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Hebrew—An Introduction to Reading the Old Testament
About this course
Lesson 2: Verbs—perfect
Completeness (step 5 of 9)
The meaning of the perfect aspect

The meaning of the perfect aspect is best understood in contrast to its counterpart—the imperfect aspect. While scholars have tried to describe the difference between the perfect and imperfect in many ways, perhaps the most helpful distinction is as follows.
perfect = viewed as complete
imperfect = viewed as in progress
By using the perfect aspect, the author is viewing the action of the verb as a completed whole. On the other hand, the imperfect aspect sees the action as progressive. For this reason, the perfect aspect will be used far more often to represent an action in the past.

But the perfect aspect is not restricted to only describing past actions, since there are other instances where it is helpful to portray an action as complete even though that action resides in the present or future, or is timeless. For example, when an author wants to describe the state of something, he often does so with the perfect aspect. Likewise, prophecy is sometimes represented in the perfect aspect as a way for the author to indicate its certain nature. Finally, you will find the perfect aspect used frequently in timeless proverbs.
A visual illustration of the difference between perfect (left) and imperfect (right) aspect.
How to translate the perfect aspect?

When translating Biblical Hebrew into English, we must attempt to translate aspect into tense, since English grammar requires it. To do so, we must take special note of the context in which a verb is used and not its aspect alone. Most of the time this will lead to a clear understanding of the timeframe the author has in mind—usually the past, but not always—and we will be able to confidently choose which tense to use in our English translation.
Aspect informs tense, but does not dictate it.
But we must also acknowledge that the intended timeframe of an action is not always clear. For this reason, we find at times that one English translation will translate a particular verb in a particular verse into the future tense, while another will translate it into the past tense. This situation leads us to a more important question.
How to think about the perfect aspect?

The answer to this question is simple: view the action as a completed whole. The hard part is actually changing our thinking to accord with that answer! That is to say, our goal is not simply to translate Hebrew into English as we read it and then to think about our translation. Rather, our goal is to think about the Hebrew text itself. And part of this goal relates to aspect. Instead of considering the text in a tense-centric way, our aim is to think about it in an aspect-centric way.

How do we learn to think in an aspect-centric way? There are no magic bullets here. The only way to think Hebrew is to immerse yourself in the Hebrew text through reading and worship.
Perfects in the songs we've learned

Speaking of worship, let’s turn back to the two songs we have learned so far and take note of the perfect verbs they contain.

In this song, we find the perfect verb הִלַּלְנוּ. The vowels look slightly different than the qal perfect form you have learned because this verb is not in the qal stem—it is in the piel stem. But no matter. The point here is to observe how the perfect aspect is functioning. Our literal translation of the phrase this verb is found in is as follows.

“In God we have boasted all the day”

This translation was chosen because the perfect aspect of the word הִלַּלְנוּ is indicating that the psalmist is viewing this boasting as completed. It is not “we were boasting,” “we are boasting” or “we will boast” as those translations would not indicate a completed sense. It could have been translated “we boasted”—that would have indicated completeness as well. But the context suggests “we have boasted” to be more appropriate given the fact the next line goes on to speak of how that boasting influences our ongoing and eternal thankfulness.

In this, our more recent song, we find the perfect aspect used in five different forms. Let take a look at three of them. (The other two will be addressed in the next lesson step.)

בִּלַּ֤ע — “he swallows”
דִּבֵּֽר — “[he] has spoken”
קִוִּ֥ינוּ — “we have waited”

First, note that, once again, the vowels of these perfects look a bit different than the form you have learned because they too are in the piel stem. As for their translations, דִּבֵּֽר and קִוִּ֥ינוּ present basically the same situation as we saw with הִלַּלְנוּ above and are translated identically in terms of tense.

However, בִּלַּ֤ע is different. We have translated it as a present stative fact, and most English translations translate it in the future tense: “he will swallow up.” This is a great example of how aspect is not the same as tense. In this prophetic promise, the action is still perfect—God swallowing up death is still viewed with completeness—but it is not an action that happened in the past as the context makes abundantly clear. Rather, you might say that this future promise is so certain that it is viewed as done, and that is why the perfect aspect was chosen.
מַה־פָּעַל אֵל

Remember this phrase? Here, too, we see a qal perfect 3ms verb. In this expression of worship, God’s work is viewed as complete and our hearts are led into unending worship.
Next, we’ll learn a twist on perfect verbs.