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In Malachi 3:6, the word שָׁנִ֑יתִי (translated change) is used ("For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.") This appears to me to be in the perfect tense which I believe indicates that it is either present or past tense. Based on the context of the passage, speaking of the messiah coming to judge (Which has already been prophesied) it appears that this could be referring to statements already made (that the sons of Jacob will not be destroyed). If this is the case, this would be better translated as "have not changed" and has theological implications regarding immutability.

Am I mistaken on my verb tenses here? Is there a case to be made for translating this in the past tense? If it definitely should be taken this way, can someone explain why the translators chose to translate it this way? Is there something else I am missing from the text which has implications for the verb tense in this case?

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The word 'tense' isn't always helpful as Hebrew doesn't have tenses in the same way as English does, often the perfect and imperfect are referred to as aspects. Here the suffix which modifies the verb denotes the perfective aspect of the verb. The perfect aspect views the action of the verb from an external perspective hence we are seeing the action as complete, without respect to the time1. The tense of the verb for an English translation of the Hebrew has to be taken from the context of the verb.

In the LXX we have Malachi 3:6 διότι ἐγὼ κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὑμῶν καὶ οὐκ ἠλλοίωμαι καὶ ὑμεῖς υἱοὶ Ιακωβ οὐκ ἀπέχεσθε the verb is translated into the Greek in the perefct tense and indicative mood which suggests an action completed in the past with present results.

The English translation seeks to convey the sense of the action (or in this case non action) as completed, meaning God never has changed and never will change.

In regards to the question of what impact our understanding of this verse has on immutability we must understand that no doctrine of scripture is built upon a single verse but rather stands upon the systematic study of the entire canon of scripture. The most that putting this action purely in the past tense would achieve is to make this text less prominent in the discussion. We would still have texts like Hebrews 13:8

1 based on Heiser, M. S., & Setterholm, V. M. (2013; 2013). In Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology. Lexham Press.

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The Idea in Brief

The meaning here appears to be the inviolate character of the Abrahamic Covenant. That is, the Lord does not violate his own word concerning the eternal perpetuation of the Jewish peoples.

Discussion

The Targum Jonathan translates this verse in Aramaic as follows. That is, there is the [Abrahamic] Covenant is the object of the Aramaic verb. The idea suggests resurrection.

enter image description here

According to Wikipedia, the Targum Jonathan is the official eastern, or Babylonian targum to the Nevi'im (prophets). In this regard, the Babylonian Talmud is in alignment with the Targum Jonathan.

b. Sotah 1:7, I.2, JJ-LL [Folio 8B]
II. Amemar repeated the teaching of R. Hinena bar Papa in regard to the following:
JJ. “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘For I the Lord change not, therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed’ (Mal. 3:6).
KK. “ ‘I the Lord change not’—‘I have never punished a nation and gone and done it a second time.’
LL. “ ‘And you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed’—This is in line with the following verse of Scripture: ‘I will spend my arrows on them’ (Deut. 32:23). ‘My arrows are spent, but they are not consumed.’ ”

In other words, “they are not consumed” here appears to mean “not eradicated.”

Finally, the accent and cantillation marks of the Masoretic Text (in the Hebrew Bible) appear to place the immediate emphasis in context not on the immutability of the Lord, but the immutability of the eternal Covenant of the Lord. (Please click to enlarge the image.)

enter image description here

The Masoretic Text indicates that the second clause of the verse (Athnah B) modifies the first half of the verse (Athnah A), which ends with the phrase “לֹא שָׁנִיתִי,” which is simple Qal active (completed action). In other words, the remainder of the verse (Athnah B) modifies and clarifies what “לֹא שָׁנִיתִי” means, which is that unchangeableness has to do with not wiping out the Jewish peoples (and therefore excluding any possible abrogation of the Abrahamic Covenant).

Conclusion

The Targum Jonathan and Babylonian Talmud would appear consistent with the Masoretic reading: the sacrosanct Abrahamic Covenant in inviolate, and therefore immutable. (The nuance stemming from the Targum Jonathan would also include an allusion to resurrection in this regard.) Another inference (or assumption) would be that since the Abrahamic Covenant is immutable, the Lord would therefore have to be immutable as well (in order to ensure the complete fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant).

In summary, most English translations of Malachi 3:6 are acceptable, but is best understood when considered in the light of oral Jewish tradition.

Reference:
Neusner, Jacob (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 11a). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 40.

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  • It's always a mess add numbers (number of verse) together with the Hebrew text in the editor. A picture is better! :) — BTW +1 – Paul Vargas Mar 18 '15 at 21:20

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