Scholars love to duke it out when it comes to describing the ins and outs of the verb in ancient Hebrew. The amount of nonsense that has been said on the subject is astounding. In this post, I take as my point of departure an essay by Randall Buth entitled “The Hebrew Verb: A Short Syntax,” and defend the following thesis, to wit:
(1) yiqtol is the default future tense in ancient Hebrew.
I thank Randall, who has been blogging a bit over at Alef and Omega, for sending me his helpful discussion. Randall’s discussion is a chapter, it seems, from his “Living Hebrew” textbook, which I have on order.
Any discussion of the verb in ancient Hebrew ought to open with a candid reflection on the way grammarians tend to proceed. Here is an example, taken from footnote 6 – scholars love to bury what should be the lede in a footnote – of the cited essay:
We must note a particular characteristic of TMA [tense-mood-aspect – RB] systems which, though seemingly obvious, has been ignored by virtually all work up to and including Comrie’s (1976) influential study of aspect. . . . what each marker of modality, tense, or aspect means will be largely determined by how many markers of these things there are in the system and by what each of the others mean. Facts such as these are, however, ignored by most scholars in the field, who strive to fit all phenomena into the same conceptual straitjacket.
Derek Bickerton, Roots of Language (Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers, 1981) 90.
Thank you, Derek. I noticed that, too.
According to Randall Buth, yiqtol is a tense-aspect in ancient Hebrew. On this view, sometimes the yiqtol’s imperfective aspect is suppressed, and sometimes it is not. I prefer to say that yiqtol sometimes marks future tense (and is aspect-neutral); sometimes aspect (for example, in contexts dominated by narrative past tense wayyiqtols); and sometimes, in conjunction with certain function words, mood. In fact, a case might be made that yiqtol is aspect-neutral, and that examples Buth classifies as “past habitual” and “past continual” are weak modals, equivalent more or less to ‘would’ in English. Unusually, and only in poetry, yiqtol with or without an initial waw consecutive serves as a narrative past tense (e.g., in Deut 32:10-18).
It is also a fact that yiqtol is the default future tense in ancient Hebrew, corresponding to qatal as the default past tense. This is a shorthand way of saying that if one is talking to someone else in ancient Hebrew, it is correct to reach for a yiqtol form when beginning to speak about something one expects to happen in the future, and conversely, it is correct to reach for a qatal form when beginning to speak about something that belongs to the past. For example:
אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ
(1) I will do as you have spoken.
אֵצֵא וְהָיִיתִי רוּחַ שֶׁקֶר בְּפִי כָּל־נְבִיאָיו
(2) I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.
1 Kings 22:22
עַד יִגָּמֵל הַנַּעַר וַהֲבִאֹתִיו
(3) When the boy is weaned, I will bring him.
1 Sam 1:22
אָבִינוּ מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר
(4) Our father died in the wilderness
רָאִיתִי אֶת־אֲדֹנָי נִצָּב עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ
(5) I saw my Lord standing by the altar
נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה בִּימִינוֹ
(6) The Lord swore with his right hand
Example (3) is interesting, because the TMA system of English does not use its default future tense in that kind of situation.
Randall Buth makes the argument that yiqtol is the default future tense when he notes “which [verb forms] are attested with a word like מחר tomorrow (52 occurrences in the Bible).” As he points out, yiqtol, consecutive weqatal, participles, and imperatives are attested with this verb, but not qatal. מחר עשה יי הדבר הזה ‘Tomorrow Yhwh will do this thing’ is not ancient Hebrew; that would be מחר יעשה יי הדבר הזה(Exodus 9:5). Furthermore, ‘And when my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock,’ which a language that systematically marks aspect might realize with an imperfective – perfective sequence, is realized quite otherwise than with a yiqtol – qatal sequence in biblical Hebrew:
וְהָיָה בַּעֲבֹר כְּבֹדִי וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר
Here are some Russian examples of perfective and imperfective futures. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know Russian to get the distinction:
Буду читать (imperfective future) статью, надеюсь, что прочитаю (perfective future)
I shall read/be reading the article and hope I shall get it finished.
Қогда я буду проходить (imperfective future) мимо аптеки, куплю (perfective future) табпетки от кашля
When I pass the druggist’s I shall buy some cough drops.
 Terence Wade, A Comprehensive Russian Grammar (2d ed.; Malden: Blackwell, 2001) 306-307.