Eric Tully’s Review of BASICS OF HEBREW DISCOURSE: A GUIDE TO WORKING WITH HEBREW PROSE AND POETRY, by Matthew Howard Patton and Frederic Clarke Putnam, edited by Miles V. Van Pelt

Published on October 19, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Zondervan Academic, 2019 | 288 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By Eric Tully


Students of Biblical Hebrew have access to a wide variety of helpful resources from various publishers. However, while there are many introductory grammars that provide a linguistic foundation and a good number of guides to exegetical method that focus on the end goal of textual analysis, there have not been many intermediate textbooks that bridge the two. Furthermore, it is often the case that students are taught the fundamentals of Hebrew morphology, and eventually some syntax at the clause level, without an adequate understanding of how the Hebrew language functions at the level of discourse, how to analyze it, and what kinds of implications discourse analysis has for interpretation.

Basics of Hebrew Discourse seeks to fill this void as a part of Zondervan Academic’s extensive “Basics of…” series including the flagship, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, by Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt. Van Pelt is the editor of the volume under review. The authors are Matthew H. Patton (PhD, Wheaton College), the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Vandalia, Ohio and Frederic Clarke Putnam (PhD, Annenberg Research Institute), professor of Bible & liberal studies at The Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

The authors state in the introduction that their goal is “to provide students of the Hebrew Bible with a fundamental introduction to the use and application of discourse analysis as a necessary component to textual analysis and the exegetical process” (11). The present volume is really two books in one. Part one, by Patton, explains discourse analysis in prose. Part two, by Putnam, explores discourse analysis in poetry. The two parts share similar formatting and basic structure, but they are otherwise independent, do not reference once another, and each has its own separate Table of Contents and Introduction.


Part 1: Working with Biblical Hebrew Prose (Matthew H. Patton)

Patton’s first part consists of nine chapters of 10-15 pages each. In his introduction, he expounds upon the idea of discourse analysis and its usefulness and uses examples to show its relevance for exegesis. He also includes a brief survey of past scholarship on the subject.

In chapter 2, “Discourse Relationships,” Patton provides basic definitions (clauses, discourse relationships, foreground/background). He uses English examples to show that discourse relationships are communicable in any language.

Chapters 3-6 show how Biblical Hebrew (hereafter “BH”) prose writers signal the discourse relationships introduced in chapter 2. These include the use of tense, aspect, and mood in the verbal system, important verbal sequences (such as waw + yiqtol after an imperative), preposing, verbless clauses, and more. The categories and examples are clearly presented with subheadings, different fonts, and tables. The layout of these chapters is pleasing and uncluttered.

Chapter 7 summarizes the process for conducting discourse analysis in BH prose. Chapter 8 provides extended examples (from Jonah 1, 1 Kings 20, Exod. 12, and 1 Sam. 9). Chapter 9 has a summary chart of features.


Evaluation of Part 1

This first part of the book is successful as a handbook for students working with BH prose. The categories are presented well and the overall focus is practical and accessible. However, there are two weaknesses. First, some of the terminology is “fuzzy.” For example, when describing focus-fronting in Deut. 6:12-13, the author refers to the phenomenon as “intensification” (96). But “intensification” can mean many things, and the word is somewhat famous in the study of BH for being used to describe all kinds of things. There are other examples as well. On the one hand, an introductory textbook must be accessible and cannot burden students with technical terminology, but it still must be precise. This is a difficult balance to achieve.

A second weakness is more serious. Patton states that the book’s foundational theory of verbal semantics is based on the work of John A. Cook, particularly his work, Time and the Biblical Hebrew Verb (64). However, Patton oversimplifies Cook and misunderstands him (for example, the “default” meaning of tense, aspect, and mood). Furthermore, Patton then goes on to conflate Cook’s views with those of other scholars, even other scholars that represent opposing perspectives. For example, in a discussion of BH word order and preposing, Patton states that “Preposing is when a ‘subject, object, or adverbial is placed before the verb.’” For this, Patton cites Adina Moshavi’s, Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Finite Clause, which Patton praises as “excellent work on word order” (88). However, Moshavi holds the view that the basic word order in BH is verb-subject, while Cook holds that it is subject-verb. While readers of this introductory text do not need to know the background of this linguistic discussion, it is unclear how the present book maintains a consistent theoretical foundation when views are conflated. The effect of all this is that the discussion is somewhat muddled on crucial linguistic issues that are at the heart of discourse analysis in prose.


