Jer 15:6-9

Rolf Furuli furuli at
Thu Sep 16 10:35:17 EDT 1999

Peter Kirk wrote:

>Dear Rolf,
>Please can you specify the "clues" that this passage is future and not
>past. Do you have any good reason, apart from any theories of the
>meaning of verb forms, to reject the translation of RSV which takes
>this passage as past? I would agree that the sudden transition to
>future in verse 9 is awkward, but then there is a sudden change in
>Hebrew verb form from QATAL (via WEQATAL) to YIQTOL (which you have
>failed to count). Presumably this awkwardness (and perhaps
>harmonisation with the wider context in separate "oracles" e.g.
>vv.3-4, a rather dangerous procedure!) is one reason why NIV has
>translated the whole passage as future. Do you have any other
>explanation for this change of Hebrew verb form?
>I wrote the above before seeing Randall's response and your response
>to that. I should add that I am not here suggesting any kind of
>"prophetic perfect", but rather that Jeremiah (writing at an unknown
>time, I would guess during the reign of Zedekiah) is referring to a
>past partial destruction (the first capture of Jerusalem?), and then
>(at the end of verse 9) looking ahead to a future complete destruction
>(the final capture of the city?).

Dear Peter,

I suspect that the reason why the RSV uses past tense is that the
translators subscribed to the idea that QATAL and WAYYIQTOL only could
express past tense. They worked in the late 40ies when almost everybody
believed this.

In chapter 15, Jeremiah is prophesying about the coming exile, something
which is evident from vv 1-3. In v 6 YHWH says: "You have rejected (QATAL)
me and you keep on going backwards (YIQTOL). On the basis of the first five
verses and 6a, it is very hard for me to take 6b as anything but a prophecy
about the future: "so I will stretch out (WAYYIQTOL) my hand against you
and destroy you." I see no reason why the author should use so much space
(6b-9) to describe the past when his message is about their destruction in
the future. In unpointed texts the three WAYYIQTOLs cannot be
differentiated from WEYIQTOLs, and both the translator of the LXX and the
Vulgate (both having a Hebrew Vorlage) took the WAYYIQTOLs in a future

Theories about grammar aside, prophecies have future meaning (although the
word only means a divine revelation, and is not connected with time). So
when someone claims that a part of a prophecy refers to the past, the onus
of proof rests on that person. It seems that the only (or at least the
principal) reason for taking 15:6b-9a as past is the view that the verb
forms can only refer to the past, but this is to ignore the hundreds of
QATALs and WAYYIQTOLs with future meaning. It is high time that we get a
basis in *all* the verbs of Classical Hebrew, when we make our
interpretations, and not only those in narratives!

The real problem with Hebrew grammar today, as I see it, is that  the verb
forms are given a too restrictive meaning, either as only signaling one
particular tense or one particular kind of discourse. The methodological
fault is that what works in some contexts are extrapolated to include all
This leads to translations were details and nuances, which never have been
there, are read into the text.  If we take the prefix-conjugation and the
suffix-conjugation as expressing the imperfective and perfective aspect
respectively and nothing else, we are in a position where we can let the
combination of Aktionsart, the Vendlerian traits (durativity, dynamicity
and telicity) and the context play the role they deserve.

It is my experience with Hebrew that an author uses both conjugations in
the same context, just as we in English use synonyms instead of using the
same word many times in the same context. The author need not have any
particular difference in mind, it is just a matter of style. The
combination of an aspect and other factors may in other contexts be
semantically important. Seeking a difference in every use of different
conjugations can be very misleading.

Al illustration from English:

(1) This morning John was singing in the bathroom?
(2) This morning John sang in the bathroom?

I see little difference in (1) and (2), so I would not ask about foreground
and background or this or that nuance. However, there is a difference
between (3)-(10)

(3) He reached the top.
(4) He was reaching the top.
(5) They reached the top
(6) They reached the tops.
(7  They reached tops.
(8) They were reaching the top.
(9) They were reaching the tops.
(10) They were reaching tops.

I find the Hebrew verbal system to be flexible; in some contexts will the
use of a particular conjugation signal important semantic nuances; in other
contexts there is little difference. It can in some respects be compared
with the English present participle, which can, as shown in (1) and (2)
signal no new information, or as shown in (3)-(10), give important


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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