Book Reviews

Book Review: Basics of Hebrew Discourse (Patton/Putnam)

I’ve reviewed a few commentaries in the fantastic Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament (ZECOT) series. This series focuses on understanding the Hebrew test through discourse analysis. It’s a series that focuses on the individual clauses of a biblical text and how, building upon each other, they create the biblical author’s larger argument. But what is discourse analysis? In the preface to Basics of Hebrew Discourse, Miles Van Pelt, who has worked on other Hebrew/Aramaic works in the Basics series, writes, “Discourse analysis is… 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” (11–12).

Discourse analysis is a relatively new field of study, and many professionals come at it from different backgrounds and frameworks. This leads to them using different terminology, names, and labels to describe various features. The aim in this book isn’t to dive into that discussion (see Noonan’s new book for a survey of those discussions). Instead, it was “designed to help students of the Hebrew Bible engage the text in a way that allows the text itself to set the agenda” (12–13).

The book is laid out in two parts. Part 1 works with Biblical Hebrew prose narrative, Part two with Biblical Hebrew poetry.

In chapter 1, Matthew Pattonpastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church—introduces how DA is vital for understanding Hebrew by looking at Genesis 11:4 and an exegetical debate with Deuteronomy 30:1–6. After a brief survey of scholarship, in chapter 2 Patton shows the different discourse relationships (summary, expansion, inference, reason, purpose, etc.) by using the English biblical text (before jumping into the Hebrew language).

Chapters 3–6 bring out the tools you will need to understand to interpret the Hebrew text: discourse markers (chapter 3), and verbal sequences in narratives (chapter 4) and in non-narratives (chapter 5). He shows how to see and how understand asyndeton, when there is a new unit, shifts in time, an expansion on the material (“and what’s more”), and more.

Chapter 6 looks at proposing (a specific kind of word ordering) and verbless clauses. Chapter 7 takes the information from chapters 3–6 and shows how to use that knowledge to understand Hebrew. Patton advises to separate the text by clauses, analyze each clause, and conclude how that clause relates to the previous clause. Be willing to revise your understanding of how each clause is connected as you understand the bigger picture (or discourse).

Chapter 8 looks at examples of discourse analysis. Patton breaks down a text in a table and provides the Hebrew text, the connecting discourse marker, the discourse analysis, and the translation. Underneath the table Patton gives a few remarks on important aspects of the text. Chapter 9 gives a summary chart of the previous chapters.

In Part two, Frederic Putnamassociate professor of Bible & liberal studies at The Templeton Honors College at Eastern University—introduces you to how you should think about poetry. We need to learn how to appreciate the details of poetry and the poet’s language, why he used the words and alliteration he did, the relationships between the lines, the length and syntax of the lines (154). Putnam writes, “Word choice and the morphosyntactic choices that create continuity and discontinuity are mutually reinforcing and interdependent; together they shape the poem. Seeing them, making them visible, is the goal of discourse analysis” (156, emphasis mine).

After his introduction in chapter one, Putnam covers glossing and parsing the poem (chapter two), poetic lines and structure (chapter three), verbal forms (chapter four), types of clauses (chapter five), syntax (chapter 6), semantic cohesion (chapter 7), and logical cohesion (chapter 8). Chapter 9 gives the conclusion and chapter 10 provides a few more examples of discourse analysis with Hebrew poetry. Putnam ends with two appendices, the first on how there is no meter in Hebrew poetry, and the second on glosses, meaning, and translation.

Putnam works through various psalms in each chapter, a few sections of Proverbs in a few chapters, and Ecclesiastes in one chapter. His chapters are full of tables to help you visualize what is going on and to give an example of how you could do the same work. These are good chapters with plenty of examples, which is necessary for the poetic books. They simply are not easy to read in Hebrew!


This is a fantastic resource for all Hebrew readers who are beginning to work with discourse analysis. Discourse analysis “compels us to be attentive, offering us tools to see what is there in the texts that the poets composed by viewing the text from different standpoints” (262). As Putnam notes, these tools “will not tell us how we should teach or preach or explain” the text. They will not write our sermons or lessons for us. That is not what discourse analysis does. But it helps “us see how the poet used his or her linguistic resources and encourages us to think through what the poem says and how it expresses it” (263). Inductive bible Study methods teach you to slow down, read closely, focus on words and themes. This book will give you the necessary tools to slow down and be attentive of the original text. Highly recommended.


    • Authors: Matthew Patton & Frederic Putnam
    • Paperback: 288 pages
    • Publisher: Zondervan Academic (November 26, 2019)

Buy it on Amazon or from Zondervan Academic

Disclosure: I received this book free from Zondervan Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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