Vol. 16 New Series December, 1954 No. 6
THE HEBREW CONCEPTION OF TIME

A friend in U.S.A. kindly sent me a copy of THE NEW YORKER, dated 15th May, 1954. Like most modern magazines of its kind, this consisted to the extent of two thirds of advertisements in its 160 pages. But in among these advertisements there was to be found a very delightful and outspoken article by Edmund Wilson entitled "On First Reading Genesis." My friend knew I would like to read that article.

The author had discovered in the attic of his mother's house some years ago, an old Hebrew Bible which had belonged to his grandfather, who was a Presbyterian minister, and a Hebrew dictionary and a Hebrew grammar. So he enrolled for a course in Hebrew at Princeton. This was a revelation to him, and gave him an insight into the system of mental habits of the Semites, so different from the peoples of the West.

The author had never read the book of Genesis before, and thus he reacted to the Hebrew text with the simplicity and enthusiasm of a child.

One feature which struck him with great force was what he calls the "dynamic element in the very bone of the language." What interested me most in his article was his remarks on the Hebrew verb forms. He discovered that these had nothing to do with time. "When their language was formed, these Hebrews must have been both passionate and energetic. It is not a question of when something happens, but whether the thing is completed or certain to be completed," He says, also, "The whole language is intensely purposeful, full of the determination to survive by force or by wit, to accomplish certain objectives, to lay down laws that will stabilize life and ensure its perpetuation, to fix the future by positive prophecies. As this will of the ancient Hebrew finds expression in the dynamic verb forms, so the perdurability of the people is manifested in what may be called the physical aspects of the language," He then describes the general tri-literal system of Hebrew words, with the vowel system also. That which, however, interested me most, came after twenty columns on the peculiarities of Hebrew. The author went on to tell how the whole question of time is so interesting, the time sense of a race is so fundamental, in trying to understand their mentality. The natives of Kenya in Africa have no calendar or method of telling time. They orient themselves solely by the moon and the seasons, the rising and the setting of the sun. Until quite recently almost no nation between Abyssinia and the Transvaal had any method of saying 25th December, 1954, or "at five-thirty in the evening."

With most of the author's opinions regarding the Hebrew language I had been acquainted for many years, but I must admit that I did learn something most interesting and intensely human when he suddenly made a comparison with the Russian language. What have the Russians in common with the Hebrews? He says the tenses of the Russians are quite different from those of the European nations. "The basic thing to grasp here is that the Slavs lack the Western conception of a definite moment in the present, or the present as a definite moment."

The Russians, like the ancient Jews, make their fundamental distinction between action completed and action going on. One must not be deceived by the fact that Russian cities may contain clocks. The hour officially stated for a meeting to take place has nothing to do with it. The gathering will take place just when the people feel like it, quite unbound by the hour shewn by a watch. And the meeting will carry-on not until a certain fixed hour, but until the subject has exhausted itself, when everybody has had enough.

The Russian language does not allow for an action completed in the present, and the past is also lacking in precision. By a mere change of tense one cannot make it clear that some action or event has taken place before another action. It is just here, in Hebrew, where so many have gone wrong in seeking to understand the events in the early chapters of Genesis, and their order. For example, some would postulate two separate creations of man, because they have been unable to enter into the timeless idea of the Hebrew verbs. Dr. Robert Young made his translation of the Hebrew Bible to some extent seem ridiculous, because invariably he rendered the timeless Hebrew aorist form by an English past tense. Even events which could only happen in the future were shewn in a past tense. The order of an event in the Hebrew will be shewn, not by verb forms, but by the context and also by the frequent repetition of the word "and."

Over thirty years ago, I was greatly helped, by a book, "Studies Biblical and Oriental" by Rev. William Turner, Edinburgh, 1876, which contained a chapter on "The Tenses of the Hebrew Verb." The author shewed that in one "tense" of the Hebrew verb, the pronoun part was prefixed, while in the other "tense" it was affixed. Let us give a simple illustration from Old English on a former "tense." In Old English the first person sing or pronoun was Ich (now "I"), just as the German has it still. Thus, for "I am," they once said "Ich am," in course of time the two words became merged together as Icham, and even 'cham, in which the guttural was sounded like "ham," This is very like the so-called imperfect Hebrew "tense," often rendered as a present or future. Because the pronoun part of the word came first, Mr. Turner concluded that the word expressed what the actor was in process of doing; the word revealed him as carrying through an action; the action was being watched as though it were a moving picture. Thus, the doom upon the serpent, Gen. 3:14, "upon belly-thy thou-going and dust thou-eating." In these two verbs the pronoun comes first, therefore we render " upon thy belly shalt thou go and dust thou shalt eat. . ." But in verse 11, Jehovah Elohim demands of Adam, "whether from the tree which commanded-I-thee not to eat from it, eating-thou?" Here the final word expresses not the action going on, but the mere fact. Did you or did you not? Yet in their replies both Adam and Eve acknowledge not so much the bare fact, but rather the action. Both of them say, "and I-eating," that is, "and I go on eating," as though describing the picture. Although they both spoke truth, the action or process was still perhaps more vivid in their minds than the bare fact of their disobedience.

In the true aorist or timeless Hebrew verb form, we observe that the pronoun part of it comes second, eating-thou, with the stress upon the fact, not upon the action or process. Such forms are generally rendered as a past or a perfect, though strictly they express no time at all.

There are thousands of cases in the Hebrew Bible where we ought to distinguish between these two forms. In many cases the difference made is very considerable, not alone in translation, but in exegesis. Mr. Wilson well expresses the Hebrew style by saying, "When the narrator of a Biblical story tells of something that has happened in the past, he does not keep it in a definite relation to a fixed point of reference in the present, the point at which the story is supposed to be told. He puts himself back into the time of the story."

This great simplicity he contrasts with the modern system of recording history and business transactions. "But how long can our civilization go on storing up and stuffing our heads with so much minute historical information?" The Russians do not hesitate to sponge out a record of years ago and substitute something simpler and more advantageous to the party in power, because, in their eyes, when an action is past, it is simply past.

It is very unfortunate that so few students of the Bible have devoted time to acquiring any proficiency in the Hebrew language. Only by so doing can we hope to turn the tables upon so-called scientists who ignore the facts of revelation, and, certain Doctors of Divinity who pose as Hebrew scholars, but whose works shew that they have been very slipshod and in accurate. Perhaps it is not generally known that some of these well-known scholars, such as Dr. Driver and Dr. Pye, have been thoroughly exposed on account their unreliability and carelessness, as in the Bible League Quarterly of 1920. Another was Cheype, who died a Bahaist.

When therefore, in future issues we may seek to shew some of the niceties and minute accuracies to be found in the Hebrew text, we hope that readers will exercise patience and seek to enter into the spirit of the ancient writers. Though the Hebrew mode of expressing time was not as precise as ours, all divine statements and revelations are absolutely precise, and, as such, are entirely scientific, even though not expressed in modern "scientific" language. Those who talk of the earlier chapters of Genesis as being "antiquated lumber" will yet learn that true science is to be found there, and not only true science, but science which remains ever modern.

A.T. Last updated 2.6.2006