Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar/106. Use of the Perfect

Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar  (1909) 
Wilhelm Gesenius
edited and enlarged by Emil Kautzsch
, translated by Arthur Ernest Cowley
Use of the Perfect





I. Syntax of the Verb.

A. Use of the Tenses and Moods.[2]

§106. Use of the Perfect.

a The perfect serves to express actions, events, or states, which the speaker wishes to represent from the point of view of completion, whether they belong to a determinate past time, or extend into the present, or while still future, are pictured as in their completed state.

The definition formerly given here (‘the perfect serves to express completed actions’) applies, strictly speaking, only to some of the varieties of the perfect discussed under b–p: hence the above modification based on the arguments of Knudtzon (for the title see note 2, and cf. further §107a).

More particularly the uses of the perfect may be distinguished as follows:—

b 1. To represent actions, events, or states, which, after a shorter or longer duration, were terminated in the past, and hence are finally concluded, viz.:

(a) Corresponding to the perfect proper in Latin and the English perfect definite, in assertions, negations, confirmations, interrogations, &c., e.g. Gn 1815 then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not (לֹא צָחַ֫קְתִּי)......; and he said, Nay, but thou didst laugh (צָחָקְתְּ); Gn 311 מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ who told thee....? Cf. 313.14.17.22. Also pointing to some undefined time in the past, e.g. Is 668 מִֽי־שָׁמַע כָּזֹאת who hath (ever yet) heard such a thing?

c Rem. In opposition to this express use of the perfect to emphasize the completion of an event, the imperfect is not infrequently used to emphasize that which is still future, e.g. Jos 15 as I was (הָיִיתִי) with Moses, so will I be (אֶֽהְיֶה) with thee; Jos 117, Ex 1014, Dt 3221, 1 K 238, Is 464.11, Jo 22, Ec 19.

d (b) As a simple tempus historicum (corresponding to the Greek aorist) in narrating past events, e.g. Gn 44 and Abel, he also brought (הֵבִיא), &c.; Gn 719 the waters did prevail (גָּֽבְרוּ), &c.; Jb 11 there was a man (אִישׁ הָיָה) in the land of Uz, &c.; even in relating repeated actions, 1 S 1830.

e Rem. As the above examples indicate, the perfect of narration occurs especially at the head of an entire narrative (Jb 11; cf. Dn 21) or an independent sentence (e.g. Gn 711.13), but in co-ordinate sentences, as a rule, only when the verb is separated from the copulative ו by one or more words (cf. above Gn 44 and 719). In other cases, the narrative is continued in the imperfect consecutive, according to §111a. The direct connexion of the narrative perfect with ו copulative (not to be confounded with the perfect consecutive proper, § 112) agrees rather with Aramaic syntax (cf. Kautzsch, Gramm. des Biblisch-Aram., § 71, 1 b). On the examples (which are in many respects doubtful) in the earlier texts, see §112pp–uu.

f (c) To represent actions, &c., which were already completed in the past, at the time when other actions or conditions took place (pluperfect),[3] e.g. 1 S 283 now Samuel was (long since) dead[4]... and Saul had put away (הֵסִיר) those that had familiar spirits... out of the land. Both these statements, being as it were in parentheses, merely assign a reason for the narrative beginning at verse 6. Cf. 1 S 915, 2521, 2 S 1818.—Gn 2018 (for the Lord had fast closed up, &c.); 2730, 3119.34, Dt 210; and in a negative statement, Gn 25 for the Lord God had not (up to that time) caused it to rain, &c. This is especially frequent, from the nature of the case, in relative, causal, and temporal clauses, when the main clause contains a tense referring to the past, e.g. Gn 22 and he rested... from all his work which he had made (עָשָׂה); Gn 79, 19:27, &c.; 29:10 now when Jacob had seen Rachel (בַּֽאֲשֶׁר רָאָה)..., Jacob went near, &c.; so also in clauses which express the completion or incompleteness of one action, &c., on the occurrence of another, as in Gn 2415, 2730, &c.; cf. §164b, with the note, and c.

g 2. To represent actions, events, or states, which, although completed in the past, nevertheless extend their influence into the present (in English generally rendered by the present):

