[b-hebrew] Prophetic Perfect?

furuli at online.no furuli at online.no
Thu May 20 05:00:10 EDT 2004

Dear Kevin,

This is a fine question which goes to the roots of the matter. There 
are two important points one needs to ascertain in order to 
understand the  the uses of Hebrew verbs, 1) communication by means 
of words means to make a part a potential meaning visible to the 
reader/listener and to make everything else invisible, and 2) in 
communication there are different requirements as to precision.

To illustrate point 2), infinitives and participles are two distinct 
groups with different meanings. Because of linguistic convention, 
they are generally used differently in the Tanakh, but occasionally a 
participle is used when we expect an infinitive vice versa. Why?

Regarding similarities between participles and infinitives Werneberg 
Möller (Observations on the Hebrew Participle, Zeitscherift f ürdie 
alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. 1959:57) wrote: "The above list makes 
it sufficiently clear that the Hebrew participle may sometimes be 
used as denoting the action, or state, or abstract idea, of a certain 
verb, with no reference to some subject (either person or thing) 
performing a certain action or being in a certain state.  The fact 
that the participle may be used in this way suggests a relationship 
of the former with the infinitive, the latter denoting the action, or 
state, or abstract idea, as such, with no reference to an agent."

The quote shows that while there are differences between the 
participle and the infinitive there are similarities as well. So, in 
situations where the special characteristics of the participle ( or 
the infinitive) is not necessary to make visible a particular point 
(the requirement of precision is not great), both can be used. These 
are cases were both can be used, because what is made visible is 
related to something where the participle and the infinitive are 

The case is exactly the same in connection with QATAL and YIQTOL; 
they are two different forms with different meanings, but there are 
similarities as well. Here we find the most important error in modern 
grammatical thought regarding classical Hebrew, namely, that QATAL 
and YIQTOL are mutually exclusive! And the reason for this error is 
that Indo-European definitions of aspect have been forced upon the 
Hebrew verbal system. The fact is that the Hebrew aspects are 
fundamentally different from the English ones. The imperfective 
aspect in English signals objectively that an event was not completed 
at reference time, and the perfective aspect signals that it was 
completed at reference time. This is not the case with with the 
Hebrew aspects where both QATAL (and WEQATAL), YIQTOL (and WEYIQTOL 
and WAYYIQTOL) signal events that are past, present, and future, 
completed and not completed at reference time.

In order to fathom the similarities and differences between QATAL and 
YIQTOL you need to study the *use* of the forms. I will not attempt 
to give a short definition of the aspects in this post, because, 
without examples, the definitions may mislead some. However, I will 
give three examples from chapter 8 of my thesis where aspects are 
used similarly and where they are used differently. First I discuss 
situations where different verb forms are used indiscriminately. 
Example 1 relates to states, namely the borders of Israel (Joshua 15 
through 19). Here we find 85 WEQATALs, 22 WAYYIQTOLs, three YIQTOLs, 
three QATALs, and one participle, all with past reference. In these 
situations the requirement of precision is close to zero, because any 
part of a state is similar to any other part or to the state as a 
whole. So regardless of which forms we use, the same is made visible 
(in other stative situations the entrance into the state may be made 
visible, though). My next example consists of differences among the 
verbs used in the 470 verses which occur as doublets (a few even as 
triplets). Results of Psalm 18- 2 Sam 22: 5 YIQTOLs in Ps - 5 
IN Ps- 1 QATAL  in 2S, 1 WAYYIQTOL in Ps- 1 participle in 2S. 
Conclusion: The WAYYITOLs are the same conjugation as the YIQTOLs, 
the participle and QATAL has a different meaning compared with the 
WAYYIQTOLs, but the requirement of precision is not higher than that 
all three forms can be used interchangeably. A third example is "the 
excellent wife" of Proverbs 31:10-31. Here we find 18 QATALs, 5 
YIQTOLs, 9 WAYYIQTOLs, and three passive and one active participles 
with the same temporal reference. The WAYYIQTOLs and YIQTOLs are 
identical, but they have a meaning different from the QATALs and the 
participles, but this difference is not made visible because the 
requirement of precision is not high.

I also give examples where the perfective and imperfective aspects 
are used to make differences visible. One example consists of 94 
clauses with the adverbial "until this day" Here the 41 WAYYIQTOLs 
have a resultative force; the actions were completed long ago, but 
the results held "at this day". The QATALs describe a uniform 
situation from the start and "until this day". Another example 
consists of conative events (attempted but not completed) expressed 
by WAYYIQTOLs. The nature of the imperfective aspect is required for 
such situations (the participle can also be used even though it is 
not imperfective). A third example consists of events of the kind 
"When Liza read the paper, John entered the room". To express the 
background situation the imperfective aspect is required (but the 
participle of infinitive can be used as well).

So, there is a clear meaning difference in meaning between QATAL and 
YIQTOL, but there are similarities as well. As a matter of fact, all 
finite and infinite forms can be used for any event or state (save a 
few, such as conative events), past, present, and future, completed 
and not completed. But there are clear patterns because of linguistic 
convention. Because of the points mentioned above, the Bible 
translator should give more weight to the context than to particular 
grammatical views, which may be wrong. the translator should also 
keep in mind that the lexical meaning of a verb and its Aktionsart is 
much more important for translation than its aspect.

Best regards


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

>What then is the basic organising principle behind Hebrew verbs?  There must
>be some difference between Qatal and Yiqtol, etc, or why have them?  Tense
>is not necessary, but something must distinguish the various forms.
>Kevin Riley
>>-----Original Message-----
>>From: b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
>>[mailto:b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org]On Behalf Of furuli at online.no
>>Dear Harold,
>>I am not a native speaker of English, and I realize that you are in a
>>much better position than I to judge stylistic matters in connection
>>with the NIV and other English translations. My criticism does not
>>relate to matters of style or smoothness but to matters of grammar
>>and syntax. You are of course correct in your description of how past
>>English verbs can be used for future events. My concern is the
>>*basis* for the translators' use of past verbs to signal an event
>>that is past in relation to another future event.
>>My impression is that modern Bible translators generally build on a
>>faulty view of Hebrew grammar (e.g.  QATAL should not express simple
>  >future). In some cases the translators are simply forced to violate
>  >their own grammatical rules (e.g. some QATALs are rendered by simple
>  >future in Jer 51, 52 by NIV), but in most cases they follow their
>>erroneous rules. This  sometimes leads to confusion on the part of
>>the readers.
>>Anyone who wants to test my claim can simply do an extensive reading
>>of the prophets, and see how many accounts that has a clear time
>>reference. For example, the locust plague and the other plagues of
>>Joel 1, the judgements of Zecheariah 9 and Nahum 1 and 2, do
>>translations show they are past or future? I accept that translators
>>can  render passages which are ambiguous in an ambiguous way, but it
>>is bad if this is done on the basis of a wrong understanding of
>>Hebrew grammar.
>>I am in no way certain that the NIV translators translated the QATALs
>>of Jeremiah 50, 51 differently as to time reference because they did
>>not want to loose "the variation that the Hebrew itself has". I
>>rather think it is based on their grammatical views. In Psalm
>>107:3-41 the NIV renders most of the 25 WAYYIQTOLS, 12 QATALs, 22
>  >YIQTOLs, 5 WEYIQTOLs with past reference. In these verses it is
>>difficult to view the different verb forms as having different time
>>references, so all are given the same tense. Where is the Hebrew
>>Best regards
>>Rolf Furuli
>  >University of Oslo

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