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What Was Wrong with Cain’s Offering? A Possible Hint from Hebrew Grammar

24th February 2011

[I post a lot about Old Testament/Hebrew Bible on this blog. This post explores one of the perennial problem passages in the early chapters of Genesis.  Originally posted 03/2009]

One of the many crux interpretums in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis surrounds Yahweh’s negative response to Cain’s offering. Why did Yahweh accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s? Some traditional — yet ultimately unsatisfying — answers include that God prefers animal sacrifices over grain offerings or that God prefers shepherds to farmers. Others have chalked it up to the mystery of Divine election. The New Testament author of Hebrews interprets Yahweh’s disapproval as a matter of faith: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s” (Heb 11:4).

The passage in Hebrew MT  is as follows:

‏ וַיְהִי־הֶבֶל רֹעֵה צֹאן וְקַיִן הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה‎
‏וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה מִנְחָה לַיהוָה‎
‏וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם־הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן
וַיִּשַׁע יְהוָה אֶל־הֶבֶל וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוו‎
‏וְאֶל־קַיִן וְאֶל־מִנְחָתוֹ לֹא שָׁעָה‎

While the biblical text does not indicate explicitly why Yahweh approved of Abel’s offering and disapproved of Cain’s, I wonder if it gives us a hint based upon an under appreciated nuance of Hebrew grammar: the anterior construction. I made reference to Ziony Zevit’s volume, The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew (Scholar’s Press, 1998; buy from |, in a comment on a previous post. Zevit argues that when biblical authors wanted to indicate unambiguously that a given action in the past had commenced and concluded before another action in the past (a pluperfect) or had started but not necessarily finished in the past prior to the beginning of another action (preperfect), they would use the following construction:  vav + subject followed by a qatal verb (all preceded a past tense verb).  Taking this construction into consideration, here is my translation of the Cain and Abel passage:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
but Cain had been a worker of the ground.
And after many days, Cain brought to Yahweh a gift from the fruit of the ground,
But Abel, he had already brought from the first born of his flock, their fat portions.
Now Yahweh looked with favour to Abel and to his gift,
but to Cain, and to his gift, he did not look with favour.

The use of the anterior construction (indicated by italics) emphasizes that while Cain had started being a worker of the ground before Abel took up his farming (which would have been expected as the older brother), Abel was the first to bring a gift to Yahweh from the fruit of his labours. Moreover,  the parallel construction of these verses (as a chiasm, in fact) sets up a clear contrast between the gifts: Cain only brought from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought the fat portions from the first born of his flock. While we shouldn’t read later sacrificial law back into this account, the fact that Abel’s gift receives additional  descriptors suggests that he offered the first and the best.

So while the biblical text doesn’t spell out exactly why Yahweh favoured Abel’s gift, it seems clear from the grammar and syntax of the passage that not only did Abel beat his brother by bringing a gift to Yahweh before him (even though Cain started his career first), he also offered the first and the best of his flock to Yahweh. Perhaps that is why Yahweh looked with favour on Abel’s offering. This understanding comports well with interpretations that suggest the individual’s attitude (or faith) was the reason for Yahweh’s response. In fact, it provides some evidence within the text itself for the difference in attitudes between the brothers.

At any rate, I don’t have time to explore the pros and cons of the anterior construction (it makes some assumptions of the nature of the Hebrew verbal system), but thought I would highlight this one potential way it can shed some light on a difficult passage.

