Biblical Hebrew

On this page I discuss seven aspects of biblical Hebrew, some of which are probably unique among languages, ancient or modern,  that are important for understanding translations of the bible.  They are (1) biblical Hebrew grammar, (2) the Hebrew alphabet, (3) biblical Hebrew spelling, (4) the absent indefinite article and other articles and prepositions, (5) multiple -- at times conflicting -- meanings of biblical Hebrew words, (6) the arrangement of Hebrew words in a verse, and (7) the peculiar and mysterious Hebrew letter vav.

1.  Biblical Hebrew Grammar

First of all, biblical Hebrew possesses only two tenses.  They are the perfect, corresponding loosely to the English past or present tense, and the imperfect, loosely the future tense.  The tense of a verb is denoted by its spelling, which is specific to particular forms of a verb.  Normally, imperfect verbs are translated as will do, shall do, may do, should do, must do, or have to do, where any verb may be substituted for the verb do..  But there is an odd use of the imperfect tense in many verses.  When describing hypothetical or recurring actions in the past, the imperfect verb is used almost exclusively.  When used this way the verb translations normally use helping words such as could, would, or had to   The first such examples of this construction are found in Gene. 2:5 and 2:6.  In Gene. 2:5 below a hypothetical situation is being described.  In Gene. 2:6 a recurring situation is being described.  The phrases containing these examples are:

וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִֽהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ וְכָל־עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח    2:5

Gene. 2:5        Now no shrub of the field could yet be on the earth, and no herb of the field could have sprung up, ....

First I have to let you know that third-person masculine imperfect verbs always begin with a yad, י.  Notice that the verb translated as could ... be, יִֽהְיֶה, the fifth word, and the word translated as could have sprung up, יִצְמָחI, the last word, are both in the imperfect tense although they relate to situations in the past.

וְאֵד יַֽעֲלֶה מִן־הָאָרֶץ וְהִשְׁקָה אֶֽת־כָּל־פְּנֵֽי־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה>   2:6

Gene. 2:6         But a mist would arise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.

The same is true for the second word in this verse translated as would rise up, יַֽעֲלֶה, and the fifth word translated as and water, וְהִשְׁקָה.  In the latter case, the verb is in the perfect tense with an inverting vav prefix that inverts its tense from perfect to imperfect (see section 7 below for a description of the inverting vav).

In addition to verb tenses, all Hebrew words are of two genders, either masculine or feminine, although there are words that can exhibit both genders, depending on context and meaning.  There is no neuter gender.  In translations of Hebrew, the neuter gender shows up, but it is not present in the Hebrew.  Prepositions exhibit no gender at all.  For the most part, every noun, verb, pronoun, adjective, and adverb takes a different form, being spelled differently depending on its gender.  And verbs, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs agree with their referents or antecedents in number and gender, except for apparent idioms that may contain, for example, a masculine noun and a feminine adjective.

The number (plural or singular) of a word is also indicated by different spelling.  Because of these grammatical facts, a lot of information is contained in the spelling of a Hebrew word.  That information is mostly lost in any English translation. 

One aspect of number that is almost completely hidden in the English translation is, to my mind, extremely important:  The number of second-person pronouns in the verses in which the congregation is being addressed offers us some critical insight into interpreting the commandments and how they apply to the congregation and the individual.  When a second-person pronoun (you, your, yours) is singular, it tends to apply to the congregation as a whole.  When the pronoun is plural, it applies to each of the individuals in the congregation.  At first glance this may seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense.  After all, the word congregation is singular while the individuals in the congregation are referred to in the plural.  Thus a verse in which Moses (speaking to the assembly) says “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” if the pronoun you and the four instances of your are singular, these words are addressed to the assembly as a whole.  If they are plural, the verse applies to each individual of the assembly.  What this means will become clear as you progress through the translation.

French, and other romance languages, exhibit a semblance of some of these characteristics of biblical Hebrew grammar, as do other modern and ancient languages.

