Can you really annihilate what the translators and dictionaries say by simply gesturing to a well known rule in Hebrew? Probably not!
When learning a biblical language – or when just learning a few things about a biblical language for that matter, seminary students or preachers can sometimes start to feel like they’ve gained super powers – and now with just the effortless and universal application of a few of the rules they’ve learned, they can nail down exactly what the writer meant and thereby amaze their peers, win every argument and floor their congregation with their prowess.
Easy tiger. Learning a biblical language gives you a great tool, but just as when you use your own native language, you have to treat rules carefully. They’re almost never universal, and it became a running joke in my Hebrew class that as we were learning the next rule, my fellow students and I were bracing ourselves for the inevitable list of exceptions. Formal rules of Hebrew Grammar arose many centuries after the Bible was written, and they arose based on the way Hebrew is used in the Scripture. The rules were meant to reflect usage, but usage was not meant by the writer to conform to the rules. There are even examples in the Hebrew Scripture that appear to flatly violate the rules that we are familiar with. For example, all Hebrew students are told, and rightly so, that the gender and number of a verb should agree with the gender and number of its subject. And yet in Ruth 1:19 the rule is flagrantly “broken” when we read of Naomi and Ruth that “the two of them” (שְׁתֵּיהֶם, with a masculine suffix) “went” (וַתֵּלַכְנָה, which has a feminine suffix, as we would expect) to Bethlehem. What? Did Naomi and Ruth have a sex change? We’ve got to follow the rules, right? This is not an isolated example. The truth is, almost no rule holds in every case and there are usually multiple ways to do the same job in any language. Biblical languages are no exception.
Here’s the example that drove home to me the need to highlight this issue (and it’s the example that I’ll be using for the rest of this article). Some time ago my friend Chris Date wrote a blog post (and then I later wrote a follow up post in support of what he said) about the meaning of Isaiah 66:24, which reads: “and they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me. Their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched. They will be revolting to all people.” (My translation – more literally it would read “to all flesh,” which is an idiom meaning “all people”). Chris pointed out that the Hebrew word translated “quenched” most likely means what the English word “quenched” means, namely extinguished or put out, so that what Isaiah 66:24 means is that their fire will not be snuffed out or extinguished. This is of interest, because there are some people who use Isaiah 66:24 (or its quotation in the Gospels) to show that the biblical writers believed that God’s enemies will be tormented forever in a fire that will burn forever. But that isn’t what Isaiah says. In the first place it’s probably a mistake to think that he was literally describing punishment at the judgement. Secondly, the people in this awful picture are dead and hence incapable of suffering at all, let alone forever. Thirdly – and this is the point in this article, Isaiah never says that the fire will burn for ever and ever. Instead he says that it will never be put out or “quenched.” Fires that are not put out burn on, unrestrained, until they consume whatever it is they are burning (as in a great forest fire envisioned in Ezekiel 20:47, for example). The verb is conveying what we would normally call a passive concept: It doesn’t tell us what the fire will do to something, it tells us what will happen (or in this case, not happen) to the fire.
That’s the sum total of the point that Chris made. However, a critic spoke up and said that this claim could not possibly be true. This literally cannot be what the writer is conveying by using the verb כָּבָה (pronounced kabhah, when bh sounds like the letter v) in Isaiah 66:24, because this is a Qal verb. Qal verbs are always active. They tell us what people (or things) do, but they can never ever tell us what is done to people (or things). So it was out of the question, our critic claimed, that this verb might mean “to be put out.” Case closed.
That this is actually what is meant in Isaiah 66:24 is fairly clear, however. In the first place, virtually all literal English translations translate these words in more or less the same way (e.g. the AV, ASV, ASV, ESV, NASB, NRSV, RSV, Webster’s, YLT). Some slightly more dynamic translations like the NET Bible give “die out,” although it also adds in a footnote: “Heb ‘and their fire will not be extinguished’,” indicating what the Hebrew literally says. You will find other more dynamic translations that have something like “will not die out” as well (e.g. the New Living Translation), but the more literal translations clearly favour “will not be quenched,” indicating what will not happen to the fire. So right at the outset, the translators favour this position.
