Archive for February 2008

Steinbeck and the Targums

February 26, 2008

Because I was an engineering major in college (who had AP credit for his English requirements), in four years I only took one course even close to the English department – Technical Writing. This left me with a void in my knowledge base that I have been trying to fill ever since by slowly catching up with all the  classics that I have missed. When I left for SBL in San Diego last Fall, I grabbed my wife’s copy of East of Eden from the shelf to occupy myself on the long flight. If you haven’t read it, or it has been a while, here is some background.

Steinbeck uses the model of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4 to explore the issues of human freedom and depravity. The centerpiece of the book is the interpretation of תמשל in Gen 4:7. The KJV has  “thou shalt rule over him” while the ASV has “thou must rule over him.” Is it a prediction or a command? The synthesis comes when Lee (a Chinese servant educated at Berkeley, but who intentionally speaks broken English because he is expected to), along with the help of some Chinese elders who learn Hebrew in order to solve the problem, realizes that תמשל might be modal:

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek”…

…”Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

Now, I also happened to be writing a paper on the Targums of Gen 4 last semester and I noticed that Pseudo-Jonathon and Neofiti have a very similar interpretation of verse 7:

Gn 4:7 הלא אם תייטיב עובדך ישתביק לך חובך ואין לא תייטיב עובדך בעלמא הדין ליום דינא רבא חטאך נטיר ועל תרעי ליבך חטאה רביע ובידך מסרית רשותיה דיצרא בישא ולוותך יהוי מתויה ואנת תהי שליט ביה בין למיזכי בין למיחטי

Look, if you do your deeds well, your sin will be forgiven you. But if you do not do your deeds well in this world, your sin will be kept for the great day of judgment. Sin is lying down at the gate of your heart, but I have put the control of the evil inclination into your hands. Toward you will be its longing, but you shall rule over it, whether to be innocent or to sin.

First, you should understand that the Targums are not merely an interpretive or expansive translation. In fact, the targumist tends to follow the biblical passage itself rather closely, only then adding interpretation and expansion, and usually you can separate the two rather easily. Note how תמשל is translated quite literally as ואנת תהי שליט. Of course, we still have the problem of whether this is a prediction, a command, or a possibility. Pseudo-Jonathan and Neofiti add two elements to suggest that they interpret it as the final option. First, ובידך מסרית רשותיה דיצרא בישא implies that God has given Cain the ability to control the evil inclination while בין למיזכי בין למיחטי specifically frames “ruling” as the moral choice to sin or not.

Now, this in itself does not suggest that Steinbeck knew the Targums or any rabbinic tradition, but there is another interesting parallel. In the book, the two main sets of brothers who are supposed to parallel Cain and Abel are both twins. In Gen 4:1-2 it says:

Now Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain and she said, “I have acquired a man from before the Lord.” And again she bore his brother, Abel…

Notice how it doesn’t say “And she conceived again…” in verse 2? Various rabbinic traditions have interpreted this as meaning that Cain and Abel were twins. All of which made me wonder if I missed anything else because I was only comparing the biblical Genesis story. Then again, maybe its just a coincidence…


CyArk and High-Tech Archaeology

February 23, 2008

I was flipping through all my PBS channels last night (I love digital broadcast TV) and I caught a story about CyArk. CyArk is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving cultural heritage sites. They do this by digitizing the site using high resolution cameras and this neat do-hickey that combines GPS technology with a laser scanner to give a 3D scan of the site that can be converted into CAD drawings. This was right up my alley as I was trained first as a mechanical engineer and spent many co-op hours walking through a chemical plant with a tape measure verifying/modifying CAD drawings of all the equipment.

When I was first looking into grad schools, there was a program at Hopkins called the Digital Hammurabi Project that had developed a 3D scanner for cuneiform tablets. They were also hoping to create OCR (optical character recognition) software to give a first reading and increase the speed of publishing the great mass of unread cuneiform tablets sitting in museums around the world. Now that I have actually read some cuneiform, this seems almost impossible.

But, if you could digitize and OCR the tablets, I read about another project in Germany to recreate shredded documents from the Cold War. Maybe once they are done, we can borrow the software, OCR all the tablets in the British Museum, and see if we find any joins.


Longacre, Robert, “Weqatal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Prose,” in Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics, ed Robert D. Bergen, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994, pp 50-98.

