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Bible scroll

Time and Tenses

Bible scroll

I’ve been doing some reflection on biblical Hebrew tenses (and the connection to “prophecy”…).

Our language provides a lens. If you only speak one language, it is difficult for you to step outside the lens through which you see things – your language is how you interpret the world. English, to put it simply, has tenses linked to time: past, present, future. You might then expect the Hebrew Bible to be akin – but biblical Hebrew doesn’t have tenses in this sense. Contemporary Hebrew (used in Israel), however, does have past, present, and future (cobbled together from what has evolved from biblical times).

The Hebrew Bible has two what we might call tenses. To keep it simple: the perfect tense is a completed action while the imperfect tense is an incomplete action. [I am not going into the detail of the “reversing vav”].

I was thinking about all this when I spotted English doesn’t really have a simple future. We have a past (“I ran”), a present (“I run”) – we don’t have a one-word future. To form a future in English, we cobble together some words and call it our “future tense”: I will run. We make a future tense by using modal verbs – will, may, be going to.

As I’ve talked to different people about this, I understand this cobbling together of a “future tense” (whilst having a simple past and present) is common – it happens in Japanese, Chinese, Sinhalese, Dutch. Can you add other languages that do this?

What might this say about humans and our (shared-at-least-between-these-languages) understanding of time?

Some languages do have a simple past, present, and future. Biblical Greek:
past: ἐπαίδευσα (epaídeusa) “I taught”
present: παιδεύω (paideúō) “I teach”
future: παιδεύσω (paideúsō) “I will teach”

Te Reo Māori does things differently. The form of the verb does not change. There is the Tense Marker followed by the (unchanging) verb followed by the subject.

Tense MarkerMeaningExampleTranslation
Kei tepresent tense, continuous actionKei te oma auI am running
E … anapresent tense, continuous actionE oma ana auI am running
Kafuture tenseKa oma auI will run
Ipast tenseI oma auI ran
I tepast tense, continuous actionI te oma auI was running

What might these different approaches to time and tenses affect in our understanding? [Clearly biblical prophecy is not what solely-English-speakers think it is when they cherry-pick their English-translation favourite apocalyptic verses]. We regularly think of moving forward into the future; Māori tend to think of looking back to the past and walking backwards into a future we cannot see…

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