Grammar of Biblical Hebrew

In his Syntax of the Verb in Classical Hebrew Prose, 9, Alviero Niccacci describes his struggle as a budding scholar and professor to come to terms with the syntax of the biblical Hebrew verb. He states:

While looking for a solution which I could offer my students I came across two review articles by E. Talstra … and, in consequence, the work he reviewed. This was W[olfgang] Schneider’s grammar, an unpretentious class text book which has gone almost unnoticed by scholars. … The truth is that Schneider has opened the way for an approach to the problem which I believe to be correct.

31LkBzSvziLDuring my doctoral studies, I was introduced to the work of Wolfgang Schneider, Grammatik des biblischen Hebräisch. As I moved into teaching biblical Hebrew and began to work through the standard textbooks in English, I found that I continually wanted to expose my students to Schneider’s text-linguistic approach. Therefore, I worked to translate his grammar, beginning with the section on syntax and eventually working through the whole volume. The resultant text has now been published by Peter Lang as the first installment in its Studies in Biblical Hebrew monograph series. You may find it here or here (among other places).


Schneider’s grammar is a reference grammar, so it is not necessarily intended to be used by simply beginning with section 1 and continuing through the text. I found it helpful to create accompanying worksheets to help the students; if you are interested in seeing what I put together (or have any other questions), please let me know. I have also made several posts regarding Schneider’s work on the tenses and clauses.

Hebrew Clauses – Diethelm Michel (Section 28)

Although his work consists of a detailed study of the Psalter, Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen has an important section about the syntax of clauses in Hebrew (Section 5 of the work). For my own benefit and perhaps some out there who find such study interesting, I thought it might be helpful to present his results. (I did a similar summary of Wolfgang Schneider here.) In section 28, Michel lays out his understanding of the verbal clause and the nominal clause.

The Verbal Clause

  1. We refer to a clause as a verbal clause (VC) when it reports the performance of an action or the appearance of a characteristic.
  2. The predicate of a VC always consists of a finite verb.
  3. The finite verb always stands at the beginning of the clause; only adverbial qualification can step in before it. An explicit subject follows the verb in attributive position. An example of an adverbial phrase coming before the finite verb would be Ps 102:9a:

כָּל־הַ֭יּוֹם חֵרְפ֣וּנִי אוֹיְבָ֑י
all day my enemies surround me

The Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a nominal clause (NC) that makes a statement about a subject.
  2. A subject of the NC is a substantive or an equivalent of such (pronoun, substantive adjective or participle, substantive clause).
  3. A predicate of a nominal clause can be (1) a substantive, (2) an adjective (participle), (3) a pronoun, (4) an adverb, or (5) an entire clause. The last possibility is important in that it leads the third classification, the compound nominal clause.

The Compound Nominal Clause

  1. We call a clause a “compound nominal clause” when its predicate consists of an entire clause, a NC or a VC.
  2. In the predicate of the clause, a back-reference to the larger subject can take place.
  3. When a so-called copula is used in a nominal clause, it is regarded as a compound nominal clause.

Here are two examples, the first is a CNC with a NC as predicate, the second with a VC as predicate. Both have a nominal at the front about which a whole clause makes a claim.

Psalm 69:14
וַאֲנִ֤י תְפִלָּתִֽי־לְךָ֙׀ יְהוָ֡ה
As for me: my prayer is to you, Yhwh.

Psalm 103:19
יְֽהוָ֗ה בַּ֭שָּׁמַיִם הֵכִ֣ין כִּסְא֑וֹ
Yhwh [he has done this as a characteristic]:
he has established his throne in the heavens.

