The Passive Qal and Other Issues

A few days ago Chris Date asked me to read and evaluate an article written by Dr. Glenn Peoples. I read the article and concluded that his argument was valid. I stand by my evaluation of Glenn’s article.
His article drew a stern response from Adam Blauser, a blogger at Old Testament Studies Blog. The issues involved in this exchange between Glenn and Adam deal with the proper interpretation of Isaiah 66:24 and whether the Hebrew word כָּבַה carries a passive meaning.
In this post I will not deal with the interpretation of Isaiah 66:24. That would require another post and a different approach from the one I plan to take in this post. Rather, my purpose today is to address the issue of the passive Qal and comment on other issues raised by Adam as he responded to Glenn’s article.

The problem of interpretation

I believe a major issue in this discussion is the attempt to fit Hebrew grammar into English grammar. English is my third language. When I was learning English I realized how difficult it was to transfer grammatical rules from Portuguese and Spanish into English and vice versa. If transferring the grammar from a living language into another living language is difficult, then imagine how much more difficult it is to transfer the grammar of a dead language into a living language.
Biblical Hebrew is a dead language. When Gesenius wrote his Hebrew Grammar he was not trying to write a grammar to help the biblical writers. He wrote a grammar to explain what was in the Hebrew Bible. This is the reason his grammar presents the basic rule to a subject and all the exceptions to the rule.
At times we take for granted that the biblical writers and their readers were familiar with the grammatical rules that modern day grammarians and literary critics have established for the proper writing and structure of sentences.
What made sense to the biblical writers and their readers, at times, makes no sense to someone today reading what they wrote hundreds or thousands of years ago. Take for instance this sentence from Proverbs 30:1:

נְאֻם הַגֶּבֶר לְאִֽיתִיאֵל לְאִיתִיאֵל וְאֻכָֽל

The writer of this sentence knew what he was trying to say to his readers, and I am sure his readers understood what the writer was trying to communicate to them, but this sentence is not clear when translated into English and this uncertainty is reflected in the various translations of this sentence. What follows are five attempts at translating this sentence from Proverbs 30:1 into English:

  • New Revised Standard Version:
    • “An oracle. Thus says the man: I am weary, O God, I am weary, O God. How can I prevail?”
  • Revised Standard Version:
    • “The man says to Ithiel, to Ithiel and Ucal.”
  • The New American Bible:
    • “The pronouncement of mortal man: ‘I am not God; I am not God, that I should prevail.’”
  • Today’s New International Version:
    • “An inspired utterance. This man’s utterance to Ithiel: ‘I am weary, God, but I can prevail.”
  • The Douay-Rheims (1899 American Edition):
    • “The vision which the man spoke with whom God is, and who being strengthened by God, abiding with him.”

These five translations clearly show that sometimes it is very difficult to understand what the biblical writer was trying to communicate to his audience. The translators of Proverbs 30:1 had the same text in front of them, but each one of them came out with a different understanding of what the text said.
Another issue in this dialogue between Glenn and Adam is a problem which all interpreters of the biblical text face. When Christians come to the biblical text, they already know what they believe and that belief tends to color the way they understand and interpret the text.
Take, for instance, the two translations of Daniel 9:25 below:

  • King James Version:
    • “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks.”
  • New International Version:
    • “Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven sevens, and sixty-two sevens.”

Whenever Christians read Daniel 9:25 and see the words “the Messiah” and “the Anointed One” they immediately think of Jesus Christ. This is so because the translators saw Christ in this verse and therefore they capitalized the word “Messiah” and the expression “Anointed One.”
The only problem is that in Hebrew the word “the”—as in “the Messiah” and “the Anointed One”—is not in the text. Thus, the English Standard Version (ESV) correctly translates “an anointed one” who was a leader (nāgîd) of the community, probably a priest.
When one comes to Isaiah 66:24 and says that one word in this verse has to be interpreted differently because the sentence deals with “affairs of the age to come,” then a dichotomy is created in interpreting the text that was never intended by the biblical writer. Also, to say that the misinterpretation of one word destroys the divinity of Christ is to misrepresent the intent of Scripture. The divinity of Christ is a matter of revelation. The divinity of Christ is a reality that will not be affected by the way one interprets a Hebrew or Greek word.

The passive Qal

Some scholars are reluctant to accept the existence of the passive Qal in the Hebrew Bible.
The presence of a passive Qal in biblical Hebrew is part of the heritage Israel received from those who spoke the language of Canaan (Isaiah 19:18). Williams, in his article on the passive Qal (1970, 44-45), has found passive Qal forms in the Tell el-Amarna letters, in the Ugaritic literature, and in several other West Semitic languages.
In his article on Arabic language and culture (2002, 74) J. Kaltner wrote, “There are a number of words in biblical Hebrew that suggest that at one time it, too, possessed a passive form of its basic, or qal, stem.”
With the development of Hebrew culture and language, the use of the passive Qal became less frequent. However, in his study of the passive Qal in the Hebrew Bible, Williams discovered “that more than fifty Hebrew roots preserve forms which may properly be classed as passive Qal” (41). He lists 52 words that preserve the passive Qal.
In his article on biblical Hebrew verbs (1929, 54) Ginsberg said that, when the use of the passive Qal became less frequent, the Masoretes assumed “the biblical authors conformed to the later usage with which they were themselves familiar, and repointed the passive Qal as a Niphal.” Referring to the Niphal of כשׁל Ginsberg wrote, “Since the Qal of כשׁל had been obsolete for centuries before the earliest system of vowel-points was invented, it is not impossible that at the time when it was a living use it was a passive Qal” (55).
Gesenius, with others scholars, also believes that “many supposed perfects of Pu‘al are in reality passives of the Qal” (1910, 52e).
Blake wrote that “it has been recognized for many years, however, that a considerable number of Pual perfects and Hophal imperfects are really passives of the Qal” (1901, 53).
All of the sources above are unanimous in accepting the presence of the passive Qal in the Hebrew Bible. Although some passive forms of the Qal were repointed as Niphals, Puals, and Hophals, it is almost certain that some verbs are pointed as Qal perfect but have a passive meaning, as Glenn has demonstrated in his post.

