Patton, Matthew, and Putnam, Frederick. Basics of Hebrew Discourse: A Guide to Working with Hebrew Prose and Poetry. Edited by Miles Van Pelt. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019.

In October of last year, I pre-ordered a copy of Patton and Putnam’s much acclaimed book on discourse analysis principles as they relate to biblical Hebrew (pictured to the right). Book Cover: Basics of Hebrew Discourse (click to enlarge)I picked it up and read quickly through it in the first week that I had it. It’s certainly not a disappointment!

The first thing that you notice about the book is its compact size. It is definitely smaller than I expected, especially given the way that Zondervan has taken to making their language series books inordinately large lately. I didn’t pay attention to the dimensions when I placed the order, so I expected to hold in my hands a volume about as large as the recent editions of Basics of Biblical Hebrew and Basics of Biblical Greek. This book is nothing like those. You can easily toss it in any handbag to take it with you to the coffee house (once we’re on the other side of the COVID-19 restrictions—may it be בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵ֫ינוּ [soon in our days]!) to sit and read at your leisure and then take back home to mull over and work through the examples on your own.

Prerequisite Knowledge

This is an intermediate textbook. It is intended to fill the gap between learning grammar (in a basic course) and doing studies in morphology and word usage (generally in hermeneutics courses).

Beginning Hebrew courses rightly focus on morphology and basic clause syntax, while courses in Hebrew exegesis tend to focus on word studies, textual criticism, historical backgrounds, and other necessary components of study.… [H]owever,… very little attention has been devoted to either classroom instruction or the production of introductory resources designed to help students develop skills in discourse analysis. (BHD, p. 11)

The authors intend with this book to provide students with a serious option for progress beyond the basic level in comprehending and analyzing biblical Hebrew, and their objective is certainly met in what they have presented us here.

Beginning courses generally get students into reading large portions of narrative from the Hebrew Bible, presenting perhaps a few chapters of prophecy or poetry. In our current Beginning Biblical Hebrew II course, we have finished reading the story of Joseph from Genesis, and we are currently in chapter 3 of Ruth. We will finish Ruth in two weeks and then begin on Jonah. Most first-year biblical Hebrew courses will try to do something similar. However, we focus on the grammar presented in the verses. We cover the significance of the vav-consecutives in narrative and the interruption of the narrative string with forms other than the vav-consecutive. It’s all about reading the text for basic comprehension and confirming the grammar that we’ve covered in the book.

To make the best use of this book, one needs to have completed a full year’s study of grammar, assuming that that year included a good amount of unadapted reading or translation of biblical texts. You should have some experience in reading the text of the Hebrew Bible, since you need to understand what is being presented in the text as far as the Hebrew clauses are concerned. So, this is definitely an intermediate text with students in mind who have a good grasp of Hebrew grammar and are not just beginning to read narrative. I’m considering using it for a course that could open here at the Hebrew Café for students who are beyond the “100 level” in biblical Hebrew (who have completed the equivalent of college-level Biblical Hebrew 101 and 102) or who can demonstrate competence in plain reading and translation of narrative text.

The second part of the book, dealing with poetry, can easily be used as an introduction to the poetic parts of the biblical corpus, given that most people who do read Hebrew frequently (even within a religious Jewish context) focus almost entirely on prose and rarely venture into poetry. The concepts of poetic structure and the presentation of the exemplar texts are enough to demonstrate how to approach Hebrew poetry and to make an entrance into that genre.

What is Discourse Analysis?

The idea of discourse analysis is essentially to go beyond individual phrases to understand the direction or overall purpose of a given text. It looks at the linking words (transitional clues, sub­ordina­tors, purpose or result markers, etc.) to mark relationships between clauses, sentences, verses, paragraphs, etc., to draw out the structure and meaning of a text. As Miles Van Pelt, the editor, say in the book’s introduction:

Discourse analysis is, therefore, the study of the meaningful relationships that exist between individual clauses in the production of a textual unit, from individual paragraphs to larger discourse units and even whole books. Discourse analysis works to identify and understand the ways in which texts are ordered and connected to express meaning and logical pro­gressions. (BHD, pp. 11–12)

The first half of the text presents an analysis of the discourse features of Hebrew prose. Matthew Patton begins by defining discourse relationships in narrative, both coordinating and subordinate relationships, presenting the dif­fer­ent ways in which phrases may relate to one another generally. It then presents the same type of information for non-narrative portions within prose (specifically, speech instances and legal instructions), giving categories in a list that show how one sentence may relate to another to expand upon it, to provide a reason behind it, to draw a con­clu­sion from it, et cetera. These are presented in English to establish basic concepts before dealing with Hebrew in particular. In chapter 3, specific “discourse markers” are given that create these relationships between sentences or clauses, to which the reader should pay attention when analyzing a text.

