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Bible Lexicons

Gesenius Hebrew Grammer

Part 107

§107. Use of the Imperfect.[1]

The imperfect, as opposed to the perfect, represents actions, events, or states which are regarded by the speaker at any moment as still continuing, or in process of accomplishment, or even as just taking place. In the last case, its occurrence may be represented as certainly imminent, or merely as conceived in the mind of the speaker, or simply as desired, and therefore only contingent (the modal use of the imperfect). Knudtzon (see above, Rem. on §106a), comparing the Ass.-Bab. usage, would prefer the term present rather than imperfect, on the ground that the tense expresses what is either actually or mentally present. In any case, the essential difference between the perfect and imperfect consists, he argues, in this, that the perfect simply indicates what is actually complete, while the imperfect places the action, &c., in a more direct relation to the judgement or feeling of the speaker.

More precisely the imperfect serves—

1. In the sphere of past time:

(a) To express actions, &c., which continued throughout a longer or shorter period,[2] e.g. Genesis 2:6 a mist went up continually (יַֽעֲלֶה‎), 2:25, 37:7, 48:10, Exodus 1:12, Exodus 8:20, Exodus 13:22, Exodus 15:6, 12, 14, 15, Numbers 9:15 f. 20 f., 23 7, Judges 2:1, Judges 5:8, 1 Samuel 3:2, 1 Samuel 13:17 f., 2 Samuel 2:28, 2 Samuel 23:10, 1 Kings 3:4, 1 Kings 21:6, Isaiah 1:21, Isaiah 6:4 (יִמָּלֵא‎), 17:10 f., 51:2 x, Jeremiah 13:7, Jeremiah 36:18, Psalms 18:7, 14, 17 ff.38 ff., 24:2, 32:4, 5 (אוֹדִֽיעֲךָ‎), 47:5, 68:10, 12, 104:6 ff., 106:19, 107:18, 29, 139:13, Job 3:11, Job 4:12, 15 f., 10:10 f., 15:7 f.—very frequently alternating with a perfect (especially with a frequentative perfect; cf. Numbers 9:15–23 and §112e), or when the narration is continued by means of an imperfect consecutive.[3]

Rem. 1. The imperfect is frequently used in this way after the particles אָז‎ then, טֶ֫רֶם‎ not yet, בְּטֶ֫רֶם‎ before, עַד־‎ until, e.g. Exodus 15:1 אָז יָשִֽׁיר־משֶׁה‎ then sang Moses, &c.; Numbers 21:17, Deuteronomy 4:41, Joshua 10:12, 1 Kings 3:16, 1 Kings 8:1, Psalms 126:2, Job 38:21. (The perfect is used after אָז‎ when stress is to be laid on the fact that the action has really taken place, and not upon its gradual accomplishment or duration in the past, e.g. Genesis 4:26 אָז הוּחַל‎ then began, &c.; Genesis 49:4, Exodus 15:15, Joshua 22:31, Judges 5:11, Psalms 89:20.)[4] After טֶ֫רֶם‎ e.g. Genesis 19:4 טֶ֫רֶם יִשְׁכָּ֫בוּ‎ before they lay down; Genesis 2:5, Genesis 24:45, 1 Samuel 3:3, 7, always in the sense of our pluperfect. (In Genesis 24:15 instead of the perf. כִּלָּה‎, the imperf. should be read, as in verse 45; so also in 1 Samuel 3:7 [יִגָּלֶה‎] an imperf. is co-ordinated with ידע‎). After בְּטֶ֫רֶם‎ (sometimes also simply טֶ֫רֶם‎ Exodus 12:34, Joshua 3:1), e.g. Jeremiah 1:5 בְּטֶ֫רֶם תֵּצֵא‎ before thou camest forth; Genesis 27:33, Genesis 37:18, Genesis 41:50, Ruth 3:14 (perhaps also in Psalms 90:2 an imperf. was intended instead of יֻלָּ֫דוּ‎; cf. Wellhausen on 2 Samuel 3:2; but note also Proverbs 8:25, in a similar context, before the mountains were settled, הָטְכָּ֑עוּ‎, the predicate being separated from בְּטֶ֫רֶם‎, by הָרִים‎, as in Psalms 90:2). After עַד־‎ Joshua 10:13, Psalms 73:17 (until I went), 2 Chronicles 29:34; on the other hand, with the perf., e.g. Joshua 2:22. As after אָז‎, so also after טֶ֫רֶם‎, בְּטֶ֫רֶם‎, and עַד־‎ the imperf. may be used, according to the context, in the sense of our future, e.g. 2 Kings 2:9, Isaiah 65:24, Job 10:21; after עַד־‎ e.g. Isaiah 22:14. The imperf. is used in the sense of our present after טֶ֫רֶם‎ in Exodus 9:30, Exodus 10:7.

