Examination of the Hebrew Bible as to the Structure and Idiom of the Language

The Tenses: Their Force, And How To Be Rendered.
The tenses in Hebrew need fresh examination. Nothing but a careful study of them as they occur in the Bible can give a satisfactory solution to the difficulties and uncertainties which exist in many minds as to them.
In Hebrew verbs there are three moods-the Indicative, the Infinitive, and the Imperative—and, besides these, two participles. The indicative has two tenses, which I will call {x} and {z} for the present. The questions are, as to these ({x} and {z}), firstly, Do they carry in themselves a time of their own? or is the time which they express dependent upon the connection in which they stand?
Let us look at them, first, in Genesis; from chap. 1:1 to chap. 2:3.
Chap. 1:1, 2: " In the beginning God {x} created the heavens and the earth. And the earth {x} was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
The form, marked {x} is called Preterite by the Hebraists.
Note this: " In the beginning," here, does not mean 'of creation;’ for (Job 38:4-74Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. 5Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? 6Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; 7When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4‑7)) angels existed when the foundations of the earth were laid. Again, though it does refer to the commencement of the globe on which we are, it was not the commencement of ‘the earth as prepared for man.' That begins in verse 3; and between the paragraphs (vv. 1, 2) and that beginning at verse 3, there is a gap, which is blank and void. Some geologists, in self-sufficient ignorance, who wish to find fault with Scripture, do not see either this, or that if the theories which they advocate are right, they must have been in the said gap; for the verses 1 and 2 describe a state not suited to much for which they demand a place. And the same is true of the paragraph which begins with verse 3; but there is the gap between the two, and Scripture, in saying nothing of it or its contents, leaves it a blank.
Paragraph 1 contains a narration, in which the origin of this globe (heaven and earth) is ascribed to God; the formless and void condition of it is named, and darkness being over the deep; but the Spirit of God also was moving on the face of the waters.
Thus, what first came into being, God {x} created; and darkness {x} was, &c.; both these verbs are in the perfectly past time. The mind is thrown back to "the beginning," and to what was originated there, and the state of it. God created,’ and 'what He created was, &c. Here the object seems to be to mark that the originator was God as Creator.
In paragraph 2 (beginning with verse 3), on the contrary, we get a series of actings connected in one, each acting a step towards a whole. Six days, and their characteristic marks put upon them by God; and then a seventh, a day of rest.
Between these two paragraphs, when they are compared together, there is contrast. They cannot be made into one and the same series. But there may have been a gap between them, undefined as to extent and what was in it. Nothing could more mark, to my mind, the perfectly past time expressed, as above, by {x} "created" and {x} "was," and their isolatedness as in paragraph 1. They are the first occurrences of the preterite form, and so are the more calculated to impress the mind; and the perfectly past time is stamped upon them by the context, and not only by the name given to them by the grammarians; so that I shall use p henceforth- instead of {x}.
Paragraph 2. Verses 3-5: "And God {z} said, {z} Let there be light: and there {z} was light. And God {z} saw the light, that it was good: and God {z} divided the light from the darkness. And God {z} called the light Day, and the darkness {p} He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day." (Hebrews "And the evening {z} was and the morning {z} was, a first day.")
Here we have six instances of {z} (called by the old grammarians future, and by the moderns present), then one {p}, and then in Hebrew two more occurrences of {z}—all translated alike, by a past (but which here, however, would sometimes be more like an imperfect than a proper perfect tense).
It might be translated differently, thus: ‘And God {z} saith, Light {z} is, and there {z} is light. And God {x} sees the light, that it is good: and God {z} divides the light from the darkness. And God {z} calls the light Day, and the darkness {p} He called Night. And evening {z} is and morning {z} is, a first day.'
I see, as I judge, what led Hebrew rabbis astray sometimes, and what also misled Gentile translators into doing violence, in the translation of the tenses, and moods too, here and elsewhere. The rabbis, on the one hand, made their 'observations on the text; and Gentile translators too soon turned to man-made grammars, and too little kept their minds in lively examination of the sacred text. On the other hand, while I admit that the, idioms of the languages into which translators (whether Greek, or Latin, or English) sought to render that which was in the Hebrew did not readily admit the very forms of the Hebrew, this is all that I can as yet grant. And this, of course, raises a question as to the competency of the translators for their work, and is a proof of the need and the value of every such tentative paper as this. But if the mind of the respective translators rules in the LXX, in the Vulgate, in Jerome's, and in the English versions, ere I dare to submerge the Hebrew idiom, &c., altogether, and go to sea without a compass as to moods and tenses, I would say, Let us look carefully to the Hebrew, and, see what the facts of the case are.
