Long Absence and a Linguistic Question

Whew. It’s been a long few months. I have to apologize for not updating in forever; to be honest, the issue hasn’t so much been time as emotional burnout for reasons that have nothing to do with this blog. For those who don’t already know me personally, I got hit by two major slams in November and early December: First, I was laid off from my job, which was relocated to Salt Lake City, and second, my girlfriend, a woman who I loved very much and hoped to marry one day, broke up with me.

I’m still hunting for a job, but I’ve got some good leads, so I’m not worried in the long term and I’ve emotionally moved on from the break-up enough to date someone else, so don’t think I’m trying to throw a pity-party. I’m just explaining the long absence. Fortunately, I have been writing material for the Beth HaMashiach website which will be going up shortly after a long-needed revamp, and much if not all of that material will probably get posted here first.

But you didn’t come to hear me whine about my personal life, so let’s get into something technical.

We had a gentleman write in to the ministry to object to something in the testimony of Rabbi Leopold Cohn, D.D.–specifically, the way he rendered Malachi 3:1 in the section entitled, “A New Creature”: “Behold I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Angel of the Covenant whom ye delight in: behold He has already come, saith the Lord of Hosts.”

The gentleman in question objected that every translation he had available to him translated the end of the verse, “behold He comes” (present tense) and expressed his concern over what he saw as a blatant mistranslation. However, the problem is not a mistranslation on Rabbi Cohn’s or the writer of the article’s part, but rather an issue that faces all translations of Biblical Hebrew.

Technically speaking, Hebrew does not generally have a past, present, and future tense like English does (though there are a couple of exceptions to that rule; e.g., hayah, “he is,” hoveh, “he was,” and yihyeh “he will be”). Instead, words are described as either “perfect,” having been completed, or “imperfect,” not yet having been completed. A “perfect” verb may be translated in either the past or present tense, depending on the context and the translator’s choice.

In this case, we have two different conjugations of the same word:

“Look! I am sending my messenger to clear the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come (yabou) to his temple. Yes, the messenger of the covenant, in whom you take such delight––look! Here he comes (ba),” says ADONAI–Tzva’ot. (Mal. 3:1, CJB)

The first instance of “come” is constructed in the imperfect tense, and so is translated in our future tense, “will come.” The second, however, is constructed as a perfect verb, and so can be translated either in the past or present tense. Most translations use the present tense because it avoids confusion and makes the sentence flow smoothly, and that’s undoubtedly the best choice. However, Rabbi Cohn would almost certainly have been reading the passage in the original Hebrew, and so translated the perfect verb “has already come” in his mind when he read it– and this is a perfectly valid translation.

We find a similar translation issue in Psalm 118:26, Barukh Haba b’Shem ADONAI, or, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of ADONAI.” We translate Haba, “the (one who) came/comes,” in the present tense, but we understand it to refer to Yeshua and use the phrase as if it were in the past tense.

In short, there’s no error on Rabbi Cohn’s part, just a translation issue which a little knowledge of Biblical Hebrew clears up. The interested reader may find this page to be of use, since it deals with the issue of tenses in Messianic prophecy, as well as the Blue Letter Bible, where he can find the original Hebrew as well as some language tools (including Thayer’s Lexicon) to look into the issue himself.

Shalom

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