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The Hebrew text of Gen. 2:10 states,

וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן לְהַשְׁקוֹת אֶת הַגָּן וּמִשָּׁם יִפָּרֵד וְהָיָה לְאַרְבָּעָה רָאשִׁים

Several words capture my attention:

  • יֹצֵא which is conjugated as a participle in binyan Pa'al (Kal)
  • יִפָּרֵד which is conjugated in the imperfect tense in binyan Nif'al.
  • וְהָיָה which has a vav ha-hippukh and converts the normally perfect tense הָיָה ("was," "became") into imperfect tense ("is," "becomes").

In summary, none of these verbs or the participle ought to warrant being translated into English in the past tense. But, this is what the KJV does.

And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. (KJV)

  1. What justification is there for the KJV translating these verbs and the participle into past tense in English?
  2. What do the imperfect tense verbs and the participle suggest about the existence of Eden and its rivers at the time the narrator wrote the Book of Genesis? Could they have still existed (on earth) at the time the narrator wrote the book?
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It is hard to know how else to translate this idiomatically in English otherwise. Even sticking with the MT, the verb sequence makes it clear that 2:10-14 is an "offline" digression describing the one-into-four river (a bit unnatural, that). The "waw consecutives" (or past narratives or whatever you want to call them) make a continuous sequence, bracketing the "river digression":

  • v. 9: וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים The LORD God made to grow...
    • [ vv. 10-14 = river digression]
  • v. 15: וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים The LORD God took...
    וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ ...and settled him... (etc.)

In such cases of "offline" discourse, especially when accompanied by change of subject (which, in the nature of the case, it often is), it is not unusual to find a participle, even when referring to past-time (cf. e.g. Gen 23:10; 27:5; Josh 6:1 -- there must be hundreds of examples).

These participles can be carried forward by yiqtol (i.e., imperfect) forms, and in these situations grammarians have sometimes distinguished the participle as "expressing the durative aspect more strongly than the yiqtol does" (Jouon-Muraoka, p. 383).

And as for וְהָיָה, hayah is something of a special case. Note, however, that use of this form to convey the sense: "it used to happen" (iterative in the past) is well within its normal range.

All three of the verbs identified by OP do "warrant being translated into English in the past tense", and so are naturally thus translated in many modern versions. Thus, a clear answer to the first question ("What justification is there for translating these verbs into past tense?") is fairly straightforward, as outlined above.

As for the second ("What do these verbs suggest about the existence of Eden at the time the narrator?"): these verbs take their time frame from the narrative itself, and are embedded in it. They do not, then, suggest "Eden still existed (on earth) at the time the narrator wrote the book".

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It looks as though the LXX (ἐκπορεύεται) and the Vulgata (egrediebatur) read the (obviously un-vocalised) יצא as 3rd sing. perfect. In the MT it is pointed as a participle, so if you are following the MT then yes, it would be more accurate to translate it in the present (“a river goes out”).

Of course, the Tiberian pointing does not necessarily reflect the intention of the author of Gen 1, many centuries earlier.

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  • What about יִפָּרֵד and וְהָיָה? – user862 Sep 16 '15 at 15:01
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It is ridiculous to adapt complex European linguistic conventions to Indonesian or to biblical Hebrew. We should just read biblical Hebrew at its face value, and refrain from concocting an obfuscating web of non-existent rules to make the Hebrew of the Bible enunciate the doctrine we have already decided what we want the Bible to say. And then backpedal to concoct complex exceptions to those rules, when we find instances in the Hebrew of the Bible not falling into our concocted rules.

Like as though the sheep herders 2000 - 3000 years ago actually communicated with all these complex rules we imbue upon them, and then ignore the existence of non-absolute tensed languages that exist today.

This is another compulsive evidence towards the invalidity of the inversive-vav aka vav-inversion aka conversive-vav theory.

Reading thro the Bible, you can see that the inversive-vav theory is inconsistently applied, and even applied when there is no vav present.

