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There is a grammatical form in the chumash of the vav [hahipuch]1 which turns words written in the past form into future tense and future tense constructs into past. I noted this, I think, pointed out explicitly in the first pasuk of Va'etchanan, where the Avi Ezer supports the reading of the first word as "שתיבת ואתחנן הוא עתיד הנהפך לעבר" (unless there is another grammatical reason to account for the tense change besides the vav).

So I can understand that this construct exists, but I don't yet understand WHY it exists. If there is a way of creating the "right" form of the verb, why write it in the opposite way and then put a vav on to change the tense? If the Ibn Ezra says that it means "וכבר התחננתי" why wouldn't the text simply use the past tense (perfect or pluperfect) in the first place? Is there an opening for a commentary which would be foreclosed if the text simply wrote the appropriate tense?

In cases where the vav hahipuch is used, is there a deeper reason why the tense is written in one way and then inverted?

  • +1 for a really good question! My theory - If you look at the Hebrew language verb construct, the present tense is very different from the past & future. I.e. - 1st, 2nd & 3rd person share the same form, unlike having separate forms in the other 2 tenses. Also, there is no present Hebrew verb for "to be" or "am". All this seems to relate to a concept that the present is not a real concept of time, as it is a blink of the eye, and is merely a connection between the past & future. Thus, to convey that idea, the past & future are really connected. I.e. past events are important to the future. – DanF Aug 2 '15 at 15:23
  • So, when mentioning the future, they use a past tense verb and reverse it with a vav. Why vav? It usually means "and" and the word "vav" means "hook". I.e. - the future is "hooked" to the past and vice versa. Again, this is my interpretation. – DanF Aug 2 '15 at 15:25
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    @danf there is no present tense in Hebrew. Just participles. – Double AA Aug 2 '15 at 17:02
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    @msh210 If there is a set of rules that explains WHY one would choose a present+vav instead of a past to effect a past tense idea then that's a good start. I am hopeful that the decision is ore than grammatical, but that it has allowed comemntators some additional dimension of understanding. – rosends Aug 2 '15 at 20:01
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    Note that the existence of consecutive vav to invert the tense has been seriously questioned. See “The biblical Hebrew verb system in poetry” in "Biblical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic settings: Typological and historical perspectives" by Niccacci. – Argon May 11 '16 at 16:35
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The simple answer to this question is that there's probably no such thing as a vav hahippukh anyway. On the contrary, Hebrew grammarians speak of four (not two) verbal aspects in Classical Hebrew:

The perfective (aka suffix-conjugation, aka qatal) - eg: כתב. This indicates a completed action;

The imperfective (aka prefix-conjugation, aka yiqtol) - eg: אכתוב. This indicates an incompleted action;

The waw-consecutive perfect (aka weqatal) - eg: וכתבתי;

The waw-consecutive imperfect (aka wayyiqtol) - eg: ויכתוב.

In the example that you brought in your question, ואתחנן is a waw-consecutive imperfect, or wayyiqtol. Identifying it is fairly easy: it involves a patach under the waw and a dagesh in the following letter (in this case, a qamatz under the waw, since the aleph cannot take a dagesh).

What does it mean? Well, this is where things get complicated. One prevailing theory is that it indicates a consecutive action in the narrative. Prose passages in Tanakh feature high concentrations of this type of verb. Discourse linguists claim to isolate a broader range of possible meanings, depending on the type of text in which it appears, and a look at any grammar of biblical Hebrew should give you at least a brief synopsis of those.

I recommend checking out Arnold and Choi's A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, pp84 onwards. They identify five different types of meanings, which they label sequential, consequential, narratival, epexegetical and dependent.

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