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Biblical and Modern Hebrew Future Tense?!

There is this famous sentence from the bible, which begins with "ארדוף אויבי ואשיגם..." As a native, I've always read the sentence as if the verbs were in future tense.

However, when I looked up the translations for it in other languages, past tense was used... This leads me to wonder whether the time tenses got switched...

New International Version (NIV):

I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed.

I crushed them so that they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet.

Hebrew Bible:

אֶרְדּוֹף אוֹיְבַי, וְאַשִּׂיגֵם; וְלֹא-אָשׁוּב, עַד-כַּלּוֹתָם.

אֶמְחָצֵם, וְלֹא-יֻכְלוּ קוּם; יִפְּלוּ, תַּחַת רַגְלָי.

The way I actually read it as a native:

I will pursue my enemies and I will overtake them; I will not turn back until they are destroyed.

I will crush them, and they won't be able to rise; they will fall, beneath my feet.

So, does anybody know what's going on?

June 30, 2016



See here - http://www.daat.ac.il/encyclopedia/value.asp?id1=2943

As I understand it, the conclusion is that the tenses in the Bible have different meaning than today's.


Many interesting discussions can be held across the Bible regarding its use of language. I think the specific example brought here is pretty straightforward


Philologists called it the waw-conversive once upon a time, when it was more generally agreed that in NW Semitic the prefixed forms were imperfect of aspect and the suffixed ones perfective. Opinions have increased far more than the evidence did. The forms have a very different use in ancient poetry than prose, poetry tending to use verbs more like we do now from very early times.

In narrative context, this was perceived as having the effect of embedding the imperfective's action in the past and unmooring the perfective from it, hence converting their aspective nature into tenses. So, וידבר becomes "He spoke" and ודיברתי "I'll speak."

Even in the Tanakh this phenom is restricted to narrative passages.


That is one subject, the linked article above brings many other cases of words that appear one way though mean the other


You omitted the beginning of the verse "אמר אויב" = "the enemy said", the part you quoted is a direct quote of what the enemy (Egypt) said before chasing the Jews into the desert and the sea.

And they did actually say it in future tense ,it was their plan for pursuing the Jews, before they did it.

It doesn't make sense in past tense, since it didn't work out...

The translation is wrongly attributing the words to God or the Jewish people


Why do they use the past tense in other languages? Is it an error?


Not all languages use tenses the same way.

I don't know if it's true in this case, my Hebrew isn't good enough, but for example, English often changes the tense in reported/indirect speech, whereas generally Russian does not. Also Russian uses the present tense to indicate an action in the past that continues in the present, where English uses the past tense. For example (if memory serves), in English I might say I have been studying Esperanto for a year, which would imply that I started in the past, but I am still continuing to study it, whereas in Russian I'd say the equivalent of I am studying Esperanto for a year, and if I used the past tense, it would imply I was no longer studying it.

Like I say, my Hebrew is only elementary, so I don't know if that's the case here, but it might just be that how Hebrew uses tenses is different to how other languages uses tenses.

Again if memory serves, I know that Isaac is translated as meaning "he laughs" in an English bible, but the literal meaning of Yitshak is "he will laugh". So I don't know for certain, but it seems likely there could be some discrepancy simply due to how the two languages work. (And of course, then you have the differences between Modern and Biblical Hebrew, which I imagine put another bunch of variables into the mix.)


It wouldn't be the only example of the Bible being translated wrong or inaccurately.


It's actually from Psalms, not Exodus. Nothing to do with the Exodus story. It makes perfect sense in the future tense even with the context given.


That's correct, I got mixed up between the two verses. I was just coming to write that.

This one is explained differently by different commentaries, so I guess it can be used as both.

BTW, it is duplicated in both Samuel and Psalms with a few differences.


Please don't refer to the NIV, it will mess you up LOL


But it seems that future tense is used in every language and every version I checked...

EDIT: Oops, I meant past tense...