I observe then, firstly, that the English gives the paragraph 2 as a historical record: "God said,... Let there be light,... light was," &c. Now, this is just as if there had been no break after verse 2, and that the account given in verses 1 and 2 (paragraph 1), which was correctly so given, was being continued through paragraph 2.
On the contrary, the Hebrew, more like the gospels by far, seems to give a vividness to what begins in verse 3, because it brings us into the scene itself where God is presented as a living Person in present action, and this living Person's actions and words characterize the whole paragraph onward.
I know, by their omission of Peh at the commencement of verse 3, that the rabbis did not see that a new paragraph began with verse 3; but any one that weighs the matter will see that it is the commencement of an entirely new paragraph. It has a vacuum before it occurs, sufficiently large for all the geologists, but it has no background; the vacuum is of most undefined space and occupation; on the other side of which is the origin of the globe and its chaos state, yet under the Spirit of God. If the various displays of creation of which the geologists, speak occupied that gap, they all had ceased and passed, when the living God is seen as personally present, and introducing an entirely new and orderly system of things. He is in living display, and He says, speaks, sees, divides, calls, creates, makes, &c., and the very variety of His ways and actings is a proof of the same.
I have spoken of {x}, the first tense, a preterite, which will, I anticipate, be found by us to be always, in one way and sense or in another, a tense carrying its own time, and that a perfect. Apparent exceptions are not always real ones, and the uses too to which a tense may be put may have to be considered.
As to {z}, the second tense, called a future by the old, and a present by many grammarians, I have thought that in some cases, following a past, it might be to mark and consequently thereon,' or ‘after that past, now so and so.' But here I may raise a question or two for examination and testing; viz., whether the great mistake has not flowed from this, that grammars and rules have been formed too hastily by man, after partial examination of the text, and too readily accredited? Again, does the second tense ({z}) possess, and carry with it any time of its own? or is it not rather dependent, or contingent, on its immediate context for the time it marks?
I am not at present aware of any occurrence in which it could be rendered correctly by a past time. Dependent upon the context, it may carry the present time or a future time, and does so, as I believe, constantly in Scripture.
To call {x} a preterite, and, in an initiatory sentence, to translate it by a present (as in Psa. 1:11Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. (Psalm 1:1)), falsifies the text, and changes (in that case) the doctrine, connecting three verbs with men, and not with the Anointed. The translators, perhaps, thought that they were protected (in Gen. 1:33And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1:3), in rendering what they called future tenses by past tenses) by what seemed to them the historic character of the narration, or for some reason which I do not know; but I cannot receive their doing so without proof of its correctness.
In Gen. 1:3 the living God is present, and He will say,' &c. (in the future), could not be said; He speaks as in present action, and the present tense alone can be used. I observe, as I pass, that the translators turn the indicative mood, future (as they would say), into an imperative mood, " Let there be light." Thus likewise there are imperatives out of all number in the Psalms in English, where in Hebrew they are in the so-called future. The imperatives thus used in the Psalms turn the energy of hope into the sense of need-which, with a lesser faith, a believer would do-imploring God for help, instead of expressing the assurance of hope. There are eight imperatives in Gen. 1, and the reason of their being used, and the effect on the sense, we shall see when we come to them.
Judging that {z}, instead of being a tense with a time of its own, is nothing of the kind, but dependent or contingent, as to the time which it marks, upon its connection and place in the clause, I have no hesitation in rendering it here, God saith, Light is: and there is light; and He sees, and divides,' &c. That is, the living God, in present action, is that which marks the time: this, and not, as some one has said, because it is always a present; for that it certainly is not. In the fourth day we see this. In verse 14 God speaks, first of what shall be, then of it as according with what was in purpose; and in verse 16 He, in action, creates what He had spoken of in verse 14 as about to be.
Thus verse 14, "And [{z} first a present] ' God saith,' next there shall be' lights [a future] in the firmament of the heavens," &c.; and this was to be so because of something past. These lights ({p}) have been (or were) for signs, &c.; and again, ({p}) they have been (or were) for lights, and so ({z}) it shall be;' but not till verse 16 does His action appear: 'And God {z} makes them, &c., and {z} sets them, &c., and {z} sees that it is good, &c.' (See also the same thing in verses 6-8.) In us, faith leads through difficulties to trust in God, stay on Him, and to hope. So life shows itself. And often the same voice that calls for help under trial will add, a little later, " He will help." That is, when the soul is with God.
