ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי־אוֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר:
Translation: Gd said Let light exist; light must have existed.
Whoops. What happened there?
Well, the last verb in this verse is not a deontic. It’s an epistemic. I tend to call it the certainty epistemic, but that only applies to one use of it and there’s another that I call evidentiary epistemic.
It looks like a shortened imperfect but it has the vav prefix.
There are only eight verbs that do this often, and one that does it less often, and they are all lamed heh verbs.
The last verb has two meanings: “torment”; and “respond, answer, recompense.” The latter is the one that shows up as certainty/evidentiary epistemic.
What does this epistemic do?
As evidentiary, it introduces information that supports the claim made in the verb.
As certainty, it says “what I just said is unquestionably the truth.”
Epistemics are always about the “speaker’s” investment in the truth of what was just said and they are the second of the three modalities I learned about in Dr. Cook’s dissertation.
And they always look two ways at once.
What this verse ends up saying is “I believe with perfect faith that the events I just reported are true, that light came into existence by the thing that Gd said.”
But it also says “I believe with perfect faith that Gd is the One who said this and made it come about in that way.”
It’s belief in both the verb and the subject, due to the existence of the object or the predicate. I’ll explain that more when we get to the next verse.
It is not possible for English to capture in one word what the epistemic means. I had to use periphrasis to do it. This is standard for every translation from one language into another; the translator runs into things that word-for-word substitution fails to convey.
When you are looking for a translation of anything, especially ancient literature, and the publisher blurb touts it as “literal”, do not waste your money. The blurb was written by somebody who doesn’t understand translation and is preying on the ignorance of the average person to make a sale.
This is why Muslims and traditional Jews view all translations with suspicion. If you want to know what the Quran “really says”, you should be prepared to invest a good deal of time in learning Quranic Arabic. Luckily, there are a couple of texts online for free. One of them is based on the Quranic Arabic tradition of grammar; the other is more westernized, but it is the ONLY grammar of Arabic, either classical or modern, that actually explains what the so-called “energetic” verb form does.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved