August 14, 2013

What do you get a Hebrew Prof for Christmas?

by Jesse Johnson

A warning at the beginning: this post is a review of a book that costs $140, and will only be useful/helpful to Hebrew professors, Bible Translators, or Hebrew/seminary nerds. So, if this is you, welcome. If you manage a library frequented by those people, read on. Otherwise…well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Words have meaning in their context–that is obvious and self-evident. But why do authors choose certain words for certain contexts? Do words have unwritten rules that accompany them, and do these rules in-turn guide the author/speaker as he chooses which words work best in specific contexts? Daniel Leavins thinks so, and he lays out his case for that in the introduction to Verbs of Leading in the Hebrew Bible (Vol 11 in the series Perspectives on Hebrew Scriptures and its Contexts).

BibleLeavins surveys the current scholastic opinion on the role of syntax and semantics, and establishes the agreement that words function in classes, and that those classes follow patterns that convey meaning. He reviews the grammatical implications of that (such as the concept of cases), but then spends the rest of the book examining  one group of Hebrew verbs–verbs of leading (led, took, turned, brought, etc.). By placing these verbs into their own group, Leavins is free to look at what rules accompany that group. Namely, they require an actor (always a personal agent), an object, and a location.  

Verbs of Leading then examines all of the verbs in this group, one at a time [all the Qal uses of nahi, all the Hiphil of yabel, etc; for me the most useful and helpful section was shuv (turn, return, repent)]. In each section he shows how the rules hold, and pays specific attention to any problem verses (uses that don’t seem to follow the pattern).

Why? What could the possible use of this be? Well, if you are doing textual criticism on verses that use “leading verbs,” Leavin’s analysis is essential. By giving rules, Leavins helps cut through the morass of alternate readings and Hebrew repointing that plagues so many of the “problem verses.” To give just one example, if you follow the Lord with all your heart, does he lead you in the right paths, or make your paths straight before you (Proverbs 3:5-6)? The answer comes from understanding the rules behind leading verbs, and  if the editors of the Holman translation had read this book, they would have rendered Proverbs 3:6 like the ESV and NAU, rather than follow the KJV.

Leavins book sheds light on some very difficult textual critical issues as well. By putting forward a more clear understanding of leading verbs, he shows how unnecessarily complicated some critical analysis of verses has become (Psalm 85:4, for one example–commentaries put forward no fewer than five suggestions on what exactly God was turning; most English translations say “you turned back from your burning anger” but this requires some serious textual fast-footing–and Leavins is able to simplify the issue tremendously; p. 164-166).

Right now I’m preaching through Psalm 119, and Leavins fills out the nuances of verse 35: “You cause me to walk along the path of your commands” (p. 198-209). There is a very real sense not only of God’s agency in this, but also of movement to a destination. God is more than the subject, but he is actively leading us. And this isn’t simply theoretical–we are being moved along from one place in life to another, and the path is marked by his commandments.

The conclusion has helpful charts that collate all of the uses of these verbs, and the scriptural index is thorough.

Honestly, this is a book that will appeal to only a handful of people-those who view textual criticism as a sport, Hebrew professors, Bible translators, and linguists. Because Leavins gives an English translation of all of the verses he uses (underneath the Hebrew, and similarly formatted for ease of reading), you can read this book if you don’t sight-read Hebrew. But this book does presuppose the ability to identify Hebrew roots, to understand the basics of vowel pointing, and the differences between the Qal, Hiphal, Hophal, etc. Basically, you can read this book and learn from it if you have had a year of Hebrew at the M.Div. level, OR if you understand language theory. The $140 price tag will keep away pretenders, but the risk is that it also keeps away those who would need it most. This book would make a great gift for a Hebrew professor, or anyone involved in translation of the Old Testament. Someone should send it to those at Holman, in hopes of them fixing Proverbs 3:6.

Hebrew leadingLeavins has his M.Div. from Dallas Seminary, and his Ph.D. from Catholic University. He treats the text with respect, and his view of innerrency is obvious from how seriously he takes the text as received. In fact, a work like this could probably only be done by an evangelical, as he shows that even when the text as received seems difficult, there are more often than not reasons why it was written that way. In other words, he doesn’t simply amend the text to make difficult passages disappear.

If you have a favorite Hebrew Professor, get the class to go in on this one together. He’ll be thankful.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Charlie Frederico

    Thank you, Jesse. This is very interesting. I preached Proverbs 3:5-6 and, I think, concluded as you did. That is encouraging :-).

  • D. C. Washington

    I am barely conversant in English but I am grateful for the heart and the mind of Danny Leavins Congratulations to him on this huge achievement and thanks for reviewing it here.

  • Greg Corombos

    Well said D.C.! Danny brings a combination of intellect, passion and vulnerability to his teaching that I have rarely seen. Have learned more from him about studying scripture than almost anyone. Given his passion for studying Hebrew and his tireless precision, I have no doubt this is a fantastic resource! Great review, Jesse.

  • Fascinating. Curious, how does Leavens (would you) interpret the verbs in Psalm 23? Versus 2 and 3 appear to have the same verb construction used in your example.