Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni
Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).
In Genesis 49:22 we find the expression בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה which is problematic in that the subject is feminine plural, while the verb is feminine singular.
A majority of the English versions read, with small variations, “[Joseph is a fruitful bough,] his branches run [over the wall.]” We are interested here in the פשט meaning, not its דרש such as Rashi’s – “Young ladies: Each one of them stepped on the wall to admire his beauty” — nor with alternate versions, such as the JPS translation, presenting wild asses instead of branches. In any case, the mismatch in the Hebrew between subject and verb still exists.
A solution to this apparent problem can be found if we compare with Arabic grammar. Medieval grammarians such as Saadiah Gaon and Ibn Janah used Arabic to explain Biblical Hebrew.* Possibly, even words with the Arabic definite article are found in the Bible, e.g., אֶלְגָּבִיש, אַלְמֹג, אַלְקוּם.**
With this background, we recall that, in the Arabic syntax, a non-human subject in the plural is followed by a verb in the 3rd person, feminine, singular. (Following a human plural subject, a verb obeys normal rules: same as to person, gender, and plural.)
This, then, explains why (the non-human subject) “branches,” בָּנוֹת , is followed by the feminine singular verb צָעֲדָה. If we translate בָּנוֹת as “young ladies”, a human subject, we are not only back to the mismatch of subject/verb, but we also lose the symmetry of the two halves of the verse: “A fruitful bough upon the water <---> His branches run over the wall” a symmetry so common (and so beautiful!) in Biblical poetry.
* See Prof. Steven E. Fassberg, Review of “The Use of Arabic in Biblical Hebrew Lexicography” in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 89, No. 1/2, Jul. – Oct., 1998, pp. 191-193.
** A personal note from Prof. Steven Fassberg, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.