Deut. 4:26: Pointing and canonical authority

Reginald Wallace Ponder, Jr. rwponder at
Mon Oct 2 09:29:55 EDT 2000

Dear Peter,
Dear Peter,
    Again, many thanks both to you and to Ben for your responses to my
query about Deut. 4:26.

I have marked our respective statements by the appropriate initials:

> PK:  I agree with you that the work of the Masoretes is "post-canonical". But
> that does not make the pronunciation which their works witnesses to
> "post-canonical". You seem to be taking their work as invention rather than
> writing down what they heard, if I don't misunderstand you. The
> pronunciation is rather the product of that canonical process, if that is
> the right way to put it, though it may have been corrupted in transmission.

  RWP:  "Corrupted in transmission" is exactly the point.  Of course, you
could point out that the same possibility exists with regard to the
consonantal text -- hence the whole discipline of textual criticism -- but
I think there is a difference between the transmission of *written*
consonants and the transmission of *spoken* vowels. I suppose it would be
accurate to say that there *is* canonical authority invested in the
*correct* vocalization of the text, but the Masoretic vowel points are not
necessarily identical with the correct vocalization.  Since the Masoretes
were closer to the original text than I am, and since they seem to have
been both intelligent and faithful people, I use their pointing unless it
seems to completely undermine the sense/syntax of a passage.

> PK:  I haven't looked at the specific verse in detail. But it seems that the MT
> we have is apparently a grammatical error. It is most unlikely that a
> process of oral transmission, by those who understand the text, would have
> resulted in a form perceived as a grammatical error. It is far more likely
> that such an error would be assimilated to the expected form. I would
> suggest that the form found in Deut. is actually the original one, which has
> been correctly preserved, and the grammar only appears anomalous because of
> our limited knowledge, and perhaps because other similar occurrences have
> been assimilated. Perhaps at an earlier stage the infinitive construct could
> be used instead of the infinitive absolute, with the same meaning or a
> subtle distinction. So don't emend the text too quickly even here.
> RWP:  You, Ben, and I all seem agreed that the most likely reading of the phrase in question (shin-mem-daleth pointed as niphal infinitive construct/niphal imperative, followed by the same verb in niphal yiqtol)is with the emphatic force of the infinitive absolute.  This works in context, plus it has the support of the LXX, as Ben noted, and also is the preference of more recent translators.  In this case, whether we re-point the word as an infinitive absolute, or keep the infinitive construct pointing while reading the emphatic force of the infinitive absolute, the actual meaning of the text is not affected.
     I believe that when the sense/grammar of a verse strongly suggests an
alternate pointing, then we should be open to the possibility that the
Masoretes either (a) heard wrong or (b) were working with a pronunciation
tradition that had been altered slightly over the centuries.
     I know from the conservatism character of modern liturgies that
liturguical tradition (and I think the Masoretes are dealing basically
with a liturgical tradition in the Synangogue)tends to be guarded
zealously from generation to generation.  Yet over the centuries slight
changes do occur in most instances.  This may be part of the
"transmission" issue that you acknowledge, but I just want to be clear
that both oral and written transmission are subject to human error.
     Again, in practice I do not propose an alternate pointing without a
reason to suspect some kind of error (transmission?) in the Masoretic
vocalization.  But I cannot rule out possible emendations of the pointing
or even, in rare instances, of the consonants.
     The heavy-handed imaginative re-construal of entire lines should
probably not even be called "emendation," but that is another matter.

One other thing: I still can't rule out the possibility that our
"infinitive construct" is an imperative.  These forms share the same
pointing in the niphal.  As I mentioned in my very first post on this
topic, reading the form as an imperative requires an unusual approach to
the syntax of the sentence.  Against this notion is the lack of other
examples (that I have yet found -- I'm still looking) of the same kind of
construction, something of a "double imperative."  But the character of
the Deuteronomy passage as direct address could explain its occurence
here, and could explain the syntax.  At least, there is a likelihood of
finding imperatives in this passage -- it already is full of them. 
Imperative is a characteristic form in Deuteronomy. I'll keep working on
Rev. Reggie Ponder, Jr.
Mt. Tirzah United Methodist Church
Timberlake, NC USA 

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