(a) Expressing facts which were accomplished long before, or conditions and attributes which were acquired long before, but of which the effects still remain in the present (present perfect), e.g. ψ 1011 הִסְתִּיר פָּנָיו he hath hidden his face (and still keeps it hidden); ψ 1436 פֵּרַ֫שְׂתִּי I have spread forth my hands (and still keep them spread forth). This applies particularly to a large number of perfects (almost exclusively of intransitive[5] verbs, denoting affections or states of the mind) which in English can be rendered only by the present, or, in the case mentioned above under f, by the imperfect.[6] Thus, יָדַ֫עְתִּי I know (prop. I have perceived, have experienced) Jb 92, 1013, לֹא יָדַ֫עְתִּי I know not Gn 49, &c.; on the other hand, e.g. in Gn 2816, Nu 2234, the context requires I knew not; זָכַ֫רְנוּ we remember Nu 115; מֵֽאֲנָה she refuseth Jb 67; עָלַץ it exulteth; שָׂמַ֫חְתִּי I rejoice 1 S 21; בִּקֵּשׁ he requireth Is 112; קִוִּ֫יתִי I wait Gn 4918, ψ 1305 (parallel with הוֹחָֽ֫לְתִּי); חָפַ֫צְתִּי I delight ψ 409 (mostly negative, Is 111, &c.); אָהַ֫בְתִּי I love Gn 274; שָׂנֵ֫אתִי I hate ψ 317; מָאַ֫סְתִּי I despise Am 521; תִּֽעֲב֫וּנִי they abhor me Jb 3010; בָּטַ֫חְתִּי I trust ψ 252; חָסִ֫יתִי I put my trust ψ 312; צָדַ֫קְתִּי I am righteous Jb 345; פָּקַ֫דְתִּי I have decided to requite 1 S 152.—We may further include a number of verbs which express bodily characteristics or states, such as גָּדַ֫לְתָּ thou art great ψ 1041; קָטֹ֫נְתִּי I am little Gn 3211; גָּֽבְהוּ they are high Is 559; רָֽחֲקוּ they stand aloof Jb 3010; טֹ֫בוּ they are goodly Nu 245; נָאווּ they are beautiful Is 527; זָקַ֫נְתִּי I am old Gn 1813; יָגַ֫עְתִּי I am weary ψ 67; שָׂבַ֫עְתִּי I am full Is 111, &c.

h Rem. To the same category probably belong also the perfects after עַד־מָתַי Ex 103 how long hast thou already been refusing (and refusest still...? which really amounts to how long wilt thou refuse?), ψ 805, Pr 122 (co-ordinate with the imperf.), and after עַד־אָ֫נָה Ex 1628, Hb 12.

i (b) In direct narration to express actions which, although really only in process of accomplishment, are nevertheless meant to be repre- sented as already accomplished in the conception of the speaker, e.g. הֲרִמֹ֫תִי I lift up (my hand in ratifying an oath) Gn 1422; נִשְׁבַּ֫עְתִּי I swear Jer 225; הַֽעִדֹ֫תִי I testify Dt 819; יָעַ֫צְתִּי I counsel 2 S 1711 (but in a different context in ver. 15, I have counselled); אָמַ֫רְתִּי (prop. I say) I decide (I consider as hereby settled) 2 S 1930; I declare Jb 922, 3210.

k (c) To express facts which have formerly taken place, and are still of constant recurrence, and hence are matters of common experience (the Greek gnomic aorist), e.g. ψ 911 for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken (לֹא־עָזַ֫בְתָּ) them that seek thee. Cf. ver. 13, also ψ 103, 11940 and Gn 4911 (כִּבֵּס).

l Rem. In almost all the cases discussed in No. 2 (included under the English present) the imperfect can be used instead of the perfect, wherever the action or state in question is regarded, not as already completed, but as still continuing or just taking place (see §107a). Thus, לֹא יָכֹ֫לְתִּי I am not able ψ 4013 and לֹא אוּכַל Gn 3135 have practically the same meaning. Hence also it very frequently happens that the imperfect corresponds to such perfects in poetic or prophetic parallelism, e.g. Is 512, ψ 21 f., Pr 122, Jb 317.

m 3. To express future actions, when the speaker intends by an express assurance to represent them as finished, or as equivalent to accomplished facts:

(a) In contracts or other express stipulations (again corresponding to the English present, and therefore closely related to the instances noted under i), e.g. Gn 2311 the field I give (נָתַ֫תִּי) thee; cf.ver. 13 and 4822, 2 S 1421, 2423, Jer 404; in a threat, 1 S 216, 2 S 56 (unless, with Wellhausen, יְסִירֻ֫ךָ is to be read).—Especially in promises made by God, Gn 129, 1518, 1720, Ju 12.

n (b) To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore, in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g. Nu 1727 הֵן גָּוַ֫עְנוּ אָבַ֫דְנוּ כֻּלָּ֫נוּ אָבָֽ֫דְנוּ behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Gn 3013, Is 65 (נִדְמֵ֫יתִי I am undone[7]), Pr 42. Even in interrogative sentences, Gn 1812, Nu 1728, 2310, Ju 99.11, Zc 410 (?), Pr 2220.[8] This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so trans- ports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him, e.g. Is 513 therefore my people are gone into captivity (גָּלָה); 91 ff., 1028, 119 (after כִּי, as frequently elsewhere); 197, Jb 520, 2 Ch 2037. Not infrequently the imperfect interchanges with such perfects either in the parallel member or further on in the narrative.

