A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Eric J. Tully
There is no substitute for a detailed analysis of the Hebrew text in interpretation of the Old Testament. So many key details of the text are lost in translation, such as ambiguities (which may be intentional), syntactic relationships between words, word play and repetition of key words, particular nuances of the meanings of words, significant patterns in word order, sound patterns, and connections between language and culture. Technical commentaries address many of these features, but they often assume a foundational knowledge of the grammar and syntax. On the other hand, non-technical commentaries usually move directly to the exegetical “payoff” and do not show their work in the original language.
Baylor’s “Handbook on the Hebrew Bible” builds a foundation for the study of the Old Testament in Hebrew by directly addressing the foundational issues of grammar, syntax, and semantics in the Hebrew text. Thus far ten volumes have appeared: Jonah (Tucker 2006), Genesis 1-11 (Bandstra 2008), Amos (Garrett 2008), Ruth (Holmstedt 2010), Malachi (Eddinger 2012), Genesis 37-50 (Baker and Rily 2014), Esther (Screnock and Holmstedt 2015), Deuteronomy 1-11 (Robson 2016), Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 (Rogland 2016) and Qoheleth (Holmstedt, Cook, and Marshall 2017). Two more volumes will be released this year: Hosea (Tully 2018) and a new edition of Jonah (Tucker 2018). These volumes are textual commentaries which mostly restrict their discussions to linguistic issues. They do not typically address much in the way of historical context, critical methods, or theology. But their highly focused approach means that they are outstanding resources for working through a book in Hebrew or as a reference when dealing with the impact of the original language upon a particular verse or issue. While it is possible that readers without a knowledge of Hebrew may be able to glean some help from the series, it is designed for those who have a basic knowledge of the language and are ready to move from analysis of isolated forms (e.g. parsing) to a fuller discussion at the level of syntax and discourse as well as semantics. Students in text courses, pastors, and scholars will all benefit immensely.
The volume under review, Qoheleth, has three authors: Robert D. Holmstedt, Professor of Biblical Hebrew and West Semitic Languages at the University of Toronto, John A. Cook, Professor of Old Testament and Director of Hebrew Language Instruction at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Phillip S. Marshall, Assistant Professor of Biblical Languages at Houston Baptist University. Cook and Holmstedt have written extensively on modern linguistic approaches to Biblical Hebrew and are ideally suited to apply their work to Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes. This is Holmstedt’s third volume in the series as either author or co-author.
Qoheleth consists of an introduction, textual commentary, works cited, glossary of linguistic terms, appendix containing the author’s English translation, and an index of linguistic issues.
Due to the focused aim of the volume as well as its technical nature, the Introduction (45 pages) is designed to familiarize the reader with the linguistic terminology and concepts used in the commentary as well as to present a linguistic profile of Ecclesiastes. The authors hold to the increasingly common view that Ecclesiastes has one author but contains two distinct voices. The first voice is that of the author, and the second voice is that of Qoheleth, a literary creation who speaks in the first person and who is cast in a Solomonic persona. Other than the frame (1:1-2; 12:8-14) around the book which distinguishes the two voices, the authors do not find any account of the book’s structure to be convincing.
The linguistic approach and terminology in the volume follows the two previous BHHB volumes (Ruth, 2010 and Esther, 2015) which were written or co-written by Holmstedt. The authors discuss constituency, verbal valency and subordination. While Hebrew is traditionally understood as being a verb-subject language (cf. Waltke and O’Connor 8.3b; Jouon-Muraoka §155k), the authors argue, as they have elsewhere, that ancient Hebrew is basically subject-verb. This basic word order is then triggered to verb-subject by the wayyiqtol conjugation, irrealis verbs and certain grammatical words including those which introduce subordinate clauses. These syntactic triggers account for the statistical dominance of verb-subject clauses.
The introduction also applies some of the authors’ previous studies to the book of Ecclesiastes, including the idiosyncratic use of subject pronouns after finite verbs, relative words (אשר and ש), and the Hebrew verbal system. The system of verbs in Biblical Hebrew consists of a central opposition between qatal (perfective aspect) and yiqtol (imperfective aspect). When there is an overt subject, these verbs express the indicative mood in subject-verb word orders, but they can also express non-indicative (irreal) events which then trigger a verb-subject word order. Therefore, the weqatal or so-called “waw-consecutive perfect” is not a distinct conjugation. It is a qatal/perfect verb used as a directive-volative . The wayyiqtol is a distinct, past-tense conjugation left over from an earlier era.
The last section in the introduction discusses the dating of Ecclesiastes on linguistic grounds. The authors compare old and new forms (such as qatal vs wayyiqtol and the relative pronoun) and place them on a continuum with other books of the Bible. In addition, they consider language borrowing (from Aramaic and Persian) and reanalysis (grammatical and syntactic shifts within the language). They conclude that the book’s language is very late relative to other ancient Hebrew texts of the first millennium BC and therefore the book is dated to the early to mid-Hellenistic period .
In the Commentary, the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes is divided into 23 units ranging from three verses (4:1-3) to 24 verses (7:1-24). Each unit begins with an overview of its contents as well as a brief discussion of particular interpretive issues. Each verse is presented in Hebrew followed by the authors’ translation. The commentary itself proceeds clause by clause with all verbs parsed and comments on the word order, syntax and semantics. Sometimes key phrases or individual words are treated in more detail under their own subheading. Throughout, the authors connect the discussion to commentaries, reference grammars, monographs and articles.
For example, the discussion on 3:11 begins with a presentation of the Hebrew text followed by the authors’ English translation, “He has made everything fitting in its time; yet he has put “eternity” in their mind without man’s ability to find out the work that God has done from beginning to end.” The verse is summarized as an interpretive key to the catalog of times in 3:1-8. God has created a pattern of times, but humans do not know the pattern [127-128]. In the first clause, the verb עָשָׂה is parsed and there is commentary on the potential meanings of יָפֶה and which is most appropriate in this context. The authors describe the particular semantics of עָשָׂה here, which means “to make X from/into Y”. In the second clause, the verb נָתַן is parsed followed by a somewhat lengthy discussion on the meaning of הָעֹלָם which the authors have translated “eternity.” They present three options: “eternity,” “hidden” and “trouble” before advocating for the first option in spite of its difficulties. In the third clause, the verb יִמְצָא is parsed. The discussion here centers on the meaning of two negatives מִבְּלִי and לֹא. Unlike in English, the double negatives in the clause do not cancel each other out; rather, they intensify the negative polarity of the statement . In the fourth and final clause, the verb עָשָׂה is parsed. The prepositional phrases form a compound adjunct of time to the verb. The noun רֹאשׁ typically has the sense of “head” but in this context means “beginning” .
Students in my Hebrew courses frequently tell me how helpful these volumes are in their research and personal study. This outstanding volume is highly recommended for anyone working through Ecclesiastes in the original Hebrew language (a task which is itself highly recommended!). The linguistic discussion is sophisticated and not only up-to-date, but cutting edge. Qoheleth is no mere analytical key; it is a linguistic commentary which explains and elucidates the Hebrew text in order to provide a solid foundation for exegetical work and theological reflection.
Eric J. Tully is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.