Hebrew Clauses – Wolfgang Schneider

In my Hebrew Exegesis courses, I use Wolfgang Schneider’s, Grammatik des biblischen Hebräisch, to introduce biblical Hebrew Syntax. Here is my summary of Section 44, which is Schneider’s take on Hebrew clauses.
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Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms: Excursus on Psalm 18 (part 1)

My last post on Diethelm Michel’s Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen [Tenses and Clause Position in the Psalms], summarized his initial take on the use of the perfect (qatal), imperfect (yiqtol) and imperfect consecutive (wayyiqtol) in the Psalter. These observations were primarily driven by the use of the wayyiqtol following the qatal or yiqtol. In his treatment of the yiqtol and of wayyiqtol chains, Michel made the observation that at times the imperfect can be used virtually the same as the imperfect consecutive. One should note that this is not the only use of the imperfect, as he will describe various ways the author uses the yiqtol in later sections. However, his conclusion intrigues me, so I find it helpful that he has attempted to make this claim by walking carefully through Psalm 18.

Since Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22 are essentially the same poem, choosing Psalm 18 is fitting. The reader can use these two parallel psalms to determine patterns of usage by the biblical writers. If anyone is interested, I have the Hebrew texts in parallel (Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22), with differences highlighted.

As I walk through the text, I will be interacting some with my previous post about Wolfgang Schneider’s approach to the imperfect.

The translations reflect my understanding of these verses, not Michel’s.

Psalm 18:2 [English 1]

אֶרְחָמְךָ֖ יְהוָ֣ה חִזְקִֽי׃

I want to love you, Yhwh, my strength.[1]

Michel concludes that the imperfect here is a cohortative. I completely agree, as this fits the general understanding of how a speaker/poet expresses volition. I would note (although Michel does not point this out), that the imperfect is placed here in first position in its clause.

Psalm 18:3 [Eng 2]

יְהוָ֤ה׀ סַֽלְעִ֥י וּמְצוּדָתִ֗י וּמְפַ֫לְטִ֥י
אֵלִ֣י צ֭וּרִי אֶֽחֱסֶה־בּ֑וֹ
מָֽגִנִּ֥י וְקֶֽרֶן־יִ֜שְׁעִ֗י מִשְׂגַּבִּֽי׃

Yhwh is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer;
my God is my rock—let me take refuge in him—
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

The only comment Michel makes on this verse is that it gives the theme of the psalm. He translates the verb with the present, which I have chosen not to follow. My take on the verse (at least for now) is this: The phrase אלי צורי is a nominal clause translated simply, “My God is my rock.” This is followed by a verbal clause with a yiqtol in initial position, as in v. 2 above. As such, I believe it is just as valid to translate this as a volitional, even if one uses “I will take refuge” instead of the “let me take” (or something similar) used above. My point is that the speaker is not simply stating a fact, but is expressing a desire, as in v. 2.

Psalm 18:4 [Eng 3]

מְ֭הֻלָּל אֶקְרָ֣א יְהוָ֑ה
וּמִן־אֹ֜יְבַ֗י אִוָּשֵֽׁעַ׃

As one worthy to be praised, I will call upon Yhwh;
and from my enemies, I will be saved.

The first half of the verse is notoriously difficult to translate, and Michel discusses these issues briefly. However, for the issue here, his conclusion is that the imperfects report past action. He does not explain why. I see no compelling reason why this is the case, because at this point, the imperfects are not set within a string of past actions, as might be suggested in psalms that place yiqtols and wayyiqtols together (see this post). As seen in the translation above, I have chosen the English future, but I believe a present tense would be fine as well (cf. most English translations). Since imperfects are generally perspectivally indifferent, I believe this is the best understanding. I would point out that both imperfects do not occur in first position, so I would not regard them volitionally.

Psalm 18:5–6 [Eng 4–5]

אֲפָפ֥וּנִי חֶבְלֵי־מָ֑וֶת
וְֽנַחֲלֵ֖י בְלִיַּ֣עַל יְבַֽעֲתֽוּנִי׃
חֶבְלֵ֣י שְׁא֣וֹל סְבָב֑וּנִי
קִ֜דְּמ֗וּנִי מ֣וֹקְשֵׁי מָֽוֶת׃

Waves[2] of death engulfed me,
and torrents of wickedness terrify me.
The chords of Sheol surrounded me,
snares of death confronted me.

