Verbs in Biblical Hebrew (Really)

Dead Sea Scolls

Shrine of the Book, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

There are probably few issues in the church that are less urgent, than how to translate verbs, but the question of how to translate Biblical Hebrew verbs did come up in a recent Bible Study, so here are a few comments.

Biblical Hebrew, unlike Modern Hebrew or English, does not have what we might consider to be a proper tense structure. A tense structure means that the form of a verb  corresponds to the time when the action took place. Thus, in English the verb to go has an irregular form, but I will go refers to a future action, I go and I am going refers to action in the present, I went to the past, and I have gone to the completed past.

In Biblical Hebrew it is different. As the venerable Gesenius Kautzsch Cowley puts it:

While the Hebrew verb, owing to these derivative forms or conjugations, posesses a certain richness  and copiousness, it is, on the other hand, poor in the matter of tenses and moods. The verb has only two tense-forms (Perfect and Imperfect . . .) [1]

These two basic verb forms  perform a variety of functions. The imperfect verb form can express present, future, and in poetry, the past. The perfect verb form expresses past perfect, but could also denote present and future. If this sounds confusing, it is because it is non-intuitive for people who only speak English. It also does not help that the grammatical terms perfect, imperfect, future and so forth developed in relation mainly to Latin, was subsequently applied to other languages like French and English, but they do not transfer well to Semitic languages like Hebrew. Indeed, some modern scholars prefer to abandon such terminology and instead use yqtl to denote the imperfect, qtl for the perfect, and wyyqtl and wyqtl for the verb forms in prose narrative formed by the combination with the letter ו, pronounced waw or vav. [2], verb forms that don’t correspond to anything in Latin, English, and French.

It is hard to discuss translation issues without getting really technical. Anyone reading this blog is undoubtedly fluent in English or some other language, but unless one is a linguist or a grammarian one is probably utterly unconscious about the parts of their language. Can you remember what the difference between aorist and perfect is, or jussive and imperfect? Can you describe how tense, aspect, and mood work in English? There ya go, eh? You think you know it, and then you get tangled up.

The basic point to be made is that verbs have forms, both regular and irregular, and those forms relate more or less to how the verb is used and its meaning. Confusion arises when we refer to these verbs as, say, an imperfect in form, but the function of the imperfect in the language being discussed is different from what we expect in English or some other language we have studied. A good, concise but technical discussion on verbs in Biblical Hebrew may be found at may be found at Berith Road  (although I must confess my head hurt a bit after reading it).

Most of the time the translation is pretty straight forward, especially if it is prose. Thus, the peculiarity of Biblical Hebrew not having a proper tense structure is not that problematic – context determines what tense one would translate a verb into English.  The authors of the Hebrew scriptures were not dislocated from time because of their language, they just expressed it in a different way (as opposed to a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). That said, there are some cultural differences that are expressed idiomatically – for English speaking people the past is behind us and the future before us, whereas for Biblical Hebrew authors the future is not seen, and so our backs are turned to it and it is behind us, and it is the past is in front of us. But these are not grammatical differences, but just idioms and concepts.

Where Biblical Hebrew verbs get interesting is that fact that sometimes the context is not as determinative as one might expect – the meaning is a bit ambiguous, at least at first glance. Now, ambiguity is part and parcel of Biblical Hebrew. It has a far smaller vocabulary than English, and so a word may be capable of being translated into two or more different English words. Ruach, for example, can be wind, breath, and spirit; nefesh can mean throat or soul.  The imagery used in Biblical Hebrew tends to be concrete and not abstract, but English allows for shades of meaning that run the spectrum of from the tangible to the non-physical. This is not an issue for the original author, but it is an issue for us, because we sense a huge difference between our very material throat, and our immortal soul. The best choice in an English translation would to use a similarly ambiguous word, but we often don’t get to do that.

So, is there also ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible tense forms? One might think so, because in Biblical Hebrew poetry some of the markers for tense drop out – the variations on imperfect and imperfect in prose narrative, or wyyqtl and wyqtl, are not always present in poetry.