February 15, 2008

In this article, Longacre applies a discourse-modular approach to describe the use of the weqatal form in Biblical Hebrew prose. He concludes that, rather than primarily being used as a consecutive tense (ie following the tense of the previous verb), weqtal is used in the main verb sequence of predictive, procedural, and instructional discourse. However, when an isolated weqatal appears in the middle of a narrative, he suggests that it may be marking a pivotal or climactic event. 

In previous work, Longacre has suggested that Biblical Hebrew narrative corresponds to several East African languages (and presumably others) which regularly use two verb forms in narrative discourse. The primary form is a special narrative tense that describes a series of consecutive punctiliar events forming the backbone of the main storyline. However, a secondary form can also be used to report events which are backgrounded. This is especially the case for information that is participant-oriented rather than action-oriented, events which are out of sequence with the main storyline, or events which are either preparatory for the main story or resultant from the main story. This secondary tense is usually past or perfective.

In Biblical Hebrew the wayyiqtol is used as the main narrative tense while the qatal is used as the secondary tense. Note also that in this use the qatal form does not occur in clause initial position, but is preceded by a nominal element. This breaks the sequence, switches the focus from the action to the participant, and cues the reader that this is background information.

Like narrative discourse, predictive, procedural, and instructional discourse have a sequential backbone. However, in these types of discourse the tense, mood, and/or aspect of the discourse is different. A predictive discourse narrates a specific sequence of events that will occur in the future. A procedural discourse does not predict a specific storyline for a given individual, but prescribes how a generic individual would carry out a specific set of actions. An instructional discourse is a sequence of commands usually introduced by an imperative.

Longacre concludes that  in these types of discourse, the clause initial weqatal form parallels the clause initial wayyiqtol in narrative discourse – they describe the main events of the storyline. In predictive discourse, nominal phrases and participles are used to give the background information. In instructional discourse the yiqtol preceded by a clause initial nominal is used for background information paralleling the use of N + qatal in narrative discourse.

An example of predictive discourse can be seen in 1 Sam 10:2-6:

בְּלֶכְתְּךָ֤ הַיּוֹם֙ מֵעִמָּדִ֔י 

And when you depart from me

וּמָצָאתָ֩ שְׁנֵ֨י אֲנָשִׁ֜ים…  

You will find two men…

וְאָמְר֣וּ אֵלֶ֗יךָ נִמְצְא֤וּ הָאֲתֹנוֹת֙… 

And they will say,”The donkeys have been found…”

וְחָלַפְתָּ֨ מִשָּׁ֜ם… 

And you shall continue on from there…

אַ֣חַר כֵּ֗ן תָּבוֹא֙ גִּבְעַ֣ת הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים… 

after this you shall enter Gibeath-elohim…

Note how the prepositional phrase in the last clause blocks the use of clause initial weqatal, and therefore  yiqtol is used instead. An example of a procedural discourse is given in Lev 4:1-12, while the instructions for building the ark in Gn 6:13-21 represent an instructional discourse.

A procedural discourse can also be embedded within a narrative such as when background information is given to describe a procedure which is customary or routine. For example, in Gen 29:2-3 the narrative is broken by a description of how flocks were watered:

וַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה

So he looked, and, hey, a well in the field…

וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָעֲדָרִ֑ים…

And lookie-there, three flocks of sheep lying beside it (because from that well the flocks were watered…

וְנֶאֶסְפוּ־שָׁ֣מָּה כָל־הָעֲדָרִ֗ים 

and all the flocks would gather there,

וְגָלֲל֤וּ אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מֵעַל֙ פִּ֣י הַבְּאֵ֔ר 

and they would roll the stone from the opening of the well

וְהִשְׁק֖וּ אֶת־הַצֹּ֑אן 

and they would water the flock…)

A further example comes from Ex 34:34-35 where a yiqtol verb expressing customary/habitual aspect is used to cue the switch from narrative to procedural discourse.