Part 2: Working with Biblical Hebrew Poetry (Frederic C. Putnam)

In chapter 1 of the second part of the book, Putnam introduces basic assumptions in discourse analysis, overviews the process, and makes opening remarks about biblical poems. He states, helpfully, that “there are no unmotivated linguistic choices” (154). Whereas prose discourse is constructed with wayyiqtol verbs, disjunctive clauses, and conjunctions, poetry uses interlinear relationships, word choice, verbal forms, line length, word order, and ellipsis to communicate at the discourse level (155). Interestingly, in this overview Putnam does not really mention parallelism, the most obvious and arguably most important feature of Semitic poetry—more on that below.

Following chapter 2, in which Putnam describes a method for translation and parsing the verbs in a Hebrew poem, chapters 3-8 present various discourse-level features of poems. In chapter 3, Putnam introduces poetic lines and structure. For him, a poetic line is a single clause (164). In my view, this is overly simplistic and does not account for the importance of semantic correspondence between poetic lines which can override this rule. He places a heavy emphasis on line length, but his criteria seem somewhat arbitrary. He says he wants to avoid “burying ourselves in theories of Hebrew prosody” (note 3, 165).

In chapter 4, “Verbal Forms,” Putnam shows how details such as person and gender in a poem can form exegetically significant patterns. He includes many tables that illustrate these patterns and trajectories within poems. Chapter 5 (“Type of Clause”) and chapter 6 (Syntax) deal with syntactic issues in poetic discourse. Chapter 7 (“Semantic Cohesion”) and chapter 8 (“Logical Cohesion”) apparently refer to parallelism. His definition of this phenomenon is, “repeated and varied references to the same idea” (214).  In these chapters he discusses chiastic structures and ellipsis. Putnam describes the cohesion between poetic lines in terms of discontinuity or continuity. This sounds like Lowth’s categories of “synonymous” and “antithetical” parallelism which is dated and has been superseded by much more helpful categories. This second part of the book ends with a conclusion (chapter 9) and more examples of discourse analysis in poetry (chapter 10), followed by appendices on the question of meter in poetry and gloss, meaning, and translation.


Evaluation of Part 2

This second part of the book provides a good model of detailed analysis that leaves no feature unturned in the search for what the poet is doing with the text. Putnam helpfully identifies many characteristics of BH poetry. Among the pages, one senses a great deal of wisdom and years of experience in guiding students through the text. However, like the first part, there are several weaknesses. First, while these chapters are a model of detailed analysis, sometimes they seem overly complex, perhaps unnecessarily so. The chapters on parsing and syntax are lengthy and filled with data and potential patterns, but it is sometimes overwhelming and not always clear how this information would affect exegesis.

Second, the discussion is dated in a number of cases. Citations from the 1960s and 1970s are suspect in a book that deals with linguistic analysis, a field that has undergone dramatic development in the last 50 or 60 years. Putnam does not mention more recent works (and some are not even that recent) on Hebrew poetry such as Robert Alter, Adele Berlin, J.P. Fokkelman, or F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp. While these works are concerned with poetics and not necessarily discourse analysis, Putnam describes parallelism in idiosyncratic terms without reference to standard and influential works on the subject. In my view, the semantic, parallel relationship between poetic lines is the most important aspect of BH poetic discourse, but Putnam deals with this issue in a very short chapter (10 pages) at the end of the book.



Patton’s first part of the book on prose discourse has helpful categories and could be used to supplement instruction in an elementary Biblical Hebrew course, although the confusion in the theoretical foundation may confuse or detract. Putnam’s second part on poetry models detailed analysis, but the discussion is dated and prioritizes less important poetic features at the expense of crucial ones.


Eric Tully is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Buy the books

BASICS OF HEBREW DISCOURSE: A GUIDE TO WORKING WITH HEBREW PROSE AND POETRY, by Matthew Howard Patton and Frederic Clarke Putnam, edited by Miles V. Van Pelt

Zondervan Academic, 2019 | 288 pages

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