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Bible Lexicons

Gesenius Hebrew Grammer

Part 133

§133. The Comparison of Adjectives. (Periphrastic Expression of the Comparative and Superlative.)
A. Wünsche, ‘Der Komparativ im Hebr. im Lichte der arab. Gramm.,’ in Vierteljahrsschrift für Bibelkunde, 1904, p. 398 ff.

1. Hebrew possesses no special forms either for the comparative or superlative of the adjective.[1] In order to express a comparative, the person or thing which is to be represented as excelled in some particular quality is attached to the attributive word by the preposition מִן־‎ (מִ‍·‎), e.g. 1 Samuel 9:2 גָּבֹהַּ מִכָּל־הָעָם‎ higher than any of the people. The fundamental idea evidently is, tall away from all the people (beyond all the people); cf. Judges 14:18 מַה־מָּתוֹק טִדְּבַשׁ וּמֶה עַז מֵֽאֲרִי‎ what is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion? Ezekiel 28:3, Amos 6:2 Frequently an infinitive appears as the object of the comparison, e.g. Genesis 29:19 it is better that I give her to thee, than that I should, give her, &c.; Exodus 14:12, Psalms 118:8f.[2]

Rem. 1. This use of מִן־‎ is also very common when the attributive idea is represented by an intransitive verb, e.g. 1 Samuel 10:23 וַיִּגְבַּהּ מִכָּל־הָעָם‎ and he was higher than any of the people; Nahum 3:8. Job 7:6. Elsewhere, especially after transitive verbs, מִן־‎ rather represents (on its different senses see §119vz) the idea of a separation, distinction or superiority of one person or thing from or over others.[3] This is evident in such cases as בָּחַר מִן־‎ to choose something (to prefer it) before something else, e.g. Job 7:15, cf. Deuteronomy 14:2 (also יִתְרוֹן... מִן־‎ the excellence of... over..., Ecclesiastes 2:13); it is also seen in examples like Genesis 37:3 וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת־יוֹסֵף מִכָּל־בָּנָיו‎ now Israel loved Joseph more than all his (other) children; 29:30, 1 Samuel 2:29, Hosea 6:6.[4]

2. A somewhat different idea underlies the use of מִן־‎ after adjectives, or intransitive verbs possessing an attributive sense, when the thought to be expressed is that the quality is too little or too much in force for the attainment of a particular aim or object, e.g. Isaiah 7:13 הַמְעַט מִכֶּם‎ is it a small thing (i.e. too little) for you to...? Job 15:11; after an intransitive verb, e.g. Genesis 32:11 I am too insignificant (קָטֹ֫נְתִּי‎) for all the mercies (I am not worthy of...), &c.; cf. also the expressions כָּבֵד מִן־‎ to be too heavy for one, Exodus 18:18, Numbers 11:14, Psalms 38:5; קָשָׁה מִן־‎ to be too hard for one, Deuteronomy 1:17; מָעַט מִן־‎ to be too few for something, Exodus 12:4; גָּבַר מִן־‎ to be too strong for one, Psalms 65:4; עָצַם מִן־‎ to be too mighty for one, Genesis 26:16; רוּם מִן־‎ to be too high for one, Psalms 61:3; צַר מִן־‎ to be too narrow for one, Isaiah 49:19; קָצַר מִן־‎ to be too short for something, Isaiah 50:2, and very frequently נִפְלָא מִן־‎ to be too wonderful for one (and, consequently, inconceivable or unattainable), Genesis 18:14, Deuteronomy 17:8, Deuteronomy 30:11, Jeremiah 37:17, Proverbs 30:18; in Psalms 139:6 פְּלִיאָה‎ in the same sense is followed by מִן‎.—This use is especially seen in the numerous instances in which the attribute is followed by מִן־‎ with an infinitive e.g. 1 Kings 8:64 the brazen altar... was קָטֹן מֵֽהָכִיל‎ too little to receive (to be able to receive) the burnt offering, cf. Genesis 4:13, Genesis 36:7 too great for them to dwell together; after verbs, e.g. Exodus 12:4, Isaiah 28:20, Psalms 40:6. Finally, cf. רַבּ לָכֶם מִן־‎, followed by the infinitive, it is enough (prop. too much) for you to..., meaning ye have... long enough, 1 Kings 12:28; cf. Exodus 9:28 and Ezekiel 44:6 (מִּן־‎ followed by a substantive).[5]

In all these instances מִן־‎ expresses either the removal of a thing from a person, or the severance of the person from some aim or object; cf. also the expression לֹֽא־יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל וגו׳‎ nothing will be unattainable for them (prop. there shall not be cut off from them anything which, &c.), (Genesis 11:6, Job 42:3.

