In my video on Ruth 1:12e we saw that לַיְלָה had the definite article. We translated הַלַּיְלָה as “tonight” or “this night.” In this post I wanted to briefly describe this particular use of the definite article.
The definite article in biblical Hebrew has two uses: Particular and Generic. The Particular use of the definite article is familiar to us. In this use the article singles out a person or thing from its larger class. For example, when your friend says “Give me the ball” your friend is referring to a specific ball to the exclusion of all other balls. The Particular use of the article is also used when a formerly unknown character is mentioned again in a story. For example, when Elimelech is first mentioned in Ruth 1:1 it is said, “And a man went.” When he is mentioned again in 1:2, it is said, “And the name of the man. . . .”
The definite article on לַיְלָה in Ruth 1:12e is another use of the Particular article. The Particular article is often used when a noun is present to a speaker or writer. For example, in Genesis 31:48 Laban calls upon “this heap” הַגַּל הַזֶּה as a witness between him and Jacob. The heap is mentioned by the author Moses in the verses leading up to 31:48; however, it is spoken of by Laban for the first time in 31:48. The article is used on “heap” in Laban’s reported direct speech because it is present to Jacob and Laban and is therefore known to Laban’s audience.
The Particular use of the definite article, therefore, lends well to present time: “this day” or “today” הַיּוֺם and “this night” or “tonight” הַלַּיְלָה. In her plea to her daughters-in-law, Naomi offers up the question, “If I said I had a husband this night. . .” Naomi is referring to the present time, the time in which she is speaking.
The Generic use of the definite article will be saved for another time. But, for the time being it is good to be aware that there are some nuances to the use of the definite article, as we see here in Ruth 1:12.
- Fuller, Invitation to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, §34c
- Gesenius, §126.