Multiplication of Discourse Relationships

Dan Wallace is often criticized for his assigning so many categories to the various ways in which the genitive case is used in biblical Greek. In his Basics of New Testament Syntax, he lists twenty-seven different genitive categories! It’s not to say that those categories are wrong, per se, of that they do not assist someone in understanding what the meaning of the genitive is getting across. It’s just to say that there are a LOT of categories, and many of them could probably be grouped together, with the understanding that they are simply colorings of a unifying concept.

In the same way, the authors of Basics of Hebrew Discourse have included a lot of categories of discourse rela­tion­ships. Some of them overlap to such an extent that they might be combined. It’s clear that there is a difference of direction between “Inference” and “Reason,” whereby in the former, the reason is given in the first clause of a pair of clauses, and in the latter, the reason is given in the second.

At this point, I’m reading through the text a second time, not having actually done the work of discourse analysis, and I’m thinking through the relational categories that Dr. Patton laid out in the section on prose analysis. It seems that, in some ways, the categories could be fleshed out (not presented in bullet form) to give a more verbose explanation of their purpose, to convince the reader that the number of categories is not inflated and to justify the division of those which seem to have the same purpose.

Also, the category of “Initiative Background” (on page 47) could be reconsidered, since the word “initiate” hardly seems appropriate and we already have other categories that might subsume this one. Even if it is maintained, it should be renamed or explained in such a way as to make it clear how “Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran” could somehow be thought to initiate something. Why is it not either a “new episode” or some type of “circumstance.” This point is unclear and should be edited in future editions of the book.

Activities and Consistency in Tools

There are two issues that I find with the text. The first is that there is no exercise set given to challenge the student to perform discourse analysis herself and to check her work against answers provided by the authors. Just today, I had an email exchange with Dr. Matt Patton in which I brought up this question, and his response was that:

In early stages of publication planning, we had talked about exercises. However, we were not able to make that happen. I can definitely see how they would be useful. One idea is for you to take the passages at the end where I provide examples and to try doing DA on them. Then you can compare what you get with what I have prepared. (Personal email cor­respon­dence on July 29, 2020)

This would be my biggest criticism of the book, since it lays out tables with explanations of the analysis done by the authors while leaving no simple challenges to students to work their way through other texts. In the meantime, Dr. Patton’s suggestion of working through the book’s examples on our own isn’t a terrible idea. It’s what we are left with for the present, and the fact that we have this book at all is such a blessing as to overcome this limitation.

I have one other criticism of the book: that the abbreviations and categories are inconsistent between the chapters of the book. For example, in the latter half, we suddenly find a list of morphosyntactic abbreviations that could obviously have been used earlier in the book (see the key to syntactical symbols on page 207). It isn’t clear to me why such an apparently important tool for analysis is left until we arrive in the treatment of poetry when morphosyntax is certainly just as relevant in prose as in verse; and, if we are learning a system of analytical nomenclature and labeling, it would sensible if the same labels and the same analysis would be used consistently in the latter part of the book as were used and practiced in the earlier part of the book (even given the syntactic oddities present in verse). It’s almost like the tools of analysis learned early on are abandoned once one leaves prose, to be replaced by a different set of tools altogether for poetry. In other words, the transition from Patton’s half of the book to Putnam’s half is rather jarring and makes you feel that you are re-learning from the fundamentals what you had already spent some time practicing. The two halves of the book should be edited in such a way as to make them more relevant to one another, as if it were written by one author and not by two.

Conclusion of Review

Overall, this text is amazing. The work that the authors poured into the text, the analysis that they have presented, the obvious love that they have for the topic—these shine through in this text, which is well-written and aesthetically beautiful. To perfect the text in a second edition, I would add some how-to help for those who are just beginning discourse analysis on how to set up tables in a word processor or spreadsheet program, streamline the classification and labeling systems to make the two halves of the book work together more than they currently do, and add in a section of texts for practice (perhaps with suggested solutions placed on a website that can be accessed separately from the exercises themselves).

If these things were added, this text would be nothing short of perfect. Well, I exaggerate as one who has waited for a text like this to come along for a long time. The gap that this work fills in our approach to Hebrew language instruction has long been ignored, but this work takes the first step in making concepts that have been debated by linguists in the field for the past generation palatable for student audiences and more practical than theoretical.

Kudos to the authors for having put together a text that will be used for years to come. I’m looking forward to teaching from it, just as I am happy to be reading it this second time with the goal of really sinking my teeth in and working through the examples. A great job all around.

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