In recent years, there has been lively discussions concerning word order in Biblical Hebrew. For last century, and until very recently, the consensus among most scholars has been that Hebrew exhibits VERB-SUBJECT word order. For example:
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֲלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָעָרֶץ׃
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.¹
At the head of the clause, we have an infinitive followed by the perfect verb ברא, followed by the subject אֲלֹהִים. The verb is first, followed by the subject. While this is the most common word order, I argue (following John A. Cook and Robert D. Holmstedt) that it is not the “default” word order. Instead, the default word order is SUBJECT-VERB, as in English.
The Problem with Verb-Subject Word Order
Since VS word order is the most common, one can expect that there are many grammatical phenomena that cause the words to “invert”. However, we run into standard SV word order fairly quickly in Genesis chapter 4:
וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּוֹ֑
Adam knew Eve, his wife (Gen 4:1)
Here we have one of our first instances of SV word order in Scripture. But why? Traditional Hebrew grammarians will argue that the word order is displaced because of “emphasis” – that is, the writer is emphasizing that ADAM knew his wife. There is, however, little evidence to support this claim, at least in this verse. Exactly how and why is Adam being emphasized? Is the author trying to single him out (who else was around?)? It seems like the vav conjunction is doing nothing more than starting a new narrative episode. So, rather than emphasizing the subject, the author is doing the opposite – the text is unmarked and un-emphasized (hereafter referred to as “focused”), so the clause exhibits normal SV word order.
So then, why is VS word order the most common word order in BH?
While I (again, following John Cook and Robert Holmstedt) argue that the default (unmarked) word order is SV like in English, it is not the most common. There are numerous grammatical phenomena in BH that affect word order, among them grammatical words at the heads of clauses, past-narrative conjugation (traditionally called waw-consecutive/conversive imperfect, or traditionally, the wayyiqtol pattern), and focus-fronting (traditionally called “emphasis”). In this blog post, I will examine inversion triggered by grammatical words at the heads of phrases and the past-narrative conjugation. I will save focus (emphasis) for another blog post.
Grammatical Words at the Heads of Clauses
One common way in which word order is “inverted” in Biblical Hebrew is that if there is a grammatical word at the front of a clause. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
וְהַנָּחָשׁ הָיָה עָרוּם מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים
(Now) the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field that the Lord GOD made (Gen 3:1)
Notice that this verse exhibits both inverted and standard word order. In the first half of the verse, we note SV word order – no “markedness”, no grammatical words at the head of the clause, just regular old SV word order: וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם. However, in the second half of the verse, we see VS inversion, because of the relative pronoun אֲשֶׁר at the head of the clause. Unaffected word order (in other words, lacking the relative pronoun) would arguably be
יהוה אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת־חַיַת־הַשָׁדֶה – The Lord GOD made the beasts of the field.
Consider another example:
לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ
It is not good for the man to be by himself (Gen. 3:18)
Here, were the sentence exhibiting expected word order, it would be
טוֹב הֱייוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ
However, here there is a negation (לֹא) at the head of the clause, so this triggers inverted word order. The infinitive הֱייוֹת precedes the subject הָאָדָם.Other so-called “grammatical words” at the heads of clauses that trigger inversion are אִם, לְמַעַן, כִּי, אָז, and פֶּן, the interrogatives מָה, לָמָּה, and מִי, and the other negative אַל.
The Past-Narrative (Traditionally, Waw-Consecutive) Conjugation
Finally, one of the most common ways in which word order is inverted is by the past-narrative (traditionally, waw-consecutive verb conjugation. Contrary to what many Hebrew grammars espouse I (again, following Cook and Holmstedt – we must be careful to give credit where credit is due!) is a true past verb form, most often existing in portions of narrative prose (hence its name!). Let’s look at what are the past narrative form, the most prevalent grammatical feature of Gen, 1:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃ – God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light (Gen 1:3)
וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב – God saw the light, that [it] was good (Gen 1:4).
וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם – God called the light “day”… (Gen 1:5a).
If Cook and Holmstedt are correct (and I think they are), the passage lacking the PN verbs (i.e., if they existed outside of a narrative context) would be:
אֱלֹהִים אָמַר יְהִי אוֹר – God said “Let there be light!”
אֱלֹהִים רָאָה אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב – God saw [that] the light was good.
אֱלֹהִים קָרָא לָאוֹר יוֹם – God called the light “day”…
OK, Jonathan. Is there anything else that flips the words?
Yes, there is. But the next topic is a bit more complicated, so I’ll save that for another post. Thanks for reading! Even if the Hebrew scholars among our readers disagree, I hope you will consider this post. I think there’s something to it.
This phrase can be translated various ways, but I have chosen to maintain the traditional translation for the sake of simplicity.
Again following Cook and Holmstedt, I view the vav in a past-narrative clause (or even the so-called disjunctive vav) as a clause marker. It is not always necessary to translate it as “and”, “but”, or “or”. At its core, it is merely a clause marker. Its translation (if any) will depend on the relationship between clauses – the vav itself holds no translational value.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon!
UP NEXT: PART 2: WORD ORDER, TOPIC, AND FOCUS