What’s more, it’s not just in Isaiah 66:24 that the translators favour a meaning of “to be quenched” for this verb. The exact same form of this verb appears several times in the Hebrew Bible. Here’s an example from Ezekiel 20:47. “Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it.” This is another useful comparison to Isaiah 66:24, for it is a context when God is threatening judgement with fire and the construction is the same: לֹא־תִכְבֶּה (lo-thikhbeh). the negation of the Qal imperfect. The context (which is the most significant factor in determining what a word is being used to convey) makes the meaning quite clear: Fires that burn down forests do not burn forever, but unless they are put out (quenched) and the forest is saved, the fire will burn up all the trees—which is precisely what is described here: “it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree.” The writer uses this verb to say that the fire will not be put out by anybody, which, although the verb is a Qal, and would be parsed as active, conveys a passive concept. The same phrase (לֹא־תִכְבֶּה) appears in a couple of other places in the Hebrew Bible as well (2 Kings 22:17; Isaiah 34:9-10), and each time it makes good sense if understood to mean “will not be quenched.”
Not only does the same verb appear to convey what we would naturally call a passive concept elsewhere, but the Hebrew Lexicons provide this very meaning as the primary meaning for Qal verbs. I checked with six easily obtainable lexicons / dictionaries and found that all of them give some variant of “to be put out” or “to be extinguished” as the primary meaning of the Qal form of this verb. 1) The classic lexicon by Gesenius and revised by, Brown, Driver and Briggs give “be quenched, extinguished,”1 2) Holladay’s A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament gives “Be extinguished, go out,” apparently allowing for either, 3) Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) also allows for either meaning, giving “be quenched, go out, i.e., have a flame or fire stop burning either by overt action or by natural causes,” 4) The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, which does the same, giving “be extinguished, go out,” 5) the widely used Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (often abbreviated as TWOT), edited by Bruce Waltke, which is emphatic, “It always relates to fire and to the act of putting a fire out,” and 6) also the lowly but ubiquitous James Strong’s Lexicon, which gives “to be quenched, be extinguished.” So it’s fairly clear that we’re on safe ground – this is what our translators and lexicographers say, Isaiah 66:24 really does mean “their fire will not be quenched,” rather than “their fire will never die.” Indeed, TWOT is insistent, to reiterate: “It always relates to fire and to the act of putting a fire out,”2
Professor Claude Mariottini (Professor of Old Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary) was good enough to offer his insight on the issues raised in this discussion, and he brought to the readers’ attention several more reputable lexicons that also offer a definition of כָּבָה that seems to convey a passive concept of being put out (by somebody), rather than simply dying out. Those sources are the eight-volume Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield Phoenix Press) in which the basic meaning given is to “be extinguished,” the Compendious Hebrew-English Dictionary (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1938), which supplies a Qal meaning of “to be put out, to be quenched, be extinguished.” Thirdly, Dr Mariottini provided the five-volume New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) edited by Willem VanGemeren, which provided a primary meaning of “be extinguished.” The point is fairly clear that our lexicographers seem to agree that this Qal verb does indeed convey what seems like a passive concept: Not to simply die out or to put something else out, but to be put out or extinguished. As Dr Mariottini summarised, “What these three sources reveal is that the word כָּבַה in biblical, Mishnaic, medieval, and modern Hebrew carries the passive idea when translated into English.” Indeed, the list now contains nine sources – surely enough to make the point clearly! The meaning of כָּבַה as given by our lexicons and translators can be easily compared to the meaning of some verbs that would be parsed as passive. For example, אָסַף (asaph) is a Qal verb that means “to gather,” which is active (since gathering is what you do to something). In its niphal form, which is parsed as passive (e.g. וְנֶאֶסְפוּ, wene’esphu, the first word in Genesis 29:1), it means “to be gathered,” and refers to the state of some sheep. Insofar as it is clear that “to be gathered” conveys what we would call a passive concept, so too does “to be quenched / extinguished.”