It is not acceptable for us to try to force the mold of Romance/Greek grammar onto biblical Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew is a sequentially tensed stative language

There is no past-present-future tenses in biblical Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew is a sequentially "tensed" language. Like Indonesian/Malay is. Perhaps, like Chinese. They have no absolute tenses like in Greek or English, except for a couple of explicit temporal adverbs that would force a change in the temporal location of a sentence.

Without the presence of such rarely used temporal adverbs, the time reference of a phrase/sentence is relative to the previous phrase/sentence.

For example, since modern Indonesian/Malay grammar is creole derivative of Quranic Arabic and Persian, you will find similarity in it with biblical Hebrew grammar. Like biblical Hebrew, it has stative (stating the action) and incomplete modes.

  • Tahun dulu, dia membuka (stative, buka=open, membuka=causative, cause to open) kedai baru.
  • In English, we are forced to translate the stative into past tense.
    Last year, he/she opened a new shop.
  • dimana (di=Aramaic locative, mana=where) dijualkan (jual=sell, dijual=passive, dijualkan=imperfect) jenis buah-buahan (reduplicative of fruit=various fruits).
  • In English we are forced to translate the incomplete passive as a past participle
    where is-sold types of fruits.
  • Disana, kita membelikan buah nenas untuk sembahyang ke nenek-moyang minggu dulu.
  • Again in English, we are forced to translate an incomplete into past tense.
    There, we bought pineapple for praying to ancestors last week.

Every verb in Hebrew is used in a "participle" form.

"יֹצֵא which is conjugated as a participle"

Actually, in Hebrew, we can look at every verb occurrence and their derivatives as a "participle".

Let me illustrate:

הם באמים

Which case does the phrase say?

  • gerund/verbal-noun form:
    they are "those-coming", they are "the-coming-ones".
  • progressive-participle verb clause:
    they are coming.

In biblical Hebrew, it does not make a difference. So stop reading Hebrew with the eye-glasses of English/Romance grammatical structures.

Participles, gerunds and verbal-nouns

Moreover, linguistically speaking, the word "participle" is often malapropism generically applied to participles, gerunds and verbal-nouns. They are not the same.

If we really wish to apply linguistic conventions on Hebrew, we might as well go one step further to differentiate between participles, gerunds and verbal-nouns, rather than imprecisely classifying all of them as "participles": https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/232460/difference-between-brand-noun-and-branding-gerund/232469#232469

Frequently, we do not even know, if we could differentiate them in reading a Hebrew phrase. Just goes to say again, ditch all our Romance/Greek/English grammatical expectations at the door, especially all those modern complex linguistic rules non-existent in Hebrew 2500 years ago, when you enter into the realm of biblical Hebrew comprehension.

Temporal context

If you wish to know the temporal context of a verse, you most likely have to read the previous verse, and if necessary the previous to the previous verse, etc. This is due to the sequentially relative temporal context of phrases in biblical Hebrew.

The temporal context of Genesis 1 & 2 is established in Genesis 1:1.

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

  • In the beginning G'd creates (stative) the heaven and the earth.

And the temporal reference of every sentence thereafter in the first two chapters of Genesis is sequentially relative to that verse.

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    "Modern Indonesian/Malay grammar is creole derivative of Quranic Arabic and Persian"... where did you find this nonsense? – fdb Sep 28 '15 at 8:52
  • Because I have a distinction in the language in my GCE. Because I can show you all the Arabic, Parsi, Sanskrit words in that language. Because I can speak that language better than Obama can. Because though it is classified as an austronesian language, it is only about 10% austronesian, being crowded out by the Arabic, Parsi, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Spanish, and recently English words. Effectively, it may have austronesian roots, it is no longer an austornesian language. The grammar is primarily Arabic/Parsi. Because there was a man called Munshi Abdullah. – Cynthia Avishegnath Sep 28 '15 at 9:00
  • If you wish to learn the language to be a missionary in that region, I can teach you. If you wish to learn biblical Hebrew, to understand the Bible in its most fundamental level, I believe I can teach you. I was once in Bible school, training to be a missionary - but starting to understand the Bible in Hebrew made me return to my grandfather's religion. – Cynthia Avishegnath Sep 28 '15 at 9:09

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