Lesson 4: Hebrew Verbs

Blessing to God before study


(IMPORTANT: if you are not yet familiar with how we transcribe Hebrew sounds and words, you can download (or read online) the reference guide.)

hebrew-bible-words

Introduction

Hebrew verbs differ from English verbs in a number of ways the most important of which will become familiar to you as you progress. At this stage in the course, however, there are 3 important differences of which you should be aware and which you will learn about in this section and the following lessons:

  1. Hebrew is a language in which the verb is normally placed before the subject.
  2. Hebrew verbs are inflected (spelling changed) for gender.
  3. Hebrew has two different ways of expressing the past tense.

Important: In Hebrew grammar the English past tense roughly corresponds to the Hebrew perfect aspect. In this class past tense and perfect aspect are equivalent and I will use them interchangeably. Similarly, the present tense in English is similar to the imperfect aspect in Hebrew. Likewise, I will use present tense and imperfect aspect interchangeably. However, you should get used to using, and familiar with the Hebrew terms, perfect and imperfect1)The Perfect and Imperfect terms come about because Hebrew ‘perfect’ verbs are verbs whose actions have completed, or perfected. Hebrew imperfect verbs are ones whose actions have not completed and have not yet been perfected..

Subject-Verb Order

The first difference between Hebrew and English is that verbs are normally placed before their subjects. So, for example, the Hebrew for this English sentence, “Abraham went to Canaan” would written,”Went, Abraham, to Canaan“.

However, much less frequently, the subject comes before the verb as in English. To a native Hebrew speaker this reordering really stands out. The biblical authors use this technique to accomplish certain literary goals. For example, let’s look at Genesis 2:10. For this verse, like English the subject comes before the verb. Upon reading this verse, the reader is immediately signaled that something is different about this verse. More specifically, subject-verb inversions in Hebrew often (but not always) signal a parenthetical statement(s).

In fact, by reading verses 9-15, the reader realizes that’s exactly what is happening. Here’s the New American Bible’s translation of these verses:

And out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; the bdellium and the onyx stone are there. 13 And the name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Because verses 10-14 are parenthetical, we can remove those four verses and the story still makes perfect sense.

And out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil … 15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Reordering the verb and subject has additional significance, especially theologically.  And at the end of this course, we’ll learn that this feature reveals something startling profound about how and when God created the heaves and the earth.

Verb Inflection

Hebrew verbs, like English, are inflected. For example, both Hebrew and English verbs change their spelling depending on when the action occurred – This can be seen in the table below:

Perfect (or Past) Imperfect (or Present)
 הָלַךְ (/ha·lakh/)  תֵלֵךְ (/he·lekh)

As you can see, the perfect tense halakh changes to helekh in the imperfect tense. Specifically, the vowels change from אַ and אָ in the perfect and to אֵ in the imperfect.

As an aside, Hebrew doesn’t have the concept of tense. Instead, Hebrew uses the term ‘aspect‘.  They are, however, very similar and for the purposes of this course, you can ignore the differences. In more advanced studies, the difference between these two terms will become important. Not so much in this course.

The second difference that you’ll learn about is that the biblical authors used two different forms for expressing actions that completed in the past. The first form, the one just described above, is the normal perfect tense. The second form is, however, very strange and is most noticeable in the Bible as a set of consecutive, run-on, sentences separated by a conjunction2)In fact, the formal name for this ‘tense’ reflects these semantics – the Imperfect Vav Consecutive. Imperfect Vav Consecutive verbs are always translated as perfect (past tense) verbs. Likewise, there is a Perfect Vav Consecutive form also. Can you guess how this verb is translated?. For example, here is an English sentence written in this style.

Michael went to the store and bought some bread and took the bread and gave some to his wife and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ate them right there and then.

While totally unacceptable to your high-school English teacher, this style of sentence structure is very, very common in the Bible – especially in narration. This may have arisen because biblical Hebrew has no conception of punctuation and the conjunction may have served to delimit sentences. Let’s look at a real-world example, the first word of each of the four verses of Genesis 26:21-24:

וַיַּחְפְּרוּ בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת וַיָּרִיבוּ גַּם־עָלֶיהָ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ שִׂטְנָה 22 וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם וַיַּחְפֹּר בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת וְלֹא רָבוּ עָלֶיהָ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ רְחֹבוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי־עַתָּה הִרְחִיב יְהוָה לָנוּ וּפָרִינוּ בָאָרֶץ 23 וַיַּעַל מִשָּׁם בְּאֵר שָׁבַע 24 וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל־תִּירָא כִּי־אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת־זַרְעֲךָ בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי

You probably noticed that the first word of each verse is a Vav. What you may have guessed, given the context of this lesson, is that the word to which it is prefixed is an imperfect verb. Still, the NAS translators rendered these four verbs, each a perfect, as shown below.

(21) And they dug ... (22) And he moved … (23) And he went … (24) And the LORD appeared

What’s going on here? It appears as though the Bible’s authors had two different ways of expressing the past tense – a normal, English-like inflection and a peculiar tense-reversal signaled with a Vav consonant.

These inflections are illustrated in the chart below:

 Past Tense Male Female
Normal  הָלַךְ /ha·lakh/  הָלָכָה /ha·la·khah/
Reversed  וַיֵּלֶךְ  /vay·yey·lekh/  וַתֵּלֶךְ /va·tey·lekh

Welcome to biblical Hebrew.

Summary

  1. Hebrew verbs normally are placed before their subjects. When the subject occurs first, look for a parenthetical statement or a pluperfect tense (discussed later).
  2. Hebrew verbs are inflected for gender (male and female versions of the same verb are spelled differently).
  3. Past tense Hebrew verbs occur in two different forms. The form that is prefixed with a Vav is almost always used in narrative passages.

Now, with this prerequisite information out of the way, let’s learn some verbs.

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