Relevance Theory and the Problem of Tense-Aspect in Biblical Hebrew

/, Biblical Hebrew verb, Hebrew in First Century, Koine Greek/Relevance Theory and the Problem of Tense-Aspect in Biblical Hebrew

Relevance Theory and the Problem of Tense-Aspect in Biblical Hebrew


Genesis 22 is a common narrative text that is used in introductory biblical Hebrew courses. There are several points of syntax and narrative style in that passage that are often overlooked by both beginning-intermediate students and even by Hebrew grammarians.


Consider Gen 22:3

ויקם וילך אל המקום אשר אמר לו האלהים
and he got up and went to the place that God told him

Did Abraham arrive at the place? Many grammarians would say ‘yes’, because the verb vayyelex “and he went” is perfective/complete and includes the end point of the action. However, Relevance Theory and a “Tense-Aspect” theory of the Hebrew verb present a different picture, and a picture that fits better with Hebrew narrative.


Relevance Theory says that a speaker/writer makes assumptions about an audience’s understanding and then chooses the vocabulary and amount of explicit information that is necessary in order to communicate, based on those assumptions. The speaker/writer does not add extra, unnecessary information because an audience will imply that there was some communicative purpose to the “extra information”. For example, if a person normally greets a friend “how’s it going?”, but then one day says “how do you do?”, the friend will wonder why such a formal greeting is being used. If an immediate reason does not pop into mind, they may ask, “why such a greeting?”, “what’s going on?”


Relevance Theory is quite helpful at Genesis 22:3 and in many storytelling frameworks in the Hebrew Bible. From Genesis 22:4 it is clear that the story is “still on the way,” that Abraham and his entourage still had not arrived at the desired destination. So why didn’t the storyteller say so in verse 22:3? Good question.


It turns out that unambiguously marking “incomplete aspect” takes extra procedural energy for the writer and the audience, so it is often ignored in Hebrew. This may come as a surprise to those who think that the Hebrew verb only marks “aspect” instead of “tense-aspect”.


What choices did an author have for marking incomplete aspect in Hebrew narrative? At Gen 22:3 the author could have written,

והלך אל המקום

“and he was going/used to go …” However, such a structure is normally used for multiple occurrences and not this unique, one-time story.


ויחל ללכת אל המקום

“and he began to go the the place …” However, such a structure uses extra storytelling energy and puts a focus on the beginning. Apparently, from what we see in Hebrew storytelling, they did not use such techniques lightly or commonly. Incidentally, colloquial storytelling in the Second Temple period and later increased the relative use of such a structure with “began-to-do”, but that discussion is best left for another blog or even a gospel commentary.


ויהי הולך אל המקום

“and he was going to the place …” This, too, uses extra storytelling energy by using a composite verb structure that was considered unnecessary.


Instead, the Hebrew storytelling simply used a past, normally perfective, simple verb, either וילך or הוא הלך and expected the audience to pick up in the next sentence whether or not the story was still ‘in the way’, or had arrived at the travel destination. In other words, Hebrew storytelling is relatively INSENSITIVE to aspect, exactly the opposite of what many students assume to be the case. This, of course, is understandable from a multi-parameter “tense-aspect-mood” view of the Hebrew verb, where all three parameters are engaged by a single binary switch, qatal-yiqtol. This view says that the Hebrew distinction of qatal//yiqtol and vayyiqtol//ve-qatal can be used to mark either past-future time or complete-incomplete aspect or real-potential mood, as the speaker wished. Time was included in the verb as seen in the restriction that prevents qatal and vayyiqtol from being used in a clause with maHar ‘tomorrow.’ Those structures were considered temporally incompatible with “tomorrow.” So if the Hebrew distinction of qatal//yiqtol or vayyiqtol//ve-qatal inherently includes BOTH tense AND aspect, which are appropriately applied to varied contexts, then the verb system may frequently lack precision unless it goes to extra lengths for differentiating tense from aspect. This is exactly what we find in Genesis 22:3. The past tense is correctly marked, but the aspect is left for the audience to re-calculate as the story progresses, “… On the third day and Avraham lifted his eyes …” That verse, too, is a special structure, discussed in Living Bible Hebrew, Part Three (gimel) at this verse, but we will leave that for a future blog. It is enough for this blog to point out that Hebrew storytelling did not bother to mark “incomplete aspect” in many accounts of movement in the Hebrew Bible. Marking incomplete aspect was considered special, and something extra, in Hebrew storytelling. Keeping the tense on target was the norm in Hebrew storytelling.

