- The Verbal Tense System in Late Biblical Hebrew Prose by Ohad Cohen
Can the Biblical Hebrew verbal system(s) ever truly be solved? Centuries of philological laborings have yielded many insights into the structures and significations of individual verbal components—and yet the actual, precise workings of the system as a whole remain elusive. The functional categories of tense, aspect, and mood compose the trifecta around which most studies variously place their linguistic bets. Traditionally, a winner-take-all approach has been invoked: for example, Biblical Hebrew verbal morphologies must primarily signify aspect, or else they must chiefly convey tense. Yet greater appreciation has developed for less rigid and more nuanced models that aim to account for the complexities of Biblical Hebrew as we actually have it, rather than as we ideally wish it to be. Ohad Cohen’s monograph exhibits this kind of awareness throughout, as he endeavors methodically to describe and, where possible, to explain the forms and functions of Biblical Hebrew in its historically later permutations.
The inclusion of “Tense” in the title of the book is somewhat confusing, potentially leading the reader to expect that the author intends to proffer a mainly temporal (as opposed to aspectual and/or modal) analysis of Biblical Hebrew verbs. Yet in his opening paragraph, Cohen avers that “use of the term ‘tense,’ which appears in the title of this work, is a mere formality and carries no significance regarding the actual meaning of the verbal system” (p. 1). Such a formality would thus have been better avoided, given the highly loaded nature of this term for the discussions at hand. Cohen states that he will apply a structuralist methodology to his project—predicated upon classic (neo)-Saussurean oppositions between diachrony versus synchrony, langue versus parole, and paradigm versus syntagm—and in this approach he is commendably consistent (p. 1).
Critics who contend that structuralism is an overly rigid, unduly static, ultimately outmoded model for linguistics fail to grant due appreciation to its capacity for crafting productive descriptive analyses of language in terms of oppositions that can be predicated simultaneously upon multiple binarisms across numerous domains (cf. pp. 28–29). Indeed, structural opposition potentially even entails powerful explanatory capacities for language origins and usage, given the adaptive bilateral symmetric morphology of Homo sapiens that evolved in response to selective pressures within Hominin [sic] environments. [End Page 423]
Cohen delineates his corpus of study by relying upon the tripartite historico-linguistic distinction between archaic, classical, and late (Second Temple) Biblical Hebrew (pp. 7–15). This yields him a database of Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, and (non-synoptic) Chronicles. He then proceeds to introduce the well-known 1947 model of Hans Reichenbach, which incorporated the notion of reference time (R)—and hence, relative tense—into linguistic relationships between speech time (S) and event time (E) (pp. 16–19). Cohen’s discussion of these potentially complex combinations is reasonably coherent, but his presentation suffers from periodic typographic errors (e.g., past perfect correctly as E - R - S [p. 16], then incorrectly as E - S - R [p. 19]), which render it frustratingly obtuse at times. Despite this, his provisional conclusion is important: “Hebrew verbs are indeed full-fledged relative forms, namely their distinct relationship to reference time is the only parameter for determining their chronological meaning” (p. 19).
The author then proceeds to discuss the Biblical Hebrew consecutive forms, where he adopts an eccentric component into his study: “one of the crucial features of a verb form that denotes succession is that it contains its own reference time [E, R], and it is this very trait which allows for the construction of the narrative succession” (p. 25). Cohen throughout adheres to this notion that Biblical Hebrew consecutive forms—originally wayyiqtol and weqatal, and later qatal and the infinitive absolute (see p. 78)—reset, each and every time, the given narrative’s referential clock, thereby constituting independent temporal frames that get joined in varying degrees of contiguity (pp. 77, 95–96, 114, 171–173, 195...