The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew, or “How to Serve a Glass of Wine”

3 03 2009

I have not read Ziony Zevit’s book, the title of which is also the title of (the first part of) this post, but I first encountered the phenomenon in a “ShulDrasha” by the Goblin King. The grammatical supposition is this: when the pluperfect is to be conveyed over any possible perfective reading, the waw-conjunctive is appended to the noun, rather than the verb.

An example:
וידע האדם* = “And the man knew [his wife]”
והאדם ידע (Gen 4:1) = “But the man had known [his wife]”

The practical upshot? That Cain had been born in the Garden of Eden, prior to the sin of his parents and the expulsion of his family.

Truth be told, I don’t buy it – leastways, not in that particular instance. I think that it constitutes a valid midrash (it is referenced, incidentally, by Rashi as well), but I don’t think that it is substantiated by a literal reading of the text. An instance that I do think is substantiated is the one that Tyler Williams has brought, in a recent post entitled “What Was Wrong With Cain’s Offering?”. He argues, as per the anterior construction used in the passage, that Abel had brought his offering before Cain’s. This is despite Cain having been older and having started tilling the land (again, as per an anterior construction) before Abel became a keeper of livestock. That Abel still brought an offering to God before the sacrifice of Cain was reason enough for God to favour Abel’s offering and to reject the offering of his older brother.

I think that this is very clever and it seems to make a great deal of sense in context. A “zero-instance” of the anterior construction (which is to say, an instance in which we might have expected it but in which it does not appear), and one that has interested me for a little while, is found in Nehemiah 2:1b:

ואשא את־היין ואתנה למלך ולא־הייתי רע לפניו
I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before [NRSV]

The NRSV (along with the KJV and the JPS, amongst others) is reading the verb as a pluperfect. Nehemiah had never been sad in the king’s presence, so the king’s declaration in the following verse that Nehemiah appears depressed is a result of the king’s never having seen Nehemiah out of sorts in the past, coupled with his present dejection. It is a convenient way of translating the passage for, were we to read the verb as a perfective (“I carried the wine and gave it to the king. I was not sad in his presence”), then the king’s observation would contradict Nehemiah’s assertion. But is this not what is actually happening?

If this verse were employing the pluperfect then, according to Ziony Zevit and those who have supported his theory, we should expect the conjunctive to be appended to the noun and not the adverb. In other words,

ורע לא־הייתי לפניו*

This is the form that appears in Job 11:4b:

ובר הייתי = “For I had been pure” (trans. by KJV as a present participle and by JPS and NRSV as a perfective)

By placing the conjunctive on the adverb, Nehemiah can only be declaring that he was not depressed at the time – a situation that is contradicted by the king’s recognition of Nehemiah’s depression, and Nehemiah’s subsequent confession of sorrow. The notes at the conclusion of my BHS inform me that “some scholars” amend the adverb and make it the asseverative לו (“Surely, …”), thus indicating that Nehemiah had only tried to hide his grief but had failed in the attempt. It is no surprise that the editors of the BHS may be trying to suggest an emendation, given that they seem to believe some nine-tenths of the Bible to be in need of correction anyway.

On the contrary, I would like to suggest one of three possible solutions:

The first is that the verb, הייתי, may indicate Nehemiah’s intention even without changing the adverb. In placing the cup before the king, Nehemiah attempted to control himself and appear benignly happy, as befits the king’s attendant.

The second is that Zevit’s suggestion, while certainly clever, is not borne out by the evidence. Despite the fact that nouns with the conjunction may lend themselves to a greater number of pluperfect readings, the authors of the Bible were equally comfortable with reading a verbal conjunctive as a pluperfect and that this is what is happening in Nehemiah 2:1. Nehemiah had never previously been upset in the presence of the king, and so his lack of composure was taken to be a sign of deep depression.

Thirdly, and most favourably of all, I would like to suggest an alternative translation of the adjective, רע (“sad”). Literally, “evil”, this word normally occurs in collocations that express malicious intent. Nehemiah is assuring his reader that he had no ill intent towards the king, but the king – ever on the lookout – detected Nehemiah’s grief and questioned him on it, for fear that it may present a more sinister cause. This would explain Nehemiah’s immediate fear, after having been questioned by the king, and would be justifiable in light of the fact that, of all people who might assassinate the monarch, the one who is handing him his glass of wine would be in the most favourable position.



3 responses

15 04 2009

wouldnt have JEHOVAH looked upon abels offering coz his was a blood sacrifice – sheep.if his parents were in fact covered with sheep skins as an atonement then abel would have understood that JEHOVAH desires a blood shed sacrifice.on the other hand cain would have known of the pitiful fig leaf clothing which wasnt sufficient b4 the eyes of its written in Isaiah our righteousness is as filthy rags even as a leaf. so he would have known its a blood sacrifice that pleases God.Jehovah cursed the ground and cains occupation was directly connected to the ground working it with the sweat of his brow.But Abel was a keeper of sheep!he would have only bred those sheep for sacrifice and for clothing as meat eating was forbidden at that time.its interesting to note the serpent was cursed, the ground was cursed and after Cain killed Abel Jehovah cursed him more than the ground.Adam and Eve didnt have a curse pronounced on them but they were promised a Messiah who would also shed His blood for the salvation of many

15 06 2009

You don’t distinguish fronting the subject and the object of the verb? Is it common in the first place for a verb with conjunctive vav to be followed by its (explicit) subject?

20 07 2010
Biblical Studies Carnival XL « ἸΑΚΩΒΟΥ

[…] Tyler F. Williams over at Codex discussed an understanding of Cain and Able’s offerings in light of Hebrew grammar. Tyler’s post seems to have inspired a post by Simon Holloway at Davar Akher. Simon looked at the use of the anterior construction in Nehemiah 2:1b. […]

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