3. The attributive idea, on which מִן־‎ logically depends, must sometimes, in consequence of a pregnant use of the מִן־‎ (see the analogous examples in §119ff), be supplied from the context, e.g. Isaiah 10:10 וּפְסִֽלֵיהֶם מִירֽוּשָׁלַ֫יִם‎ whose graven images were more numerous than those at Jerusalem, &c.;[6] Micah 7:4 worse than a thorn hedge; Psalms 62:10 lighter than a breath; Job 11:17 clearer than the noonday; Ecclesiastes 4:17 better than, &c. 2. The correlative comparatives greater—less (older—younger) are expressed by the simple adjective with the article (the great, equivalent to the greater, &c.); Genesis 1:16, Genesis 19:3134, Genesis 27:15, Genesis 29:161826.

3. To express the superlative it is also sufficient (see above, f) to make the adjective determinate, either by means of the article or a following partitive genitive (or suffix); in this case the article or genitive indicates that the attribute in question belongs especially to one or more definite individuals;[7] e.g. 1 Samuel 9:21 הַצְּעִרָה‎ the least; 16:11 הַקָּטָן‎ the little one, i.e. the youngest of eight sons; 17:14 David was הַקָּטָן‎ the youngest, and the three great, i.e. elder, &c.; Genesis 42:13, Genesis 44:2, Song of Solomon 1:8.—So also with a qualifying adjective, e.g. Genesis 9:24 בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן‎ his youngest son; cf. Joshua 14:15; also with a following genitive, 2 Chronicles 21:17 קְטֹן בָּנָיו‎ the youngest of his sons: Proverbs 30:24 the least upon the earth; with suffix, Micah 7:4 טוֹבָם‎ their good one, i.e. the best of them; Jan 3:5 מִגְּדוֹלָם וְעַד־קְטַנָּם‎ from the greatest of them even to the least of them; cf. the inverse order in Jeremiah 6:13, Jeremiah 31:34.

Rem. 1. The above examples apply only to the most common relative attributes (great, small, good), and to expressions which by usage easily came to be recognized as periphrases for the superlative. Other adjectives, however, when followed by a partitive genitive, also acquire the sense of a superlative; this appears from the context, e.g. Deuteronomy 33:19 the most hidden treasures of the sand; Judges 5:29 the wisest amongst her ladies; Isaiah 14:30, Isaiah 19:11, Isaiah 23:8 f., 29:19, Jeremiah 49:20, Ezekiel 28:7, Zechariah 11:7, Psalms 45:13, Job 30:6 (in the most horrible of valleys), 41:22; probably also Psalms 35:16. On this government by the adjective generally, cf. §132c.—Moreover, the combination of a substantive in the construct state with an adjective used substantivally (§128w) sometimes serves as a periphrasis for the superlative, e.g. Isaiah 22:24 כֹּל כְּלֵי הַקָּטָן‎ all the smallest vessels. On Song of Solomon 7:10 see §126x.

2. Other periphrases for the superlative are the use of a substantive in the construct state before the plural of the same word (which is naturally to be regarded as a partitive genitive; cf. our book of books), e.g. Exodus 26:33 קֹדֶשׁ הֲקָּדָשִׁים‎ the most holy place; שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים‎ (Song of Solomon 1:1) the most excellent song; cf. Genesis 9:25 (= servus servorum, the lowest servant); Numbers 3:32, Deuteronomy 10:17 (Psalms 136:2, 3)[8]; 1 Kings 8:27, Isaiah 34:10 (cf. Gal 1:5, Rev 22:5); Jeremiah 3:19, Ezekiel 16:7, Ezekiel 26:7 (king of kings, of Nebuchadrezzar; cf. 1 Tim 6:15, Rev 17:14, 19:16, and another kind of periphrasis in Psalms 95:3); Ecclesiastes 1:2. Similarly in Jeremiah 6:28 two participles are combined, and in Hosea 10:15 two substantives in the singular. Finally, the same object is attained by connecting one substantive in the construct state with another of the same stem (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן‎ a sabbath of solemn rest, i.e. an obligatory day of rest, Exodus 31:15, &c.) or of the same meaning (e.g. ח֫שֶׁךְ אֲפֵלָה‎ a thick darkness, Exodus 10:22).

