Something to Brag About: Jeremiah 9:22–23 (Part 3: Articles, Particles, and Verbals, Oh My!) – Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields
This month’s post concludes a post begun June 2017; please see that post for an explanation of versification. As mentioned there, this post will follow Hebrew numbering with Hebrew texts and English numbering with English texts.
Articles “A” and “The” in v. 23b–d
Hebrew and English differ in that English has both definite and indefinite articles: the and a(n), respectively. Hebrew has no indefinite article, and so it is more precise simply to say it only has the article. English translators must make choices with more options than Hebrew. The Hebrew article overlaps with English the.
The Hebrew article makes expressions definite, just as does English the, but that does not exhaust the functions of the article. For a very helpful discussion of meaning of the uses of the article please see Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 206–254. Even though he explains Greek grammar, his discussion is clear and provides useful categories for thinking about the Hebrew article as well.
The term indefinite describes a noun referring to an unspecified member of a class — a “some one of them” concept. The English “indefinite” article can also be used to mark a generic idea especially in proverbial expressions; e.g., “A dog has four legs,” in which the speaker is not thinking of any single member of a conceived pack of dogs, but rather of all dogs as a class.
English the is commonly used to definitize a noun, to identify a particular individual; e.g., “The dog chased the mouse (instead of some other animal).” However, the can also function to mark a generic noun; e.g., “Only the good die young.”
The Hebrew article also definitizes, but that is not its only function and the article is not the only way to definitize in Hebrew. In fact, it is helpful to use the term determination, since there are multiple ways to make a substantive “definite” (please see Hebrew for the Rest of Us (HRU), 106–9, for a simple introduction). Parallel to the English discussed above, in Hebrew the generic use of a substantive can be indicated either by a substantive with the article or by one without the article.
The NIV uses the definite article three times “the … the … the.” On the other hand, the NASB varies with “a … the … a.” Why NIV and NASB differ is simply explained: The NASB gives a form-equivalent translation giving the definite article when the Hebrew has the article and using the indefinite article when Hebrew has no article. Variation might suggest to the reader that there is some difference in meaning. It seems clear from the proverbial context, however, and from the parallelism of the three lines that the nouns are all to be taken as generic. The NIV did not translate the form of the Hebrew, but made clear the interpretation of three parallel generic nouns.
Which version do you prefer and why?
Particles are function words; they provide virtually no content, but are important because they indicate logical functions. In our passage, what gets the attention of the reader of Hebrew is the word translated “not.” Hebrew has two different words for “no, not,” לֹא (lōʾ) and אַל (ʾal). The former is a prohibition of action generally and the latter is of an action specifically (please see the blogs for March 2015 and June 2015 for more details). English does not make such a distinction.
The proverbial/generic context of these verses might cause us to predict the general לֹא (lōʾ). However, the particle used is אַל (ʾal). This may be due to the fact that each of the three types of people is identified by the particular strength he has: wisdom, power, or wealth. None of these is evil. But everyone recognizing a strength in oneself runs the risk of relying on that strength rather than on one’s dependence on God. The use of the אַל (ʾal) particle suggests that each of these specific situations is in view.
I use the adjective verbal as a noun to refer to both types of verbs, finite and non-finite. Verbs are called “finite” when they are limited with respect to the person of the subject (I, you, he, etc.). “Non-finite” verbs are not limited by a personal subject. There are two types of these: participles (verbal adjectives) and infinitives (verbal nouns). Second-person commands always have an implied “you” as the subject.
Compare v. 24b in the NIV, “that they have the understanding to know me,” with the NASB rendering, “that he understands and knows Me” (italics are mine). There are several things to observe: (1) both translate using finite verbs; (2) the NIV has a plural subject, the NASB a singular; (3) the NIV has one clause and the main verb is modified by an infinitive phrase, “to know me” indicating purpose, the NASB has two clauses joined by “and.”
The verbs translated “understand” and know” are in Hebrew both infinitives. Unlike English, Hebrew has two different kinds of infinitives, the infinitive absolute (InfA) and the infinitive construct (InfC); for more details please see the August 2015 post and/or HRU, 210–16. These in the Hebrew v. 23b are both an InfA joined by the conjunction Waw.
There is nothing like an InfA in English. The Hebrew InfA functions in three main ways: as a noun, as an adverb of emphasis, or even as a finite verb, especially substituting for an imperative. The NASB renders them both as imperatives. The NIV renders the first as an imperative, but the second as an infinitive of purpose, which is not normally a function of the InfA when two InfAs are joined by Waw (please see Waltke and O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, §35.5.4), though the InfA can function as an InfC of purpose when joined to an InfC by Waw (Christo Van der Merwe, A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, §20.2, citing Exod 32:6). Perhaps the NASB is better here.
Why the InfA forms instead of finite forms? Here are two suggestions. (1) The InfA is commonly used for divine decrees (Waltke and O’Connor, §35.5.1). It may point to the universality of the agents of the actions of understanding and knowing. Every wise, powerful, or rich person ought to boast only in understanding and knowing the Lord. (2) The two InfAs separate themselves grammatically from the two clauses introduced by כִּי (kî) in v. 23c, e, and thereby give content to the imperatival InfAs. To understand and know the Lord is to know his name and to understand how he acts and what he values, namely kindness, justice, and righteousness.
To understand and know the identity and character of the Lord is to imitate his character. This must be the priority of all people as his creatures, but especially of the powerful.
Learn more about what Lee M. Fields has to say in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible.