Wolfgang Schneider on the Imperfect

I have been reviewing Diethelm Michel’s understanding of the Hebrew tenses in the Psalter, in which he makes the claim that the imperfect (yiqtol) and imperfect consecutive (wayyiqtol) are not distinguished in their use in certain instances. I thought it might be helpful to discuss Wolfgang Schneider’s take on the imperfect from his Grammatik des biblischen Hebräisch before continue with Michel’s examination of Psalm 18. Schneider’s work describes the use of tenses in narrating texts (§ 48.2) and discourse texts (§ 48.3).

The Tenses in Narrative Texts

Narrative texts are characterized by a chain made up of the imperfect consecutive tense. Whenever this wayyiqtol chain is interrupted, another tense (usually the perfect) must replace the wayyiqtol. These compound nominal clauses[1] that interrupt the narrative chain normally provide some type of background or circumstance for the wayyiqtol chain that follows. As such, the perfect appears as a background tense, providing a looking-back perspective.

Since he understands the imperfect as the primary tense of discourse, Schneider treats imperfects in narrating texts as foreign tenses. He treats these in section 48.5 (Tense Transitions: Foreign Tenses in Narratives). The use of the imperfect can be summarized under two categories:

  1. Commentary. The imperfect (or also perfect consecutive) appears in the narrative when the narrator steps out of the speech situation and discusses something with the reader. One example he gives is Genesis 43:31–32, where the author explains why Joseph and his brothers were served and ate separately.
  2. After conjunctions. On the one hand, imperfects appear after the particle אָז, where אָז essentially replaces the “wa” of wayyiqtol. Schneider states that it is often found before a short narrative note where the narrator wants to insert something on the same theme, as in Exodus 15:1, which introduces the Song of Moses. On the other hand, an imperfect appears as a perspectival tense after such conjunctions as אֲשֶׁר, עַד אֲשֶׁר, and טֶרֶם as well as in subordinate interrogative clauses to describe events that are seen as future from the level of the narrative. Jonah 4:5 gives a good example (note how these would be translated): “Jonah went out (wayyiqtol) of the city and sat (wayyiqtol) to the east of the city and made (wayyiqtol) a booth for himself there. He sat (wayyiqtol) under it in the shade, till (עַד אֲשֶׁר) he should see (yiqtol) what would become (yiqtol) of the city.”

The Tenses in Discourse Texts

Although Schneider discusses the use of all the tenses in discourse texts, I am primarily concerned with the imperfect, so I will limit my comments to that topic. The imperfect, which characterizes the speech as discourse, does not have a looking-back perspective.[2] According to Schneider, it is perspectivally indifferent.

I believe the most important point he makes in this discussion is related to the position of the imperfect in its clause (my translation):

Imperfects, which do not stand at the beginning of a clause (as in CNC or subordinate clauses), are indicative (simple affirmative clauses); imperfect forms at the beginning of a clause are to be regarded as “volitional.” The speaker wants something.

Schneider gives examples primarily from speeches within narrative books. The question, however, is whether this understanding of the imperfect correlates with what is found in the Psalter or other poetic sections. Specifically in regard to the volitional use of the imperfect, he states in § 51.4 that it is also valid to a great extent for poetic texts. Consider Psalm 149:2: “Let Israel be glad (yiqtol) in his Maker! Let the sons of Zion rejoice (yiqtol) in their King!”[3] His only caveat is that rhetorical figures such as chiasmus or parallelism must also be taken into account.

As such, I believe that Schneider’s (and also Nicacci’s) take on the imperfect should not be overlooked when approaching this issue in the Psalter. His view provides a good comparison (contrast?) for the conclusions that Michel has made.


[1] Simple nominal clauses provide contemporaneous circumstances to the narrative.

[2] The perfect also serves this role in discourse texts.

[3] Note how this verse translates both verbs as volitional, even though the second yiqtol is not in first position. The justification for this is that the verse is chiastic.


Author: Randy McKinion

Besides being a husband and father, I teach at Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH.

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