About the Author:


  1. Stephen C. Carlson September 16, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    What if wayyelex al … is atelic (he went toward)? Then a perfective would be ingressive (including the beginning of the action).

  2. Randall Buth September 17, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Yes, Stephen, one could read “halax el” atelically, meaning without an endpoint, which in effect is what a reader ends up doing. However, that would be pushing the incompleteness of the situation into the lexeme/idiom even though “halax el” is normally telic (has an endpoint). Admittedly, Hebrew only has an explicitly atelic preposition with persons “halax liqrat-” ‘he went towards…(person)’.

    If one looks at other movement verbs one finds the same insensitivity to aspect. Look at Gen 37:28 ‘and the Midianites passed by.’ This crossed enough of a threshhold (pun intended) for the LXX translator that he specified παρηρχοντο ‘were passing by’. The point in the blog is that this was considered heavy and more energy-consuming to do in the Hebrew verbal system, so they were less sensitive to aspect than the Greeks. The Hebrew love of providing cohesion through the dual sequential system (vayyiqtol/ve-qatal) tended to override a desire for precision with aspect.

    For another verb and example, look at Judges 14:1 and 5. The same structure is used for both yarad …-ah ‘went down to …’. In verse 1 Shimson reached Timnah, but in verse 5 he obviously didn’t reach the town since he met a lion. Occasionally, the author and audience need to reset the expectation of arrival in what follows, as in 14:6. (By the way, the distance from the ridge of the Tsora mountains down to Timnah is quite short maybe a couple of miles. There is a vineyard there today, too [Mona], between the lookout point and Timnah, so it is quite a nice place for reading the story.) Again, the point of all of this is that Hebrew, instead of being a language highly sensitive to aspect according to the narrative most often told to students, Hebrew was relatively insensitive to aspect, unrefined, just like its unrefined approach to tense. That is fairly predictable from a system that is basically binary, having an ‘on/off’ switch for the whole realm of “tense/aspect”, though it does have a cohesive “dual sequential” system (vayyiqtol/ve-qatal) and an ‘actual present’ participle (hu qotel), to round out its indicative system.

  3. Stephen C. Carlson September 18, 2013 at 7:31 am

    Thanks for your response. Gen 37:28 looks like a strong example.

  4. Ethan October 14, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Those Gen 37:28 and Judges 14:1-6 examples are nice.

  5. James November 15, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Thanks Randall,
    Are you familiar with Athas’ take on the the function of verbs in narrative?
    He would simply say that wayyiqtols produce “narrative momentum” and gives the reader a new reference point in the narrative. I would understand that to mean I should imagine him getting up and going and I shouldn’t be surprised whether the next reference point has me at the destination or still on the journey.
    As far as I understand anyway – maybe George will weigh in…

  6. Randall Buth November 15, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you for the question, James.

    I’m not sure how George (Athas) would refer to the Hebrew narrative verbs so we’ll let him speak for himself. However, I think I am following your own take on this.

    Yes, a vayyiqtol produces “narrative momentum” and produces a new reference point in a narrative. However, as a backbone of a story structure, it is prototypically ‘perfective’, as is seen by the overwhelming tendency of Greek to translate with aorist indicatives and for the Aramaic translations to use suffix verbs. Your English gloss “going”, on the otherhand, is protypically ‘imperfective, open-ended’, which is the irony at the base of the discussion in the blog.

Leave A Comment