There is no punctuation in the original (oldest) parchments of the bible.  Words are strung together continuously from right to left on horizontal lines that follow one another vertically down a strip of parchment.  There are few spaces in the scriptural writings to delineate the beginning or end of an idea.  All of the verses and chapters we are familiar with were divided up and numbered by the first translators, perhaps the Greek Jews, around the third and second centuries before the Common Era.  In this respect, I believe that only ancient Middle Eastern languages are similar to ancient Hebrew.

                                                                                                          [Return to Gene. 2:25-Alt]

2. The Hebrew Alphabet

There are no vowels in biblical Hebrew.  The 22 letters of the Hebrew language are all consonants.  There are four letters that may occasionally act as vowels, the א, aleph, ו, vav, י, yad, and ע, ayin, but generally speaking, the original scrolls of the bible were written without vowels.  Points were added below most letters in printed versions of the bible during the Middle Ages to serve as vowels to differentiate the various forms that verbs and other words can take.  The scholars who did this must have had a time distinguishing the form of many verbs.  The form of a verb impacts its meaning, so there is a great investment in getting the vowel points “right.”  I suspect that there were some interpretations that didn’t satisfy everyone.

3. Biblical Hebrew Spelling

Most biblical Hebrew words can be found spelled in at least two ways.  For example, the word meaning our fathers (or forefathers), can be found spelled אֲבֹותֵינוּ, אָבִֽינוּ, or אֲבֹתֵינוּ.  There are even verses in the bible in which the same word appears twice with different spellings.  The reason for this is lost to us.  Few, if any, languages exhibit this peculiarity to any great degree.  Most words in most languages have one spelling.  Any others are incorrect.

4. Implied Articles and other Words

Biblical Hebrew contains no words for the indefinite article, a.  It is always implied by context.  In addition, the verb הַיָה, to be, is more often implied than it is explicit.  The prefix ה usually translated as the definite article, the, is often omitted.  And the prepositions to and in, when relating to direction or place, are often understood although omitted.  In typical translations of the bible, other words, sometimes nouns and verbs, are often assumed by the translator to have been omitted from numerous verses, and are inserted into the translations, in some bible versions enclosed in square brackets to denote their absence in the Hebrew.  Incidentally, I have translated all of these verses in such a way as to avoid these assumed noun or verb omissions.

5. Meanings of Biblical Hebrew Words

With few exceptions, most words in biblical Hebrew have as many as ten or more widely varying possible meanings.  This allows much leeway in translating them.  As a typical example, the word הַיָה, which was mentioned above in paragraph 4, can be translated as be, become, come to pass, exist, happen, fall out, occur, take place, come about, arise, appear, be established, abide, remain, continue, stand, lie, be in, be at, be situated, accompany, be with, be done, be brought about, be finished, and be gone, depending in some cases on contextThis characteristic is exhibited by many other modern and ancient languages, and is not unique to biblical Hebrew. 

6. Arrangement of Hebrew Words in a Verse

A great many verses are composed of words that may be in virtually any sequence.  The structure of many verses is verb, subject, object, but this is by no means the only one.  Any of these forms of speech may appear anywhere in a verse.  There is a rule for identifying the direct object of an active verb, so that the object can appear anywhere in the verse.  There are only a small number of rules of verse structure that are rarely, if ever, deviated from.  The preposition אֲשֶׁר, meaning that, which, who, etc., almost always precedes the prepositional phrase.  In addition, the preposition כִּי, meaning for, because, when, then, etc., almost always appears before its prepositional phrase.

The direct object of an active verb in a verse is immediately preceded by the word את,, which has no translation, and is pronounced et.  This unique feature of Hebrew is essential because of the lack of rules in word placement in a verse.  This word et, which permits more accurate interpretation of verse meaning, at once exhibits the strangeness and the genius of biblical Hebrew.  What better or more descriptive way could the connection between a verb and its object be denoted than to concatenate the first letter of the alphabet with the last letter?  Whose was the mind that conceived of this arrangement?  To my knowledge no other language exhibits this characteristic, not even Aramaic, the spoken and business oral and written Jewish language of biblical and later times, although it has many similarities to biblical Hebrew.

