Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar/133. The Comparison of Adjectives. (Periphrastic Expression of the Comparative and Superlative)

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§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.

133a 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 S 92 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. Ju 1418 מַה־מָּתוֹק טִדְּבַשׁ וּמֶה עַז מֵֽאֲרִי what is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion? Ez 283, Am 62 Frequently an infinitive appears as the object of the comparison, e.g. Gn 2919 it is better that I give her to thee, than that I should, give her, &c.; Ex 1412, ψ1188f.[2]

133b Rem. 1. This use of מִן־ is also very common when the attributive idea is represented by an intransitive verb, e.g. 1 S 1023 וַיִּגְבַּהּ מִכָּל־הָעָם and he was higher than any of the people; Na 38. Jb 76. 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. Jb 715, cf. Dt 142 (also יִתְרוֹן... מִן־ the excellence of... over..., Ec 213); it is also seen in examples like Gn 373 וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת־יוֹסֵף מִכָּל־בָּנָיו now Israel loved Joseph more than all his (other) children; 29:30, 1 S 229, Ho 66.[4]

133c 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. Is 713 הַמְעַט מִכֶּם is it a small thing (i.e. too little) for you to...? Jb 1511; after an intransitive verb, e.g. Gn 3211 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, Ex 1818, Nu 1114, ψ385; קָשָׁה מִן־ to be too hard for one, Dt 117; מָעַט מִן־ to be too few for something, Ex 124; גָּבַר מִן־ to be too strong for one, ψ654; עָצַם מִן־ to be too mighty for one, Gn 2616; רוּם מִן־ to be too high for one, ψ613; צַר מִן־ to be too narrow for one, Is 4919; קָצַר מִן־ to be too short for something, Is 502, and very frequently נִפְלָא מִן־ to be too wonderful for one (and, consequently, inconceivable or unattainable), Gn 1814, Dt 178, 3011, Jer 3717, Pr 3018; in ψ1396 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 K 864 the brazen altar... was קָטֹן מֵֽהָכִיל too little to receive (to be able to receive) the burnt offering, cf. Gn 413, 367 too great for them to dwell together; after verbs, e.g. Ex 124, Is 2820, ψ406. Finally, cf. רַבּ לָכֶם מִן־, followed by the infinitive, it is enough (prop. too much) for you to..., meaning ye have... long enough, 1 K 1228; cf. Ex 928 and Ez 446 (מִּן־ followed by a substantive).[5]

133d 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.), (Gn 116, Jb 423.

133e 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. Is 1010 וּפְסִֽלֵיהֶם מִירֽוּשָׁלַ֫יִם whose graven images were more numerous than those at Jerusalem, &c.;[6] Mi 74 worse than a thorn hedge; ψ6210 lighter than a breath; Jb 1117 clearer than the noonday; Ec 417 better than, &c. 133f 2. The correlative comparatives greater—less (older—younger) are expressed by the simple adjective with the article (the great, equivalent to the greater, &c.); Gn 116, 1931,34, 2715, 2916,18,26.

133g 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 S 921 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.; Gn 4213, 442, Ct 18.—So also with a qualifying adjective, e.g. Gn 924 בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן his youngest son; cf. Jos 1415; also with a following genitive, 2 Ch 2117 קְטֹן בָּנָיו the youngest of his sons: Pr 3024 the least upon the earth; with suffix, Mi 74 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 Jer 613, 3134.

133h 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. Dt 3319 the most hidden treasures of the sand; Ju 529 the wisest amongst her ladies; Is 1430, 1911, 238 f., 29:19, Jer 4920, Ez 287, Zc 117, ψ4513, Jb 306 (in the most horrible of valleys), 41:22; probably also ψ3516. 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. Is 2224 כֹּל כְּלֵי הַקָּטָן all the smallest vessels. On Ct 710 see §126x.

133i 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. Ex 2633 קֹדֶשׁ הֲקָּדָשִׁים the most holy place; שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים (Ct 11) the most excellent song; cf. Gn 925 (= servus servorum, the lowest servant); Nu 332, Dt 1017 (ψ1362, 3)[8]; 1 K 827, Is 3410 (cf. Gal 1:5, Rev 22:5); Jer 319, Ez 167, 267 (king of kings, of Nebuchadrezzar; cf. 1 Tim 6:15, Rev 17:14, 19:16, and another kind of periphrasis in ψ953); Ec 12. Similarly in Jer 628 two participles are combined, and in Ho 1015 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, Ex 3115, &c.) or of the same meaning (e.g. ח֫שֶׁךְ אֲפֵלָה a thick darkness, Ex 1022).

133k 3. The intensification of attributes by means of repetition belongs rather to rhetoric than to syntax, e.g. Ec 724 עָמֹק עָמֹק exceeding deep; 1 S 23, Pr 2014; the adjective is even used three times in Is 63.—Cf. the repetition of adverbs for the same purpose in Gn 719, Nu 147 (מְאֹד מְאֹד exceedingly, also בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד Ex 17, &c.); Ez 4215.—On the other hand, in Dt 2843 the repetition expresses a continuous progress, higher and higher... lower and lower; in Dt 227 (see §123e) and 16:20 (nothing but justice) the constancy of the action. Cf. Ex 2330 מְעַט מְעַט little by little, very gradually.[9]

133l The repetition of substantives serves also as a periphrasis for the superlative in such cases as לְדֹר דֹּר (Ex 315) = to the remotest generations; cf. 17:16, Jer 614, 811 (perfect peace); Ez 2132 (עַוָּה three times);[10] 35:7, Na 12; cf. also Ho 221 f. and the emphatic combination of synonymous verbs in Is 3310. 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. Is 225, Ez 614 (33:28 f., 35:3); 32:15, Na 211, Zp 115 (Jb 303, 3827).

  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 Ju 1125 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 Gn 3826 צָֽדְקָה מִמֶּ֫נִּי means, she is in the right as against me; cf. ψ13912, Jb 417, 322.—In Pr 1712 rather (to meet with so and so) than... is expressed by וְאַל־ before the second member.
  5. Cf. also 2 K 43, 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 ψ48, 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 Nu 69, Is 295, 3013; of different stems in Is 526 and Jo 44. In Nu 122 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 S 1833, Jer 74 and 22:29, and the double exclamation in Jer 419 and La 116 (?).