This explains the occurrence of weqatal in certain specialized discourse types, but what about isolated weqatal in the midst of a narrative? Based on the parallel with yiqtol, which occurs both in the so-called “waw-consecutive” wayyiqtol form and the “waw-conjunctive” w + yiqtol, it is reasonable to assume that a “waw-conjunctive” w + qatal form may also exist. Longacre suggests that examples from 2 Kg 14:7 and 2 Kg 18:3-4 where pronoun + qatal begins a sequence of clause initial qatal forms may indeed be such a conjunctive use and not true weqatal forms. In these cases, the clause initial pronoun in the first clause may also be implied in the following clauses.

However, this still leaves examples of weqatal forms unexplained. Longacre suggests that an isolated weqatal in the midst of a narrative may mark a climactic or pivotal event. For example, in Judges 3:20-23 a weqatal form occurs at the end of the the sequence where a wayyiqtol would be expected:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אֵהוּד֙ אֶת־יַ֣ד שְׂמֹאל֔וֹ 

Ehud reached with his left hand

וַיִּקַּח֙ אֶת־הַחֶ֔רֶב…

and he took the sword…

וַיִּתְקָעֶ֖הָ בְּבִטְנֽוֹ…

and he thrust it into his belly…

וַיֵּצֵ֥א אֵה֖וּד הַֽמִּסְדְּר֑וֹנָה 

And Ehud went out to the lavatory

וַיִּסְגֹּ֞ר דַּלְת֧וֹת הָעַלִיָּ֛ה בַּעֲד֖וֹ 

and he shut the doors of the upper room behind him


And he bolted them

The most difficult example is 2 Kg 23:4-20. Several places in this narrative, weqatal forms occur where wayyiqtol forms would be expected. The same explanation may account for occurrences of וְהָיָה on the main storyline where the wayyiqtol form וַיְהִי is expected as in 2 Kg 3:14-16, 1 Sam 10:9, and others.

Why is there no backward verb gapping in BH poetry?

February 10, 2008

A while ago I was in a discussion about Proverbs 13:1 in which my counterpart suggested that בֵּ֣ן (“son”) should be repointed as the verb בין (“understand”) because otherwise there is no verb in the first clause. My first thought was that this is a simple case of verb-gapping, where the reader is expected to supply a verb in the first clause based on the second clause. This is the way most modern translations read:

Prov 13:1 בֵּ֣ן חָ֭כָם מ֣וּסַר אָ֑ב וְ֝לֵ֗ץ לֹא־שָׁמַ֥ע גְּעָרָֽה 
A wise son [listens to] a father’s instruction, a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.

However, after some research I found that, while gapping the verb in the second colon based on the first is quite normal, the opposite is either rare or non-existent. O’Connor, in his Biblical Hebrew Verse Structure, says that leftward verb gapping (I prefer backward since you don’t get confused about right-to-left vs left-to-right script issues) may occur (p129), but finds only 2 possible cases within his corpus, Jd 5:3 and Dt 33:4-5 (p404). This got me searching for other cases of backward verb gapping.


Before getting into the details, I should define what I mean by gapping. Biblical Hebrew poetic structure is normally divided into lines which are further divided into cola. A line is generally comprised of two cola. A colon is subdivided into “elements” of meaning and the two cola of a line are normally structured so that each element has a complement in the other colon as described by the ubiquitous term “parallelism”.

A normal colon has 3 elements, but sometimes 2 or 4. In the literature a line may be thus analyzed as 3+3, indicating that it has two cola of 3 elements each. The elements themselves are labeled alphabetically as a,b,c with the corresponding element across the seizura as a’,b’,c’. For example:

Prov 10:5 אֹגֵ֣ר בַּ֭קַּיִץ בֵּ֣ן מַשְׂכִּ֑יל נִרְדָּ֥ם בַּ֝קָּצִ֗יר בֵּ֣ן מֵבִֽישׁ 
a: He-who-gathers   b: in summer   c: a prudent-son 
a’: He-who-sleeps b’: at harvest   c’: a son-who-brings-shame

Some poets evidently preferred a strict regular parallelism abc || a’b’c’, but this could be varied. For instance, a fourth element could be introduced such as abc || a’b’d where d has no strict complement in the first colon, and as a result c has no strict complement in the second.

