[b-hebrew] Alleged "prophetic tense"

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Wed Dec 5 20:10:28 EST 2012


On Wed, Dec 5, 2012 at 10:15 AM, Jerry Shepherd <jshepherd53 at gmail.com>wrote:

> Hi Barry,
> (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.

These were the traditional understandings, the attempt to make them fit the
author’s own time and context is modern.

> (3) Having said that, I am, however, not convinced that the Hebrew verbal
> system is tenseless.

I agree with Rolf on this, but unlike him my understanding is by
seat-of-the-pants reading the text, instead of careful analysis as he did.

>   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.

The weakness of this analysis is that one needs to analyze their contexts
as well. Is the Wayyiqtol overwhelming past tense, or does it merely appear
so to our Indo-European tense based understandings in that it was widely
used in historical narrative? And as part of narrative, its purpose was to
indicate continuation of narrative, not tense at all? How many Wayyiqtols
are present or future, and in those cases do they indicate continuation
just as in the historical narratives?

The same with Qatals.

Yiqtol is primarily present and future? How much of that is a result of the
use of Yiqtol to represent intent (which is translated in English as “will”
which makes the use appear to be future when actually indicating present
actions) or the conclusion of an action? Or its use as a marker for
subjunctive, and as subjunctive usually refers to present to future
actions, and the apparent tense is a result of its use as a subjunctive
than as a marker for tense?

>   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.

And also changed over time. I don’t know which language was most
influential in changing Hebrew to a tense based language, but what I’ve
read that that change was done before the Masoretes, and probably led to
many incorrect pointings of the text.

> (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.

Already your use of terminology muddies the waters. That you call the Qatal
“perfect” and Yiqtol “imperfect” already predisposes you to think of them
as tense or with a little stretching aspect. Because I see no evidence that
the Qatal and Yiqtol coded for either tense or aspect, I now refuse to use
those terms when denoting the Qatal or Yiqtol to try to avoid confusion in
my hearers.

Oh yes, I think you’re out to lunch on this.   ..... ;-)

> I, too, would be interested in seeing Rolf's comments.
> Blessings,
> Jerry
> Karl W. Randolph.
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