2. Driver (Tenses3, p. 35 f.) rightly lays stress upon the inherent distinction between the participle as expressing mere duration, and the imperfect as expressing progressive duration (in the present, past, or future). Thus the words וְנָהָר יׄצֵא‎ Genesis 2:10 represent the river of Paradise as going out of Eden in a continuous, uninterrupted stream, but יִפָּרֵד‎, which immediately follows, describes how the parting of its waters is always taking place afresh. In the same way יַֽעֲלֶהִ‎ Genesis 2:6 represents new mists as constantly arising, and יִמָלֵא‎ Isaiah 6:4 new clouds of smoke. Also those actions, &c., which might be regarded in themselves as single or even momentary, are, as it were, broken up by the imperfect into their component parts, and so pictured as gradually completing themselves. Hence תִּבְלָעֵ֫מוֹ‎ Exodus 15:12 (after a perf. as in verse 14) represents the Egyptians, in a vivid, poetic description, as being swallowed up one after another, and יַבְחֵ֫נִי‎ Numbers 23:7 the leading on by stages, &c.

(b) To express actions, &c., which were repeated in the past, either at fixed intervals or occasionally (the modus rei repetitae), e.g. Job 1:5 thus did (יַֽעֲשֶׂה‎) Job continually (after each occasion of his sons’ festivities); 4:3 f., 22:6 f., 23:11, 29:7, 9, 12 f., Genesis 6:4, Genesis 29:2, Genesis 30:38, Genesis 42:31, 39 (I used to bear the loss of it), Exodus 1:12, Exodus 19:19, Exodus 33:7 ff. (יִקַּח‎ used to take every time), 40:36 ff., Numbers 9:17 f. 20 ff., 11:5, 9, Judges 6:4, Judges 14:10, Judges 21:25, 1 Samuel 1:7, 1 Samuel 2:22, 1 Samuel 9:9, 1 Samuel 13:19, 1 Samuel 18:5, 1 Samuel 27:9, 2 Samuel 1:22, 2 Samuel 12:3, 2 Samuel 13:18, 1 Kings 5:25 (of tribute repeated year by year), 10:5, 13:33, 14:28, 2 Kings 4:8, 2 Kings 8:29, 2 Kings 13:20, 2 Kings 25:14, Jeremiah 36:23, Psalms 42:5, Psalms 44:3, Psalms 78:15, 40, 103:7, Esther 2:14; even in a negative dependent clause, 1 Kings 18:10.

2. In the sphere of present time, again

(a) To express actions, events, or states, which are continued for a shorter or longer time,[5] e.g. Genesis 37:15 מַה־תְּבַקֵּשׁ‎ what seekest thou? 19:19 לֹא־אוּכַל‎ I cannot; 24:50, 31:35, Isaiah 1:13. Other examples are Genesis 2:10, Genesis 24:31, 1 Samuel 1:8, 1 Samuel 11:5, 1 Kings 3:7, Psalms 2:2, and in the prophetic formula יֹאמַר יְהֹוָה‎ saith the Lord, Isaiah 1:11, 18, &c., cf. 40:1. So especially to express facts known by experience, which occur at all times, and consequently hold good at any moment, e.g. Proverbs 15:20 a wise son maketh a glad father; hence especially frequent in Job and Proverbs. In an interrogative sentence, e.g. Job 4:17 is mortal man just before God? In a negative sentence, Job 4:18, &c.

(b) To express actions, &c., which may be repeated at any time, including therefore the present, or are customarily repeated on a given occasion (cf. above, e), e.g. Deuteronomy 1:44 as bees do (are accustomed to do); Genesis 6:21, Genesis 32:33, Genesis 43:32, Judges 11:40, 1 Samuel 2:8, 1 Samuel 5:5, 1 Samuel 20:2, 2 Samuel 15:32, Isaiah 1:23, Isaiah 3:16, Psalms 1:3. So again (see f) especially to express facts known by experience which may at any time come into effect again, e.g. Exodus 23:8 a gift blindeth (יְעַוֵּר‎), &c.; Genesis 2:24, Genesis 22:14, Isaiah 32:6, Amos 3:7, Malachi 1:6, Job 2:4, &c. Of the same kind also is the imperfect in such relative clauses (see § 155), as Genesis 49:27 Benjamin is זְאֵב יִטְרָף‎ a wolf that ravineth (properly, is accustomed to ravin). Finally, compare also the formulae יֵֽאָמֵר‎ it is (wont to be) said (to introduce proverbial expressions) Genesis 10:9, Genesis 22:14, &c.; לֹא־יֵֽעָשֶׂה כֵן‎ it is not (wont to be) so done (and hence may not, shall not be, see u), Genesis 29:26, Genesis 20:9, Genesis 34:7, 2 Samuel 13:12.

