4 02 2008

I have been tagged, with a bizarre meme:

Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more. (No cheating!)
Find Page 123.
Find the first 5 sentences.
Post the next 3 sentences.
Tag 5 people.

Fortunately for me, the nearest book happens to be Waltke and O’Connor’s, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. It habitually rests on top of a small collection of other books that I have on my desk (a concordance, the KJV, Gesenius’s grammar, the BDB, Arnold and Choi’s guide to syntax, my Peshitta, my Septuagint and my Vulgate). This is fortunate on a number of counts. Firstly, and most obviously, it allows me to post about something of genuine relevance to me; secondly, some of the other books that exist within hands’ reach would have been very difficult to turn into a post of any interest to anybody; and thirdly, the first five sentences on page 123 all constitute examples of verses in the bible, with the following three sentences (exactly) forming a description of a particular grammatical rule, and a neat example of the same. Those three sentences are the following:

Humans may be referred to with honorific plurals, chiefly בעלים ‘master’ (not ‘husband’) and אדנים ‘lord.’ Both these plurals occur only with suffixes, the first only with third-singular suffixes.

• ידע שור קנהו וחמור אבוס בעליו
The ox knows its owner, the donkey its master’s manger (Isa 1:3)

This section constitutes a part of §7.4.3b, the chapter itself dealing with honorifics in general and the section in question constituting honorifics ascribed to God and to people. Our lines deal only with those that are ascribed to people, although אדון (“lord”) is also used as an epithet for God and, tangentially (although interestingly) the name בעל (“master, husband”) was also the name of a particular Canaanite deity, elsewhere referred to as הדד.

The specific point made within these lines is not that these words are used to refer to people, but that they may be used in the plural despite only having a singular referent, even when not describing God. Normally, when speaking of the god of Israel, these words are found in precisely such a fashion. The classic example is the name אלהים (Elohim), which – despite being a plural word – is generally treated as a singular noun when referring to the Israelite god only. This is evident, not only in God’s speech (as, for example, Gen 20:6), but also in the uses of suffixes that are applied to the noun. “Our God” is אלהינו (not אלהנו or אלנו), and Waltke and O’Connor even list a few examples where the same phenomenon is found with other epithets for God, like קדושים and אדונים (in this context, אדונינו).

The first of the proof texts that they bring (and they bring three from different books) is from the book of Isaiah, one of the most beautiful books in the Bible. Many Israelis today like to think of themselves as speaking a revitalised form of Isaiah’s language, for it is widely perceived to be a very literarily developed text. The language is frequently very difficult, but the poetry is stunning in places and well worth the effort. The quote in question constitutes a berating of the Israelite people who, making alliances with unfitting nations, are seen to be deserting their god in favour of the gods of their enemies. Animals, the prophet declares, are well aware of who their true masters are; why are the Israelites so ignorant?

The verse also features a classic example of parallelism, which might be described as being the way in which Hebrew texts “rhyme”. Rather than rhyming phonetically in the manner that English speakers may be familiar, poetry in the Bible rhymes thematically. An ox knows its owner; a donkey [knows] its master. Both “ox” and “donkey” are paralleled one with another (as they frequently are in the Bible, with ox also normally preceding donkey, in accordance with Panini’s Law), and “owner” is paralleled with “master”. “Owner” is here in the singular, as one would expect from a singular verb, but “master” – despite being used in a singular fashion – takes the plural suffix, בעליו. There are only very few instances of this happening for people in the Bible, although it is interesting to note that it does happen nonetheless.

Who to tag, who to tag, who to tag…
Okay, Joel, you don’t get away so easily. Also, I would be very interested to hear from Q-Pheevr, whose posts often give me genuine food for thought. I will also tag Daniel who, when he feels like actually writing something, is well-worth actually reading. It has been too long! Gabe, I hope you have something seditious (or, at the least, politically snarky) at hand? And Jen! The eclecticism of your posts is intriguing and I am interested just to see what type of book happens to be the closest at hand for you…




7 responses

5 02 2008

It’ll have to wait (some of us have day jobs to go to :) ), but I just wanted to point out that the “simplest” term for the Hebrew deity – “Adonai” – is in the plural (otherwise it would be “Adoni”).

5 02 2008
Simon Holloway

Yes, you are quite right. The word אדון does appear for God, but my point was that any time it takes a suffix it takes one for a plural noun. Your אדוני example is better than my אדונינו example simply because it occurs far more often, but I’m not sure what you mean by “simplest”? The simplest would be אדונים or אדון, right?

Don’t give up your day job!

9 02 2008
John Hobbins

Very nice, Simon.

Is hochmot in Prov 1:20 and 9:1 honorific, too? Just wondering out loud.

I thought your piece on mishpatim and your brother’s bar mitzvah was splendid.

Did you notice the raucous debate about the TAM system of the verb in ancient Hebrew on my blog? I’m hoping you will join the fray.

16 02 2008

I believe that the plurality of God’s name was used as an argument by Ghil’ad Zuckermann that Judaism used to be just as polytheistic as all the other local religions of the time.

16 02 2008

Oh and other things I meant to say before I hit the Enter key: You should probably be grateful that the manga book by my elbow has less than 123 pages. And how the dickens do you know Q-Pheevr? I only ‘know’ him as a commenter on one of my livejournal friends’ pages, and it makes for an intriguing six degrees of separation..

23 03 2008
Joel Nothman

Jen is not alone in having heard the idea that plural name for God implies plural God in the essence. And precisely because of this is the notion of honorific plurals very significant in theological bible study.

At the same time, “אדני” as referring to God is usually understood to be a variation, but not identical to, the plural form of אדון with a first person suffix. The latter is usually אֲדֹנַי and the former אֲדֹנָי. In fact, this becomes a significant issue for poseqim as regards Ashkenazim adopting the more limited set of Sefaradi vowels.

23 03 2008
JoelNothman.com » Tagged in turn

[…] only quoting from Waltke and O’Connor’s, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, but then discussing the fascinating notion of honorific plurals in Biblical Hebrew (among […]

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