This is sometimes labeled as incomplete parallelism or ellipsis and also includes unbalanced lines of 3+2 or 2+3 structure where no compensating element is introduced. Gapping is a type of incomplete parallelism where the poet relies on the reader to supply a missing element from the other colon in order to understand its full meaning. It is most often the second colon that has the missing element. DN Freedman gives an example of gapping from Is 1:3 in a short article from Bible Review:

Is 1:3a יָדַ֥ע שׁוֹר֙ קֹנֵ֔הוּ וַחֲמ֖וֹר אֵב֣וּס בְּעָלָ֑יו
The ox knows his owner, and the ass the crib of his master
a:knows b:the ox c:his owner
[gap] b’:the ass        d: the crib of        c’:his master

This is the most common use of verbal gapping – forward/rightward gapping. The synonymous parallelism between elements b:b’ and c:c’ allow the reader to supply the verb (the a-element) in the second colon. Freedman argues that this is also a case of backwards gapping, where the d-element “crib” should  be supplied to the first colon:

The ox knows his owner’s crib, the ass knows the crib of his master.

It is true that the new d-element can also be gapped backwards, but I am not sure about this example. It is more likely a ballast element to maintain the 3+3 structure. A better example is probably Lam 5:6:

Lam 5:6 מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ נָתַ֣נּוּ יָ֔ד אַשּׁ֖וּר לִשְׂבֹּ֥עַֽ לָֽחֶם׃
To Egypt we put out a hand, to Assyria to be satisfied with food

The verb is gapped forward, and the thought of the first colon is grammatical but incomplete, in my opinion, without reference to the infinitival phrase in the second. If we follow Geller’s suggestion of transforming the poetic couplet into a prose sentence, the full idea would be “We put out a hand to Egypt and Assyria in order to be satisfied with food.”  


The most common examples of backward verb gapping are like Song 4:8, Ps 94:3, and Prov 31:4a-b:

Prov 31:4a-b אַ֤ל לַֽמְלָכִ֨ים ׀ לְֽמוֹאֵ֗ל אַ֣ל לַֽמְלָכִ֣ים שְׁתוֹ־יָ֑יִן
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine.

In these cases the backward gapping of the verb is anticipated by the use of the vocative followed by repetitive parallelism of the a and b elements. Cynthia Miller read a paper at SBL in which she concluded a vocative is often used to “hold the spot” of the gapped element. Thus in a backwards gap the vocative prepares the reader/listener to wait for the verb.

In Proverbs 13:1 there is no such placeholder. Instead it reads much more like a standard 3+2 “forward gapped” line, just flipped backwards as a 2+3:

  a’: a scoffer   b’: does-not-listen c’: to rebuke. 
  a: A wise-son [gap] c: a father’s-instruction

In theory, it seems to me that this is not too great of a stretch of the principle of gapping, but are there any other examples of such a use (where the first clause cannot be explained as a nominal predicate)? O’Connor suggested Jd 5:3:

Jd 5:3 אָֽנֹכִ֗י לַֽיהוָה֙ אָנֹכִ֣י אָשִׁ֔ירָה אֲזַמֵּ֕ר לַֽיהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל 
I – to the lord, I will sing, I will sing to the Lord God of Israel.

However, I could also see this more naturally as a 4 + 4 where the repetition of אָֽנֹכִ֗י provides ballast for אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

a: I b: to the Lord c: I d: I-will-sing
d’: I-will-sing b’: to the Lord e: God-of-Israel  

One other possible example that is cited is Job 4:10, which is read as a tri-colon:

Job 4:10 שַׁאֲגַ֣ת אַ֭רְיֵה וְק֣וֹל שָׁ֑חַל וְשִׁנֵּ֖י כְפִירִ֣ים נִתָּֽעוּ
The roar of the Lion, the voice of the fierce lion, and the teeth of the young lions are broken.

However, this reads more like a verb-final sentence with a compound subject. There is no c-element in the first two cola holding the place for the gapped verb and there is no clear seizura. It does remind us that verb final sentences are possible so it is not a huge stretch to expect the reader/listener to sort out all the nominal clauses and modifiers before getting to the verb (unless the listener is Mark Twain). 