7. The Strange Letter vav

 Finally, there is the most peculiar behavior of the letter ו, vav, the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Now when the vav appears as a prefix to any word, the vav is translated as and, but, also, so that, as well as, with, etc.   That is not the peculiar behavior. 

What is peculiar is that when the vav prefixes a verb, the tense of that verb is inverted.  For example, when a vav prefixes an imperfect (future) verb, it is translated as if it were a perfect (past) verb.  The inverting vav is also called Conversive.  In other bible translations, the vav is often interpreted as being not Conversive (non-inverting) by the scholar(s), presumably to conform to his/their expectation.  In this translation, every vav is assumed (and found) to be Conversive (inverting) except in two types of phrases described below.  However, one chapter in Daniel and one in Ezra contain many non-inverting vavs that I cannot adequately explain.  But I have a pet theory about this peculiarity of both books.  Those books were probably written either toward the end of the Balylonian exile or some time after it ended.  Now after four generations of exile, I’m sure that few Jews were intimately familiar with either Hebrew or Aramaic.  So it’s easy to imagine that the scribes who recorded the events of Daniel and Ezra would have readily and often confused the differing rules of the two languages.

  I am quite certain that there is no other known language that possesses a feature like the Vav Conversive.  Aramaic, which I mentioned above in Section 6, does not exhibit the Vav Conversive.

The types of phrases in which the vav prefix is non-inverting are those in which the vav prefixes (1) a first- person imperfect verb, and (2) some first- and third-person imperfect verbs, those which are consequences of preceding verb actions.    An example of (1), which is somewhat unusual in that it contains three such non-inverting vavs in the same verse,  is in Gene. 12:2:

  וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ לְגֹ֣וי גָּדֹ֔ול וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה,

and I will make you into a great nation and bless you and magnify your name.

The first, fourth, and fifth Hebrew words contain the non-inverting vavs.

An example of (2) appears in Exod. 2:7: 

הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָ֤אתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁ֣ה מֵינֶ֔קֶת מִ֖ן הָעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת וְתֵינִ֥ק לָ֖ךְ אֶת־הַיָּֽלֶד,

Shall I go and call a nursing woman from the Hebrew women for you so she can nurse the child for you?

The eighth Hebrew word contains the non-inverting vav.

                                                       [Return to introduction Section 2]         [Return to Introduction Section 3]

There is a very eerie and seemingly impossible consequence of the type (1) phrase where a vav prefixes a first-person imperfect verb.  It is that there is no straightforward way of saying something like “and I did ...,” (substitute any other first-person verb for did) in biblical Hebrew.  Because a vav before an imperfect first-person verb is non-inverting while a vav before a perfect first-person verb is inverting, the first-person perfect (past) tense disappears when there is a vav prefixing the verb.  Either phrase has to be translated as “and I will do.....”  As strange and restricting as this may seem, it turns out that there are almost no circumstances in which the first-person perfect tense is used with a vav prefix when it is intended to remain present tense anywhere in the bible (except for a multitude of such exceptions in Ezra 8 and one such in Ezra 9).  Wherever someone says something like “and I did ...,” or “and we did ...,” the vav is displaced from the verb to a previous noun, so that there is no inversion necessary.  Very odd and quite remarkable!  Also interesting and intriguing -- aside from the references in the above remark, there is only one other place in the bible that contains an exception to this rule.  It appears in Exod. 33:17 in a phrase spoken by God to Moses:  “... and I have known you by name.”

Another intriguing fact about the letter vav relates to its sixth position in the Hebrew alphabet.  As you will see once you start reading this translation of the bible -- in fact, in the very first verse in the bible --  the letter vav and the number six share a strange relationship.


                         [Return to Exod. 8:4]           [Return to Exod. 33:17]           [Return to Exod. 34:34]


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