Narrative Structure and Discourse Constellations: An Analysis of Clause Function in Biblical Hebrew Prose

Roy L. Heller Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN March 1, 2004
Purchase

Discourse linguistics is making its way into the mainstream of biblical studies. Sensitivity to a text’s discourse features is vital to understanding its structure and meaning. In this important work Heller examines two lengthy biblical narratives (Gen. 37; 39–47 and 2 Sam. 9–20; 1 Kings 1–2) in order to determine how clauses function in Hebrew prose texts.

Before his detailed analyses of these passages Heller provides a relatively brief but helpful survey of how scholars have understood the Hebrew verbal system. Traditional approaches understand the verb within the framework of “sentence grammar,” which “theoretically restricts the study of language to relationships within the boundaries of single sentences” (p. 17). In contrast to these approaches discourse linguistics argues that verbal function can only be fully and properly understood when “observed on the linguistic level beyond that of the sentence” (p. 25). Building on this assumption and on the research of Robert Longacre, Heller analyzes how verbs function in the basic narrative story line and in the various types of direct discourse (narrative, predictive, expository, interrogative, and hortatory).

Heller states his goals from the outset (pp. 26–27). First, he desires to show that the main story line of Hebrew narrative is constructed with chains of wayyiqtol clauses. When other types of clauses (those governed by qatal, yiqtol, or weqatal verb forms or those that are nonverbal) appear, “they provide either nonsequential, ‘background’ information or mark episode boundaries.” Second, he seeks to demonstrate that each type of direct discourse has its own “limited set of possible verbal/clausal combinations,” which are used in a consistent manner. Third, he intends to “provide an easily accessible and straightforwardly functional approach to the system of verbal and verbless clauses in biblical Hebrew prose.”

The bulk of the volume is devoted to a meticulous, detailed clausal analysis of the chosen stories, followed by a summary of Heller’s conclusions with regard to the narrative story line and the various discourse types embedded within the story. In the opinion of this reviewer Heller accomplishes his goals and has advanced the understanding of how Hebrew narrative “works” and how the Hebrew verbal system functions within this framework. This reviewer’s own analysis of clausal structure in the narrative framework of the Book of Judges (which will appear in his forthcoming commentary on Judges) corroborates Heller’s conclusions.

Of course more remains to be done, particularly with regard to the nuances of clausal function. For example Heller classifies clauses introduced by hN}h!w+ within a narrative framework as providing background information (see, e.g., Gen. 37:15, 25, 29). This is accurate as far as it goes, but it seems that such clauses often have a dramatic function as well, inviting the reader to view the scene from the perspective of a character (see, e.g., Judg. 3:24–25; 4:22; 2 Sam. 18:24, 31). With regard to subject-fronted clauses, narrators sometimes juxtapose such clauses to indicate shifts in focus, much like changes in camera angles in a film (see, e.g., Judg. 4:16–17, 22). In this case the clauses actually do further the action rather than simply providing background information.

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

July 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2006 vol. 163 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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