[b-hebrew] Hebrew tense (was Gen 2.18)

Ken Penner ken.penner at acadiau.ca
Fri Nov 2 11:29:28 EDT 2007

I just wanted to add a note to a statement made below, in case novices might think it represents established fact.

The statement in question is:
> You are right that Hebrew does not have tense.

Although the above view is commonly asserted in introductory grammars, the ongoing debate is much more complex.

Frank Blake wrote, “It is true that aspect is also indicated by the Semitic verbal forms, e.g. the imperfect as a general present or a progressive past (imperfect proper) indicates incomplete action or continuance, and the perfect as a simple past indicates completed action, but these aspectual meanings are always accompanied by and are subordinate to the time point meaning or tense” (F. Blake, A Resurvey of Hebrew Tenses [Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1951], 2). As an example of progressive past, Blake cites Genesis 2:6 ואד יעלה מן־הארץ “and a mist (flood) used to go up from the earth” (9).

See also J. Blau, “Marginalia Semitica 6: The Problem of Tenses in Biblical Hebrew,” Israel Oriental Studies 1 (1971): 24–26 and   E. John Revell, “The System of the Verb in Standard Biblical Prose,” Hebrew Union College Annual 60 (1989): 1–37. For relative tense, see Douglas M. Gropp, “The Function of the Finite Verb in Classical Biblical Hebrew,” Hebrew Annual Review 13 (1991): 45–62.

Many who would argue that tense is not the most prominent parameter in the Hebrew verb system would still maintain that the wayyiqtol denotes past tense.  J. Joosten, “The Indicative System of the Biblical Hebrew Verb and its Literary Exploitation,” Narrative Syntax and the Hebrew Bible (Ed. E. Van Wolde; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 51–71; “The Long Form of the Prefixed Conjugation Referring to the Past in Biblical Hebrew Prose,” Hebrew Studies 40 (1999): 15–26; “Do the Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect?” JANES 29 (2002): 49–70.

Finally, one must also consider the development of the language. 
Revell writes, "There seems no reason to suppose that distinction [between converted and unconverted forms] was required until near the end of the biblical period, when the use of the waw consecutive imperfect began to be abandoned. At the same time, the development of the participle into a real present tense was beginning, and the perfect and imperfect forms were beginning to take on the function of past and future tenses." E. J. Revell, “Stress and the Waw ‘Consecutive’ in Biblical Hebrew,” JAOS 104 (1984):444. The evidence from Qumran doesn't support this theory of the abandonment of the wayiqtol, but I thought this view by a most respected Hebraist should at least temper a bare statement that Hebrew does not have tense.

By the way, regarding the sequentiality of wayyiqtol, see Galia Hatav, The Semantics of Aspect and Modality: Evidence from English and Biblical Hebrew (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1997), in which she finds 94% of wayyiqtols conveying sequentiality (page 29).

Ken M. Penner, Ph.D. (McMaster)
Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic vocabulary memorization software: 

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