The best example of backward verb gapping I could find is Prov 24:5:

Prov 24:5 גֶּֽבֶר־חָכָ֥ם בַּע֑וֹז וְאִֽישׁ־דַּ֝֗עַת מְאַמֶּץ־כֹּֽחַ
A wise man [gap?] in might, and a man of knowledge increases strength

Most versions translate the first colon as “a wise man is strong”, but the preposition makes בַּע֑וֹז adverbial not adjectival which I think precludes it from being a simple predicate (I am willing to hear counter arguments on this one). As it is he has to be doing something “mightily” or the gapped verb must govern ב. Unfortunately, מְאַמֶּץ seems to be a piel taking a direct object in the second clause (since אמץ is an intransitive verb), in which case it is not governed by בַּ. So מְאַמֶּץ cannot be supplied directly to the first colon exactly as it occurs in the second. Perhaps it could be read as the qal stative, “The wise man is strong in might, and a man of knowledge increases strength”.

Still, that seems like a lot of work just to find one example of backward verb gapping without a placeholder. And I haven’t even brought up the fact that the verb in Prov 13:1 needs not only to be gapped, but also negated! If you think you have a good example for me, send it my way.

The Biblical Hebrew verbal system and aspect

February 7, 2008

My blog probably receives the most hits from searches on aspect and aktionsart, so I figure that this is what people are interested in (or struggling to understand). I have also been doing some reading on the topic of the Biblical Hebrew verb system recently, specifically the pair of articles by Jan Joosten and John Cook in JANES. Charles at Awilum recently posted links to the latest issue of JANES including the Cook article. Also, there was some discussion of the topic over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. I have posted summaries of these articles in separate posts (click on the author’s names above), and I would also like to give some of my reflections here.

Language is constantly undergoing change. The Neo-Grammarian school has focused on sound change as the major component of language change, but language changes on all linguistic levels: phonological, morphological, syntactic and “text-linguistic”. Thus verbal systems are not static entities. By seeking a systematic explanation of the Biblical Hebrew verbal system, purely synchronic analyses risk misunderstanding the inconsistencies produced by slow historical change. I greatly appreciated Cook’s article for incorporating a diachronic explanation of the various layers of the verbal system.

Still, while I completely agree with his explanation of the BH verbal system, I wonder if it is best to describe it as “aspectual” when there are really a mix of forms, some marking aspect such as the qatal, some marking tense such as wayyiqtol, and some in-between such as yiqtol (which retains older aspectual meanings in some contexts, but seems to be moving towards simple tense in others)? It may be correct typologically to call it an “aspectual” system, but this does not imply that verbal forms are primarily marked for aspect, but never tense. 

Oh well, I am at home with a sick kid and now I’m rambling…

Cook, John, “The Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew do Express Aspect,” JANES 30 (2006), 21-35.

February 7, 2008

Here John Cook responds to Joosten’s earlier article which argued that BH yiqtol mainly expresses future tense/mood, and therefore the BH verb system is not primarily aspectual. He argues first that, contrary to Kurylowicz, aspect is more fundamental to verbal systems than tense. Secondly, he argues that even though they are not its primary uses in BH, yiqtol can indeed be used to express real present and attendant circumstances in the past, and Joosten’s future/modal description of yiqtol does not account for these uses. However, an aspectual model combined with a diachronic-typological understanding of how verbal systems develop within a language can give a more coherent and comprehensive explanation of the BH verbal system.

In arguing against the real present use of yiqtol, Joosten noted that many supposed cases occurred in questions, which seem to be inherently modal. However, Cook counters that non-modal verb forms can be used in a question, such as qatal and participle as in Jd 18:3. Further, Joosten’s first example is Gn 37:15b:

וַיִּשְׁאָלֵ֧הוּ הָאִ֛ישׁ לֵאמֹ֖ר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ׃

And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”

The part of the question that is “irreal” is the object of the search, not the action of looking. With further examples, Cook concludes that yiqtol can indeed be used to express real present.

For the case of attendant circumstance in the past, Cook’s best example is 2 Sam 15:37:

וַיָּבֹ֥א חוּשַׁ֛י רֵעֶ֥ה דָוִ֖ד הָעִ֑יר וְאַבְשָׁלֹ֔ם יָבֹ֖א יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

Hushai, David’s friend, entered the city when Absalom was entering the city.

Again, it is difficult to take this in any way as modal or habitual, and it can be concluded that yiqtol can indeed express attendant circumstance in the past. Therefore, Joosten’s examples do not rule out an aspectual approach if Cook can also explain the statistically dominant use of yiqtol as future/modal.

