Waw consecutive in Gen 1

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Sun Dec 5 05:32:40 EST 1999

>Brian Sullivan  wrote:

>Greetings fellow Students of Hebrew,
>Am only a recent member of b-hebrew and hope I am not rehashing a topic
>regularly discussed.
>I have recently read from J W Watts 'A Distinctive Translation of
>Genesis'and was interested to observe that in the Genesis 1 account the
>translator  does not follow the principle of waw consecutive (translating
>the phrase in the perfect)but uses the imperfect state eg "'Let their be
>light' and gradually light came into existance."(V. 3)
>Does waw-consecutive hold true in all cases? If not, what are the parameter
>influencing translation? It was pointed out to me that O. L. Barnes
>(1965)stated that translation of the imperfect "has been needelessly
>complicated by slavish adherance" to the waw consecutive principle.
>I would like to more clearly understand the parameters in correct
>translation of the waw consecutive in Gen 1 and ask if any one has any
>views on whether translating the this chapter in the imperfect impacts on
>the traditional understanding of this passage>

Dear Brian,

Some comments of Randall and Peter to your question should not remain
unchallenged.  I have observed the following basic problem in the teaching
of biblical Hebrew to students:  The professors have strong opinions
regarding the meaning of Hebrew verbs and these opinions are taught and not
argued; and alternative views usually are not mentioned.  The students
neither want nor have the time to investigate the matter, so they just
inherit the tradition, and forms in the text that do not fit this tradition
are explained away on the basis of the authority of the teacher. When these
students become professors, they repeat the same procedure, and their
students now become the victims, being taught traditional views that have
not been critically examined by the teachers.  Illustrative of this
situation is the fact that no study of Hebrew verbs has in a systematic way
differentiated between past tense and past time, but it is taken for
granted that past meaning *is* past tense.

Randal Buth wrote:

>any responsible university or graduate school would advise beginning
>students that mr. barnes is generally relegated within the 'crank'
>literature and is not considered a Hebrew scholar. that doesn't mean a
>person can't read or interact with the material and views, but beginning
>students should be forwarned.

Beginning students should of course be taught the traditional view of
Hebrew verbs, but at the same time they should be aware of alternative
views, and they should be taught how to work on their own with an open
mind. Any work should be valued in its own right, and I disagree that there
is something that should be called "'crank' literature"; ad hominem
arguments should always be avoided. The University of Oslo, for instance,
is "a responsible university". The students are taught the traditional view
of Hebrew verbs, but at the same time they learn that this view has great
problems. They are taught that they should never view anybody with a view
differing from our own as being a crank, but rather investigate his or her
work. Barnes is mentioned by Waltke-O'Connor as one with a view similar to
Leslie McFall, who is favorably viewed by most researchers.

Peter Kirk wrote:

>If Watts consistently translates waw consecutive as "such-and-such
>gradually happened", his translation of Genesis must certainly be
>distinctive, not to say strange, not to say totally unjustified.

>Look for example at this version of Genesis 5:3-5: "Adam was gradually
>130 years old, and he gradually had a son in his own likeness, and he
>gradually named him Seth. After Seth was born the days of Adam were
>gradually 800 years, and he gradually had other sons and daughters.
>And all the days of Adam were gradually 930 years, and he gradually
>died." And so on all through the chapter. Does Watts translate like
>that? Should he have done?

>And if the waw consecutive doesn't mean "gradually happened"
>everywhere, why does it in Genesis 1?

Peter argues as usual on the basis of the text, yet his argument is not
devastating for Watts (Peter has evidently not read Watts).  The nature of
a translation depends on the target group. For the general reader I  find
the usual "and there was light"/"and there came to be light" in Gen 1:3 as
fitting. However, the purpose of Watts is to convey the finer details of
the text and help the reader get the force of the different aspects of
Hebrew (as he understood these aspects).  From this point of view we cannot
say that his translation is "totally unjustified", to the contrary: given
his premises, his translation is very fine.  In Watt's eyes imperfect
consecutive could express different nuances, not only that something
gradually happened (he rejected the traditional view of imperfect

In Gen 5:3 the verb expresses a state, which by definition is something
holding without any input of energy. Such situations are durative by
definition, and we need not use different tools to to express its
durativity. In English we need not say "Peter was loving Mary",. we just
say "Peter loved Mary".  Gen 5:3, therefore, has no bearing on the
translation of Gen 1:3 by Watts, because the verb in this verse can be
viewed as fientive.

An historical discussion of the immense problems of the traditional view of
imperfect consecutive is found in Leslie McFall, 1982, "The Enigma of the
Hebrew Verbal system", sheffield: The Almond Press. I recommend this book.



Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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