Syntactic Ambiguity

21 06 2007

There is an old joke that concerns a Buddhist who walks into a pizza parlour and requests that they make him one with everything. Q. Pheevr, in a recent post on syntactic ambiguity, discusses the confusion that is engendered in sentences like these. One of his examples, likewise related to the consumption of pizza, is “we sliced the pizza with the pepperoni”. Does the concluding noun modify the verb or does it modify the other noun? In this case, it being improbable that anything is being sliced with pepperoni (no matter how old the piece of pepperoni in question), the answer is straightforward. Q. Pheevr then provides us with another (albeit macabre) example in which both alternatives are semantically viable.

Such ambiguity abounds in the Hebrew Bible. Take, for example, Exodus 14:30. This is part of the account of God’s defeat of Egypt at the Reed Sea, and we are told:

וירא ישראל את־מצרים מת על־שפת הים
For Israel saw Egypt dead on the bank of the sea

The Tiberian scholars, known as the Masoretes, vocalised the text as, “For Israel saw Egypt, dead on the bank of the sea”, although it would be equally viable to read the text as, “For Israel saw Egypt, dead, on the bank of the sea”. In other words, was Egypt (that is, the Egyptian host) lying dead on the bank of the sea, or was that the vantage point of Israel? Rashi, the 11th century exegete, explains the sense of the verse by suggesting that the Egyptians were thrown forth from the depths of the Reed Sea and left upon the shore, in order that the Israelites not think that they may still be alive and pursuing them from a further bank. In truth, Rashi was also trying to harmonise this source with a passage in Exodus 15 which states that the Egyptians sank like lead. The verse in question is 15:10 and it is worth mentioning here because it also features an element of syntactic ambiguity:

צללו כעופרת במים אדירים

According to the Masoretic Text, this reads as “They sank like lead in mighty waters”, but could just as easily be read as “The mighty ones sank in the water like lead”. The latter syntactic order is how Ibn Ezra, another 11th century exegete, renders the verse as a means of explication. So far, however, the difference between the two possibilities is small, although there are other examples within the Bible where the ambiguity is immense. I wrote a post once concerning one such issue in Deuteronomy, and another that concerns the famous horns on Moses’ head, courtesy of Michaelangelo. I’ll offer one more such example here, especially because it is again of the same nature as the ambiguous sentences presented by Q. Pheevr.

Joseph, the servant of Potiphar, is seduced by Potiphar’s wife and flees the scene. Understandably slighted, she reports the incident to her husband, in Genesis 39:17, as follows:

בא־אלי העבד העברי אשר־הבאת לנו לצחק בי
The servant that you brought in [lit. “acquired for us”] came to me to have sex with me!

The Hebrew verb for having sex (in other contexts, “laugh”) has normally translated as “make sport”, but has decidedly sexual connotations in this and some other passages. The translation that I have presented above is in accordance with the Masoretic Text, and is produced by understanding “the servant that you brought in” as a nominal phrase. The main sentence, therefore, is “he came to me to have sex with me”, with the inserted nominal phrase serving a predicative purpose (“He – that is, the servant that you brought in”, etc). Alternatively, one may just as easily render this verse in such a manner that “אשר־הבאת לנו לצחק בי” constitutes the parenthetical phrase and thus produces the following reading: “He came to me: the servant whom you brought in to have sex with me”. This would correlate nicely with the (otherwise emotive and non-literal) statement in verse 14 that Potiphar’s wife makes for the benefit of her other servants, and casts an interesting light on the purposes of Potiphar’s acquiring the handsome Joseph in the first place.

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