I remember reading somewhere that in biblical Hebrew, the modern Hebrew 'past' and 'future' tenses referred to the perfect and imperfect, respectively. So the biblical Herbrew tense here is probably the imperfect (meaning the action was never completed); in which case the use of the English past tense here could make sense, given the context of the quote.


The imperfect in Biblical Hebrew is the future tense. I don’t know if is the same in modern Hebrew


I'm currently studying Biblical Hebrew, I came here looking for info on grammatical differences between Biblical and Modern.

My grammar textbook proposes that the English idea of "tense" (past vs future) AND the Greek idea of "aspect" (imperfect vs perfect) are both flawed ways of understanding verbs in Biblical Hebrew. Instead, the textbook authors prefer talking about the "mode" of a verb. As a brief summary, the "mode" basically tells you whether the verb is "definite" or "indefinite". A definite verb is a specific, concrete thing that happens ("I ate bread"). An indefinite verb is an action that is more vague. It doesn't happen at one concrete point. This might be because it's only a potential action ("we might eat bread"), or because it is a pattern of behaviour, not a specific occurrence ("sometimes we eat bread"), or just because it hasn't happened yet ("we will eat bread").

They give four modes for the verb (based on the forms of the Hebrew word קָטַל):

  • Qatal - definite
  • Yiqtol - indefinite
  • Wayyiqtol - progresses the narrative
  • Weqatal - expands on another verb

The main ones to understand are Qatal and Yiqtol. When translating into English, they usually translate Qatal verbs as past tense and Yiqtol verbs as future tense. But Qatal can still refer to the future if it is a definite event (this is sometimes the case when God speaks about the future - He is God, and His words about the future are certain, not hypothetical!). Yiqtol verbs can also be past, if they refer to something that was happening regularly.

There's no one "correct" way to express the idea of a Qatal or Yiqtol verb in English. Different cases will require you to translate it slightly differently in order for the English to make sense. As usual, context is very important.

What little Biblical Hebrew I've been reading so far does seem to make sense through this lens. I hope this helps someone trying to understand the Biblical Hebrew verb system :)


Concerning Biblical Hebrew, as at least one other person hinted at, the NIV is a bad translation. I recommend the KJV English translation. In this case I agree with others that these verses you posted should be in the future tense. However, in uncommon situations, the imperfect forms of verbs can include things being done in the present but will also continue to happen into the future. Essentially the imperfect is something unfinished or not yet started, where as the Perfect forms are finished actions, or on rare occasions it can even be actions in the present also but that they will be completed soon. Biblical Hebrew does often use participles for present tense situations, but participles are not the only way to use a 'present tense' in Biblical Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew does have some of the same prefixes and suffixes for past and present tenses on verbs, but there are also many differences in Modern Hebrew when it comes to tense forms of verbs, and frankly, those differences in Modern Hebrew drive me crazy.


I take the verse in question to be Psalm 18:37 (or 18:38 in my Hebrew Bible).

Interestingly, the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament done by Jewish scholars around 300BC - 100BC) translates the verbs in this verse with the future tense:

καταδιωξω τους εχθρους μου ("I will pursue my enemies").

The telltale sign is the ξ instead of κ in the verb καταδιωξω, which indicates future time.

The Hebrew verb is אֶרְדּוֹף. If my parsing is correct, it's a 1st-person singular yiqtol verb (which would ordinarily be translated into English as a future-tense verb unless context demanded something else).

The KJV translated this verse with a perfect-tense construction back in 1611AD ("I have pursued mine enemies"). It's hard to say why exactly. But the reason that the NIV, ESV and NASB all translate it as past is probably just because English translators often choose to maintain the traditional translation from the KJV on relatively trivial matters, even when it isn't quite perfect.

However, the WEB (World English Bible) and it's parent translation the ASV (American Standard Version) correctly use the future tense for this verse. It surprises me how often the WEB turns out to be the most accurate on some of these minor details. If you're learning biblical languages, the WEB is often a good English Bible to use, because it does less "smoothing out" than other English versions.

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