Posted in Bible, Biblical Teaching, Genesis, Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, Old Testament | 5 Comments »

Some New Hebrew Resources

16th July 2008

I have re-written parts of and updated my “Mastering Biblical Hebrew” page over at Codex. Some of the more significant changes include the following:

Hebrew Bibles

In the Hebrew Bible section I have now included Biblia Hebraica Quinta project. As most of my readers are probably aware, BHQ is the new critical edition of the Hebrew Bible that is being produced under the auspices of the United Bible Societies. It follows in the tradition of BHS and BHK before it, with some exceptions. One change in approach that I am not entirely in favour of is the new policy against conjectural emmendations (i.e., a proposed reading that does not have external textual support, but does have intrinsic probability). While I am not a big fan of conjectural emendations (although I have always found the plethora suggested by Driver to be at the very least entertaining), they have a place in the practice of textual criticism. There are some places in the Hebrew Bible where the MT doesn’t make sense and other texts do not help. This is when a good text critic will suggest an emendation. At any rate, there are currently three fascicles available:

  • Biblia Hebraica Quinta, fasc. 18 – General Introduction and Megilloth (Gen. ed. Adrian Schenker et al.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2004). This was the first fascicle of BHQ available. The editors of the individual biblical books are Jan de Waard (Ruth), Piet B. Dirksen (Song of Songs/Canticles), Yohanan A. P. Goldman (Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth), Rolf Schäfer (Lamentations), and Magne Sæbø (Esther). Buy from Amazon.caBuy from
  • Biblia Hebraica Quinta, fasc. 20 – Ezra-Nehemiah (ed. David Marcus; Gen. ed. Adrian Schenker et al.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006). Buy from Amazon.caBuy from
  • Biblia Hebraica Quinta, fasc. 5 – Deuteronomy (ed. Carmel McCarthy; Gen. ed. Adrian Schenker et al.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2007). Buy from Amazon.caBuy from

Another new Hebrew Bible of sorts has just been published by Zondervan:

This is a nice leather-bound version of the Hebrew Bible (based on Leningrad, minus the critical apparatus) with a variety of additional helps, including form-specific glosses of all Hebrew words occurring 100 times or less (twenty-five or less for Aramaic words). It also helpfully shades proper names that occur less than 100 times. I’m sure this last feature will save beginning students countless hours of frustration since they won’t be trying to parse a proper name. Looks great for the beginning student or anyone who is rusty with their Hebrew vocabulary.

Hebrew Grammars

I have reworked my discussion of Hebrew grammars, distinguishing between reading grammars and reference grammars and including a number of new resources.

Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible

A new series of reading guides to the Hebrew text that deserves highlighting is The Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible series. This series guides the reader through individual books of the Hebrew Bible (or significant sections thereof) underscoring its grammatical and syntactic features, typically with reference to modern linguistic approaches. There are currently three volumes available:

Tucker‘s handbook on Jonah is perhaps the most accessible for students who have completed a year of biblical Hebrew. He includes a translation of the book of Jonah followed by clause-by-clause and word-by-word syntactic analysis. Tucker’s discourse analysis follows in the tradition of Rocine and Longacre. I would think this Handbook would be ideal for second year students who want to work through Jonah on their own, though I am almost considering using it near the end of my first year Hebrew class when we typically work through Jonah (I think it may be too much; it would probably be better to use it in a third semester class where the students have already translated Jonah in order to introduce discourse analysis).

Bandstra‘s volume on Genesis 1-11 takes a different and somewhat unique approach to the text — and it  isn’t for the faint of heart. Bandstra introduces students to functional grammar through and in-depth analaysis of the opening chapters of Genesis. The 40-page introduction to functional grammar in and of itself is worth the book’s price. I had a chance to work through the manuscript prior to its publication and found the functional approach both intriguing and fruitful. I would recommend this work for more advanced students and scholars.

Williams’ Hebrew Syntax

Finally, one other grammar I want to highlight is John C. Beckman’s thorough revision and expansion of R.J. William’s Hebrew Syntax: An Outline.

This is a major revision and expansion of Williams’ Hebrew Syntax. While the new edition preserves the best of the second edition (at least based on my comparisons thus far), Beckman makes it far more useful for students and scholars alike. Students will like the interlinear translations of examples and everyone will benefit from the expanded definitions, improved organization, the cross references to other major grammars, and the new layout. Another useful resource connected with this grammar is a companion website that includes, among other things, a detailed outline (see  This edition marks a significant improvement  that will ensure Williams’ Syntax remains a valuable grammar for years to come.

