The Participle

The participle shares characteristics with nouns and with verbs.  Like nouns, the participle has gender, number, definiteness, and case. Like verbs, the participle can take an object, has voice (active/passive), has tense (determined by context), and has aspect.

However, it must be kept in mind that the participle in biblical Hebrew (and in other Semitic languages, like Arabic) is not a verb; the participle is not part of the verbal system.  Rather, the participle in biblical Hebrew is a noun.  

Arab grammarians make a distinction between verbs and participles.  Verbs, they explain, focus on the beginning of and the happening of an action.  Verbs are ideal for relating narratives; they focus on the action and move the story along. Participles mark the person or thing described by the verbal idea.  For example, in the video for Isaiah 53:5a, I translated the first participle “One Who was pierced.” While there is the verbal idea of “pierced” (from the root חלל), the participle designates the person, not the action. Gesenius-Kautzsch explain that passive participles (as found in Isaiah 53:5a) “indicate the person or thing in a state which has been brought about by external actions” (§116a).

The participle is very descriptive and is ideally suited to function as the announcement in nominal clauses, which are in themselves descriptive (see the video on nominal clauses under the Featured Topics on Syntax link). Furthermore, participles – due to their descriptiveness – can function as a certain adverbial accusative: the accusative of situation.  Only descriptive nouns like the participle or adjective can function as the accusative of situation (more on this accusative later), especially after the verb היה.

Many of our major English translations do not bring out the nuance of the Semitic participle; for example, in Isaiah 53:5 many participial clauses are translated like verbal clauses (see the Isaiah 53:5a video).  This is not a bad thing; the translation must make sense to its target audience.  But, it is important for students of biblical Hebrew to know that the participle in Hebrew does not necessarily function the same as in English, Greek, etc.  Knowing the proper function of the participle is one step in “getting the feel” for biblical Hebrew.

Resources:

  1. W. Wright, A Grammar of the Arabic Language, 2:194-95.
  2. Gesenius-Kautzsch, §116.
  3. Ewald, A Grammar of the Hebrew Language of the Old Testament, translated by John Nicholson, §16a.
  4. S. R. Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew, §135.

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