Rolf discussion (verbs)

Greg Doudna gdoudna at
Mon Apr 23 02:13:01 EDT 2001

Rolf, thank you very much for the explanation. (Is this published
anywhere in fuller form?) I studied it and most of it makes sense.
I like your focus on clarity of definition, collection of data with
counts, and the intuitive appeal that the 'waw' of wqtl and wyqtl
forms should be simple conjunctions. Also, I am glad that there
is no argument that Qumran Hebrew is different from biblical
hebrew, because QH seems certainly to be a subset of the late
end of biblical Hebrew, and not something different or
'between' BH and MH. The closeup and distance view explanation
of the aspects was very helpful. I'm a little curious on the explanation
for why weqatal...weqatal customarily follow initial yqtl. Perhaps it is an
historical accident that this was the convention, but I don't quite
see how it necessarily fits into your explanation.

In a critical edition of a Qumran text I had to address the issue of how
I treated the verbs. I give my excerpt here (prior to reading your
explanation of your system), and would appreciate your
critique or criticism or wrong assumptions therein. This is
about to go to press but I can change it if I have to right now.
(Criticism esp. from Henry Churchyard or anyone else also


The nature of the Hebrew verbal system is the subject of
voluminous studies which cannot be engaged here, but a brief
comment can be offered concerning the understanding of verbal
forms of this study. What is at issue may be framed as follows:
as study after study of the Hebrew verbs has brought out, the

differences between yqtl (imperfect), qtl (perfect), and the
non-finite forms cannot easily be defended as a tense-based
system. The classes of exceptions and counterexamples to any
theory of tense being marked by form appears far too large.
Yet in practice the Hebrew verbs read naturally in their various
contexts in almost all cases as past, present, or future without
difficulty. But explaining why this is so in any rule-based form
which can be applied to all cases is extraordinarily difficult. The
question therefore arises: if the imperfect verb--the most common
verb in 4QpNah and the pesharim--is not strictly marking tense,
how does one know a given yqtl (imperfect) form is expressing an
action or state situated in the future and not past? ... When
tense is not marked in the verb form itself the need is accomplished
through helping words ...<examples>... Compare Brin 1981
[ZAW 93: 183-96] on the ubiquitous use of  ymy-X  and  ywm-X
expressions as basic temporal markers in biblical Hebrew in
speaking both of past and future.

In the same way, in 4QpNah the peshers either have adverbial or
modifying 'later days' expressions (e.g.  b'xryt hymym, bywm-X,
etc.) or presume such from immediate context. When these are
found in sentences which depict a change of present state--such
as the downfall of a wicked group--the ancient reader would
understand the temporal meaning as future from the standpoint
of the text. For example, a series of 'Kittim' passages at
1QpHab 2.12 to 6.12 uses yqtl forms with reference to the
reputation of the Kittim in other lands: the ways they overpower
and treat conquered peoples, their invincibility. The reputation of
the Kittim is a present phenomenon in the world of the text,
arising out of a series of well-known past exploits. These
imperfects therefore seem to be expressing past-iterative and
progressive present.

But at 1QpHab 9.4-7 there is a shift to speaking directly of what
the Kittim are expected _to do in Judea_, and the statement there,
which also uses an imperfect, is marked explicitly with  l'xryt hymym,
setting it in the days to come (the Kittim have not _yet_ come upon
Judea, in the world of 1QpHab). Although there has been much
discussion concerning  (l/b)'xryt hymym  in biblical Hebrew/Qumran
Hebrew, this expression appears to function as a marker indicating
future from the perspective of the utterer of the phrase or the present
implied within the phrase. It is doubtful that there is any example in
biblical Hebrew or a Qumran text in which this expression has a
_past_ tense meaning from the point of view of a writer or speaker
using this expression.

The reason for making this point is because the major study in
the Qumran field on this term, that of Steudel 1993 [RQ 16: 225-45],
argued for the opposite conclusion: that  b'xryt hymym  is sometimes
used by writers of Qumran texts to refer to the past. But Steudel's
study and argument is flawed by reliance upon unfounded
assumptions. For example, 4QpPsA 1-10 ii 17-19 speaks of a
failure of attempts of the wicked to harm the Teacher of Righteousness,
using imperfect verbs. Steudel translates these as past tenses on the
grounds that 'there can be no doubt that the events reported here have
a real historical background ... the Teacher of Righteousness was
already dead ...' (pp. 228-29). But the premise that the Teacher of
Righteousness was dead at the time of writing of 4QpPsA is
unsupported and questionable (fn: certainly nothing internal to the
pesharim indicates this...). In any case a text translation must be done
on grounds internal to the text itself, from the perspective of the implied
author within the world of the text. Steudel also cited 4QpNah as an
example of  'xryt hymym  used by an author with reference to the
past, since 4QpNah was 'composed not before the year 63 BC' but
refers with  'xryt hymym to circumstances pre-63 BCE. But the premise
of a post-63 BCE date for either implied or actual author of 4QpNah
is undemonstrated (fn....). In fact no example discussed by Steudel
clearly demonstrates a use of  b'xryt hymym  by a speaker or writer
to refer to the past relative to the speaker or writer. (fn [lengthy fn
here arguing that Qimron at DJD X, 61, appears to understand a use
of 'xryt hymym at 4Q252 1 iv 1-2 wrongly...])

The range of temporal meanings possible with the verb forms of biblical
Hebrew/Qumran Hebrew does not mean there is in principle greater
temporal ambiguity in Hebrew _sentences_ than in English. It is simply
a matter of different (and historically accidental) means by which
languages evolve capabilities of expressing, and hearers comprehending,
information and sense. Although it is hardly a satisfying term to use,
'natural reading' is in the end what makes temporal senses clear in
biblical and Qumran Hebrew. This is understood from context established
from explicit temporal markers such as  bywm-  or  bymy-  expressions
along with supporting cues such as habitual use of imperfects or perfects
in conjunction with states and punctual events.

Finally, there is no basis to the notion sometimes expressed ([fn/refs
Qumran luminaries]) that the pesharim shift their uses of verb forms and
tenses arbitrarily and conform their tenses to those of the quotations. The
verb forms in the pesharim are routine biblical Hebrew which convey
sense in expected manner just as in any other biblical Hebrew. The pesharim
do not, in any known case, conform their verb forms or tenses to that of
the quotations in a manner than creates anomalies. Nor do the verb forms
in quotations control the tenses of the peshers (fn) ...


Greg Doudna

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list