The "times" of Isaiah

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Sun Aug 15 14:20:13 EDT 1999

Dear Paul,

>It's interesting that you, not holding to the "traditional
>four-component model," are once again making a blanket statement about
>the large numbers of problematic forms.  Because you fail to give the
>details so we can check your methods and results, how is anyone supposed
>to respond?  This is especially necessary, because I see in the few
>specifics that you do give either an error in your methods or the forms
>working as the model predicts.

We cannot discuss hundreds of examples on b-hebrew. The statement was meant
as an admonition to those interested in Hebrew verbs not only to read
grammars, monographs or parts of the Hebrew text, such as narratives, but
to study the whole Hebrew corpus. I will publish my results in time.

>First, a methodological error:  You specifically classify KOH )FMFR
>YHWH as QATAL with present meaning.  You wrote:
>> 201 QATALs with present meaning (including 22% with the words "Thus
>says YHWH")

This is not a methodlogical error, but if it is an error, it is one of
judgement or interpretation. I will concentrate on the more importatnt
>How do you arrive at this "timing" determination?  Is it based only on
>the common English (and perhaps other European language) texts?  Is
>there really anything in the Hebrew text to prevent it from being
>translated, "Thus said YHWH"?  I was taught that the use of the present
>in cases results in a more vivid text, but that is an *English* rule.
>And, while this argument cannot be considered definitive, we have
>illustrations from other two-conjugation languages that use the
>past-time form in this type idiom.  For example, the Ibanag language of
>the Philippines would state the phrase as, "Yaw i kinagi ni Yahwe,"
>"This [is] the thing said by YHWH."  I see no problem in taking these
>QATALs as completed actions.  If your other counts use similar
>methodology, your reported data is extremely suspect.
>Next, while I am not completely sold on Peter's exegesis of Is 44:12-17,
>I do not see where the theory is at all surprised by what is found
>there.  Basically, we are looking at a passage that describes a
>"time-less" situation, rather than a description of a single actual
>occurrence in past, present, or future times.  So we would expect a
>language to handle that situation in manner dictated by the "rules" of
>that language, not the "rules" of another language.  Where is there a
>problem with the translation that follows? (I deliberately left it woode
>n, and I'm going to start a couple of verses earlier to give a context,
>although I actually see the discourse starting earlier and ending

I dispute that the passage describes a "time-less" situation. As will be
shown in my discussion of Isaiah 59 below, the principal background of
Isaiah's message and what he time and again showed his audience was: "You
are at present practising sin!" He gives many examples of such sins going
on at the time he spoke, including persons making idols. I have looked at
15 translations in four languages of 44:12-17, and no translation has past
tense. Are you aware of another translation beside your own that uses past

To help other list-members I put the Hebrew verb form in parantheses
and verse numbers.
>> Is 44:9-17
>> (9)Formers of idol--all of them [are] nothingness,
>>    and the treasured things of them will not help (Y),
>> And their witnesses--they will not see (Y) and they will not know (Y),
>>    such that they will be ashamed (Y).
>> (10) Who formed (Q) a god, and an idol he poured (Q)
>>    so as not to help?
>> (11) Behold, all his company will be ashamed (Y),
>>    and craftsmen--they [are] (NOM) out of man
>> May they assemble together (Y), all of them; may they stand (Y);
>>    may they tremble (Y); may they be ashamed all together (Y).
>> (12) The craftsman of iron, an adze,
>>    and he would work (WQ) with charcoal,
>> And with hammers he would fashion (Y) it,
>>    so he worked it (WY) with the power of his strength.
>> Also he was hungry (Q) and there was (NOM) no strength,
>>    he did not drink (Q) water, and he came to be tired (WY).
>> (13) The craftsman (Q) of wood stretched out (Q) a line
>>    [that] he might (Y) outline him in red chalk,
>> [that] he might make (Y) him with knives,
>>    and with a compass he might outline (Y) him.
>> And he made him (WY) as [the] shape of man,
>>    as [the] beauty of man for sitting quietly [in a] house.
>> (14) To cut for himself cedars,
>>    and he took (WY) conifer and oak,
>> And he strengthened (WY) for himself in the trees of the thicket,
>>    *he planted (Q) laurel* and rain made (Y) grow.
>> (15) And it would become (WQ) for a man for burning up,
>>    and he took (WY) from them and became warm (WQ),
>>    also he would kindle (Y) and would bake (WQ) bread,
>> Also he would make (Y) a god and he worshipped (WY) it;
>>    *he made (Q) it an idol* and he bowed down (WY) to it.
>> (16) Half he burned (Q) in a fire,
>>    upon half flesh he would (Y) eat,
>>    *he would roast (Y) roasted meat* and would be satisfied (WYY)
>> Also he would become warm (Y) and might say (WYY), "Aha,
>>    I was warmed (Q), I saw (Q) fire."
>> (17) And the remainder of it for a god he made (Q), for his idol
>>    [that] he might bow down (Y) to it and might worship (WYY)
>> And might pray (WYY) unto it and might say (WYY),
>>    "Deliver me, because my god [are] you."
>As far as I know, everything here except the clauses noted by * * in
>verses 14, 15, and 16 was handled in accordance with the theory as
>developed in prose.
>--In verse twelve, the weqatals and X-yiqtols (translated with the
>auxiliary "would") were handled as frequentatives or procedurals.  The
>use of this form is not really surprising, since that form basically
>transcends specific instances in historical literature, i.e., it is
>basically "time-less".
>--In verse thirteen, the yiqtols are treated as modals, giving the
>purpose for the stretching of the line.
>--In verse fifteen, the weqatals/X-yiqtols are again frequentative.
>--In verse sixteen, the weqatal/X-yiqtols are again frequentative.  I
>took the weyiqtol as modal.
>--In verse seventeen, I took the weyiqtols as modal.
>This leaves only three "surprises" out of the passage you put forward as
>being very troubling to the theory.  Hardly something to fall on one's
>sword over.  And even these three have a pattern to them that might
>demonstrate a "rule" that does not appear in prose.  In verses 14 and
>15, we see a clause-initial qatal starting a second strophe of a
>parallelism, a parallelism that is in the wayyiqtol/X-qatal structure.
>Similarly, in verse 16, it appears as if a clause initial yiqtol is
>playing the same type function in a weqatal/X-yiqtol structure.  (A
>modal just didn't make good sense here!)  So perhaps there *is* a rule
>that acts similarly to the clause initial qatals that mark direct
>historical narratives in direct discourses, allowing for clause initial
>qatals and yiqtols to be used at the start of second strophes of
>parallel forms.
>Conclusion, Rolf:  If this text is truly a good example of problematic
>forms as you have identified them, I don't see a real concern to the
>theory.  Oh, it was a good exercise, because it demonstrated where the
>common translations have missed some of the nuances, but the theory
>seemed to handle it fine.

