Hebrew Syntax

Syntax is described as “the scientific study of word usage in clause construction. Syntax considers the ordering and arrangement of works into sentences as well as the linguistic study and analysis of sentence structure.”[1] For Biblical Hebrew (hereafter BH), syntax plays an enormous role in linguistical studies and proper interpretation. Arnold and Choi note the importance of understand BH syntax when they write, “At the heart of biblical interpretation is the need to read the Bible’s syntax, that is, to study the way words, phrases, clauses, and sentences relate to one another in order to create meaning.”[2] Before syntax can be understood a basic knowledge of language structure must be examined.[3] There are five basic levels of “language structure”.[4] The authors of A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar list those levels: phonetic, morphological, syntactical, semantic, and textual.[5] As Choi and Arnold pointed out, the basics of phonetics and morphology cannot provide proper interpretation.[6] However, once these basics of have been understood then the work of examining syntactical structures can begin.[7]

Several grammars for BH are divided into similar categories in dealing with syntactical studies: nominals, verbs, particles, and finally clauses.[8] The basic structure for these grammars is similar. They work through individual words (nominal, verbs, and particles) and then examine the functions of clauses (both dependent and independent). For nominals this includes several aspects: number, gender, or the construct position.[9] Verbs require more examination as they contain more information in single Hebrew words.[10] In fact, the vast majority of grammars spend massive amounts of space dealing with verbals.[11] Particles are dealt with next in grammars, and these words (including prepositions, adverbs, negatives, conjunctions, relative, accusative, and existential particles)have an enormous impact on BH.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for the student of BH to accomplish is to master the ability to comprehend and correlate clauses. A clause is “the most basic form of a complete thought, whether all or part of a complete sentence.”[12] There are three types of clauses (though they can further be divided into even more distinct clauses): main, subordinate, and coordinate clauses.[13] The basic idea behind a clause is “a group of words containing a subject and only one predicate.”[14] The clause marks a unique transition from a single unit (a word such as a noun or verb) into a more complex unit of thought.[15]

Understanding these words and groups of words will enable to the student of BH to analyze and interpret the Bible. It is necessary to move from the basic structure (simply a word) to the more detailed clauses. Students must learn the terms and employ them in their exegetical work.

[1] Todd J. Murphy, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of Biblical Hebrew (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 165.

[2] Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

[3] Choi and Arnold note the need for more than a basic knowledge, noting, “Students often learn to discern the elementary phonology and morphology in order to ‘read’ the biblical text.”, 1.

[4] Christo H. J. Merwe, Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 51.

[5] Ibid., 51-52.

[6] Choi and Arnold, 1.

[7] Pratico and Van Pelt spend twenty-two chapters laying the necessary foundation of phonology and morphology before they even touch on syntax. See Gary Davis Pratico, and Miles V. Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001), 271. They write, “Because you have already encountered numerous verbal sentences in your study of the Qal stem, the following discussion should simply make explicit what you  probably already know implicitly. In other words, the point of the following discussion is to organize and clarify many issues of verbal syntax with which you should already be familiar.”

[8] See Arnold and Choi; Merwe; Ronald J. Williams and John C. Beckman, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (3rd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007); and Malcolm John Albert Horsnell, A Review and Reference Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Hamilton, Ont.: McMaster University Press, 1998).

[9] Williams, 1, 5, and 7. They include additional information though for the sake of brevity the list chosen will remain the same.

[10] For example, the Hebrew word שָׁמַר has within it person (third), number (singular), and gender (masculine). In addition to this there is tense, voice, and mood.

[11] Perhaps the most detail is given in Horsnell’s work, on pages 286-307; Williams covers pages 56-95; and Arnold and Choi cover pages 36-92.

[12] Murphy, 41.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Choi and Arnold, 162.

[15] Ibid., 163. They write, “Thus, sentences combine to create texts, which may be further analyzed in terms of text-linguistic conventions of cohesion and rhetorical organization. So the grammatical hierarchy moves from word to phrase to clause to sentence to discourse.”

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