(c) To express actions, &c., which although, strictly speaking, they are already finished, are regarded as still lasting on into the present time, or continuing to operate in it, e.g. Genesis 32:30 wherefore is it that thou dost ask (תִּשְׁאַל‎) after my name? 24:31, 44:7, Exodus 5:15, 2 Samuel 16:9. In such cases, naturally, the perfect is also admissible, and is sometimes found in the same formula as the imperfect, e.g. Job 1:7 (2:2) מֵאַ֫יִן תָּבֹא‎ whence comest thou (just now)? but Genesis 16:8 (cf. 42:7) אֵֽי־מִזֶּה בָאתְ‎ whence camest thou? The imperfect represents the coming as still in its last stage, whereas the perfect represents it as an accomplished fact.

3. In the sphere of future time. To express actions, &c., which are to be represented as about to take place, and as continuing a shorter or longer time in the future, or as being repeated; thus:

(a) From the standpoint of the speaker’s present time, e.g. Exodus 4:1 they will not believe (יַֽאֲמִ֫ינוּ‎) me, nor hearken (יִשְׁמְעוּ‎) unto my voice: for they will say (יֹֽאמְרוּ‎), &c., 6:1, 9:5, &c.

(b) In dependent clauses to represent actions, &c., which from some point of time in the past are to be represented as future, e.g. Genesis 43:7 could we in any wise know that he would say (יֹאמַר‎)? 2:19, 43:25, Exodus 2:4, 2 Kings 3:27 אֲשֶׁר־יִמְלֹךְ‎ qui regnaturus erat; 13:14, Jonah 4:5, Job 3:3, Ecclesiastes 2:3, Psalms 78:6 that the generation to come might know, בָּנִים יִוָּ֫לֵדוּ‎ the children which should be born (qui nascituri essent; the imperfect here with the collateral idea of the occurrence being repeated in the future).

(c) To represent a futurum exactum; cf. Isaiah 4:4, Isaiah 6:11 (co-ordinated with a perfect used in the same sense, see §106o); so also sometimes after the temporal particles עַד‎, Psalms 132:5, and עַד אֲשֶׁד‎ until, Genesis 29:8, Numbers 20:17, &c.

4. Finally to the sphere of future time belong also those cases in which the (modal) imperfect serves to express actions, events, or states, the occurrence of which is to be represented as willed (or not willed), or as in some way conditional, and consequently only contingent. More particularly such imperfects serve—

(a) As an expression of will, whether it be a definite intention and arrangement, or a simple desire, viz.:

(1) Sometimes in positive sentences in place of the cohortative (cf. e.g. Psalms 59:17 with verse 18; 2 Samuel 22:50 with Psalms 18:50; Judges 19:11, &c.), of the imperative (Isaiah 18:3), or of the jussive (which, however, in most cases, does not differ from the ordinary form of the imperfect), e.g. תֵּֽרָאֶה‎ let it appear Genesis 1:9, Genesis 41:34, Leviticus 19:2, 3, 2 Samuel 10:12 (and so frequently in verbs ל״ה‎; cf. §109a, note 2); Zechariah 9:5 (תָּחִיל‎); Psalms 61:7 (תּוֹסִיף‎); Proverbs 22:17 (תָּשִׁית‎); 23:1, Job 6:23 (co-ordinated with the imperative), 10:20 Keth.; so probably also יָדִין‎ let him judge! Psalms 72:2.—So also in the 1st pers., to express a wish which is asserted subsequently with reference to a fixed point of time in the past, e.g. Job 10:18 אֶגְּוַע‎ I ought to [not should as A.V., R.V.] have, (then, immediately after being born) given up the ghost; cf. verse 19 אֶֽהְיֶה‎ and אוּבָֽל‎ Leviticus 10:18, Numbers 35:28. Even to express an obligation or necessity according to the judgement of another person, e.g. Job 9:29 אֶרְשָׁע‎ I am to be guilty, 12:4. Cp. Job 9:15, Job 19:16; in a question, Psalms 42:10, Psalms 43:2.