Beautiful English is not so good, if it gives us only an approximation to the original (and that not a close one), as a rougher and less polished English, which gives the original as nearly as possible as it stands. Moreover, the change in the mode of presenting the matter to be communicated is a serious change, and without warrant.
When I read from Gen. 1 to 2:3 in the English Bible, I am as one listening to a narration; when I read the same portion in Hebrew, I am as one in the presence of God, the living God in action. Psa. 33:66By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. (Psalm 33:6) is blessed; but Job 38:4-74Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. 5Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? 6Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; 7When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4‑7) is more stirring and impressive. What, so to speak, would Job have given for the answer to it in our present portion! What the grace which has given it to us? Our authorized version, with its many words which have changed their meaning (some of them altogether) since it was written; with its many italic words, put in to make it like English; with its want of uniformity as to the use of the same word in English for the same word in the original (this last because of the king's order, and with the view of showing the largeness of the English vocabulary, &c. &c.), is still (all that notwithstanding) a precious gift from God to the English people. But if it led the way, faith would follow on, through grace, to something better. Ezek. 43:10, 1110Thou son of man, show the house to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities: and let them measure the pattern. 11And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, show them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and do them. (Ezekiel 43:10‑11) may have a word for faith herein.
In verse 5 there is a remarkable change. "And God {x} ‘calls' the light Day, and the darkness {p} 'He called' Night." Why the change here from ‘calls’ to ‘called’- from a present to a past? It is the more marked because found in dealing with the two halves of one whole day.
Again, though less marked, yet in verse 10 a similar thing occurs: " {z} 'calls' the dry land earth, and the gathering together of the waters {p} He called.' "
And see also verse 27: " {z} 'creates' the man in His own image, in the image of God {p} ‘created’ He him; male and female {p} ‘created’ He them."
In each of these cases the Spirit of God, writing through Moses, changes (if I may so say) His own position for the moment. Writing at first as one personally present, and a present witness of a scene occurring, He uses language befitting that position; but changes it, as to that of one looking back to a scene that is past. Man does the same thing frequently. As to the ‘why' of this here, and as to the rationale of it, I have, at present, nothing to say. The effect of the change I feel to be this, that it draws my mind to the fact of the series which makes up the whole. 'And {z} He calls the light Day, and the darkness {p} He called Night. And evening {z} is and morning {z} is, a first day.' But I could not say that this effect on the mind of the change from ‘calls' to ‘called' was the intention of the writer, so as to be worthy to be called one of the intentional uses of this or similar changes. That it is a mode of speech common to many languages is true. And these remarks apply in a great measure to the two other instances adduced.
On the second day, verses 6-8, I have nothing more to say, having referred above to the proof they afford that {z} has at times a future sense, and why (i.e. the proof of it here), as well as, at other times, a present tense. Being without a time of its own, it is dependent for the time it presents on the connection in which it stands.
On the third day, verses 9-13, I have noticed the change of tense in one place, and have nothing more to add.
On the fourth day, verses 14-19, the ‘shall be' and the ‘is' of {z}, and why (i.e. the proof of it here), has been pointed out above (vv. 14, 15).
On the fifth day, verses 20-23. Here, after saying the things tare, &c., God {z} 'creates' certain ones, and "which the waters {p} brought forth," are the expressions used. Then we first get the "imperative mood" used. They being in existence, through creatorial power, He commands them, by procreation, to "be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the seas," and declares that "the fowl {z} shall multiply"- another future, with {z}, and not a present.
On the sixth, day, verses 24-31, "God saith, The earth brings forth" (v. 24), and (v. 25) "God makes;" verse 26, " He saith, We will make Adam," and " they shall have dominion "-futures, and not presents (see above for the why); verse 27, "created" (as above), and then "be fruitful, multiply, and replenish, and subdue it, and have dominion "-all imperatives, as marking God's order for enlargement of the various species He had formed, &c.; and that it was not from the mud having a creatorial power in itself, or decomposition either, as some of old taught; or any other folly such as materialists, men learned as to things subjected to sense, have taught. But the power and the wisdom of the originator is that which settles the lines of extension, and, I may add, of maintenance and of protection. But Himself, acting still, though unseen, who at first originated, will in the end close Nature's course.
For maintenance, so far as food is concerned, tne appointment was from Him. (vv. 29, 30.)
Verse 29. {p} "I have given to you " calls the attention, at least, to the change from creation to maintenance. In verse 31 God's scrutiny of the quality of that of which, He was the originator occurs: "And, behold, it is very good;" and to this too, in point of fact, attention is roused by another change of tense from z to p, " God {z} sees everything that {p} He made."