Sources of authority

Now, I want to address several issues raised by Adam in his post.
First, in his post Adam derides Glenn for consulting scholars to support his argument. But Adam himself quotes biblical scholars, grammarians, and literary critics to support his argument. The truth is that we all are beneficiaries of the wisdom and knowledge of our predecessors. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Or as Google says, all of us “stand on the shoulders of giants.” 1
Second, another issue raised by Adam is the reliability of Brown–Driver–Briggs (BDB). Adam wrote that “BDB is a very old lexicon, based upon the source-critical views of the nineteenth century.” He recommends the use of Koehler Baumgartner instead.
Adam rejects BDB because Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs used biblical criticism in their work. But the fact is that Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner also were critical scholars who were practitioners of the same source-critical views that Brown, Driver, and Briggs used.
Third, Adam said that Glenn relies on BDB for his definition of כָּבַה. The problem, according to Adam, is that BDB is out of date and does not present recent scholarship on the definition of כָּבַה. In defense of Glenn, I will cite three recent works and how they treat the meaning of כָּבַה.
The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (1995): On page 51 The Dictionary says that the word כָּבַה appears 24 times in the Masoretic text, twice in Ben Sirach, and twice in the Dead Sea Scrolls and that the verb’s basic meaning is “be extinguished.” Then on page 353 The Dictionary gives as its primary meaning for the verb כָּבַה: “be extinguished.”
Compendious Hebrew-English Dictionary (1938): The Compendious is a dictionary that includes biblical, Mishnaic, medieval, and modern Hebrew. On page 150 it gives the primary meaning for the verb כָּבַה: “(Kal) to be put out, to be quenched, be extinguished.”
New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (1977): On his article on כָּבַה (2:588) Gary H. Hall lists the primary meaning of the word כָּבַה as “be extinguished.”
In these three sources, which includes the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, all the meanings for the Qal of כָּבַה are passive, just like BDB. Notice that the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, which follows BDB in accepting the passive meaning of כָּבַה, was edited by Willem VanGemeren, the same VanGemeren who said that BDB is out of date.
What these three sources reveal is that the word כָּבַה in biblical, Mishnaic, medieval, and modern Hebrew carries the passive idea when translated into English.
As Glenn mentioned, other words in Hebrew have a passive meaning in the Qal. In addition to the words Glenn mentioned, I will mention one more.
On page 51 the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew says that the primary meaning the verb דָּעַךְ in the Qal is “be extinguished.”
On page 150 the Compendious Hebrew-English Dictionary gives the meaning for the verb דָּעַךְ in the Qal as “be extinguished.”
On page 1:979 the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis gives the meaning for the verb דָּעַךְ in the Qal as “be extinguished.”
Again in these three sources the Qal of דָּעַךְ is presented as passive. The word דָּעַךְ appears together with the verb כָּבַה in Isaiah 43:17: “[The LORD] brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.”

A personal note

As I read Adam’s post I realize that he is a bright student, well read, a good thinker, and a person who prizes scholarship. However, it is sad that Adam, an MA student, used demeaning language to criticize the work of a scholar. Scholars should disagree without resorting to personal attacks. Adam called Glenn “incompetent” four times in his post, and by his use of the book of Proverbs three times he also indirectly called him a “scoffer” and “one who does not listen to rebuke.”
For someone who likes to brag about his humility—the words “humble” and “humility” appear seven times in Adam’s post, all referring to himself—his concluding words sounds hollow: “I pray that I will not just rely upon individual scholars, but will check things out for myself. More than that, I also pray that I will learn to listen to other people enough to treat them with respect, even if I don’t agree.” Maybe an apology is in order.
When Adam becomes a professor and any of his students criticize his scholarship with the same words he is using to criticize Glenn’s scholarship, I will defend Adam against this kind of criticism out of respect for his work as a teacher, even when we may disagree on theological issues.


Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Blake, Frank R. “The Internal Passive in Semitic.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 22 (1901): 45-54.
Clines, David J. A., ed. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
Gesenius, W. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. 28th ed. Edited by E. Kautzsch. Trans. A. E. Cowler. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1910.
Ginsberg, H. Louis. “Studies on the Biblical Hebrew Verb.” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 46 (1929): 53-58.
Kaltner, John and Steven L. McKenzie, eds. Beyond Babel: A Handbook for Biblical Hebrew and Related Languages. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
Segal, M. H., ed. Compendious Hebrew-English Dictionary. Tel-Aviv: Dvir Publishing Co., 1938.
VanGemeren, Willem A., ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977.
Williams, Ronald J. “The Passive Qal Theme in Hebrew.” In Essays on the Ancient Semitic World. Edited by J. W. Wevers and D. B. Redford. Pp. 43-50.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

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