I encourage you to take a look at my updated “Mastering Biblical Hebrew” page and let me know of any errors or omissions.

Posted in Codex Updates, Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, Hebrew Resources | 2 Comments »

Hobbins’s Helpful Hebrew Verbal System

26th March 2008

Just a short note to follow up on my previous post, How to Teach Introductory Classical Hebrew, which highlighted some recent discussions of how to teach Biblical Hebrew with reference to the verbal system. It appears that John Hobbins over at his Ancient Hebrew Poetry held a little “Hebrew Verb” soirée a few weeks back. His recent post, “The Verbal System of Ancient Hebrew: A Postscript,” provides a brief summary of his take on the issue and links to the previous discussion.

As I am thinking of textbooks for introductory classical Hebrew for next fall, I am really tempted to choose a different grammar. I have used Kittel for a decade with increasing frustration (especially with the supposed “fully revised” second edition which didn’t fix any of the major issues with it!), so I am thinking that it is time for a change.  The question is, what introductory textbook should I use?

Posted in Hebrew Grammar, Hebrew Resources | 1 Comment »

How to Teach Introductory Classical Hebrew

14th March 2008

How should professors teach introductory Classical Hebrew? That is the question that two recent online articles attempt to answer or at least discuss — and they approach the question from quite different perspectives. The first article by Rahel Halabe is part of the March 2008 SBL Forum, while the second article by John A. Cook was just uploaded to the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

As evident from the title of Rahel Halabe‘s article, “Ancient Languages are Still Around, But Do We Really Know How to Teach Them?” (SBL Forum, March 2008), she thinks there is something lacking in the way most professors teach introductory Hebrew. In a nutshell, she argues that, in contrast to the creativity and appropriate pedagogy of modern foreign language acquisition methods, the teaching methods of ancient languages are stuck in antiquity. She acknowledges that many of the most recent introductory Hebrew textbooks employ the latest information technology (e.g., vocabulary flashcard programs), but we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking “that the emergence of real new approaches in imparting ancient languages has occurred.” She then introduces some notions of functional grammar and relates them to how Hebrew should be taught, including the need to balance breadth and depth, as well as form and function. Thus, for instance, in teaching the Hebrew verbal system, Halabe maintains:

Rather than a long and confusing list of translation options into English tenses, as usually offered by academic textbooks, one should offer in the introductory course a minimal list of the most common interpretations of any verb form and encourage the students to use context and common sense while reading a straightforward text.

She then moves on to note some insights from pedagogical grammar, such as the appropriate distinction between developmental and variational items in a language, and the need to give more attention and time to the former. Rather than load students down with grammatical rules, pedagogical grammar would suggest a large exposure to text with some simple “rules of thumb” that have descriptive and predictive power is a better way to go.

For more information on Halabe’s approach, you can check out her website Hebrew with Rahel Halabe, and especially her MEd paper, “The Introduction to Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way” available there.

John A. Cook charts out a slightly different course for introductory Classical Hebrew courses in his article, “The Vav-Prefixed Verb Forms in Elementary Hebrew Grammar” in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures – Volume 8: Article 3 (2008). Cook similarly laments the state of introductory Hebrew textbooks, though not for the lack of pedagogical finesse, but because of the huge gap or disconnect between elementary grammars (which are being published at an ever-increasing rate) and the recent scholarly advances in understanding ancient Hebrew. Instead of offering a more general critique like Halabe, Cook picks one feature of Classical Hebrew (vav-prefixed verbal forms) and “illustrate how these forms might be explained to beginning Biblical Hebrew students in a way that takes into account recent linguistic insights.”