The translation of the perfects follow easily Michel’s view as past actions stating facts, albeit in this case he points out that these are not actual things that occurred to the psalmist. Rather, these actions are images (from myths) in which the psalmist saw chaos breaking into his life.

For the matter at hand, verse 5 is striking. Both these verses are chiasms, but in v. 5, a perfect is placed in parallel with an imperfect. Michel does not address the significance of this at this point of his book, but he does in a later section (§ 29e). By inverting the clause and expressing action with the imperfect instead of the perfect, the accent is shifted so that a pure presentation of action (as expressed by the perfect) no longer exists. Two results follow: (1) the action of the second half of the chiasm is more conditional to the first [result in a translation of “so that…”] and (2) the static nature cause by the inversion is avoided. I believe the second is of significance, because by using the imperfect, the author has avoided creating a closed qatal clause whereby the action of the second half would be layered upon the first and perhaps seen as the same action.[3] At the same time, I have chosen to translate the imperfect with the present tense to distinguish it from the perfect.

Psalm 18:7 [Eng 6]

בַּצַּר־לִ֤י׀ אֶֽקְרָ֣א יְהוָה֘
וְאֶל־אֱלֹהַ֪י אֲשַׁ֫וֵּ֥עַ
יִשְׁמַ֣ע מֵהֵיכָל֣וֹ קוֹלִ֑י
וְ֜שַׁוְעָתִ֗י לְפָנָ֤יו׀ תָּב֬וֹא בְאָזְנָֽיו׃

In my trouble, I call to Yhwh,
and to my God I cry out for help.
May he hear my voice from his temple,
and may my cry for help come into his ears.

Again, Michel draws the (in my opinion hasty) conclusion that the imperfects here have a past meaning [“I called…I cried out”]. At the same time, he understands the imperfect ישׁמע to be an example of a yiqtol functioning like a wayyiqtol. Thus, the “hearing” is a result of the calling and crying out [“since he hears…”]. The primary issue I have with this is that you would expect such imperfects to be found in the midst of a wayyiqtol chain. Although wayyiqtols follow in v. 18, I don’t believe there has been a legitimate transition by an author to a series of actions that are normally related by a chain of narrative tenses. But even if I were to grant that the imperfects in the first two clauses are understood as past actions (which I don’t favor), I am not compelled to jettison my view that the last two imperfects may be taken as volitional. The first (ישׁמע) occurs in the first position of the clause as we would expect; the second (תבוא) is parallel to the first as part of a chiasm.[4]


I will cover more of Psalm 18 and Michel’s views in related posts. However, I thought I would pause and ask, Why is this important?On the one hand, as a teacher of Hebrew, the significance is quite obvious—to discover how the tenses are used so that translations and interpretations will be accurate. On the other hand, as a believer who reads the text as part of the community of faith, I believe the way I have understood and translated these verses demonstrate how we as readers can take these words upon our lips. That is, especially in the case of the volitional uses of the imperfect, the readers of the psalm is invited to express these desires along with the psalmist, perhaps as an individual, but also as part of worship with the congregation. Michel’s view would lead us to view Psalm 18 as merely rehearsing an act of the suppliant (David) in the past. I am simply showing that perhaps a different understanding of the tenses will help us see how the psalmist has preserved the volitional mood and present aspect of the poem. And as such, he allows us to sing the song along with the author.

[1] Most English translations have simply chosen, “I love you.” Perhaps the NKJV is suggesting a volitional understanding with, “I will love you.” None are clear on this.

[2] reading with 2Sam 22:5

[3] I realize I’m on sticky ground here, but these are simply some of my initial thoughts. Such layering usually exists when a closed qatal clause is layered upon a wayyiqtol (as for example in Gen 1:5).

[4] The parallel of תבואישׁמע in 2Sam 22:7 is a wayyiqtol. There is no parallel for תבוא. I will need to address this situation again, but I am of the opinion that this action is historicized in the specific example of 2Sam 22. This explanation is not without its difficulties, but viable.

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.