Here is where it’s important to remember how Hebrew rules of grammar were formulated. Such rules are much younger than the text of the Hebrew Bible.
The evidence, then, is quite clear. But how can this be? What of this hard and fast universal rule that no Qal verb can ever convey a passive concept? Our critic was partly correct: When discovering verb stems in Hebrew, a student will first learn that a Qal verb is simple, capable of being modified in other verb stems, and it is parsed as active, whereas, say, a niphal or a pual verb (these are different verb stems) are passive. Does this mean that a Qal verb can never convey the fact that something is being done to the subject? Is it as simple as that? We’ve already seen that this is not true in the case of כָּבָה, but how can this be? Rules are rules, right? Here is where it’s important to remember how Hebrew rules of grammar were formulated. Such rules are much younger than the text of the Hebrew Bible. The foundations for modern work in Hebrew grammar were laid by the Masoretes, medieval Jewish scholars of the 7th-10th century AD. While there were a few examples prior, the scientific study of biblical Hebrew in the non-Jewish world only really dates back to the nineteenth century work of Wilhelm Gesenius. In other words, we cannot assume that the writers of the Hebrew Bible were trying to follow – or could have followed – clearly formulated rules about things like verb stems, because those rules simply didn’t exist. We have only been able to formulate these rules based on the tendencies of the biblical writers themselves. It is all very well to observe, for example, that the niphal stem typically denotes a reflexive action (i.e. to X oneself) or a passive counterpart to a Qal verb (e.g. to be Xed), but if we apply this as a universal rule we will misinterpret some words. For example as Hostetter notes, “In some verbal roots where no Qal forms exist in the Bible, the Niphal has an active meaning similar to the hypothetical Qal form: נִרְדָּם ‘sleeping deeply’.”3 See Proverbs 10:5 for an example of this verb in action. We would get it wrong if we put the rules (which weren’t written until centuries later) before the writer, which is why context and typical usage are the most important guide to meaning.
I put to Walter C. Kaiser (President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) the suggestion that for some Qal verbs, “they appear in what looks like their ordinary Qal perfect / imperfect form, and yet the verbs appear to carry a meaning that in English we would normally regard as passive” as suggested by the usage that I have sampled here and the meaning offered by our lexicographers. I then asked him:
Is this assessment correct? Is it true that there are some Qal verbs (while not many) that in their ordinary perfect or imperfect form, parsed as active, properly convey a meaning that to our English-speaking ears naturally sounds passive (e.g. to be lifted up, to be deceived, to be completed, to be quenched etc)? Or does this analysis misunderstand something?
His reply was short and clear: This assessment is indeed correct:
I believe you have assessed these verbs correctly. … [B]ased on usage you have made the right assessments. After all, it is usage that decides.
I put the same question to Gary Pratico, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Language and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and co-author of Basics of Biblical Hebrew (which, incidentally, is the Hebrew Grammar textbook I recommend for anyone contemplating learning biblical Hebrew, and is a standard work used in Seminaries in the English-speaking world). He too affirmed this analysis, offering further detail. (Regarding his observation that a subset of the verbs in this category are stative verbs, see below where I will discuss this further. The point, just for now, is that not all such verbs are stative verbs.)
As you have observed, the Qal stem does have truly passive forms in certain of the conjugations even though we think of the Niphal, Pual and Hophal as the real passive forms. And yet, there are some verbs in the Qal stem that translate with a passive nuance. Lexicographers and the like are correct to identify them as they do but, of course, they seldom provide comment pertinent to your inquiry. Some of these verbs belong to the stative category and thus have the sound in translation of passive voice but, in fact, are simply describing the state or condition of the subject rather than communicating a true passive sense. Probably, however, the majority of Qal verbs that translate passively are functioning like deponent verbs in Greek. These, of course, are well-known. So the bottom line, so to speak, is that there are Qal verbs that translate as though they have been inflected in the derived stems that are inherently passive. In this instance, you can be confident in your lexicographers. (I don’t pretend to know much about Greek and will leave the reader to depend on others for any explanation of deponent verbs in Greek.)
