Bibles

Verb - Grammar of Biblical Hebrew

Summary

A verb is the grammatical entity that describes the subject of a sentence. A verb can describe either an action that the subject performs or the state (or condition) of the subject.

Article

A verb is a word in a sentence that describes either an action by the subject of a sentence, or the subject itself. Therefore, the verb is often the most important word in understanding a sentence or a clause.

Form

In Biblical Hebrew, the root of a verb consists of three consonants, sometimes called the tri-literal (meaning “three letters”) root. In “strong” verbs, the three root consonants always stay the same and are easy to recognize, but “weak” verbs have one or more consonants that disappear in certain forms.

Verbs in Biblical Hebrew change form according to both conjugation (Perfect, Imperfect, Infinitive Absolute, etc.) and stem formation (Niphal, Hiphil, etc.). Generally speaking, changes in verb forms happen by adding prefixes/suffixes, by changing the vowels, or both. These changes in form show the stem formation of a verb with its conjugation, which includes the person (first, second, or third), the gender (masculine or feminine), the number (singular or plural), and sometimes the state (absolute or construct). The person, gender, and number of a verb always agree with the subject.

Unlike English (but similar to other languages like Spanish), verbs in Biblical Hebrew do not require a separate personal pronoun if the subject is not identified; this is because the form of the verb itself includes the subject. A pronominal suffix attached to a verb can function as its object.

Finite verbs

Finite verbs are verbs that have a subject and do not require any verbal complement to form a complete sentence. Their form shows tense as well as person and number. Biblical Hebrew has 7 finite verb forms: Perfect, Imperfect, Sequential Perfect, Sequential Imperfect, Imperative, Jussive, and Cohortative.

Non-finite verbs

Properly speaking, non-finite verbs are verbal complements that require a finite verb to form a complete sentence. The non-finite verb forms in Biblical Hebrew include the Infinitive Absolute, the Infinitive Construct, and the participles (both active and passive). Non-finite verbs can sometimes describe an action or an event in such a way that the word functions like a noun.

Note

In Biblical Hebrew, the non-finite verb forms are sometimes used as finite verbs, and the imperfect form is sometimes used as a non-finite verb.

Types

Grammarians often distinguish between different types of verbs. When considering the best way to translate a sentence, it is helpful to understand what kind of verb is being used in any given instance.

Dynamic (or action) verbs

Dynamic verbs describe a subject performing an action. The subject is doing something.

Example: 2KI 1:5
וַיָּשׁ֥וּבוּ הַמַּלְאָכִ֖ים אֵלָ֑יו
wayyashuvu hammal’akhim ‘elayw
And-they-returned the-messangers to-him
When the messengers returned to him
Example: JON 1:4
וַֽיהוָ֗ה הֵטִ֤יל רֽוּחַ־גְּדֹולָה֙ אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם
wayhwah hetil ruah-gedowlah ‘el-hayyam
And-Yahweh cast wind-great on-the-sea
But Yahweh sent out a great wind on the sea

Stative (or non-action) verbs

Rather than describing a specific action, stative verbs describe the subject’s state of being (the way the subject is). The subject is not doing anything.

Example: GEN 48:10 –– stative verb “to be heavy”
וְעֵינֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ כָּבְד֣וּ מִזֹּ֔קֶן
we’ene yisra’el kovdu mizzoqen
And-the-eyes-of Israel were-heavy from-age
Now Israel’s eyes were failing because of his age
Example: NUM 13:33 –– stative verb “to be”
וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֨ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים
wannehi ve’enenu kahagavim
And-we-were in-our-eyes like-grashoppers
In our own sight we were like grasshoppers

Transitive verbs

A transitive verb is a dynamic verb that requires an object that receives the verbal action. A sentence with a transitive verb is not complete without the object. Stative verbs are never transitive.

The phrase “And they lifted up” is unclear without an object. They lifted up…what?, for example:

Example: RUT 1:14
וַתִּשֶּׂ֣נָה קֹולָ֔ן
wattissenah qowlan
And they lifted up their voice
Then they lifted up their voices

The phrase “[you must] keep” is unclear without an object. You must keep…what?, for example:

Example: PRO 7:1
שְׁמֹ֣ר אֲמָרָ֑י
shemor ‘amaray
keep my-words
keep my words

Intransitive verbs

An intransitive verb is a verb that does NOT require an object to receive the verbal action. A sentence with an intransitive verb is complete without an object. Dynamic verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, but stative verbs are always intransitive.

Example: EXO 11:1
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה
wayyomer yehwah ‘el-mosheh
And-he-said Yahweh to_Moses
Then Yahweh said to Moses
Example: DAN 9:4
וָֽאֶתְפַּֽלְלָ֛ה לַיהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהַ֖י
wa’ethpalelah layhwah ‘elohay
And-I-prayed to-Yahweh my-God
I prayed to Yahweh my God

Linking verbs

Linking verbs are verbs that link two noun, or a noun and an adjective. Hebrew has very few linking verbs, so often a linking verb has to be supplied in English.

Example: RUT 2:6 –– linking verb “is”, not present in the Hebrew text
נַעֲרָ֤ה מֹֽואֲבִיָּה֙ הִ֔יא
na’arah mow’aviyyah hi
Young-woman Moabite she
She is the young Moabite woman
Example: 1SA 11:10 –– linking verb “seems”, not present in the Hebrew text
כְּכָל־הַטֹּ֖וב בְּעֵינֵיכֶֽם׃
kekhol-hattowv be’enekhem
like-all_the-good in-your-eyes.
whatever seems good to you.

Helping verbs

Helping verbs are extra verbs that “help” express the meaning of the main verb. Biblical Hebrew does not use helping verbs, but English does. Often, it is necessary to supply a helping verb in English to express the meaning of a Hebrew verb.

helping verbs in questions and negations

The following example in English adds the helping verb “have” (not present in the Hebrew text):

Example: 1SA 13:11
מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ
meh ‘asitha
What you-did?
What have you done?

The following example in English adds the helping verb “did” (not present in the Hebrew text):

Example: EZR 5:5
וְלָא־בַטִּ֣לוּ הִמֹּ֔ו
wela-vattilu himmow
and-not_they-stopped them
and they did not stop them
helping verbs to express possibility or desirability

English uses helping verbs to express varying degrees of possiblity or desirability of verbs. This includes a vast range from strong possibility (He **can* do this* or He **would* do this*) to weak possibility (He **might* do this* or He **could* do this*) or from strong desirability (He **should* do this* or *Let him do this*) to weak desirability (*May he do this* or He **wants* to do this*). In Biblical Hebrew, this sense of possibility or desirability is implied by the context and already present in the form of the verb itself.

The following examples in English add the helping verb “may” (not present in the Hebrew text):

Example: GEN 3:16
מִכֹּ֥ל עֵֽץ־הַגָּ֖ן אָכֹ֥ל תֹּאכֵֽל׃
mikkol ‘ets-haggan ‘akhol tokhel
from-every tree-of_the-garden eating you-eat
From every tree in the garden you may freely eat
JOB 38:34
וְֽשִׁפְעַת־מַ֥יִם תְּכַסֶּֽךָּ׃
weshif’ath-mayim tekhassekka
and-large-amount-of_water cover-you
so that an abundance of rainwater may cover you

Grammar of Biblical Hebrew