“Do You Understand What You Are Reading?”

Biblical Hebrew is a delightful language! However, western-oriented students generally get frustrated by some of its characteristics: triconsonantal roots, right-to-left reading, fluctuations of vowels, expansive of word meanings, syntax, ancient idioms, the strangely fluid nature of verbal time (past, present, future), etc. These and other matters may be difficult for the student but they also challenge scholars who in turn influence Bible translators. To be crystal clear: How the Hebrew text is understood and the English Bible subsequently translated determines what we understand in our reading of the Old Testament.

This brief posting focuses on the issue of verbal time. Scholars do not always agree as to whether a particular verb in a specific context speaks of the past, present or future since time is mostly a contextual matter in Hebrew verbs (Arnold and Choi, A guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 36). This results in different English translations and interpretations. Obadiah 12-15 presents a case in point. Notice the variations in the wording of the verbs in bold font in the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New International Version (NIV), representative examples of commonly used translations:


[12] But you should not have gazed on the day of your brother In the day of his captivity; Nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah In the day of their destruction;

[13] You should not have entered the gate of My people
In the day of their calamity.
Indeed, you should not have gazed on their affliction
In the day of their calamity,
Nor laid hands on their substance
In the day of their calamity.

[14] You should not have stood at the crossroads
To cut off those among them who escaped;
Nor should you have delivered up those among them who remained
In the day of distress.

[15] “For the day of the LORD upon all the nations is near;
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
Your reprisal shall return upon your own head.


12 You should not gloat over your brother
in the day of his misfortune,
nor rejoice over the people of Judah
in the day of their destruction,
nor boast so much
in the day of their trouble.

13 You should not march through the gates of my people
in the day of their disaster,
nor gloat  over them in their calamity
in the day of their disaster,
nor seize their wealth
in the day of their disaster.

14 You should not wait at the crossroads
to cut down their fugitives,
nor hand over their survivors
in the day of their trouble.

15 “The day of the LORD is near for all nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you;
your deeds will return upon your own head.

The verbs in the NKJV (verses 12-14) indicate past activity; in the NIV, they refer to the present or immediate future. Do these verses refer to Edom’s sin in the past or Edom’s potential sin in the present or future?

As discussed by Arnold and Choi, (Ibid, 57), the issue of time relates to whether the verbs are Imperfects, a verb form focusing on progress that can have reference to the past, present, or future, or Jussives, a verb form expressing a desire, wish, or command connecting to the present and future. The NKJV editors considered the verbs Imperfects; the NIV translators, Jussives.

Two issues of Hebrew grammar justify the NIV interpretation:

  1. The Imperfect and Jussive verb forms are identical in spelling except for the Hiphil verb stem where a formal difference exists. In verses 12 and 14 two clear Jussives appear, “boast” (תָּגְדֵּל) and “hand over” (תַּסְגֵּר). The Imperfect forms of these verbs are תַּגִדִּיל and תַּסִגִּיר. There is no confusion between these forms. Therefore, in verses 12-14 either all the verbs are Jussives or the writer switched from Imperfects to Jussives arbitrarily—an unlikely scenario.
  2. A second aid to resolve this translation variation involves the negative found throughout verses 12-14. This particular negative (“not” אַל) “governs the jussive” (Waltke and O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 516). Based on these two grammatical observations, the NIV wins the debate.

However, verse 15, shows verbal “time” agreement between these two translations, “As you have done, it will/shall be done to you.” This verse affects the broader interpretation and application of the passage.

  • If the NKJV translation is accepted, this verse promises future judgment for past sins without recourse in the present.
  • If the NIV translation is adopted, this verse encourages Edom to change its actions in the present or face certain judgment in the future.

The first verb of verse 15b (NIV, “you have done” עָשִׂיתָ) can function as a future perfect (Waltke, O’Connor, Ibid, 491). This future perspective means that verse 15b may be translated, “As you will have done, it will be done to you.” Such a future perfect English translation connects smoothly with the past (implied), present, and future historical setting in the NIV, but the NASB perhaps can make sense by viewing the passage as historically past and prophetically future promising Edom’s eventual demise with no behavioral adjustments and avoidance of judgment in the present.

How the Hebrew text is understood and the English Bible subsequently translated determines its interpretation. Beekman and Callow (Translating the Word of God, 32) state that an accurate translation “faithfully transmits the message of the original.” Obadiah’s message comes by way of Hebrew grammar and contextual continuity—the domain of Bible scholars. Translators must incorporate their conclusions making it possible for readers to interpret and apply the English Bible accurately.

To make a contemporary application, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I except scholars clarify the grammar and translators interpret the text accordingly!”

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