Cook argues that the gap noted above needs to be spanned, since “students deserve the most accurate grammar description of Biblical
Hebrew” and because “the traditional description has tended to portray the Hebrew verbal system as this strange beast without any parallel among human languages” (I find the latter reason more compelling, especially in the light of Halabe’s article). Cook then proceeds to provide examples of how introductory grammars (inadequately) explain the vav-prefixed verbal forms and how their explanations are typically based on antiquated understandings of grammar. Thus, Kittel’s use of “vav-conversive” hearkens back to the sixteenth century, while Bornemann’s use of “vav-consecutive” and Futato’s “vav-relative” derive from the 1800s. Next, Cook discusses three advances in understanding the vav-prefixed forms:

  1. recognition that the imperfect and the vav-prefixed imperfect forms are actually distinct conjugations;
  2. similar recognition that the perfect form and the vav-prefixed perfect are a single conjugation; and
  3. depending on word order, the vav-prefixed perfect form is is more closely aligned syntactically and semantically with the traditional Hebrew modal forms.

While this is not the time nor place to debate these understandings of the Hebrew vav-prefix forms, Cook’s point is well taken. There have been significant discussion of the Hebrew verbal system over the last while, much of which has not made its way into introductory grammars (with some exceptions I should note; I am thinking especially of Rocine’s Learning Biblical Hebrew: A New Approach using Discourse Analysis).

In the final section of his essay, Cook explores how one could teach the “modal” perfect form to beginning Hebrew students. I should note that this section is not just theoretical, since Cook has co-authored (and presumably used in the classroom) an introduction with Robert Holmstedt of the University of Toronto (from what I gather it is still in the pre-publication “working out the bugs” phase. A free version is available for download here).

Cook concludes my re-affirming the need to teach solid, linguistically informed understandings of the Classical Hebrew verbal system to introductory students, and that such theories can be taught in such a way that not only is comprehensible to first-year language students, rather than relying on inaccurate explanations from past centuries.

I found that both of these articles (and the larger projects on which they are based) provide much food for thought. As someone who has taught Classical Hebrew for over a decade, I can validate the concerns of both authors — even though they are slightly at odds with one another. I suspect that Halabe would balk at introducing concepts such as modality and contingency to beginning Hebrew students, while Cook would roll his eyes at the use of language such as “vav-conversive” and other”antiquated” descriptions in Halabe’s grammar.

I find myself in the middle. I try to do all that I can to ensure that my students are successful in their acquisition of Hebrew, and if I fudge on anything, it would be on the introduction of the complexities of the Hebrew verbal system, among other things. I will talk about some of the complexity and will provide handouts that get into it, but because I use Kittel and because I still see the heuristic value in it, I still talk about the vav-conversive prefix form. Now perhaps I will have to re-evaluate how I teach Hebrew and what text I use. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with Kittel (especially since the second edition really didn’t improve much), but am not sure what text I would want to adopt (and the prospect of switching too often seems like a lot of work!). At the very least I will glean what I can from both of these engaging articles and go my own way!

For a discussion of some of the different beginning Hebrew grammars on the market, check out my “Introductory Hebrew Grammars” page.

I am also curious of what some other Hebrew instructors think about either article.

Posted in Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, Pedagogy, Teaching & Learning | 5 Comments »

Biblical Hebrew Dictionaries and More

25th February 2007

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has a good post highlighting the top Dictionaries of Biblical Hebrew. He notes the same major Hebrew-English lexicons that I discuss in my “An Annotated Bibliography for Mastering Biblical Hebrew,” but also helpfully notes some non-English dictionaries such as Meyer and Donner (Hebrew-German) and Alonso Schökel (Hebrew-Spanish).

jouon_muraoka_rev.jpgOn related note, I just received my copy of the new edition of Paul Joüon and Takamitsu Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Revised English edition; 1 vol.; Subsidia Biblica 27; Pontifical Institute, 2006; Buy from

There are a number of things that I quite like about this volume, not least of which is its binding. I find it far easier to prop open on my desk than the previous two-volume edition. I haven’t had much time to actually compare the content with the previous editions, though I like the fact that Muraoka’s additions are integrated with Joüon’s original text, the notes are cleaned up, and there is a great bibliography included. I wish they would have updated some of the charts in the volume, however.

Posted in Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, Hebrew Resources, Online Resources, Reviews & Notices | Comments Off