Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar/107. Use of the Imperfect
107a The imperfect, as opposed to the perfect, represents actions, events, or states which are regarded by the speaker at any moment as still continuing, or in process of accomplishment, or even as just taking place. In the last case, its occurrence may be represented as certainly imminent, or merely as conceived in the mind of the speaker, or simply as desired, and therefore only contingent (the modal use of the imperfect). Knudtzon (see above, Rem. on §106a), comparing the Ass.-Bab. usage, would prefer the term present rather than imperfect, on the ground that the tense expresses what is either actually or mentally present. In any case, the essential difference between the perfect and imperfect consists, he argues, in this, that the perfect simply indicates what is actually complete, while the imperfect places the action, &c., in a more direct relation to the judgement or feeling of the speaker.
More precisely the imperfect serves—
1. In the sphere of past time:
107b (a) To express actions, &c., which continued throughout a longer or shorter period, e.g. Gn 26 a mist went up continually (יַֽעֲלֶה), 2:25, 37:7, 48:10, Ex 112, 820, 1322, 156, 12, 14, 15, Nu 915 f. 20 f., 23 7, Ju 21, 58, 1 S 32, 1317 f., 2 S 228, 2310, 1 K 34, 216, Is 121, 64 (יִמָּלֵא), 17:10 f., 51:2 x, Jer 137, 3618, ψ 187, 14, 17 ff.38 ff., 24:2, 32:4, 5 (אוֹדִֽיעֲךָ), 47:5, 68:10, 12, 104:6 ff., 106:19, 107:18, 29, 139:13, Jb 311, 412, 15 f., 10:10 f., 15:7 f.—very frequently alternating with a perfect (especially with a frequentative perfect; cf. Nu 915–23 and §112e), or when the narration is continued by means of an imperfect consecutive.
107c Rem. 1. The imperfect is frequently used in this way after the particles אָז then, טֶ֫רֶם not yet, בְּטֶ֫רֶם before, עַד־ until, e.g. Ex 151 אָז יָשִֽׁיר־משֶׁה then sang Moses, &c.; Nu 2117, Dt 441, Jos 1012, 1 K 316, 81, ψ 1262, Jb 3821. (The perfect is used after אָז when stress is to be laid on the fact that the action has really taken place, and not upon its gradual accomplishment or duration in the past, e.g. Gn 426 אָז הוּחַל then began, &c.; Gn 494, Ex 1515, Jos 2231, Ju 511, ψ 8920.) After טֶ֫רֶם e.g. Gn 194 טֶ֫רֶם יִשְׁכָּ֫בוּ before they lay down; Gn 25, 2445, 1 S 33, 7, always in the sense of our pluperfect. (In Gn 2415 instead of the perf. כִּלָּה, the imperf. should be read, as in verse 45; so also in 1 S 37 [יִגָּלֶה] an imperf. is co-ordinated with ידע). After בְּטֶ֫רֶם (sometimes also simply טֶ֫רֶם Ex 1234, Jos 31), e.g. Jer 15 בְּטֶ֫רֶם תֵּצֵא before thou camest forth; Gn 2733, 3718, 4150, Ru 314 (perhaps also in ψ 902 an imperf. was intended instead of יֻלָּ֫דוּ; cf. Wellhausen on 2 S 32; but note also Pr 825, in a similar context, before the mountains were settled, הָטְכָּ֑עוּ, the predicate being separated from בְּטֶ֫רֶם, by הָרִים, as in ψ 902). After עַד־ Jos 1013, ψ 7317 (until I went), 2 Ch 2934; on the other hand, with the perf., e.g. Jos 222. As after אָז, so also after טֶ֫רֶם, בְּטֶ֫רֶם, and עַד־ the imperf. may be used, according to the context, in the sense of our future, e.g. 2 K 29, Is 6524, Jb 1021; after עַד־ e.g. Is 2214. The imperf. is used in the sense of our present after טֶ֫רֶם in Ex 930, 107.
107d 2. Driver (Tenses3, p. 35 f.) rightly lays stress upon the inherent distinction between the participle as expressing mere duration, and the imperfect as expressing progressive duration (in the present, past, or future). Thus the words וְנָהָר יׄצֵא Gn 210 represent the river of Paradise as going out of Eden in a continuous, uninterrupted stream, but יִפָּרֵד, which immediately follows, describes how the parting of its waters is always taking place afresh. In the same way יַֽעֲלֶהִ Gn 26 represents new mists as constantly arising, and יִמָלֵא Is 64 new clouds of smoke. Also those actions, &c., which might be regarded in themselves as single or even momentary, are, as it were, broken up by the imperfect into their component parts, and so pictured as gradually completing themselves. Hence תִּבְלָעֵ֫מוֹ Ex 1512 (after a perf. as in verse 14) represents the Egyptians, in a vivid, poetic description, as being swallowed up one after another, and יַבְחֵ֫נִי Nu 237 the leading on by stages, &c.
