Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Roy L. Heller, Narrative Structure and Discourse Constellations: An Analysis of Clause Function in Biblical Hebrew Prose.  (Harvard Semitic Studies 55; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2004).  Pp. xi + 412.  Cloth $49.95. ISBN: 1575069180.

This is a fine book that every teacher of Biblical Hebrew should own.  In a clear and well organized manner, Roy L. Heller succeeds in giving us a good manual to assist us understand better the Hebrew verbal system in prose.

Heller’s analysis is based upon the more intuitive work of Thomas Lambdin, and takes its methodological bearings from the work of discourse analysis (especially the work of R. E. Longacre).  Like Lambdin before him, Heller provides a functional/pragmatic treatment of the various clause types within Biblical Hebrew prose (p. 3).  The extended narratives examined for this work are the Novella of Joseph (Genesis 37, 39-47), and the Court Narrative of David (2 Samuel 9-20; 1 Kings 1-2).  However, for his final conclusions he uses examples from other prose passages from the Bible as well.

In the first chapter, the author introduces the problem with a brief survey of the approaches taken so far for the analysis of the Hebrew verb and clause types in the history of biblical scholarship.  This is a fine and useful introduction in which he outlines the following four approaches to the Hebrew verb in prose: tense-based, historical-comparative, aspect-based, and discourse-linguistic.  The existence of so many views (which are in no way mutually exclusive) show that no clear consensus on the function of the verb in Biblical Hebrew currently exists.

Next, Heller discusses his methodology.  His study is based on the methodological differentiation between two primary types of material found in prose: narrative and direct discourse.  Expanding on the work of  R. E. Longacre (who accepts only the first four of the following text-types), his analysis of direct discourse is based on  five discourse text-types: Narrative Discourse (ND), Predictive Discourse (PD), Expository Discourse (PD), Hortatory Discourse (HD), and Interrogative Discourse (ID). 

In the two extended narratives mentioned above, Heller analyzes “each independent, main clause within the texts in order to determine the significance and function of each clause within itself and within its wider immediate context” (p. 27).  This analysis takes place in the second chapter for the Joseph Novella, and in the third chapter for the Court Narrative of David. 

The following useful conclusions (many of them already well known) are the result of Heller’s functional approach, an approach which takes into account each individual clause, and which is indeed based on objective criteria and rigorous analysis: 

1)      The most predominant verbal form in Biblical Hebrew narrative prose is WAYYIQTOL (41% of the total clauses in the texts and 79.2% of the total clauses in the narrative portion of the texts analyzed).  The use of this form in uninterrupted syntactical chains consistently implies sequentiality of action in the narrative.

2)      All other clauses that occur within the backbone of the basic WAYYIQTOL chain and are governed by anything except WAYYIQTOL verbal forms provide two different types of information to the reader:

a)      Independent non-WAYYIQTOL verbal clauses often mark boundaries of paragraphs–the beginning and/or end of blocks of narrative.

b)     Nonfinite clauses (i.e. participial, verbless, or incomplete clauses), multiple non-WAYYIQTOL verbal clauses, and unchained independent WAYYIQTOL clauses provide background or off-line information, which does not occur within the sequentiality of the main narrative.  These offline comments may occur either within a paragraph (“inner-paragraph comments”), or between paragraph blocks (“extra-paragraph comments”).

3)      The initial markers of a paragraph are the ויהי Temporal Clauses and the QATAL clauses.

4)      The main terminal marker of a paragraph is the QATAL clauseMuch more rare is the use of WeQATAL clauses (3x), YIQTOL clauses (1x), We + Infinitive Absolute (1x), and Incomplete Clause (1x).

5)      The “default” paragraph boundary markers are initial WAYYIQTOL clauses in a chain, and terminal WAYYIQTOL clauses in a chain.

6)      The “inner-paragraph comments” (which provide information about immediate elements of the story) appear primarily in the following three types of clauses (named Type A): verbless, participial, and היה verbal. They are also found in incomplete clauses in combination with Type A clauses, in QATAL clauses in parallel (independent or in combination with Type A clauses), and in independent QATAL clauses after ויהי temporal clauses.

7)      The “extra-paragraph comments” (which provide information generally removed from any specific element in the story) are found primarily in the following three types of clauses (named Type B): QATAL, WeQATAL, and YIQTOL.  They are also found in non-chained WAYYIQTOL clauses (singly or in combination with multiple Type B clauses), and in participial or verbless clauses (independent or multiple, in combination with multiple Type B clauses).

8)      In Narrative Discourse (ND), the following discourse constellations (group of possible verbal forms for a particular discourse text-type) are found:

Primary Verbal/Clausal Forms                QATAL               Basic Past
                                                                  WAYYIQTOL     Continuative Past

Secondary Verbal/Clausal   Forms         Verbless             Off-line status
היה Verbal         Off-line status
                                                                  Participial           Off-line action
                                                                  YIQTOL             Off-line ongoing action

9)      In Predictive Discourse (PD), the following constellations are found:

Primary Verbal/Clausal Forms               YIQTOL              Basic Future
                                                                 WeQATAL          Continuative Future

Secondary Verbal/Clausal Forms           Verbless             Off-line status
היה Verbal          Off-line status
                                                                 Incomplete          Off-line status
                                                                 Participial            Off-line action

10)   In Expository Discourse (ED), the following group of possible verbal forms is found:

Primary Verbal/Clausal Forms               Verbless              Primary Present Status
היה Verbal           Primary Present Status
                                                                 Incomplete           Interj./Oath/Voc./Answer
                                                                 Participial             Primary Present Action

Secondary Verbal/Clausal Forms          Obj. + QATAL/
Secondary Present Action

11)  In Hortatory Discourse (HD), the following constellations are found:

Primary Verbal/Clausal Forms             Imperative            Second Person Volitional
                                                               Cohortative           First Person Volitional
                                                               Jussive                  Third Person Volitional
                                                               ’al-YIQTOL           Negative Volitional
                                                               (We)YIQTOL-nā’   Precatory Volitional

Secondary Verbal/Clausal Forms        QATAL                   Performative Utterance
                                                              WeQATAL              Continuative Volitional
                                                              YIQTOL                  Continuative Volitional
                                                              WeYIQTOL             Consequential/Purpose

12)   In Hebrew narrative prose, the Interrogative Discourse (ID) is marked by the use of interrogative adverbs or particles, and cannot be defined by a set of verbal or clausal constellations.  The rhetorical or true nature of a question is entirely dependent upon the narrative context.

I wish that the rare cases under most categories listed above were analyzed and explained more thoroughly, though it is certainly true that in many cases there is not enough data to do that (we are “working with no data”).  However, I am convinced that the expansion of this approach to larger blocks of narrative would bring additional insights on the more unusual verbal forms and clauses (e.g., the use of the WeQatal clauses for terminal boundary clauses may be to indicate simultaneity), and would also help to further support  Heller’s conclusions. 

Cristian G. Rata
Anaheim, CA