Genesis 1.1, again

Professor Kenneth Turner of Bryan College emailed me recently about another subtle feature in the grammar of Gen 1.1, given in (1).

(1) Gen 1:1

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

He and his students have been working through the various issues, and reading my VT article and some older posts I made here and here, and they came up with a fascinating question: does the disjunctive accent on ראשׁית (which is a טפחא) provide any support for taking the word as the free or bound form?

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Genesis 1.1 and Topic-fronting before a Wayyiqtol

Robert Holmstedt and John Cook

In a previous post, I (RDH) partially based my analysis of the syntax of Gen 1.1 within the larger structure of Gen 1.1-3 on the existence of examples where a wayyiqtol clause has a Topic-fronted Prepositional Phrase that is located before the wayyiqtol, such as Gen 22.4 (1).

(1) Gen 22:4 בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֧ם אֶת־עֵינָ֛יו וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הַמָּק֖וֹם מֵרָחֹֽק׃
‘On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar.’

In this post, we follow that description of Gen 1.1-3 with additional supporting data and analysis.

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Genesis 1.1-3, Hebrew Grammar, and Translation

*(revised after the clarification given in the initial comment)*


Genesis 1.1 is one of the most discussed verses in the Hebrew Bible. It is the first verse of the first book, initiates the Hebrews’ grand cosmology, and … contains an apparent grammatical crux. Phooey! You would think that one could get further than one word into the Hebrew Bible without a grammatical problem.

In fact, there is no problem, only a long-term misunderstanding of Hebrew grammar. In a 2008 article appearing in Vetus Testamentum (which revised a sub-section taken from my 2002 thesis), I argued for an analysis of the first verse that is grounded both in my long-term research on the Hebrew relative clause and comparative Semitic grammar. You can find the article linked here.

But recently I was criticized (on a blog), for failing to explain how my analysis of 1.1 fit into an interpretation of 1.1-3. So, although my argument for Gen 1.1 stands ably on its own, I will take the opportunity presented by the recent criticism to summarize my argument for 1.1 and provide my analysis of vv. 1-3.

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Basic Word Order in Biblical Hebrew, update

Back in April and May I wrote a 6-part series on basic word order in the Biblical Hebrew finite verbal clause (see: #1#2#3#4#5, #6). I am now pleased to announce that the full article, with the full lists of examples and fuller interaction with secondary literature, has appeared in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (an excellent journal that has an exceptionally timely turn-around from submission to online publication).

The direct link to the PDF article is here.

In brief, I argue that Biblical Hebrew can and should be classified as a Subject-Verb language from a cross-lingusitic typological perspective. Moreover, I challenge those who hold the traditional Verb-Subject analysis to defend their position with linguistic arguments. Recently I heard the issue of BH word order characterized as follows: “Everyone believes that Hebrew is VS except for this one fellow Holmstedt.”  This is depressing but not surprising. Though no one has actually argued the VS position from a linguistic perspective (of any sort), the tradition holds for those unwilling to have what they were taught in introductory Hebrew turned on its head.

It is the essence of scholarship to question previous positions using newer analytical frameworks. To remain stubbornly attached to the 18th-century views of Gesenius, as brilliant as he was, is the type of attitude that so often makes Biblical Hebrew studies an embarrassment to those of us who do interdisciplinary scholarship. “I’ll keep thinking Hebrew is VS because … that’s what I was taught” or “… that’s what it seems to me when I read texts” are not acceptable scholarly responses. It is incumbent upon those who think my SV argument is wrong to make the argument using the tools of modern linguistics. Tradition is not an argument (at least not in scholarship).

In my previous word order studies I took a softer rhetorical approach, hoping to woo both senior and junior scholars by the linguistic and aesthetic appeal of my analysis. No more soft wooing. I am coming to the realization that I am probably not going to get through to those who stubbornly hold to the VS position despite sound linguistic arguments to the contrary. So now I am waiting for scholars who are willing to engage linguistics as it is currently formulated. Whoever you are, I invite you to embrace my analysis, contribute to its perfection, or dismantle it. Regardless what you do, if you make a good linguistic argument, I will applaud you. Indeed, I look forward to it!

I have thrown down the gauntlet. Will someone accept the challenge?


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