Teaching the Wayyiqtol through (a little) Storytelling

While at SBL this past November, I had a lovely coffee catch-up with Dr. Michelle Knight, Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. We covered a lot of ground in our conversation, but a good portion of it centered around, naturally, teaching Hebrew. (Yes, Hebrew professors actually enjoy these sorts of conversations; we love teaching Hebrew and talking about teaching Hebrew!) At one point during this part of our conversation, Michelle asked a fun question: What is my favorite thing to teach in first-year Hebrew? Aside from the obvious content in Semester 2 when I just get to read the Hebrew Bible with my first years (this year, we read through Jonah 1, 3–4 and 1 Samuel 1–3 and had a blast doing it!), my mind immediately went to the wayyiqtol. I was surprised by this at first, but then I remembered: I wrote a short narrative about the wayyiqtol for my students, and I always read it to them at the beginning of the lecture—and this is a lot of fun! So, I thought I would share it here.

First, a little bit of background. When I teach languages, I find that students understand better and are more motivated when given information. This may seem obvious, but how many language lecturers are there that respond to students’ questions about phonology, morphology, or grammar with, “That’s just the way it is” or “That’s the way the language works, so just learn it” when there are actual explanations available? Such an approach is unhelpful. Not only does it infantilize adult students, but it also neglects the fact that learning is aided by information that has explanatory power—it gives students frameworks and anchors by which to understand. So, given this, when I came to the wayyiqtol (or the “Consecutive Preterite” as Jo Ann Hackett, whose grammar I use, calls it) in the first semester, I was intent on providing my students with an historical framework by which to understand the relationship between the wayyiqtol, the jussive, and the yiqtol. Such a framework would help them distinguish between the forms and functions of the conjugations. It would also provide a clear path for comprehending why some wayyiqtol forms are shorter than their yiqtol counterparts (forms that come a little later in the semester and then again in second semester). So, I wrote my handout for the lecture, and it was … fine. The information was all there, but I was having trouble making it cohere in a concise and digestible way. I tried a few rewrites, but I was not happy with any of the results. Then, an idea popped into my head: What if I gave them the essential information by telling it in a story format? To this day, I do not know what possessed me and gave me this idea, but I am glad for whatever it was.

I ended up writing a short story (just over half a page) about the little (archaic) jussive verb form and his nearly identical (but larger) brother, the Prefix conjugation (yiqtol). The story hits the major beats of the historical development of the archaic jussive in Hebrew as it concerns the emergence of the Consecutive Preterite. The only significant difference between it and a typical description is, well, the verb forms have thoughts and feelings. The response to this from my students has been fantastic. First, they have loved the fact that I wrote a little story for them and that we have a bit of a story time during Hebrew class (complete with a very impassioned reading from me). There is always delighted laughter when I read it. (The danger here, of course, is that then the students want me to do this for every lecture!) Second, they have had no trouble understanding the form of the Consecutive Preterite (this was, of course, the primary purpose of writing the story). Lastly, the story has provided an easy anchor point for later lectures. When we get to the Hiphil Consecutive Preterite or the Consecutive Preterite of various weak verbs, I am able to ask, “Why does the Consecutive Preterite look different from the Prefix conjugation?” Students will answer, “Because of the little jussive form!” Or I ask, “Why is there a dagesh in the prefix?” Answer: “Because of Super Vav!” (Super Vav is the little jussive form’s best friend; she comes in at the end of the story.) It may be a bit unconventional (and the story is silly and not particularly well-written as short stories go; I do not have a future as a novelist), but it has proven to be effective at helping my students learn and understand a rather crucial piece of the language. That’s a win in my book.

I’ve included the first page of my handout, which contains the story, below. If it is helpful to others, wonderful! Or perhaps it will inspire other professors of Hebrew to craft some short stories themselves and then share with the rest of us (I would like to request a story on the Canaanite vowel shift and another on the phonological development of segholates, please).