107e (b) To express actions, &c., which were repeated in the past, either at fixed intervals or occasionally (the modus rei repetitae), e.g. Jb 15 thus did (יַֽעֲשֶׂה) Job continually (after each occasion of his sons’ festivities); 4:3 f., 22:6 f., 23:11, 29:7, 9, 12 f., Gn 64, 292, 3038, 4231, 39 (I used to bear the loss of it), Ex 112, 1919, 337 ff. (יִקַּח used to take every time), 40:36 ff., Nu 917 f. 20 ff., 11:5, 9, Ju 64, 1410, 2125, 1 S 17, 222, 99, 1319, 185, 279, 2 S 122, 123, 1318, 1 K 525 (of tribute repeated year by year), 10:5, 13:33, 14:28, 2 K 48, 829, 1320, 2514, Jer 3623, ψ 425, 443, 7815, 40, 103:7, Est 214; even in a negative dependent clause, 1 K 1810.
107f 2. In the sphere of present time, again
(a) To express actions, events, or states, which are continued for a shorter or longer time, e.g. Gn 3715 מַה־תְּבַקֵּשׁ what seekest thou? 19:19 לֹא־אוּכַל I cannot; 24:50, 31:35, Is 113. Other examples are Gn 210, 2431, 1 S 18, 115, 1 K 37, ψ 22, and in the prophetic formula יֹאמַר יְהֹוָה saith the Lord, Is 111, 18, &c., cf. 40:1. So especially to express facts known by experience, which occur at all times, and consequently hold good at any moment, e.g. Pr 1520 a wise son maketh a glad father; hence especially frequent in Job and Proverbs. In an interrogative sentence, e.g. Jb 417 is mortal man just before God? In a negative sentence, Jb 418, &c.
107g (b) To express actions, &c., which may be repeated at any time, including therefore the present, or are customarily repeated on a given occasion (cf. above, e), e.g. Dt 144 as bees do (are accustomed to do); Gn 621, 3233, 4332, Ju 1140, 1 S 28, 55, 202, 2 S 1532, Is 123, 316, ψ 13. So again (see f) especially to express facts known by experience which may at any time come into effect again, e.g. Ex 238 a gift blindeth (יְעַוֵּר), &c.; Gn 224, 2214, Is 326, Am 37, Mal 16, Jb 24, &c. Of the same kind also is the imperfect in such relative clauses (see § 155), as Gn 4927 Benjamin is זְאֵב יִטְרָף a wolf that ravineth (properly, is accustomed to ravin). Finally, compare also the formulae יֵֽאָמֵר it is (wont to be) said (to introduce proverbial expressions) Gn 109, 2214, &c.; לֹא־יֵֽעָשֶׂה כֵן it is not (wont to be) so done (and hence may not, shall not be, see u), Gn 2926, 209, 347, 2 S 1312.
107h (c) To express actions, &c., which although, strictly speaking, they are already finished, are regarded as still lasting on into the present time, or continuing to operate in it, e.g. Gn 3230 wherefore is it that thou dost ask (תִּשְׁאַל) after my name? 24:31, 44:7, Ex 515, 2 S 169. In such cases, naturally, the perfect is also admissible, and is sometimes found in the same formula as the imperfect, e.g. Jb 17 (2:2) מֵאַ֫יִן תָּבֹא whence comest thou (just now)? but Gn 168 (cf. 42:7) אֵֽי־מִזֶּה בָאתְ whence camest thou? The imperfect represents the coming as still in its last stage, whereas the perfect represents it as an accomplished fact.
107i 3. In the sphere of future time. To express actions, &c., which are to be represented as about to take place, and as continuing a shorter or longer time in the future, or as being repeated; thus:
(a) From the standpoint of the speaker’s present time, e.g. Ex 41 they will not believe (יַֽאֲמִ֫ינוּ) me, nor hearken (יִשְׁמְעוּ) unto my voice: for they will say (יֹֽאמְרוּ), &c., 6:1, 9:5, &c.
107k (b) In dependent clauses to represent actions, &c., which from some point of time in the past are to be represented as future, e.g. Gn 437 could we in any wise know that he would say (יֹאמַר)? 2:19, 43:25, Ex 24, 2 K 327 אֲשֶׁר־יִמְלֹךְ qui regnaturus erat; 13:14, Jon 45, Jb 33, Ec 23, ψ 786 that the generation to come might know, בָּנִים יִוָּ֫לֵדוּ the children which should be born (qui nascituri essent; the imperfect here with the collateral idea of the occurrence being repeated in the future).