It’s important to remember – nobody here is saying that on some instances Qal verbs are classified as passive verbs and would be called passive in our parsing guides. If for class you’re asked to parse the verbs in any of these instances (or other similar examples) and you call the verb “passive,” you’ll be marked down! The point, as Williem VanGemeren of Trinity College in Deerfield adds, is that when translating these verbs, “There is a range of meaning in English [sic – in this discussion it is evident that “Hebrew” was meant] that dynamically (not literally) may be rendered by the passive in English.” In order to reproduce the same idea (which is what dynamic translation is all about), the passive voice in English is the appropriate way to convey the meaning of these verbs. Comparing the last two sets of remarks illustrates that varying degrees of confidence that Hebrew scholars have in making this claim (Practico makes the claim much more strongly than VanGemeren does), but the fact that some Qal verbs can be used to convey what in English would be a passive concept is quite clear.
Knowing that this is the case for any given verb certainly cannot be determined just by looking at the stem (especially the Qal stem, which is where verbs have not been deliberately modified for any specific purpose). Dr John Cook (of Asbury Theological Seminary) joined in the discussion at Dr Mariottini’s blog entry. Although Dr Cook did not share my stance on the meaning of כָּבַה in Isaiah 66:24, and although he did not share the view expressed here about the ability of some Qal verbs to express a passive concept, he nonetheless made an observation that helps to illustrate the point that I am making. While discussing the meaning of דָּעַךְ (which also means “to be extinguished” according to our Hebrew Lexicons), he explains that the niphal form has a passive meaning (as niphal verbs often do, with a few exceptions as noted earlier). But notice the way in which he defended the claim that this verb has a passive meaning in the niphal stem:
Job 6:17 ‘When it is hot they will be extinguished from their place’
Cf. ‘They will be extinguished from their place (by the heat).
Ben Sira 40:16 ‘which are dried up from before any rain’
Cf. ‘which are dried up by lack of rain’.
While there is no grammatically expressed agent in either verse, both can be paraphrased by a passive with agent expression, supporting a passive interpretation of these Nifal forms.
This is a useful observation – Verbs that have a passive form (such as the niphal) often appear in the Hebrew Bible with no agent mentioned (i.e. nobody is actually stated to have performed the action). This makes them look a bit like “unaccusative” verbs, but I’ll set that aside as it would drag us off track.4 However, the fact that an agent is suggested, or that a sentence can be translated in paraphrased form with an agent, supports the contention that a verb is indeed conveying a passive concept, or as Cook puts it, it supports a “passive interpretation.”
This supports a passive interpretation of כָּבַה in Isaiah 66:24. An agent is not mentioned, but can quite sensibly be added: “Their fire will not be quenched by anybody.” If, as Cook correctly observes, this observation counts in favour of seeing a word as conveying a passive meaning, then it counts in favour of seeing כָּבַה as conveying a passive concept in Isaiah 66:24.
The stative verb and its relationship to action
Before finishing (and at the risk of boring some readers further!), let me make some comments on one further criticism that the original critic made. Once it was pointed out to him that in fact a number of instances of כָּבַה did seem to convey a passive idea, his claim was that this simply showed that I know nothing at all about Hebrew, I was “blindly incompetent,” and that clearly I had never heard of stative verbs. For you see, all of these other instances of , as well as this one in Isaiah 66:24, were stative verbs, and so there is no passive concept being conveyed here at all, and the verb really cannot mean “to be put out.” Now of course, this is to just ignore all the lexicons, which seems like a rather bold step: Instead of changing one’s view about the possible meaning of a word, just declare that all the dictionaries are wrong when they state what a word means!
I’ll offer two sorts of comments on this claim. First I’ll make some observations about what would follow if this claim were true, and then I’ll raise some concerns about just how we can identify whether or not this claim is true with any precision without pre-judging the issue.
First, let’s make sure we appreciate what is – or rather, is not – at stake in asking this question. What isn’t at stake is the claim that the Qal stem is at times perfectly capable of expressing what we would properly call a passive meaning.
