Although the Hebrew article is frequently used in a manner that is similar to the English definite article, there are certain contexts where this parallel breaks down. One such case when the Hebrew definite may correspond to an English indefinite is summarized by Waltke and O'Connor:1
The article may also mark nouns definite in the imagination, designating either a particular person or thing necessarily understood to be present or vividly portraying someone or something whose identity is not otherwise indicated.
Other examples provided include (formatting mine):
- Gen 42:23: hammēlı̂ṣ bênōtām = An interpreter was between them.
- Gen 18:7: wayyitēn ʾel-hannaʿar = He gave (it) to a servant.
- Gen 14:13: wayyābōʾ happālı̂t = One who had escaped came.
- 2 Sam 5:13: wayyābōʾ hammagîd = A messenger came.
In each case, the referent has not been previously mentioned so is best expressed using an indefinite construction in English. In Hebrew, the article is present because, within the context of the story, the person or thing can be pointed to, a feature that probably points back to the article's historically demonstrative function.2
James Barr offers an enlightening parallel from colloquial English to this use of the article in story telling, using the English demonstrative this:3
"I was just walking through the woods, and this dog jumped out at me."
"What do you mean by 'this dog'? You haven't mentioned any dog."
"Well, obviously, the dog I'm going to tell you about, the dog in my story."
Similarly in Exodus 3:2, although the bush is not yet known to the reader, it is particular (definite) in the mind of the narrator. The use of the article to introduce such 'novel narrative elements' (p. 333) is a technique of story telling that elevates the vividness of the scene.
1. Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990), 243-244. See also the footnote 9 on p. 243 regarding the tolerance, in informal English narrative style, of "situationally understood definite articles", which I think corresponds to Barr's example.
2. Paul Joüon and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Pontificio istituto biblico, 2006), 475.
3. James Barr. 'Determination' and the Definite Article in Biblical Hebrew. Journal of Semitic Studies, XXXIV/2, 1989, p. 312. Barr also expands on the many categories of Biblical use of the definite article that deviate from English usage patterns. His thesis, in part, is that the Hebrew definite article is "not strictly, but only loosely and generally, related to [the logical category of] determination".