o (c) To express actions or facts, which are meant to be indicated as existing in the future in a completed state (futurum exactum), e.g. Is 44 אִם רָחַץ when he has washed away=when he shall have washed away (an imperfect follows in the co-ordinate sentence; cf. the conditional sentences in §107x); Is 611 (after עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם, as in Gn 2815, Nu 3217; also 2 S 1713 after עַד אֲשֶׁד, Gn 2419 after עַד אִם and elsewhere frequently after temporal conjunctions); Mi 52 (יָלָ֑דָה); Gn 4314 כַּֽאֲשֶׁר שָׁכֹ֫לְתִּי שָׁכָֽלְתִּי וַֽאֲנִי and Iif I am bereaved (orbus fuero), I am bereaved, an expression of despairing resignation. Cf. Pr 2315, Est 416.

p 4. To express actions and facts, whose accomplishment in the past is to be represented, not as actual, but only as possible (generally corresponding to the Latin imperfect or pluperfect subjunctive), e.g. Gn 3142 except the God of my father... had been with me, surely now hadst thou sent me away empty (שִׁלַּחְתָּ֑נִי); Gn 4310, Ex 915 (שָׁלַ֫חְתִּי I had almost put forth, &c.); Nu 2233, Ju 1323, 1418, 1 S 1313 (הֵכִּין); 2 K 1319; so frequently after כִּמְעַט easily, almost, Gn 2610, Is 19 (where כִּמְעַט is probably to be connected with the word after it), ψ 732, 9417, 11987, Pr 514. Cf. also Jb 313, 2310 (בְּחָנַ֫נִי), Ru 112 (if I should think, &c.; cf. 2 K 74); in the apodosis of a conditional sentence, 1 S 2534.—So also to express an unfulfilled desire, Nu 142 לוּ מַ֫תְנוּ would that we had died...! (לוּ with the imperfect would mean would that we might die! 1 S 1430). Finally, also in a question indicating astonishment, Gn 217 מִי מִלֵּל who would have said...? quis dixerit? ψ 7311.

  1. Recent works on Hebrew syntax are: A. B. Davidson, Introductory Heb. Gram., vol. ii, Heb. Syntax, Edinburgh, 1894; Ed. König. Hist.-compar. Syntax der hebr. Sprache, Lpz. 1897 (see above, §3f). Important contributions to Hebrew syntax are also contained in H. Reckendorf’s work Die syntakt. Verhältnisse des Arab., 2 pts., Leiden, 1895, 1898, of which we have already made use in §97a. Cf. also the same author’s very instructive discussions Ueber syntakt. Forschung, Munich, 1899.
  2. Cf. the sketch of the tenses and moods used in Hebrew in § 40; and on the general characteristics of the perfect and imperfect see the note on §47a; also Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew (Oxford, 1874; 3rd ed. 1892); Bennett, ‘Notes on the Use of the Hebrew Tenses’ (Hebraica, 1886, vols. ii, iii). A partial modification of the accepted definition of the Semitic perfect and imperfect was proposed by J. A. Knudtzon, Om det saakaldte Perfektum og Imperfektum i Hebraisk, Kristiania, 1890; of which a summary entitled ‘Vom sogenannten Perf. und Imperf. im Hebr.’ appeared in the Transactions of the Oriental Congress at Stockholm, section sémitique b, p. 73 ff. (Leiden, 1893). Cf. also Knudtzon’s articles, ‘Zur assyrischen und allgemein semitischen Grammatik’ in the Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, especially vi. 422 ff. and vii. 33 ff.
  3. Cf. P. Haupt in the Notes on Esther, 9:2.
  4. Incorrectly, e.g. in the Vulgate, Samuel autem mortuus est... et Saul abstulit magos, &c.
  5. With regard to the great but very natural preponderance of intransitive verbs (expressing an existing state), cf. the lists in Knudtzon (see above, p. 309, note 2), pp. 117 and 122 in the Danish text.
  6. Cf. novi, odi, memini; οἶδα, μέμνημαι, ἔοικα, δέδορκα, κέκραγα; in the New Testament, ἤλπικα, ἡγαπηκα.
  7. Cf. the similar use of ὄλωλα (διέφθορας, Il. 15. 128) and perii! On the kindred use of the perfect in conditional sentences, cf. below, p.
  8. In Gn 4014 a perf. confidentiae (after כִּי אִם; but cf. §163d) appears to be used in the expression of an earnest desire that something may happen (but have me in thy remembrance, &c.). Neither this passage, however, nor the use of the perfect in Arabic to express a wish or imprecation, justifies us in assuming the existence of a precative perfect in Hebrew. In Jb 2116, 2218, also, translate the counsel of the wicked is far from me. Cf. Driver, Tenses3, p. 25 f. In Is 439 either נִקְבְּצוּ is imperative (see §51o) or we must read יִקָּֽבְצוּ, corresponding to יֵאָֽסְפוּ which follows.