3. The intensification of attributes by means of repetition belongs rather to rhetoric than to syntax, e.g. Ecclesiastes 7:24 עָמֹק עָמֹק‎ exceeding deep; 1 Samuel 2:3, Proverbs 20:14; the adjective is even used three times in Isaiah 6:3.—Cf. the repetition of adverbs for the same purpose in Genesis 7:19, Numbers 14:7 (מְאֹד מְאֹד‎ exceedingly, also בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד‎ Exodus 1:7, &c.); Ezekiel 42:15.—On the other hand, in Deuteronomy 28:43 the repetition expresses a continuous progress, higher and higher... lower and lower; in Deuteronomy 2:27 (see §123e) and 16:20 (nothing but justice) the constancy of the action. Cf. Exodus 23:30 מְעַט מְעַט‎ little by little, very gradually.[9]

The repetition of substantives serves also as a periphrasis for the superlative in such cases as לְדֹר דֹּר‎ (Exodus 3:15) = to the remotest generations; cf. 17:16, Jeremiah 6:14, Jeremiah 8:11 (perfect peace); Ezekiel 21:32 (עַוָּה‎ three times);[10] 35:7, Nahum 1:2; cf. also Hosea 2:21 f. and the emphatic combination of synonymous verbs in Isaiah 33:10. Sometimes the completeness of an action or state is expressed by placing together two or even three substantives of the same stem and of similar sound, cf. Isaiah 22:5, Ezekiel 6:14 (33:28 f., 35:3); 32:15, Nahum 2:11, Zephaniah 1:15 (Job 30:3, Job 38:27).

  1. There is in Arabic a special form of the adjective (the elative) for the comparative and superlative, which in Hebrew would have the form אַקְטָל‎. Instances of it, perhaps, are אַכְזָר‎ daring, cruel, אַכְזָב‎ deceptive (of a brook drying up), and its opposite אֵיתָן‎ (contracted from ʾaitan) constantly flowing, perennis. These forms are, however, used without any perceptible emphasis, and cannot be regarded as more than isolated relics of an elative formation which has become obsolete, much as the Latin comparative disappears in Italian, and still more so in French, and is supplanted by the circumlocution with più, plus.
  2. In Judges 11:25 the adjective is specially intensified by repetition, art thou so much better than Balak? It would also be possible, however, to translate art thou really better ...?
  3. Cf. the Latin ablative with the comparative; also the etymology of such words as eximius, egregius, and the Homeric ἐκ πάντων μάλιστα, Il. 4, 96; ἐκ πασρ́ων, 18, 431.
  4. On the other hand, the phrase צָדַק מִן־‎ expresses not a comparison, but only a relation existing between one person and another; thus, in Genesis 38:26 צָֽדְקָה מִמֶּ֫נִּי‎ means, she is in the right as against me; cf. Psalms 139:12, Job 4:17, Job 32:2.—In Proverbs 17:12 rather (to meet with so and so) than... is expressed by וְאַל־‎ before the second member.
  5. Cf. also 2 Kings 4:3, where the idea of doing something too little is paraphrased by the Hiph. הִמְעִיט‎ = do not too little, sc. לִשְׁאֹל‎ in borrowing empty vessels.
  6. With this comparatio decurtata, cf. the still bolder pregnant construction in Psalms 4:8, מֵעֵת‎ greater gladness than at the time, &c.
  7. Cf. also עֶלְיוֹן‎ the one above, i.e. the Most High.
  8. God of gods, and Lord of lords, just as the supreme god of the Babylonians is called bēl bēlī (Tiele, Compend. der Rel.-Gesch., p. 87).
  9. Adverbs of the same stem are connected in this way in Numbers 6:9, Isaiah 29:5, Isaiah 30:13; of different stems in Isaiah 5:26 and Joel 4:4. In Numbers 12:2 the particles רַק אַךְ‎ appear to be placed together for a similar purpose, equivalent to simply and solely.
  10. Different in kind from the triple utterance of the same words in 2 Samuel 18:33, Jeremiah 7:4 and 22:29, and the double exclamation in Jeremiah 4:19 and Lamentations 1:16 (?).
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