Today I'm going to explain the strange phrase you've read in
Read and Understand
section: "inversive Vav" ... turns Past to Future, and Future to Past.
The explanation might sound even more confusing, but in fact it's very
simple: there was no such thing in Hebrew as "Past Tense" or "Future Tense".
These are modern Israeli Hebrew terms. Originally it rather was "Perfect" and
"Imperfect" aspects. It is the Perfect which gradually developed itself to be
used as "Past Tense", and that's Imperfect which we treat today as "Future".
Here is a very well-known text from
the very first page of
בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת
הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאָרֶץ,
הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ,
וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם. וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.
יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר;
אֶת-הָאוֹר, כִּי-טוֹב .וַיַּבְדֵּל
אֱלֹהִים, בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ;
לָאוֹר יוֹם, וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה.
This whole section is telling us about something
that happened obviously in the past. (According to my information, the Six Days
of Creation happened in the past, but nowadays when the history is re-written
every decade, you can't be sure of anything.) So, we see the verbs marked with
yellow marker being in the "Past" form, and all the other (cyan) in the "Future"
form, and all of them are telling us about the past events.
But let's look on it in a different way. Classic
grammar of ancient Hebrew didn't have a notion of tense, but rather perfect and
imperfect; therefore an adequate translation would be (don't be pissed off if it
sounds a little awkward):
In the beginning the God
had created (and
not just created) the skies and the land. And the land
(yet) chaotic, and darkness upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God
hovers over the face of the waters. And the God
be light, and it was light. And God
saw the light,
that it's good; and God
light from the darkness.
called the light
Day, and the darkness He
called Night. And there
was evening and
there was morning,
As you can see, translating with either Perfect and
Imperfect barely changes the meaning. And Perfect by its very nature means
something that happened in the past (think how often you use perfect in English
when you describe future: you will have written a letter , they will
have done this again...) So, no wonder the language evolved to
simpler constracts: Perfect became Past, and Imperfect became Future. After all,
that's what the Past is: something complete, or Perfect. And the Future is
something that hasn't been completed yet, meaning Imperfect.
Let's take a look on another portion, and this time
it all is talking about the future:
אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה;
כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר
תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ--וְשַׂמְתָּ
And the translation (taken from
here, I guess it's
And it shall be, when thou art
come in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and
dost possess it, and dwell therein; that thou shalt take of the first of all the
fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land that the LORD thy
God giveth thee; and thou shalt put it in a basket and shalt go unto the place
which the LORD thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.
Well, without going into details of old English
grammar (which is not our subject here), the point is: the Imperfect aspect is
talking about "what will happen":
you will come to the Land
the Land will bring the fruits
the God will choose a place for the Temple.
As to the Perfect aspect, it's talking about things
as they will have been done, so it becomes an imperative:
it shall be (will have been happened)
and you will have inherited her
-and you will have dwelled (therein)
and you will have taken
and so on. So, the Inversive Vav (וַו
הָהִפּוּך) is playing more or less the role of modal
verbs in English. It comes with a "not native" usage of the Perfect or Imperfect
aspect: i.e., for Perfect it's natural to occur in the past; and Vav helps it to
come into "unnatural" place.
But of course, when translating from ancient Hebrew
to modern English, a clear understanding is more important than grammatic
Another interesting point: some
people claim that Israelis do not understand the biblical Hebrew, and suggest
translating the Torah into the "Israelish". And the "inversive Vav" is brought
as an example of difference between the languages.
As a person, who is not even native Hebrew
speaker, but lived in Israel for more than a decade, I can assure that this
statement is very far from true.
Yes, for a non-native Hebrew speaker (and a
person who barely attented any religious ceremonies), it's a bit strange for the
first time, when you look on the text like "וישבת" reading
it in the context as "ואתה תשב", and you actually
recognize that what you've learned in your Ulpan was very far from
being complete. It sounds pretty much like King James' translation above;
however, still, it's totally readable and understandible. For native language
speakers it never appears to be a problem, because their "sense of language" is
a bit different. (Some native Hebrew speakers have other problems with their own
language, but that's a social problem rather then linguistic one.) At least the
basic words are the same, there is no "thou shalt" words (I wonder how some of
todays young Americans would understand that.)
As to difference between the modern and ancient
vocabulary, and that to fully understand the Scriptiures you probably need to
learn some words... have you ever been preparing for SAT?