The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.194 Monday, 21 May 2012
Date: May 20, 2012 12:11:13 PM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER: Hebrew
In the discussion of 5/7/2012, Joe Egert quoted Hannibal Hamlin as
> Others on the list with Hebrew less rudimentary than mine will no
> doubt be able to answer with more precision, but, yes, it is my
> understanding that Hebrew does not have tense in the same way European
> languages do. Hebrew verbs have forms designating complete or
> incomplete action. In terms of Exodus 3:14, the result is that while
> the Geneva translation is correct, it is also reductive, since one
> might translate equally accurately using different English tenses --I
> am be what I will be, etc. One implication is that God’s
> self-description—not really one, let alone a name—includes eternal
> immutability—was, is, will be.
Concerning Hannibal’s exposition of the name that God gives as Himself in Exodus 3:14, which Hannibal describes as “eternal immutability—was, is, will be”—may I try to add some more detail on this matter? I would point out that English too, like Hebrew, could have the usage of a future tense that is also sensed as present.
As Harold Bloom in his recent Shakespeare lecture mentions, the King James’ verbal terms used in Exodus 3:14 are in the present tense, “I AM THAT I AM,” which, as Bloom notes, in the Hebrew is actually given in the future tense, “I WILL BE THAT I WILL BE.” Bloom credits the translator Tyndale as being the more accurate in giving the literal future tense.
But Tyndale’s literality does not mean that the King James translation is wrong. In fact, using the present tense gives a more accurate meaning. This is so since both interpretations are actually correct as understood in the Hebrew. But it happens that the present tense usage in the King James is the best way to render the import of the name given in the Hebrew.
I think this becomes clear when it is considered that to use the future tense would seem to say of God that “He exists only in the future,” which would be nonsensical. The King James usage of the present tense therefore comes closer to the meaning of the Hebrew than selecting the future tense would.
I would note that, in the episode in Exodus 2:13, in the way Moses speaks to the wicked Hebrew who strikes his comrade: “”Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?” the actual words in Hebrew are also in the future tense. But, as can readily be understood in the episode, this Hebrew future tense is addressing an ongoing action of the wicked person of “striking” in the present. Moses’ words can be literally translated as, “Wherefore wilt thou strike thy fellow?” which can be readily understood as applied to a present situation. In effect, we understand the words as saying: “Wherefore wilt thou [have the present condition of smiting (smitest)] thy fellow?” The distinction is to raise the words of Moses to the level of a timeless aphorism, a sense that exists in the Hebrew but is lost in English.
Applying this to God’s name in Exo 3:14, while it can literally be translated into English, word for word, as: “I will be that I will be,” the meaning is also, “I am that I am.”
The Hebrew future tense, as happens with Moses’ literal words, can be understood as meaning “I will be [in the present condition of being] that I will be,” thereby encompassing both tenses. This gives what Hannibal describes as a sense of “eternal immutability”—eternal being. As mentioned, to translate in the future tense in English would actually limit the meaning that the Hebrew encompasses.