[b-hebrew] The use of the Yiqtol in Isaiah 1:21

George Athas George.Athas at moore.edu.au
Tue Apr 21 19:56:50 EDT 2009

I'm with Rolf on this one: tense is not grammaticalised in Biblical Hebrew. Rather, tense has to be inferred from deictic markers elsewhere in the clause.

The distinction I work with, and it does seem to work, is that Qatal represents 'definite action', and Yiqtol represents 'indefinite action'. The distinction between these is similar to that of nouns: a definite noun is specific and particular, while an indefinite noun is less so. Both a definite noun and an indefinite noun can refer to one person (e.g. 'the king' and 'a king'), but the definite is quite specific, while the indefinite is less so. Wayyiqtol looks at an action as though it were happening 'live'.

This distinction seems to work in that most past action, which can be referred to specifically, is referred to in the Qatal-definite conjugation. However, future actions, which have not particularised, or potential actions, which may or may not particularise but nonetheless have not particularised yet, and generic actions, which have no particular instance on view, are conveyed by Yiqtol. That's why future, modal, and proverbial actions are generally in the Yiqtol-indefinite.

Rolf raises some good counter-examples from Neh 3.14-15 which, on first glance, seem problematic to the view I'm putting forward. However, I'd argue in a preliminary way that the yiqtol actions are still indefinite, referring to what the individuals in questions were generally doing (like a job description), while the Qatal refers to their specific achievement (as if looking back on it). Nevertheless, these do deserve extra attention, so thanks Rolf for raising them. The other thing I'd say is that two verses in Nehemiah might not overthrow the entire system of Biblical Hebrew, with the distinction between Early/Standard Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew; they could be exceptions. But it does deserve further investigation.


Moore Theological College (Sydney, Australia)

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