(2) To express the definite expectation that something will not happen. The imperfect with לֹא‎ represents a more emphatic form of prohibition than the jussive[6] with אַל־‎ (cf. §109c), and corresponds to our thou shalt not do it! with the strongest expectation of obedience, while אַל־‎ with the jussive is rather a simple warning, do not that! Thus לֹא‎ with the imperfect is especially used in enforcing the divine commands, e.g. לֹא תִגְּנׄב‎ thou shalt not steal Exodus 20:15; cf. verses 3, 4, 5, 7, 10 ff. So לֹא‎ with the 3rd pers. perhaps in Proverbs 16:10.

Rem. The jussive, which is to be expected after אַל־‎, does not, as a rule (according to n, and §109a, note 2), differ in form from the simple imperfect. That many supposed jussives are intended as simple imperfects is possible from the occurrence after אַל־‎ of what are undoubtedly imperfect forms, not only from verbs ל״ה‎ (cf. §109a, note 2), but also from verbs ע״וּ‎, to express a prohibition or negative wish, אַל־תַּבִּיט‎ Genesis 19:17, אַל־תָּסוּר‎ Joshua 1:7, אַל־נָא יַשִׂים‎ 1 Samuel 25:25. Even with the 1st pers. plur. (after an imperative) וְאַל־נָמוּת‎ that we die not, 1 Samuel 12:19. Also to express the conviction that something cannot happen, אַל־יָנוּם‎ he will not slumber,[7] Psalms 121:3; cf. Jeremiah 46:6, 2 Chronicles 14:10. (3) In dependent clauses after final conjunctions (§165b), as אֲשֶׁר‎, Genesis 11:7 (אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ‎ that they may not understand); בַּֽעֲבוּר‎ Genesis 21:30, Genesis 27:4, 19, Exodus 9:14, &c.; לְמַ֫עַן אֲשֶׁר‎ Numbers 17:5; לְמַ֫עַן‎ Deuteronomy 4:1, Psalms 51:6, Psalms 78:6, and אֲשֶׁר יַעַ֫ן‎[8] Ezekiel 12:12, in order that[9]; לְבִלְתִּי‎ that... not, Exodus 20:20, 2 Samuel 14:14; also after פֶּן־‎ that not, lest, Genesis 3:22, Genesis 11:4, Genesis 19:15, &c.[10]; cf. also the instances introduced by וְלֹא‎ in §109g.—In Leviticus 9:6 such an imperfect (or jussive? see the examples in §109f) is added to the expression of the command by an asyndeton, and in Lamentations 1:19 to the principal clause simply by וְ‎: while they sought them food וְיָשִׁ֫יבוּ אֶת־נַפְשָׁם‎ to refresh their souls (cf. also Lamentations 3:26, it is good and let him hope, i.e. that he should hope); so after an interrogative clause, Exodus 2:7. Finally also in a relative clause, Psalms 32:8 בְּדֶ֫רֶךְ־זוּ תֵלֵךְ‎ in the way which thou shouldst go.

(b) To express actions, &c., which are to be represented as possibly taking place or not taking place (sometimes corresponding to the potential of the classical languages, as also to our periphrases with can, may, should[11]). More particularly such imperfects are used—

(1) In a permissive sense, e.g. Genesis 2:16 of every tree of the garden (אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל‎) thou mayest freely eat (the opposite in verse 17); 3:2, 42:37, Leviticus 21:3, 22, Job 21:3. In the 1st pers. Psalms 5:8, Psalms 22:18 (I may, or can, tell); in a negative sentence, e.g. Psalms 5:5.

(2) In interrogative sentences, e.g. Proverbs 20:9 מִֽי־יֹאמַר‎ quis dixerit? Cf. Genesis 17:17, Genesis 18:14, Genesis 31:43, 1 Samuel 11:12, 2 Kings 5:12 הֲלֹֽא־אֶרְחַץ בָּהֶם‎ may I not wash in them? Isaiah 33:14, Psalms 15:1, Psalms 24:3, Ecclesiastes 5:5. So especially in a question expressing surprise after אֵיךְ‎, e.g. Genesis 39:9 how then can I...? 44:34, Isaiah 19:11, Psalms 137:4, and even with regard to some point of time in the past, looking forward from which an event might have been expected to take place, e.g. Genesis 43:7 הֲיָדוֹעַ נֵדַע‎ could we in any wise know...? Cf. 2 Samuel 3:33 (יָמוּת‎ was Abner to die as a fool, i.e. was he destined to die...?), and so probably also Genesis 34:31 (should he deal...?). Very closely connected with this is the use of the imperfect—

