Ramban on the Torah: Chronology of Narration & Literary Technique

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva

Why does the Torah sometimes conjugate verbs in future tense when referring to an event that already happened or is currently happening? “Az yashir Moshe” (Shemot 15:1) seems to indicate that he will sing in the future; an inaccurate connotation. Chazal contend that this verse establishes the doctrine of resurrection since it implies Moshe and the Jewish people will sing in the future (Sanhedrin 91b). However, this approach reflects homiletical creativity more than the simple meaning of the verse.

Rashi offers two explanations for this grammatical phenomenon. It may convey that a character decided in his heart to carry out an action; the future tense indicating a person looking ahead. Moshe first decided to sing and then proceeded to do so. This approach finds support in a suggestion of Hazal that “az yivne Shlomo bama” (Melachim I 11:7) means that he planned to build a private idolatrous altar but did not actually do so (Sanhedrin 91b).

Alternatively, the future tense indicates an ongoing action. “Al pi Hashem yahanu” (Bemidbar 9:23) means that the Jewish people in the desert continuously camped based on divine directives. “Kacha ya’ase Iyov” (Iyov 1:5) indicates that Iyov constantly brought sacrifices on behalf of his children. Future tense indicates an endeavor that continues beyond the present.

Ramban points out that these theories cannot account for verses such as “ya’asu egel be’chorev” (Tehillim 106:19). The psalmist recounting the sin of the golden calf is not planning towards the future nor does he describe a continuous activity. He argues that biblical style uses future tense to describe the past and past tense to describe the future and he adds a sophisticated literary explanation for the shift in tense. A narrator can situate himself at any point in the chronological continuum. Thus, he can view a current action in anticipation and he can look back at an action yet to occur. Ramban notes that this happens more frequently, for obvious reasons, in prophetic passages.

There are many good reasons to admire Ramban’s Torah commentary. It incorporates parshanut, halacha, machshava, and kabbala. It surveys broad sections of Chumash rather than only looking at each verse narrowly. As we have seen, it also includes a deep understanding of literary technique.

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