Chap. 2:1-3. Verse 2, "God {z} finishes His work which {p} He made," another such change of tense; and "{z} He rests from all His work which {p} He made" is again another specimen of the same; and a third follows, "{z} sanctifies it: because that in it {p} He rested from all His work which God {p} created to make."
In The Following Illustration,
{p} and {z} above, but just before a verb, mark the two several tenses in Hebrew.
{^} marks where an eth stands in the Hebrew.
The article is marked in Hebrew, where it occurs, by a capital T in the word The. The demonstrative article may be noticed, where it occurs, in notes. " The serpent," chap. 3:1, might better be "a certain serpent;" and Isa. 7:1414Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14), " a certain virgin," &c. These are demonstrative pronouns.
{ye} denotes the article supplied in English to make sense.
Words in italics are supplementary, to help the English.
{a} above, but just before a word, marks a participle; {b} an infinitive; {c} an imperative.
ה is at times the article, and at times a demonstrative pronoun, and at times an interrogation, equal to "?" as in chap. 3:11 and 4:7, 9.
1. Gen. 1:33And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1:3). "And Elohim," &c. If the force of {z} is dependent as to time upon context, it would pretty nearly amount to a ‘then' or a ‘now.' "And then Elohim " (in Hebrew text), &c., would be "And consequently thereon Elohim," &c. This ‘consequently thereon' would be very indefinite as to the date or thing of which it was a consequence. The interval between that referred to and the sequence to it might be a night or ten thousand years; so that the gap referred to above is not affected by it. On the other hand, if Elohim speaks of what He knows to be existent, the verb {z} would be rendered by a present; or if, secondly, of what He means to exist afterward, then it would be rendered in English by a future.
This ‘consequently thereon' would thus make {z}, as tied to a past of old date, in some sense a past historically; and yet the series might be consecutive as to the action of each, as of the above verbs. {z}'s (consequent upon a defined past) go on to the middle of verse 5, when another past ({p}) is introduced. Whether or not the {p} is introduced here to mark the close of Elohim's actings in a first period may be considered. In such case the rest of the verse would be a break between the periods merely. On the other hand, it might be said, If so, would it not have been before morning-the close of the first day?
2. And then, verse 6, another series of such {z}'s (consequent upon a defined past) follows. What is that defined Past? Query, verses 1 and 2, or {p} 'called' in verse 5? If it be said, "No; but of first day" that is a definite period indeed; but {p} ‘called,' verse 5, is twelve hours before the light which closed the first day. Yet a series does begin, verse 6, of such {z}'s, which runs on to called ‘seas,' verse 10. ‘Seas' in contrast here with rain clouds;' but it is in the third day, and not in the second.
3. A third series of such {z}'s begins in verse 10, and rims on to verse 14. The same and similar queries may be raised as before.
Again, a series of {z}'s runs on to verse 21: " He {z} creates whales, &c., which the waters {p} brought forth abundantly.” It may be that ‘creates' and ‘brought forth abundantly' are in contrast. But here the p neither marks a close of any series, or the commencement of another. Used at haphazard it could not be by God. Can it be that the use of {p} here is explained in its more immediate and private context? As in the contrast between night' and day,' between ‘seas' and ‘rain clouds,' so here (verse 21) between ‘whales, &c., created,' and 'the waters multiplying,' &c. This is in the fifth day.
4. In the next series of {z}'s, which is in the sixth day, queries as before might be raised. And, query, from middle of 21 to 27, Is the narration according to the lapse of time in order in the occurrences? And notice the correspondence between 20, 21, and 24, 25.
Verse 27. " {p} He created him in the image of God, male and female {p} created He them." Then three {z}'s and five imperatives (which are future yet as to the time in which spoken), which give, therefore, a defined past, as date of departure, to what is consequent to the command. And then, verse 29, " Behold, {p} I have given."
2 {p}'s, 'created,' 'created;' a defined time. 5 imperatives; a defined time. A {p}, ' have given;' a defined time.
Verse 29, {z} ‘it is' or 'shall be;' verse 30, {z} ‘it is so;' verse 31, {z} ‘sees.'
Verse 31, {p} ‘made,' a defined past; evening {z} is,’ ‘morning {z} is.’
N.B.-Also the participles-their times of qualifying, inherent in that which they qualify; though the time of their being given dependent on God's acting in giving.
Chapter 2. Verse 1, consequent on the six days' creation, {z} ‘are finished;' verse 2, {z} 'ends,' {p} ‘made,' {z} 'rests;’ {p} 'he made;' verse 3, {z} 'blesses,' {z} ‘sanctifies it;' {p} 'rested,' {p} ‘created.'