107l (c) To represent a futurum exactum; cf. Is 44, 611 (co-ordinated with a perfect used in the same sense, see §106o); so also sometimes after the temporal particles עַד, ψ 1325, and עַד אֲשֶׁד until, Gn 298, Nu 2017, &c.
107m 4. Finally to the sphere of future time belong also those cases in which the (modal) imperfect serves to express actions, events, or states, the occurrence of which is to be represented as willed (or not willed), or as in some way conditional, and consequently only contingent. More particularly such imperfects serve—
107n (a) As an expression of will, whether it be a definite intention and arrangement, or a simple desire, viz.:
(1) Sometimes in positive sentences in place of the cohortative (cf. e.g. ψ 5917 with verse 18; 2 S 2250 with ψ 1850; Ju 1911, &c.), of the imperative (Is 183), or of the jussive (which, however, in most cases, does not differ from the ordinary form of the imperfect), e.g. תֵּֽרָאֶה let it appear Gn 19, 4134, Lv 192, 3, 2 S 1012 (and so frequently in verbs ל״ה; cf. §109a, note 2); Zc 95 (תָּחִיל); ψ 617 (תּוֹסִיף); Pr 2217 (תָּשִׁית); 23:1, Jb 623 (co-ordinated with the imperative), 10:20 Keth.; so probably also יָדִין let him judge! ψ 722.—So also in the 1st pers., to express a wish which is asserted subsequently with reference to a fixed point of time in the past, e.g. Jb 1018 אֶגְּוַע I ought to [not should as A.V., R.V.] have, (then, immediately after being born) given up the ghost; cf. verse 19 אֶֽהְיֶה and אוּבָֽל Lv 1018, Nu 3528. Even to express an obligation or necessity according to the judgement of another person, e.g. Jb 929 אֶרְשָׁע I am to be guilty, 12:4. Cp. Jb 915, 1916; in a question, ψ 4210, 432.
107o (2) To express the definite expectation that something will not happen. The imperfect with לֹא represents a more emphatic form of prohibition than the jussive with אַל־ (cf. §109c), and corresponds to our thou shalt not do it! with the strongest expectation of obedience, while אַל־ with the jussive is rather a simple warning, do not that! Thus לֹא with the imperfect is especially used in enforcing the divine commands, e.g. לֹא תִגְּנׄב thou shalt not steal Ex 2015; cf. verses 3, 4, 5, 7, 10 ff. So לֹא with the 3rd pers. perhaps in Pr 1610.
107p Rem. The jussive, which is to be expected after אַל־, does not, as a rule (according to n, and §109a, note 2), differ in form from the simple imperfect. That many supposed jussives are intended as simple imperfects is possible from the occurrence after אַל־ of what are undoubtedly imperfect forms, not only from verbs ל״ה (cf. §109a, note 2), but also from verbs ע״וּ, to express a prohibition or negative wish, אַל־תַּבִּיט Gn 1917, אַל־תָּסוּר Jos 17, אַל־נָא יַשִׂים 1 S 2525. Even with the 1st pers. plur. (after an imperative) וְאַל־נָמוּת that we die not, 1 S 1219. Also to express the conviction that something cannot happen, אַל־יָנוּם he will not slumber, ψ 1213; cf. Jer 466, 2 Ch 1410. 107q (3) In dependent clauses after final conjunctions (§165b), as אֲשֶׁר, Gn 117 (אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ that they may not understand); בַּֽעֲבוּר Gn 2130, 274, 19, Ex 914, &c.; לְמַ֫עַן אֲשֶׁר Nu 175; לְמַ֫עַן Dt 41, ψ 516, 786, and אֲשֶׁר יַעַ֫ן Ez 1212, in order that; לְבִלְתִּי that... not, Ex 2020, 2 S 1414; also after פֶּן־ that not, lest, Gn 322, 114, 1915, &c.; cf. also the instances introduced by וְלֹא in §109g.—In Lv 96 such an imperfect (or jussive? see the examples in §109f) is added to the expression of the command by an asyndeton, and in La 119 to the principal clause simply by וְ: while they sought them food וְיָשִׁ֫יבוּ אֶת־נַפְשָׁם to refresh their souls (cf. also La 326, it is good and let him hope, i.e. that he should hope); so after an interrogative clause, Ex 27. Finally also in a relative clause, ψ 328 בְּדֶ֫רֶךְ־זוּ תֵלֵךְ in the way which thou shouldst go.
107r (b) To express actions, &c., which are to be represented as possibly taking place or not taking place (sometimes corresponding to the potential of the classical languages, as also to our periphrases with can, may, should). More particularly such imperfects are used—
107s (1) In a permissive sense, e.g. Gn 216 of every tree of the garden (אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל) thou mayest freely eat (the opposite in verse 17); 3:2, 42:37, Lv 213, 22, Jb 213. In the 1st pers. ψ 58, 2218 (I may, or can, tell); in a negative sentence, e.g. ψ 55.