(3) In a consecutive clause depending on an interrogative clause, e.g. Exodus 3:11, who am I (כִּי אֵלֵךְ‎) that I should (ought, could) go? 16:7, Numbers 11:12, Judges 9:28, 1 Samuel 18:18, 2 Kings 8:13, Isaiah 29:16, Job 6:11, Job 21:15, similarly after אֲשֶׁר‎ Genesis 38:18, Exodus 5:2. Rem. In passages like 1 Samuel 11:5, Psalms 8:5, Psalms 114:5, the context shows that the imperfect corresponds rather to our present. In such sentences the perfect also is naturally used in referring to completed actions, e.g. Genesis 20:10, Judges 18:23, 2 Samuel 7:18, Isaiah 22:1.

(4) In negative sentences to express actions, &c., which cannot or should not happen, e.g. Genesis 32:13 אֲשֶׁר לֽאֹ־יִסָּפֵד מֵרֹב‎ which cannot be numbered for multitude; 20:9 deeds (אֲשֶׁד לֹא־יֵֽעשׂוּ‎) that ought not to be done (cf. above, g); Psalms 5:5.

(5) In conditional clauses (the modus conditionalis corresponding to the Latin present or imperfect conjunctive) both in the protasis and apodosis, or only in the latter, Psalms 23:4 גַּם כִּֽי־אֵלֵךְ... לֹֽא־אִירָא רָע‎ yea, though I walk (or had to walk)... I fear (or I would fear) no evil; Job 9:20 though I be righteous, mine own mouth shall condemn me. After a perfect in the protasis, e.g. Job 23:10. Very frequently also in an apodosis, the protasis to which must be supplied from the context, e.g. Job 5:8 but as for me, I would seek unto God (were I in thy place); 3:13, 16, 14:14 f., Psalms 55:13, Ruth 1:12. However, some of the imperfects in these examples are probably intended as jussive forms. Cf. §109h.

  1. Cf. the literature cited above, p. 309, note 2.
  2. Cf. the Mêšaʿ inscription, l. 5, כי יאנף כמש בארצה‎ for Chemosh was angry with his land. As Driver, Tenses, 3rd ed., § 27, 1 a, remarks, this vivid realization of the accomplishment of the action is especially frequent in poetic and prophetic style.
  3. According to the Masora such imperfects occur in Is 1013 bis (where, however, וְאָסִיר‎ might also mean I am wont to remove, &c.), Isaiah 48:3, Isaiah 57:17, Psalms 18:38a, also (according to §49c) in 2 Samuel 1:10 and Ezekiel 16:10. In some other cases וְ‎ is no doubt a dogmatic emendation for וָ‎ (imperf. consec.) in order to represent historical statements as promises; cf. Isaiah 42:6, Isaiah 43:28 [contrasted with 42:25], 512 bis, 63:3 ff. and the note on §53p.
  4. After אָז‎ then (to announce future events) the imperf. is naturally used in the sense of a future, Genesis 24:41, Exodus 12:48, Micah 3:4, Zephaniah 3:9, Psalms 51:21.
  5. It is not always possible to carry out with certainty the distinction between continued and repeated actions. Some of the examples given under f might equally be referred to g.
  6. As stated in §46a, a prohibition cannot be expressed by אַל־‎ and the imperative.
  7. To regard this as an optative (so Hupfeld) is from the context impossible. It is more probably a strong pregnant construction, or fusion of two sentences (such as, do not think he will slumber!). Verse 4 contains the objective confirmation, by means of לֹא‎ with the imperf., of that which was previously only a subjective conviction.
  8. But יַעַ֫ן אֲשֶׁר‎ in a causal sense (because, since), e.g. Judges 2:20 (as אֲשֶׁר‎ Genesis 34:27) is followed by the perfect. On Joshua 4:24 see above, §74g.
  9. R.V. because he shall not see..]
  10. In 2 Kings 2:16 פֶּן־‎ occurs with the perf. in a vivid presentment of the time when the fear is realized and the remedy comes too late. (In 2 Samuel 20:6, since a perfect consec. follows, read with Driver יִמְצָא‎.)
  11. By this, of course, is not meant that these finer distinctions were consciously present to the Hebrew mind. They are rather mere expedients for making intelligible to ourselves the full significance of the Semitic imperfect.
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