First, he demonstrates that qatal does indeed express perfect aspect based on a typological comparison of the stative. Statives in perfect forms very often express a present state while statives in past tense forms express past states. As the examples from Is 55:9a and 1 Sam 10:23 show, the qatal follows the pattern of a perfect while the wayyiqtol follows that of a past tense:

Is 55:9a כִּֽי־גָבְה֥וּ שָׁמַ֖יִם מֵאָ֑רֶץ כֵּ֣ן גָּבְה֤וּ דְרָכַי֙ מִדַּרְכֵיכֶ֔ם

For, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so also are my ways higher than your ways.

1 Sam 10:23b וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֖ב בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעָ֑ם וַיִּגְבַּהּ֙ מִכָּל־הָעָ֔ם

And when he stood among the people, he was taller than all the people.

Next, he argues that typological comparison suggests that perfect verbs only develop in languages that already feature imperfect verbs. By implication, yiqtol must be imperfective. How then can we explain its overwhelming future/modal use, but relatively rare use in the real present and attendant circumstance in the past?

Verbal systems are not static, but like language in general, undergo constant change. Typological studies have found several common paths of development. The two that are of interest for BH are:

Perfective-Past: resultative > perfect > perfective > past 

Progressive-Imperfect: progressive > imperfect

This suggests that a verbal form which begins as resultative (a verb which results in a state or condition) slowly becomes perfect (describing an action as an undifferentiated “whole”) and then perfective, before finally marking simple past tense. As these verbal forms develop, the verbal system can become assymetrical for two reasons: 1) Verb forms can retain their older function alongside the development of new functions, and 2) Multiple forms can have the same function since new layers are always emerging.

Thus qatal and wayyiqtol both developed along the Perfective-Past path. During classical BH qatal is in the perfect stage, but in the post-Biblical period it becomes a simple past tense. At the same time, wayyiqtol is an older form which is already a simple past tense. In post-Biblical Hebrew it drops out of use. Both the yiqtol and participle are developing along the Progressive-Imperfect path. In BH yiqtol is the older form and is being displaced by the participle, which has become the preferred form to express the real present and attendant circumstance in the past. However, in questions yiqtol remains preferred. Again, in post-Biblical Hebrew the participle further displaces yiqtol to also express the future, relegating yiqtol to modal uses.

Joosten, Jan, “Do the Finite Verbal Forms in Biblical Hebrew Express Aspect?” JANES 29 (2002), 49-70.

February 7, 2008

Jan Joosten takes up the question of the nature of the BH verbal system, arguing that the qatal/yiqtol forms do not primarily express the aspectual opposition between perfect/imperfect. Instead, he argues that, while the qatal does primarily express perfect aspect, the main role of the yiqtol is future/modal.

His first argument is that the yiqtol form is not regularly used to express the real present or an attendant circumstance in the past, the two most prominent functions of the imperfect in aspect languages. The primary cases where yiqtol appears to be used as a real present are in questions, but questions are inherently “modal”. In declarative sentences the predicative participle is the usual form for real present. The participle can also be used with the presentative particles הנה and הלא, highlighting its use as a real present.

In Joosten’s example, “John was reading when I entered the room,” the form “was reading” is imperfective and describes the attendant circumstance for the perfect form “entered”. Again, in BH the regular form for attendant circumstance is not the yiqtol, but the participle as shown in 2 Sam 18:24:

‏ וְדָוִ֥ד יוֹשֵׁ֖ב בֵּין־שְׁנֵ֣י הַשְּׁעָרִ֑ים וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ הַצֹּפֶ֜ה אֶל־גַּ֤ג הַשַּׁ֙עַר֙

David was sitting between the two gates when the watchman went to the roof of the gate…

The yiqtol form is indeed used for iterative/durative action in the past, which is a function of the imperfect in aspect languages. However, Joosten argues that repetitive action has no inherent relationship to the notion of imperfect aspect and may only be associated with imperfect verbal forms accidentaly. In fact, many aspect languages use perfective forms for repetitive action and others use modal forms. Again, the iterative use of yiqtol may reflect its modal function rather than imperfective.

Therefore, Joosten concludes that the primary role of yiqtol is for “action which has not yet begun”, whether it is simple future or modal. If so, yiqtol should not be understood in opposition to the perfect qatal, but in comparison with the other modal forms such as weqatal, cohortative, jussive, and imperative.