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.

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Author, Bibliography, Longacre, Robert, Semitic Verbal System, Topic

One Comment on “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.”

  1. slimplim Says:

    I really appreciate any information that helps to give understanding on the use of the different binyamin in the Hebrew scriptures

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