Allow me to make a slight diversion here to explain that there’s more than one way to convey a passive concept, and that stative verbs, at times, can do exactly that. The passive participle is a part of speech that describes something in passive terms, a bit like some adjectives. For example:
The ordinary Qal perfect verb for “to write” is כָּתַב (katabh).
The passive participle for this verb is כָּתוּב (katubh), which means “written.” For example:
“The word was/is written” is כָּתוּב הַדָּבָר (kathubh hadabhar).
Participles convey the same meaning that adjectives in English convey when the adjective is describing something has having been acted upon (although they are not, strictly speaking, adjectives in Hebrew). What was the word like? It was written. This is what adjectives do, they convey to us properties of a thing. Other examples of passive participles would be “the broken window,” “a condemned criminal” or “an extinguished blaze.”
Stative verbs can convey an adjectival sense in English too. For example, גָּדַל (gadhal) is a stative verb meaning “to be great.” Being great is not a specific action that a person does (like lifting, or killing, or extinguishing etc. i.e. it does not refer to the things that a person does in order to become great, like defeating an enemy), nor is it something that is done to a person. Rather it describes a state that they are in. The stative verb tells us what something is like (great, small, heavy etc), which is what adjectives do as well – but as with participles, strictly speaking stative verbs are not adjectives. גָּדוֹל (gadhōl) is the adjective that means “great.” And yet, there is no appreciable difference in the concept being conveyed by these two statements in Hebrew, both of which are permissible using standard grammar:
גָּדוֹל דָּוִד (Gadhōl Dawidh) – David was/became great (adjective)5
דָּוִד גָּדַל (Gadhal Dawidh) – David was/became great (stative verb)
The lesson here is that in Hebrew there is “more than one way to skin a cat,” as the saying goes. You can express the same idea (i.e. the same meaning) using multiple grammatically different methods. Participles and stative verbs can both convey the same meaning – they get the same understanding into the reader’s mind – serving the functional role of an adjective, even though stative verbs are not participles, participles are not adjectives and adjectives are not stative verbs.
Not only do participles and stative verbs overlap in the sense that they can convey an adjectival meaning, but for this very reason a stative verb can convey to the reader a passive meaning just as a passive participle can. Take care in interpreting this observation. This is not a claim that, grammatically speaking, a Hebrew stative verb can be a passive verb. That would be a mistake. A verb is fientive (involving an action) or stative (involving a state – or possibly an action too, see below), and only if it is fientive will it be active or passive. The observation here is that a stative verb can convey a meaning that we would ordinarily call passive in the way that an adjective may do so.
And now I come to the first main point when discussing stative verbs: It is generally true that the point of a stative verb is not to tell the reader what happened to somebody (e.g. how they became great) but rather what state they are or were in (e.g. a state of being great). However there are some states that a person is in only because something was done to them. For example, if a person enters a state of being beaten, this indicates that a thing or person beat them. If a man enters a state of being deceived, this indicates that someone (perhaps himself) or something deceived him. Some states by their nature require something to be done. One further example: If a fire enters a state of having been extinguished, this indicates that someone or something extinguished it.
What’s more, Hebrew scholars have noted that actually, stative verbs certainly can at times express the fact that an action was performed, rather than only indicating a state. Pete Bekins of Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, summarising a paper from F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, notes that “stative verbs do not always merely describe a state, but they can be used to express dynamic and change-of-state meanings as well.”6
So the first point about stative verbs is that even if we were dealing with a stative verb in Isaiah 66:24, this does not at all show that the meaning isn’t that the fire will never be put out, since a state of having been put out is a state that a fire could only be in if somebody put it out (i.e. if it had been acted on by somebody or some thing).
