[b-hebrew] Isaiah 53

furuli at online.no furuli at online.no
Sat May 15 11:22:54 EDT 2004

Dear list-members,

I would like to return to my question about the link between future 
reference and prophetic utterances. It seems to me that students of 
Hebrew have been chewing cud for a hundred and fifty years without 
asking whether this is good for their health, i.e. old views are 
repeated over and over again without anybody asking for evidence.

Apart from messages of judgment referring to people living at the 
time, the message of a prophet usually relates to the future (but it 
can occasionally include past or present reference as well). In his 
"A Grammar of the Hebrew Language" of 1841, p 356, Samuel Lee wrote: 
"Another leading principle, by which the tenses are regulated, has 
arisen out of the circumstance, that the Hebrews, in common with some 
other nations of the East, often represent events, - of the future 
occurrence of which they have no doubt, - as having already taken 
place. " How did he know? Because the Persians did the same! (BTW: 
Lee was a fine grammarian)

The notion of "prophetic perfect" has been repeated over and over 
again, but I am not aware of a single piece of evidence for its 
correctness that ever has been produced from one of the documents of 
classical Hebrew. So I must ask again. If it looks like a duck, walks 
like a duck, and sounds like a duck, should we not draw the 
conclusion that is *is* a duck. And similarly, if a prophet refers to 
the future, speaks about the future, and writes about the future, 
should we not give the verbs future reference when they are 
translated? Why in the world should we translate them by past or 

In my translation of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 into Norwegian,  41 of the 
finite verbs are translated with simple future, 7 with present, 1 
with simple past, and 2 with pluperfect. I simply do not understand 
the linguistic basis for the use past or perfect apart from the three 
metioned examples. In my doctoral thesis I have translated Jeremiah 
50 and 51into English, and this is a *prophecy* about Babel. In the 
104 verses I have translated, the following verbs are translated with 
simple future: 70 yiqtols, 2 weyiqtols, 7 wayyiqtols, 49 weqatals, 
and 63 qatals. In addition 4 qatals are translated with future 
perfect.  When I look at the renderings of modern Bible translations 
of these two chapters, I wonder what kind of logic is behind the 
back-and-forth, hither-and- tither use of English tenses. Can really 
and old obsolete rule have such a profound effect on modern 

Would anyone who defend the idea of verbs with future reference being 
translated by past or perfect please step forward and give some 
*linguistic* evidence for this (not just references to grammars).

Best regards


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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