107t (2) In interrogative sentences, e.g. Pr 209 מִֽי־יֹאמַר quis dixerit? Cf. Gn 1717, 1814, 3143, 1 S 1112, 2 K 512 הֲלֹֽא־אֶרְחַץ בָּהֶם may I not wash in them? Is 3314, ψ 151, 243, Ec 55. So especially in a question expressing surprise after אֵיךְ, e.g. Gn 399 how then can I...? 44:34, Is 1911, ψ 1374, and even with regard to some point of time in the past, looking forward from which an event might have been expected to take place, e.g. Gn 437 הֲיָדוֹעַ נֵדַע could we in any wise know...? Cf. 2 S 333 (יָמוּת was Abner to die as a fool, i.e. was he destined to die...?), and so probably also Gn 3431 (should he deal...?). Very closely connected with this is the use of the imperfect—
107u (3) In a consecutive clause depending on an interrogative clause, e.g. Ex 311, who am I (כִּי אֵלֵךְ) that I should (ought, could) go? 16:7, Nu 1112, Ju 928, 1 S 1818, 2 K 813, Is 2916, Jb 611, 2115, similarly after אֲשֶׁר Gn 3818, Ex 52. 107v Rem. In passages like 1 S 115, ψ 85, 1145, the context shows that the imperfect corresponds rather to our present. In such sentences the perfect also is naturally used in referring to completed actions, e.g. Gn 2010, Ju 1823, 2 S 718, Is 221.
107w (4) In negative sentences to express actions, &c., which cannot or should not happen, e.g. Gn 3213 אֲשֶׁר לֽאֹ־יִסָּפֵד מֵרֹב which cannot be numbered for multitude; 20:9 deeds (אֲשֶׁד לֹא־יֵֽעשׂוּ) that ought not to be done (cf. above, g); ψ 55.
107x (5) In conditional clauses (the modus conditionalis corresponding to the Latin present or imperfect conjunctive) both in the protasis and apodosis, or only in the latter, Ps. 234 גַּם כִּֽי־אֵלֵךְ... לֹֽא־אִירָא רָע yea, though I walk (or had to walk)... I fear (or I would fear) no evil; Jb 920 though I be righteous, mine own mouth shall condemn me. After a perfect in the protasis, e.g. Jb 2310. Very frequently also in an apodosis, the protasis to which must be supplied from the context, e.g. Jb 58 but as for me, I would seek unto God (were I in thy place); 3:13, 16, 14:14 f., ψ 5513, Ru 112. However, some of the imperfects in these examples are probably intended as jussive forms. Cf. §109h.
- Cf. the literature cited above, p. 309, note 2.
- Cf. the Mêšaʿ inscription, l. 5, כי יאנף כמש בארצה for Chemosh was angry with his land. As Driver, Tenses, 3rd ed., § 27, 1 a, remarks, this vivid realization of the accomplishment of the action is especially frequent in poetic and prophetic style.
- According to the Masora such imperfects occur in Is 1013 bis (where, however, וְאָסִיר might also mean I am wont to remove, &c.), Is 483, 5717, ψ 1838a, also (according to §49c) in 2 S 110 and Ez 1610. In some other cases וְ is no doubt a dogmatic emendation for וָ (imperf. consec.) in order to represent historical statements as promises; cf. Is 426, 4328 [contrasted with 42:25], 512 bis, 63:3 ff. and the note on §53p.
- After אָז then (to announce future events) the imperf. is naturally used in the sense of a future, Gn 2441, Ex 1248, Mi 34, Zp 39, ψ 5121.
- It is not always possible to carry out with certainty the distinction between continued and repeated actions. Some of the examples given under f might equally be referred to g.
- As stated in §46a, a prohibition cannot be expressed by אַל־ and the imperative.
- To regard this as an optative (so Hupfeld) is from the context impossible. It is more probably a strong pregnant construction, or fusion of two sentences (such as, do not think he will slumber!). Verse 4 contains the objective confirmation, by means of לֹא with the imperf., of that which was previously only a subjective conviction.
- But יַעַ֫ן אֲשֶׁר in a causal sense (because, since), e.g. Ju 220 (as אֲשֶׁר Gn 3427) is followed by the perfect. On Jos 424 see above, §74g.
- R.V. because he shall not see..]
- In 2 K 216 פֶּן־ occurs with the perf. in a vivid presentment of the time when the fear is realized and the remedy comes too late. (In 2 S 206, since a perfect consec. follows, read with Driver יִמְצָא.)
- By this, of course, is not meant that these finer distinctions were consciously present to the Hebrew mind. They are rather mere expedients for making intelligible to ourselves the full significance of the Semitic imperfect.