters in this lesson: ט, ד, ח
 
Vocabulary in this lesson:
יַּרְא
manifest
כִּי
because, for, if, when
טוֹב
Good
יַּבְדֵּל
divide, separate
בֵּין
between, from
חֹשֶׁךְ:
Darkness
 
The first verb in this verse ought to look suspiciously familiar. Remember the verbs that are used in certainty epistemic? This is one of them! Let’s run it down:
 
Verb root class: ayin alef, lamed heh. First letter resh will do some odd things, too.
Binyan: a new one, hifil.
Aspect: -- I’m not going to assign one because although it  has a prefix, it’s not a straight-up imperfect.
Person, gender, number: 3rd masculine singular. Actually, most of the certainty epistemics that I can think of are this but there are some 1st person singular and plural.
 
Now I want to discuss something that probably didn’t occur to you but I want to save this new binyan for a different lesson.
 
Why use a certainty epistemic and not a narrative past while we are in the middle of the story?
 
This verse helps me explain it. How do we know light exists? Because it’s perceptible to us. Even with your eyes closed you can sometimes tell if a light is shining because it is warm. That’s going away now with CFL and LED lights but with all prior methods of lighting, it was true.
 
This verse uses a certainty epistemic because the existence of light is perceptible to almost all of us at least at some point in our lives. The light is the perceptible evidence of the truth of what the Bible is telling us.
 
In oral traditions, the narrator or reciter is expected to say things that agree with the culture. If she doesn’t, her audience loses interest or makes fun of her. At some stage of transmitting the narrative, whatever she is talking about has to be perceptible to serve as evidence before she can use the certainty epistemic. If it disappears or the culture turns it back on that thing, eventually narrators will have to change over to using narrative past for it.
 
So where almost always anah, “respond” is in the certainty epistemic, there is one verse which has the narrative past, Numbers 32:31. In that verse the R’uvenites and Gadites “answer” Mosheh about their desire to stay east of the Yarden River. The verb might have been in certainty epistemic early in Israelite history. But the easterners dropped out of sight and out of mind. There was a long-standing tradition that this discussion happened, but it wasn’t refreshed in the minds of the Israelites by seeing the easterners every year or every seventh year. So at some point the narrators had to start using narrative imperfect to get the story across without sounding crazy or stupid or something.
 
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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