Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Max Rogland, Alleged Non-Past Uses of Qatal in Classical Hebrew (Studia Semitica Neerlandica, vol. 44; Assen: Royal van Gorcum, 2003). Pp. vii + 164. Paper €49,00. ISBN 90-232-3973-3

As the title indicates, this book deals with the use of qatal in Hebrew to refer to situations that take place in the present or even in the future rather than, as expected, in the past. And indeed, cognate forms of qatal in other Semitic languages are known to include such non-past uses. The question is whether one can take such usage as part of the meaning of qatal, a form that prima facie expresses the past, or should one look for some other explanation.

Terminology apart, the alleged non-past uses of qatal discussed in this book fall into three groups presented in the three main chapters of the book: (1) those which seem to express a general truth in sayings—this is what is usually known as “gnomic perfect” (pp. 15-51); (2) those which present some future happening as if it were already a reality—this is generally called “prophetic perfect” since this use is mostly found in prophetic literature (pp. 53-114); (3) those instances in which the situation takes place during the moment of utterance. This third group is now known as “performative perfect” (pp. 115-126).

The main contribution of the book is not so much to provide a new explanation about these uses as to examine critically the assumptions made to describe those uses of qatal as referring to non-past events. Basically the author attempts to maintain the past meaning as much as possible. Alternative explanations are sought when this meaning does not fit. Each of the three main chapters dealing with the non-past usages starts with a summary of what has been said about it both by the traditional grammars and by more modern approaches.

The strength of the work lies in the discussion on the individual examples which often lead to a re-evaluation of the alleged non-past uses of qatal. Hence, in the case of the gnomic perfect, often claimed as stating a general truth such as is found in proverbs, the author comes up with cases in which the proverbs state reports of specific experience or observation of some situation in the past. One such example is Prov 18:22 “He found (מָצָא) a wife, he found (מָצָא) a good thing, and he received (wayyiqtol) favor from YHWH”. This statement is definitely about the past rather than a general truth, which, in this case, is a lesson from which one may learn.  Hence the meaning is not, as is often thought, “he who finds ....”, which has often been taken as the basis for the non-past qatal meaning there.  A number of other cases usually treated as gnomic perfects are shown to belong to the realm of the past and so it is no longer necessary to insist on the “general present” interpretation.

The same sound critical procedure also appears in the chapter dealing with the prophetic perfect. The author notes that this term can no longer be used to label diverse uses of qatal which have something to do with futurity. To remedy this, he introduces the notion of relative tense, namely that the situation may be anterior to a future event. It is clear that the anteriority expressed by qatal has something to do with some future event, but this does not mean that the form as such refers to the future. One of the examples given is Balaam’s words in Num 24:17 “I see (impf.) him, but not now; I regard (impf.) him, but he is not near. A star went forth (דָרַךְ) from Jacob....a scepter rose up (וְקָם) ...” The first qatal is often labeled as a prophetic perfect and rendered as “will go forth”, especially since the next form seems to be a converted perfect weqataltí. But the author considers it as conjunctive waw plus qatal instead. He also proposes to see the situation spoken about here as simply belonging to the past. This is especially clear when one realizes that the passage merely reports a vision. The use of qatal in dream reports also belongs here. Apparently, it is the use of this verbal form in reporting an irreal situation that suggests its non-past reference. But the dream and the vision themselves are past events.

The performative perfect, on the basis of cross-linguistic evidence, is shown not to have inherent connection with tense, aspect or mood. Even if this is true, the question remains why in Hebrew precisely qatal can express this sense. This is an area that still awaits further study. Following up that line it may be suggested that qatal, being a form that indicates a past event, also expresses a lingering relevance to the moment of utterance. That is to say, the event is not completely separated from the present, or for that matter from the future. This also gives the impression that the activity spoken about happens at the moment of utterance. Lingering relevance may also explain the relative tense/anteriority mentioned above.

Given its clarity and generally sound approach, this book will be a welcome addition to Hebrew studies.

Agustinus Gianto
Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome