The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Feb 8, 2019

Form Contributes to Meaning (Meaning is not simply the sum total of words)

The rise of discourse analysis in the past couple decades has been a great boon to biblical studies. The point is now being hammered home consistently: it is not enough to simply study words and sentences; rather, to truly grasp the entirety of meaning in Scripture, one must also study larger units of meaning, "discourse units," and how they interact with each other (e.g., how one "paragraph" leads into the other, etc.).

On the one hand, to borrow from Steve Runge's excellent work A Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, discourse  affects "pragmatic meaning"--compare, for example, the different nuances between "Guess what our kid did today" vs. "Guess what your kid did today," in a conversation between husband and wife. Nothing has technically changed in regards to the overall meaning of the sentence, but the use of the 2nd person singular pronoun, a deviation from the norm here, hints at something ominous!

Even more than that, however, the arrangement of a simple waw conjunction in Hebrew can change how one should interpret a sentence. Consider Joshua chapter 4, specifically verse 9: "And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan . . ." (KJV). With most English translations, this raises problems: is this a second set of stones or did Joshua simply take the initial pile of stones and put them back in the river? Considering the fact that the middle of a river which would, soon, overflow its banks again would be a horrible place for a memorial, and considering the fact that chapter 4 focuses on "the place where they lodged" (v. 8) as the place of the memorial, verse 9 almost seems like a contradiction.

An understanding of Hebrew discourse here solves the issue and potentially offers up a new spiritual insight. 

To begin with, OT scholars universally acknowledge the waw-yiqtol (or waw-consecutive) syntactical construction as the indicator of past sequential action, i.e., the backbone of historical narrative ("Then Paul got into his car, then Paul drove it to the store, then Paul bought ice cream . . .").

Significantly, then, when the conjunction waw begins a clause attached to any other word but the imperfect (or, if you prefer, "preterite"--the identity of the specific conjugation is debated), then this often signifies the disruption of the sequential narrative, often for the purpose of providing background information (drawing from Runge again, kind of like the gar in Greek). 

For example: 
"Then Paul started [waw-yiqtol] his car, 
then Paul drove [waw-yiqtol] to the store, 
then Paul browsed [waw-yiqtol] the ice cream isle 
(now Paul had been hungry [disjunctive waw] for ice cream for quite a while), 
then Paul purchased [waw-yiqtol] ice cream . . ." etc. etc.

In Joshua 4, then, verse 8 has a heavy dose of waw-yiqtol verbs to carry it along--the actions of verse 8 are sequential. However, not so with verse 9a, which begins with a waw attached to the word for "two" followed by "ten" (i.e., "12"). In other words, the first part of verse 9 is most likely providing background information to what is going on: "Now Joshua had set up stones . . ." The waw-yiqtol pattern, i.e., the main story, resumes at the end of verse 9, "and they are there unto this day." The "there" (Hebrew sham) at the end of verse 9 links back to the very last word of verse 8, also "there" (sham).

Thus, in English, ". . . and carried them over with them unto the place where they lodged, and laid them down there (now Joshua had set up twelve stones . . .), and they are there [same place as verse 8] unto this day." 
[Note that, predictably, verse 10 does not start with the waw-yiqtol pattern] 

In other words, Joshua did not set up a second pile (what would be the point of having a memorial in the midst of a major river that would presumably soon be flowing again?), nor did he move a pile already set up as a memorial (v. 8). Rather, Joshua was responsible for getting the stones together, setting them near the priests, and thus facilitating the task of the twelve men he picked out. In other words, Joshua does not just give orders, he enables them! He engages in the task in such a way as to facilitate those who would carry them out. 

The lesson is this: anybody wishing to search for specific and precise spiritual lessons from Hebrew historical narrative, i.e., a significant portion of the Old Testament, had better study Hebrew discourse!

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