Diethelm Michel: Section 6 – The Perfect in Description of Trouble

This post is a continuation of a series that is working through Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen [Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms]. Section 6 of this work, which begins a new section of the book treating the use of the perfect (qatal) in the Psalter, shows how the qatal is used to describe the trouble of the speaker(s) in lament and thanksgiving psalms.

As we transition to this new segment of the book, some of the big questions asked by Michel are concerning (1) how the perfect reports action, (2) the relationship between actions reported in the perfect, (3) how the perfect interacts with the other tenses, and (4) typical translations of the perfect. Michel’s methodology, as in earlier sections, is simply to walk through example passages and make passing, summary statements.

Psalm 79

Michel begins with vv. 1–4:

1 אֱֽלֹהִ֡ים
גוֹיִ֙ם׀ בְּֽנַחֲלָתֶ֗ךָ
אֶת־הֵיכַ֣ל קָדְשֶׁ֑ךָ
אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַ֣ם לְעִיִּֽים׃
2 נָֽתְנ֡וּ אֶת־נִבְלַ֬ת עֲבָדֶ֗יךָ
מַ֭אֲכָל לְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם
בְּשַׂ֥ר חֲ֜סִידֶ֗יךָ
3 שָׁפְכ֬וּ דָמָ֙ם׀ כַּמַּ֗יִם
סְֽבִ֨יב֤וֹת יְֽרוּשָׁלִָ֗ם
וְאֵ֣ין קוֹבֵֽר׃
4הָיִ֣ינוּ חֶ֭רְפָּה לִשְׁכֵנֵ֑ינוּ
לַ֥עַג וָ֜קֶ֗לֶס לִסְבִיבוֹתֵֽינוּ׃

One English translation.

In vv. 1–3, five verbal clauses report actions of the enemies, which in v. 4, a verbal clause describes the condition of the ones praying. Structurally of note is that each of these has perfects in first position with no connecting ו. As such, Michel makes the point that these qatal clauses do not report continuous actions. “The enemies have not first devastated the temple [v. 1], then dishonored the corpses [v. 2] and only then spilled their blood [v. 3]. Rather, here events are listed that should persuade Yhwh to intervene, and each of them has its own inherent weight.” The conclusion is that these perfects list definite facts, yet not in the same way that a wayyiqtol chain would.

Regarding translation, Michel states that generally all of these should be translated in the past, except perhaps v. 4. Throughout the section, Michel translates according to context, wrestling with the time element in relationship to the other verbs/action surrounding the perfects. As such, he presents no definite rule for when to translate with past or present.

The description of the trouble is again picked up in v. 7:

כִּ֭י אָכַ֣ל אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב
וְֽאֶת־נָוֵ֥הוּ הֵשַֽׁמּוּ׃

For they[1] have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation. (NRSV)

However, here the second half of the verse contains an inversion that is easily explained by the use of chiasm.

Michel’s demonstrates from a number of others passages the same observations as from Psalm 79. Differences arise when accompanied by other tenses (esp. wayyiqtol and yiqtol), but his conclusions seem mostly consistent. One question that he raises is the issue of inversion, which will be treated in a later section/post. However, it would be beneficial to show an example here that is not part of a chiasm:

Psalm 54:5

כִּ֤י זָרִ֙ים׀ קָ֤מוּ עָלַ֗י
וְֽ֭עָרִיצִים בִּקְשׁ֣וּ נַפְשִׁ֑י
לֹ֤א שָׂ֙מוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְנֶגְדָּ֣ם סֶֽלָה׃

For strangers—they have risen up against me;
and tyrants—they have sought my life.
They have not set God before their eyes. Selah.

The perfects describe the actions of the enemies, reporting facts. Yet, in the first half of the verse, a nominal is set before the verb, creating an inversion. Michel’s conclusion is helpful in this regard, namely that in this case, the focus of the sentence lies less on the action then on the characterization of the enemies (hence my translation above to help focus on that). The significance of inversions will be discussed later, especially as they relate to chiastic structures.

Two Observations

  1. What makes me slightly uncomfortable throughout this section (and perhaps through much of Michel’s work) is his reliance upon isolating the use of the tenses in particular genres. Though perhaps completely necessary, I wish his treatment was based more strictly on structural identifiers, such as the placement of the verb. He approaches this in his observations concerning the connection between perfects with the waw or lack thereof. This is a topic taken up in a later section, but I wish it were one addressed from the beginning of the book as foundational for his discussion of the tenses.
  2. Throughout section 6, the reader must recognize that translation of perfect strictly with the English past tense is by no means followed by modern translations and is probably difficult to hold strictly. This highlights an important point that reading the Psalms in translation does not allow the reader to fully appreciate what is being done by the writers.

[1] Michel believes this should be read as a plural along with not a few Hebrew manuscripts as well as Jer 10:25. Cf. the apparatus in BHS.


Author: Randy McKinion

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

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