Judge Gideon: the Vav that Inverts Time

Gideon #2 (Judges 6:12)

Continuing from verse 11, we see how the angel of God is revealing himself to Gideon, addressing him as a ‘brave man’. As this verse is straight forward and easy to understand, I do not see the need for any deeper analysis beyond the translation. Therefore, this time, instead of focusing on the content, I will focus on a common Biblical Hebrew point that many students of the Hebrew Bible find confusing. This is ו’ ההיפוך (the Vav of Tense Inversion)

Translation of the story of Gideon in the Hebrew Bible. (Judges 6:11). As this verse is straight forward, this time in the discussion, I focused on a grammar point, Tense Inversion, rather than the content of the verse.

Vav of inversion

Vav (ו) is the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It can have one of two sounds. The first is the sound of the English letter V, the second sounds like O, U or W.

When Vav appears at the beginning of another word, it normally means and.  For instance, מכתב (Mich-Tav) means a (postal) letter, so ומכתב  (Ve-Mich-Tav) means and a letter.  Unlike modern English, which tries to avoid starting a sentence with and. This is a most common way to start a sentence in the Bible.  In our short verse alone, this structure appears twice.

וַיֵּרָא Va-Ye-Ra – and he made himself visible

וַיֹּאמֶרVa-Yo-Mer – and he said

This is the way it works in both modern and Biblical Hebrew. But in Biblical Hebrew Vav at a beginning of a sentence also inverses the tense of the sentence. That is, past becomes future and future becomes past. For example, without the Vav, the first sentence of our verse would be:

יֵּרָא אֵלָיו, מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה –God’s angel will show himself to him.

But with the Vav we get,

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו, מַלְאַךְ יְהוָהand God’s angel showed himself to him.

Some interpret this form as the Bible’s way to tell us that every story about the past is also a story about the future, or a prophecy. That is, that the Bible is eternally valid. Others consider it as a grammatical construction a deeper meaning. This is a long discussion that I may cover in a separate post. Regardless, this is a very common grammatical construction that anyone who reads Biblical Hebrew must be familiar with.  

While the above description is correct, it is a bit simplified. More advance students should be aware that, arguably, Biblical Hebrew does not have a real future tense, but rather uses the imperative form to refer to the future. This is a more advanced topic, which I bring here to ensure precision. Otherwise, everything above is valid and correct

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9 months ago

[…] today we continue with the story of Gideon. In verse 12 we saw that he met an Angel of God, who greeted him “God is with you, brave man of valour” Gideon’s reply, full of skepticism […]