The second point to make about whether or not כָּבַה is a stative verb in Isaiah 66:24 is that in order to make the judgement that it is a stative verb, we need to already have an idea of what the verb means. We cannot tell just by looking, since the verb would look exactly the same regardless of whether it was stative or not. When I first wrote my short piece commenting on Chris’s article, one of the first things I considered before writing it is whether or not we might be dealing with a stative verb in Isaiah 66:24, noting that nothing is at stake if the verb is indeed stative. However, I had to conclude that there just isn’t enough evidence to confidently make this claim. There are some verbal forms that are distinctive of stative verbs (e.g. כָּבֵד, “to be heavy” or קָטֹן, “to be small”), but the form in which כָּבַה appears in Isaiah 66:24 is the ordinary form for Qal imperfect verbs, and a number of stative verbs are like this. As Ronald Williams explains,
Stative and fientive are an exhaustive, mutually exclusive set of categories; a particular usage of a verb is either fientive or else it is stative. Some verbs, however, are stative in some contexts and fientive in other contexts.7
Whether or not we are dealing with a stative verb – while not at all ruling out the conveyance of a passive concept one way or the other (as explained earlier) cannot be determined by any hard and fast rule, but will need to be determined by a word’s basic meaning and – crucially – from what is likely being said in context, as Waltke and O’Connor note:
Both English And Hebrew treat certain verbs sometimes as stative, sometimes as fientive, depending on the particular meaning they have in a sentence. Bernard Comrie illustrates the point by contrasting the verb “be” in “Fred is silly” and “Fred is being silly.” In the first sentence Fred is in a state, but in the second “he is acting silly,” a dynamic (i.e., fientive) situation.8
Trusting our lexicons with the basic meaning of כָּבַה as “to be extinguished” or “to be put out,” the verb in context as a stative verb would mean “their fire will not enter a state of being extinguished/quenched,” or as a fientive verb (which, recall, looks exactly the same) it would mean “their fire will not be extinguished/quenched [by anybody].” There is no overriding reason to prefer the former meaning based on context (indeed, the latter seems more natural), and there is likewise no reason based on form to say that the verb is playing a stative rather than a fientive role (since there is no difference in form). Is it possible that we are looking at a stative verb? Yes. Is there anything requiring us to think that this is a stative verb? Not at all. And does it make a necessary difference in meaning? Actually, no.
But whether stative or not, context is the overriding factor in helping us to understand how the verb is being used and what concept it is conveying.
And that is why we have to be cautious about making hard and fast universal rules – especially when we know full well that we are tempted to do so because it would allow us to make (or reject) a theological point. It’s important to know the rules, yes. Don’t interpret me as saying that the rules don’t matter. They certainly do, and general rules are certainly something to take into account when weighing up what an author is saying. But knowing the rules is no substitute for common sense and reliance on context.
- It is especially noteworthy that BDB gives, as an example of this meaning, Isaiah 66:24 itself, describing it as an instance of the “annihilation of Yahweh’s enemies.”
- It is important to bear in mind that the point throughout is linguistic, rather than doctrinal. Doctrinally, nothing is at stake, because as noted earlier, 1) this is probably not meant as a literal description of final punishment anyway, and 2) the people in this vision are dead, and not being tormented at all. I have chosen not to link to the somewhat vitriolic article that our critic wrote, in part because, when I brought these sources to his attention in the comments section (since he claimed that I had only “one” dictionary in my favour, namely brown, Driver and Briggs), he deleted my comments, preventing anyone from seeing them. Sadly this drove home the concern that it was doctrine rather than exegesis that was driving the attack, with the writer labelling me a “heretic” for holding the view that I do.
- Edwin C. Hostetter, An Elementary Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 88.
- Briefly, an “unaccusative” verb is one where the subject is not responsible for performing the action, but there is no other agent either. For example, “The ice melted.” Something happened to the ice, but nothing was done to the ice. This is different from saying “the ice was melted.” In this second sentence, the concept is passive, and we could quite easily add an agent, for example “The ice was melted by the sun.” The latter of these two examples matches what is happening in Isaiah 66:24.
- The sentence here can just as easily mean “David is great,” but the intended meaning will be determined by context.
- Pete Bekins, “Dobbs-Allsopp, FW, “Biblical Hebrew Statives and Situation Aspect,” Journal of Semitic Studies XLV/1 (Spring 2000), 21-53,” at Balshanut (blog).
- Ronald James Williams, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, 3rd ed.), 57.
- Bruce Waltke and Michael Patrick O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 365.