In the last postI introduced the concept of real and irreal mood in Biblical Hebrew.  In  this post, we’ll take a look at real and irreal phrases and clauses in the Bible.

Recall that certain grammatical words at the beginning clauses indicate irreal mood.  These include:

  1. The negatives אַל and לֹא;
  2. Conditional clause markers (אִם and כִּי אִם)
  3. Volitional forms: Imperatives (second-person), jussives (second- or third-person), traditionally-called cohortatives (more properly, first-person jussives).
  4. Purpose clause markers, such as לְמַעַן

Both the Imperfect and Perfect forms can express irreal mood. 


In addition to the more-common irreal perfect (see below),  express irreal mood.  Very often, the irreal imperfect carries the nuance of a command or instruction: that is, something one should or should not do. Perhaps the most prominent examples of the irreal imperfect is the Ten Commandments. Note that since these clauses are null-subject clauses, verb-subject inversion is not present:


You shall have no other gods before me.

לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶּסֶל

You shall not make for yourself an idol…

לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒

You shall not bow down before them and you shall not serve them…

לֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא

You shall not bear the name of the LORD your God for nothing…

לֹ֥֖א תִּֿרְצָֽ֖ח׃ 

You shall not kill.
לֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָֽ֑ף׃ 
You shall not commit adultery
לֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ 
You shall not steal…


>You shall not bear false witness…

לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ

You shall not covet the house of your neighbor; you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor…


A very common verb form that triggers SV inversion is the irreal perfect (traditionally called waw consecutive imperfect).  It is so-called because it indicates irreal mood, in that it can make a verb function as an imperative (traditionally viewed as future “tense”) or conditional.  Let’s look at this example from Deut 6:5-9, the famous Shema:

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃ וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃ וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃ וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ ס

The verbs in red are traditionally called waw-consecutive perfects or the weqatal form. It is traditionally taught that if the Past Narrative conjugation indicated past tense, the waw-consecutive imperfect indicates future tense. But I now see these as irreal perfects, meaning that the form indicates a situation further removed from the reality of the speaker.  In other words, these are not merely future tense verbs, but they carry an imperatival nuance:

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ – You shall love the LORD your God…: i.e., Love the Lord your God.

וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה – These shall be the words… i.e., “Here are the words that I’m telling you – go and do them!”  Also, the commands that YHWH is about to issue the people of Israel are forthcoming – get ready to listen and obey them [this also parallels the first verse of the Shema – Israel is supposed to listen (שְׁמַע) or, perhaps more properly in this context, obey.

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ – “Repeat them for your children!”

As we see in the Shema, many verbs in the weqatal form carry an imperatival sense – there isn’t necessarily a “future” sense encoded in them.

[FORWARD LOOK: In another blog post, we talked about how grammatical words at the heads of clauses trigger inverted word order to SV. In this case, the SECOND inversion of the clause indicates that the author is drawing attention to “whom” (Moses) is giving the commandments.  In other words, it’s as if to say “I am the one commanding you these things  – listen to what I, Moses, am getting ready to tell you. This is called “focus” (more traditionally, “emphasis”, which will be discussed in a future post. Focus is the final grammatical feature which triggers inverted word order.

אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃

So, basically, all of the verbs in red are not precisely future tense, but should be viewed as imperatives. In other words, Moses’s speech to the Israelites is intended to be obeyed.  These are things that the Israelites must do; they are not merely things that they are going to do.

But, since the most common clause in BH is the null-subject clause, we need some examples with subjects!  Here are some examples:

וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶֽת־הַבְּרִית֙

(So) YHWH your God shall keep the covenant for himself (Deut 7:12) (cause-effect)

וְעָזַ֥ב אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וָמֵֽת׃

“If he leaves his father, then he [his father] will die (conditional) (Gen 22:44).

The most prominent indicator of irreal mood is verb-subject inversion. The irreal perfect is akin to the subjunctive mood, which is present in many other languages.  Thus, the types of imperfects that constitute irreal mood are the so-called volitionals: third-, second-, and first-person jussives. Second-person jussives indicate “soft” commands and are usually indicated by the presence of the particle אַל:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה

He [the messenger of YHWH] said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the boy, and do not do anything to him” (Gen 22:12).

All of the examples above illustrate irreal mood. But, as we’ve seen in the Irreal Imperfect, since the majority of Hebrew sentences do not include a clear subject, we do not see triggered inversion.  If we were to include the subjects in these clauses, according to this theory, we could reconstruct a hypothetical sentence like this:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח (אָתָּה) יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ (אָתָּה) ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָּה

Admittedly, clauses “not” affected by elements that trigger inverted word order are very rare, which leads most grammarians today (and, really, since Hebrew grammar was first studied hundreds of years ago) to assume verb-subject word order. However, one classic example of a clause existing in VS word order that is not affected by triggered inversion is in Genesis 4:1

וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֙הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן

While some grammarians have argued that what I consider to be standard word order is inverted because of emphasis or framing (topic),  I don’t buy either these.  As to the first, who else is around in the story?  What reason does the author have to emphasize that THE MAN knew his wife?  At least if we only go by what is recounted in the story, who else is around? As to the second, this doesn’t look like topic inversion (framing) to me. It seems to simply continue the narrative where it left off at the end of Genesis 3.

This is a lot to digest.  Thanks for reading!  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, or if you just feel like arguing. 🙂

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