In the movie The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington's character, Eli, says

Cursed be the ground for our sake. (as opposed to "cursed is the ground")

You can watch the scene here. It's the first line he says. Before this, he knocks out a guy who is not a very good person and the guy's friends stand up, ready to rumble. They all are in the bar of a brothel. Eli went there for water (he's a christian).

The quoted Bible verse, Genesis 3:17, can be viewed here.

I am guessing the writers chose not to conjugate be, as the Bible does, to change the sentence to an imperative,

[It's necessary that] Cursed be the ground because of you. (not the actual verse just my interpretation of the movie's modification of the verse)

which to me kind of makes sense given the context of the verse. I don't know.

Why would the movie writers not conjugate be? Is this acceptable in certain contexts?

Or was it done to make the verse sound cooler?

UPDATE: so, it appears (from @Rathony's link) that the be is not conjugated in the Darby English Version of the Bible. And from @Josh61's comment this is a subjunctive. But is it an outmoded method of writing a subjunctive?

UPDATE in response to request by @RegDwight.

The verse in the NIV version of the Bible is:

To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat from it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.


This is an archaic use of the subjunctive, which only survives in certain fixed phrases. Compare:

Long live the king.
God bless America.
Heaven forbid.
Devil take the hindmost.

It means "May the ground be cursed."

To answer your updated question, the subjunctive in English should probably be considered as a conjugation rather than a semantic construction—that is, "long live the queen" should be called a subjunctive, but the modern-day equivalent "may the queen live long" should not. The subjunctive conjugation in English was used for so many diverse meanings that it is difficult to say what meanings should be considered subjunctive. So I would call it not "an outmoded method of writing the subjunctive" but "an outmoded use of the subjunctive".

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You are correct that the form be here is a somewhat archaic imperative—not truly a subjunctive, though identical in form. But your paraphrase misses the mark: the equivalent PDE (Present-Day English) form for this third-person imperative would be “Let/May the ground be cursed,” and not “It is necessary that the ground be cursed.” The latter paraphrase errs in attributing agency to an impersonal necessity rather than to the speaker’s own commanding will. (In the context of Genesis 3.17, of course, the speaker is Yahweh, whose will is conceived as sufficient to effect anything, and the archaic imperative is more suggestive of this power than the PDE version.)

In the clip you link, Eli is more or less appropriating the voice of Yahweh and his original malediction, but emphatically substituting our for your (or KJV thy), meaning that he and those around him are alike fallen humanity, sinful in nature. He could very well have substituted indicative is for be, but retains it for its archaic, Biblical, maledictive flavor.

The example you mention in comments, “I be studying,” is a different animal altogether: that is the habitual be of African-American Vernacular English. If those who use it are joking around, their joke consists in pretending to be, or making fun of, African-Americans. And if so, they might very well not understand that this construction has a distinctive iterative aspect in A.A.V.E.

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    I don't agree. It is clearly a subjunctive present tense as in: Heaven be praised, far be it from me , Be that as it may ceafinney.com/subjunctive/examples.html An imparative does not begin with "Cursed be". – rogermue Mar 6 '16 at 15:51

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