[b-hebrew] Alleged "prophetic tense"

Jerry Shepherd jshepherd53 at gmail.com
Wed Dec 5 13:15:44 EST 2012

Hi Barry,

My apologies about not replying to this query earlier -- lots of papers and
exams to mark, amid other responsibilities.  But, in any case, here goes.

(1) I am in basic agreement with you, and it seems most of the other
respondents, that there is no prophetic past tense, per se, in Hebrew.

(2) The idea of the prophetic past tense probably arises from the desire to
make passages like Isaiah 53 pertain only to a future figure, rather than
being about a more immediate personage in the author's own time and context.

(3) Having said that, I am, however, not convinced that the Hebrew verbal
system is tenseless.  To be sure, context is the real determining factor,
but it seems to me that it can be appropriately stated that there is at
least a general tendency to use particular verb forms to describe past
situations, others to describe present situations, and others to describe
future situations.  Wayyiqtol is overwhelmingly past tense.  Qatal is
primarily past and present.  Yiqtol is primarily present and future.
Qotel, when used as the main verb, is primarily present and future.  For
these last two, I'd be hard pressed to say whether present or future is
more predominant.  No one ever sits down and designs a spoken language, and
I am not arguing that these verb forms were actually marked for tense.
However, usage over time tends to fall into patterns, and I would argue
these patterns of usage developed over time.

(4) If, as seems reasonable, the Hebrew verbal system is best understood as
being aspectual, we can still see how certain aspects would lend themselves
to certain tenses.  So the perfect, understood as "action seen as a
complete whole," lends itself to describing past actions.  So, perhaps it
is possible for a prophet, when describing a future situation, to use a
perfect form of the verb, and the use of that form would have been a bit
jarring to the hearers or readers.  I wouldn't refer to this a prophetic
past tense; but the use of the perfect could have a "certainty" or
"wholeness" quality to it that would not be so easily conveyed by imperfect
or participle.   Others may tell you I'm out to lunch on this one; and that
may be the case.

I, too, would be interested in seeing Rolf's comments.



Jerry Shepherd
Taylor Seminary
Edmonton, Alberta
jshepherd53 at gmail.com
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