Dr. Andrew Bowling in an article in 2007 [3] argued that this ambiguity is reduced if one recognises that there are four different ways Biblical Hebrew presents speech, and that the verb forms are subordinate to the type of speech; Bowling calls these “macrotypes”. One of the macrotypes is what one finds in wisdom literature such as the Book of Proverbs, what he calls “general/gnomic”. [4] He points out in some passages in Isaiah that while the verb forms are different and contrasting – qtl/perfect and yqtl/imperfect – they are actually exact parallels and should be translated into English with the same tense; “there is no discernible difference in meaning.” Thus, one should not see the verb forms as necessarily prescribing a tense, but that one must see them in the larger context, partly by determining what macrotype of speech is being used.

If you find this all rather confusing, let me leave you with a couple of thoughts. The first is that we are indebted to scholars to making sense of these texts, and there are issues in translation that most of us aren’t even aware of, much less capable of struggling through. Thank God that these translators have done this work, and continue to plug away at it.

The second thought is that most translations are reasonably trustworthy (when they are real translations, like the NIV, NRSV, KJV, the Jerusalem Bible, or the NREB, and not paraphrases like Eugene Peterson’s The Message or The Living Bible, which are suitable for private devotion but not for use in worship or serious Bible Study). That said, there is no such thing as a final or ultimate translation – there is nothing like dealing with the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible. The Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin was once asked how he would translate a text from the Talmud, and he said that he wouldn’t – he’d provide a paragraph in the original and then append twenty pages of notes discussing its meaning. That could be said of most Biblical texts as well, which is why commentaries on a short book of the Bible can run hundreds of pages. The “plain meaning” of a passage is never all that plain.

1. Gesenius, Kautzsch Cowley is THE grammar book for Biblical Hebrew. Wilhelm Gesenius (1786 – 1842), Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the University of Halle in eastern Germany, published his Hebräische Grammatik in 1813. The book went through many editions and Emil Friedrich Kautzsch (1841 – 1910), Professor at Leipzig, Basel, Tübingen, and Halle was responsible for the 22nd through 28th editions. It was translated into English in 1909 by Sir Arthur Cowley (1861-1931), a Semitic scholar and the head of the library system at the University of Oxford. It was revised in 1910 and corrected in subsequent printings. My copy from 1985 is the eighteenth printing,and despite its age and the fact that scholarship has advanced, it remains a standard reference for most English-speaking students of the Old Testament. The quotation is from Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar as edited and enlarged by the Late E. Kautzsch, 2nd English Edition, translated by A. E. Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), p. 117.

2. The Hebrew letter ו is pronouned in Modern Hebrew as “vav” or “vau”, but English speaking scholars of Hebrew will pronounce it at “waw” or “wow”. In text it normally  functions as the word “and”, but when before a verb it acts as a marker of the meaning and actually inverts the sense. As wikipedia points out,

it indicates consequence of actions and reverses the tense of the verb following it: * when placed in front of a verb in the imperfect tense, it changes the verb to the perfect tense. For example, yomar means ‘he will say’ and vayomar means ‘he said’; * when placed in front of a verb in the perfect, it changes the verb to the imperfect tense. For example, ahavtah means ‘you loved’, and ve’ahavtah means ‘you will love’.

This is called “waw-consecutive” and is critical to understanding the sense of the verb. Older translations systematically translated the verb forms as if they corresponded to Indo-European language tenses, and the waw was always translated as “and”, leading to the certain stylistic monotony of “And Moses did this, and Pharaoh did that, and the Hebrews did another thing, and, and, and . . .” Contemporary translations avoid this.

3. Andrew Bowling, “The General/Gnomic Usage of Hebrew Morphologies in the Book of Isaiah” GIALens (published online by Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, Dallas TX) (2007):2

4. Not a reference to short characters in The Hobbit or a Dungeons and Dragons game, but a grammatical feature (which may refer to aspect, mood, and/or tense) that expresses general truths or aphorisms. Some languages have disctinctive forms to express this, but most don’t. More about this obscure bit of grammar as it functions in English can be found at Gnomic Present.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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