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
     [subject][verb] [negation]  
   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!




12 thoughts on “Word Order in Biblical Hebrew, Pt. 1: An Overview

  1. Hey, Jonathan.

    I’m not exactly an expert on word order, but it would seem to me that most of the time when we see וְ־x קָטַל (vav + x + qatal as mentioned in Basics of Hebrew Discourse by Patton & Putnam) it is caused by the interruption of things as simple as negation (לֹא). That is, the x can represent negation or the subject or anything else that separates the verb from the conjunction.

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that SV is the normal order, though I understand that this is the new way of looking at it. It just seems that this is a case of the exception proving the rule. I recall Buth also mentioning the SV over VS position at one point not long ago on the B-Hebrew forum, IIRC.

    Either way, I appreciate your post, and I hope that I can find some way to confirm it or find evidence that disconfirms it. I’ll be keeping my eyes open!


  2. Jonathan Beck says:

    Hi Jason,

    According to this view, any particle, whether it be a grammatical word or negative attached to a vav conjunction, this would trigger VS inversion. Also, a negative or jussive attached to a vav consecutive ( i.e. “weqatal”, what Cook and Holmstedt call an irreal perfect) would also trigger inversion because it signals irreal mood. So, it is true that “weqatal” also signals a shift in the narrative. I don’t think C&H would disagree with Patton and Puttnam on this, but they would say that the reason for VS inversion isn’t ONLY because it’s a shift in narrative, or the so-called future perfect, but because a waw prefixed to a perfect triggers irreal mood, which by its nature triggers VS inversion.

    Also, considering grammatical words at the heads of clauses triggering inversion, it isn’t just because they are particular grammatical words, but words like אִם and לְמַ֫עַן and negatives trigger irreal mood. I intend to cover this in my next blog post in more detail.

    I hope this answers your question, if I’m understanding it correctly.


    • James Greydanus says:

      I just completed Hebrew B. I Aced both A and B so I know just enough to impress non-Biblical Hebrew students without telling them I have only traversed successfully a little bit through the fog. I found the post and replies very interesting. I know that biblical Hebrew is a verbal language that leans toward VS with many exceptions in the context in which the word order appears to be less important. I will share your post with my Orthodox Jewish Professor. Thank you.

      • Jonathan Beck says:

        Thanks, James! I appreciate your kind words, and I definitely appreciate you sharing my ideas (though not really my ideas – I owe them due to my professor) with your instructor!


      • Excellent job in getting that far, James! Could I ask where you studied Hebrew?

        The question of word order is still something that I’m still wrestling with, and I’ve been reading Hebrew for over twenty years (and speak Hebrew fluently). I’m quite used to how things are expressed in Hebrew—and I’m kinda “leading” a translation group in which we’re going from English to biblical Hebrew over on the B-Hebrew forum.

        Despite all of that, I still wonder about the natural word order of Hebrew. There are so many exceptions to the rule that create corollaries to explain them, and it might just be better to keep in mind the various verses that we memorize as we read and re-read the Bible. If we have them in mind, it’s easy to know what to expect and how to render English in Hebrew. It’s why there is still such disagreement among those who write on the subject of word order and biblical Hebrew.

        Either way, I’m glad that you’ve commented. Keep it coming and let us know what you think!

  3. Richard McDonald claims there are nominal clauses, which begin with a noun, and emphasise the agent/initiator; and verbal clauses, which begin with a verb, and emphasise the action: ; He says, if I understand him, that this is the traditional view from the Arabic and Hebrew grammarians of old.

    His PhD dissertation defended the use of Arabic as the model for Hebrew grammatical studies.

    One corollary would be that there wouldn’t be a standard default word order.

    Even from a beginner’s perspective, it does seem much too simple to be true, but I would be interested in your comments. I really like his videos on Ruth 1, by the way – he talks about the things I want to know about.

  4. Refael Shalev says:

    The order s-v or vice versa is pretty comply with the verb conjugation:
    Action (verb) + subject = past tense or perfect. E.g. הלכ+תי
    Subject + action (verb) = future or imperfect. E.g. א+כתוב
    But there we have the temporal perspective * that by adding the “waw” we discover more timing:
    והלכתי pay attention to the ultimate accent like it’s written והלכתי אני (action-subject) that opposes the far past saying this action will be in the future after another action (indicative not conditional).
    The other way והאדם ידע puts the action before of another action in the past.
    וישכם אברהם An action that took place after another action in the past.
    ואתה תבוא An action in the future that will occur after a future action usually just after.
    To summarize:
    והאדם ידע< הלכתי<וישכם אברהם<אכתוב<ואתא תבוא<והלכתי

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