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In Isaiah 66:24 we read that the fire will not be quenched: וְאִשָּׁם֙ לֹ֣א תִכְבֶּ֔ה

This looks like the Niphal stem to me (passive). Yet several versions I've looked at render it as the fire will "never go out" and will "never stop" and I take it the translators are taking תִכְבֶּ֔ה in some kind of reflexive sense (i.e. never put themselves out).

Yet all instances I have seen for this idea of fires reflexively quenching themselves are from recently published translations (within past several decades), as Contemporary English Version (CEV); Easy-to-read Version (ERV); Expanded Bible (EXB); New Century Version (NCV), etc. Older versions don't seem to have this take on it. What's going on here?

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It’s actually not nifal. The verb תִכְבֶּה is qal imperfect, 3rd person feminine singular from כבה. The nifal for this verb is not attested as far as I know, but the corresponding imperfect would have a dagesh in the כ, a qamets underneath it, and no dagesh in the ב, i.e. תִכָּבֶה (tikkāb̲eh) rather than תִכְבֶּה (tik̲beh).

The qal verb in this case has a meaning that can be conveyed using a passive verb in English ("be extinguished"); the active "go out" means approximately the same thing.1 For the qal כבה, BDB gives:

be quenched, extinguished, go out, of fire or lamp

I do see how you perceive a different nuance between the passive and active expressions in English. In either case, though, fire is the subject, it stops burning, and the agent responsible for the cessation of burning is not stated in the immediate context.1 I think the decision about whether to use a passive or active construction in English is a matter of English style.2

In Isaiah 66:24, the lack of focus on agency in the qal תִכְבֶּה is consistent with the other verbs describing the dead bodies of those who rebelled against the LORD:

For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (ESV)

The focus is on the status of the bodies rather than on attribution of responsibility for this state. For that we have to look to the wider context.


1. This is because, unlike this Hebrew qal, most available English verbs (e.g. extinguish, quench) are transitive (or, if you prefer, divalent), requiring both a subject and object. (See the Hebrew equivalent in note 3.) The idiomatic "go out" is monovalent so can be presented in the same "voice" as the Hebrew. Short of that, English impersonal passives provide a similar sense.

2. For an example of the word used in a similar sense, see Leviticus 6:5-6 (vv. 12-13 in English). See also, Jeremiah 17:27 and Proverbs 26:20.

3. In this case, Hebrew uses the piel for the transitive meaning that is more unambiguously active in English — "to quench". See, for instance, Isaiah 42:3.

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    Comments policy notwithstanding, I feel this answer deserves a note of commendation as superb. (And it feels like a lot of rust has been scraped off since my last Hebrew course -- roughly two decades ago!)
    – RedRover
    Nov 29 '15 at 17:39
  • Thanks, @RedRover. If you want to scrape more rust off, you might be interested in the Hebrew Language Proposal. Of course, you’re welcome to ask such questions here as long as they’re about a specific passage. Also, I linked to syntax explanations of the stems in the answer, but these are nice paradigms if you want to review. (Though כבה is III-ה, the distinction in this Q&A is the same as a strong verb.)
    – Susan
    Nov 30 '15 at 14:27
  • @Susan...just seeing this now, it looks like good reference material, thks.
    – RedRover
    Dec 27 '15 at 3:23

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