Thursday, January 21, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- perfect ASPECT

So Dr. Cook tells us that Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language with the same features as its relatives, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Canaanitic, and so on, some of which are dead languages.  Biblical Hebrew has an aspect verb system with perfect and imperfect. 
An imperfect with the vav prefix, in verb-subject order, is the narrative past.  It represents action that is still ongoing and incomplete from the point of view of the characters in the story, but is part of the past of whoever is narrating the story.
If a noun subject splits the vav from the imperfect, and the syntax is subject-verb, and the  meaning clearly points to a past action, the verb belongs to a subordinate relative (“that”) or coordinate (“but”) clause.  The main clause might be in a prior verse.
Other sentences with no vav and an imperfect verb in subject-verb syntax possibly have a future meaning.
Verses starting with adverbials require verb-subject order, regardless of almost any  other grammar in them.

On to the perfect aspect.  Perfect aspect has the person and gender signals after the root letters.  Its normal syntax is subject-verb.  When it’s not, it has special meaning.
Genesis 4:1 is a past tense use of a perfect verb in subject-verb order; you might translate  the  vav as “and” but I wouldn’t because good English grammar argues against starting a sentence with “and.”

וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת־קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֹה:
The perfect aspect here does something I call opening or closing a story or an episode.  This is the counterpart to using narrative past to indicate that the story or episode is still in progress.  An example of complete closure is the pairing of Genesis 1:1 and 2:3, using bara, “created,” a perfect aspect verb.

IF the syntax is perfect verb-subject AND a vav is prefixed to the verb, it could be a subordinate clause of condition, purpose, result, cause, or effect.  This has a special name: it is called oblique modality.  Genesis 3:18 has an example.

וְקוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר תַּצְמִיחַ לָךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת־עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה:
“… such that you eat wild plants” because what you sowed was choked out by weeds.
That’s not how I originally translated it, but at the time I wasn’t using Dr. Cook’s principles.  

Genesis 13:6 (which you haven’t seen in these lessons) is a better example.

וְלֹא־נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו כִּי־הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו:
The subject of the first clause in this verse is ha-arets, the land, and it comes after a perfect verb, nasa, “bear”, and there’s a vav before the lo, “not”.  The translation is  So the earth could not bear them…” because Avraham and Lot had such big herds; this is an oblique modality in a subordinate cause of effect. 

The information about the big herds is in the previous verse, which makes it an excellent example of a general principle in reading Biblical Hebrew.
The verse endings may come where somebody has to draw breath to keep reciting or reading, but that doesn’t mean that the verses exist in a vacuum.  You have to first look at the context of the surrounding verses to detect things like main clauses or contradictions. 
That’s what makes Bible study hard, even when you understand Hebrew well. 

Do you understand the difference between imperfect and perfect at this point? 
1.  They can both express past time, but the imperfect will have a prefix for person and gender and, if it’s the narrative past, there will be a vav before the personal prefix.  The syntax will be verb-subject.  Never translate this vav as “and”.
2.  Often an imperfect with no vav will be future, and the syntax will usually be subject-verb. 
3.  Vav plus noun plus imperfect may be a relative or coordinate clause depending on the context.  The vav should be translated “that” or “but”.
4.  Perfect aspect normally will NOT have a vav and the syntax will be subject-verb.  This has a past meaning.
5.  Perfect WITH a vav will often come in verb-subject order, although sometimes the subject is understood from the previous clause or from the personal ending on the verb.  This is an oblique modality, a subordinate clause of condition, purpose, result, cause or effect.  

Next week I'll go over something even Dr.  Cook didn't realize about perfect aspect.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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