I see several problems problems with your translation. The most important
one is the lack of collocation wit the rest of the book. A collegue of mine
who is a native speaker of English and a translater (into Norwegian) as
well, confirmed what I allways have been taught: Simple past used in
descriptions and accounts indicates (if the contrary is not clearly states)
that an act was terminated before speech-time. Your use of past tense with
the singular subject creates two problems: (1) It signals that a particular
person working in the past is meant. (2) It signals that his acts were
terminated in the past. I therefore find your translation ( choice of tense
and mood) unatural, and more important: It does not collocate with the
other messages of Isaiah: "You still live in your sins!" I look forward to
hear whether other translations use past tense.

How will you translate vv 18,19? Like this? (18) "They did not know (Q) and
would not discern (Y), because he had smeared (Q) their eyes from seeing
and their hearts from understanding. (19) and not one would (Y) return to
his heart and had (-) knowledge or understanding to say: "Half of it I
burned (Q) in the fire and also I baked (Q) bread on its coals; I would
roast (Y) flesh and and would eat (WYY) (it); and the rest of it I would
make (Y) into an abomination - to a product of a three should I bow down
I think that a translation of these two verses where RT coincides with C
will be natural here, and this also lends credence to a similar translation
of the verses 12-17.

You did not answer my question regarding the temporal meaning of the
different verb forms. So I repeat it in part: Are WAYYIQTOL and QATAL
grammaticalized past tenses? And what is the meaning of WEYIQTOL? You
translate them as past modals just as the YIQTOLs. Is the only difference
between WAYYIQTOL and WEYIQTOL modality? You cannot just appeal to
discourse analysis, but every translator ought to have a view of the range
of meaning of each verb form. It appears that "meaning of form" is much
more important for your translation of the verses in question than
discourse; for example, you translate both sentence initial and other
YIQTOLs as past modal. So please tell us your opinion regarding the meaning
of the forms.

I will then use another context as an example of Isaiah's viewpoint, namely
ch. 58,59. The message is:
"Show my people their trespasses and to the house of Jacob their sins!"
(Isaiah 58:1). The reason for this command was that their sins were not
terminated in the past but they still practised wrong deeds. Chapter 59 may
throw light on chapter 44 and I will point to 59: 1-15a. The C is the
speech time. Isaiah speaks to living people, and the point is that their
sins at speech-time separates them from God (v 2) Therefore, both ET and RT
must coincide with C (NB: ET and RT coincides with C both in English
present and present perfect.). In these verses we find 17 QATALs (one in v
2 as a compound), 1 WEQATAL, 16 YIQTOLs, 1 WEYIQTOL, and 1 WAYYIQTOL.

To claim that RT in these verse is before C, thus translating with past
tense, is possible linguistically, but not if we want to convey the message
to the readers: The people kept on sinning and that separated them from
God. And interesting comparison with chapter 44 is that most of the acts
described are not specific acts of one or more persons at a particular
time, but rather acts that characterized the people. The acts are not
gnomic or timeless, but some of the people were engaged in one or more of
them all the time. Similarly with the one making idols in chapter 44, the
situation was neither  gnomic nor timeless but someone did that all the

In my view, ET and RT of all the acts described in 44:12-19 coincides with
C. This means that we should translate with English present (or possibly in
some cases, with present perfect). I see no need for a modal interpretation
of any of the verbs.  The form YIQTOL is the normal expression for  present
time, and this accounts for all YIQTOLs and WEYIQTOLs. Any grammar tells
that QATAL is used with present meaning as well (though few admit that this
is widespread), so the QATALs and the WEQATALs are not problematic. What is
problematic is the 9 WAYYIQTOLs, especially that they occur in a context
with 5 WEYIQTOLs.

I believe that the Masoretes were extremely careful to point the text
according to what they heard in the synagogue. If the WAYY-element in
WAYYIQTOL signals another semantic meaning than the WE-element in WEYIQTOL,
we would not expect a discrepancy in 10% of the occurrences. A
two-component model where tense is nonexistent, where all YIQTOLs with and
without WAW/WAYY are imperfective,where all QATALs with and without WAW are
perfective, and where all participles used as verbs are not viewed as
aspects, but rather as verbal nouns/adjectives where beginning and end is
not important, accounts for all the "anomalous" verbs of Isaiah.


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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