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.

In Gen 22.4, there is no other verb than וישׂא for the initial PP ביום השׁלישׁי to be related to. Thus, unless one proposes that the PP is a complement within a null Subject, null copula clause, e.g., ‘(It) (was) on the third day’, the only alternative (I can think of) is to take the PP as an adjunct of וישׂא that has been fronted as a (scene-setting) Topic. (On the nature of Topic-fronting, see the discussion in Holmstedt 2009, here.)

If we are correct in the fronting analysis of the PP, it leaves the ו on וישׂא in an interesting place—just sitting there between the fronted adjunct and the verb. Some might be tempted to argue that this supports seeing the waw as an integral part of the complex wayyiqtol verb. Such a view of the wayyiqtol has been taken in Hebrew studies.

But we do not find this option compelling. First, all things being equal, it is simpler to take the form at face value: the waw is a waw and the yiqtol is a yiqtol (on the gemination, see Holmstedt 2009:125, n. 32 and sources cited there). Second, we point to other places where the waw sits at phrase edges, e.g., in apposition (2), at the beginning of parentheses (3), after a fronted phrase (4) and between left-dislocated constituents and the clause proper (5).

(2) 1 Sam 17.40 וַיִּקַּח מַקְלוֹ בְּיָדוֹ וַיִּבְחַר־לוֹ חֲמִשָּׁה חַלֻּקֵי־אֲבָנִים מִן־הַנַּחַל וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָם בִּכְלִי הָרֹעִים אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וּבַיַּלְקוּט
‘And he took his staff in his hand and he chose for himself five smooth stones from the ravine and he put them in the shepherds’ bag he had, that is, in the pouch’ (see Waltke-O’Connor §39.2.1b #6)

(3) Gen 14.13 ‏וְהוּא שֹׁכֵן בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא הָאֱמֹרִי אֲחִי אֶשְׁכֹּל וַאֲחִי עָנֵר וְהֵם בַּעֲלֵי בְרִית־אַבְרָם
‘he [=Abram] was dwelling at the Oaks of Mamre, the Amorite, brother of ‘Eshkol and brother of ‘Aner (they were covenanters of Abram’s)’

(4) 2 Kgs 16.14 וְאֵת הַמִּזְבַּח הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וַיַּקְרֵב מֵאֵת פְּנֵי הַבַּיִת
‘And the bronze altar that was before Yhwh he removed from the front of the Temple … ‘

(5) Gen 17.14  וְעָרֵל זָכָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יִמּוֹל אֶת־בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ
‘And as for the uncircumcised male whose foreskin is not circumcised—that person shall be cut off from his people’ (see Joüon-Muraoka §176g-l)

These examples point to a broader and deeper generalization than the wayyiqtol=verb option provides. The waw in each of the examples in (2)-(5) does not coordinate two equal constituents, as prototypical coordination does, but marks the “edge” between two constituents. In no case is it syntactically necessary, which is why we suggest it is a pragmatic function of the waw used to facilitate syntactic processing. As such, it falls into a similar (although not identical) use of the waw that C. L. Miller discusses in her 1999 article on the use of waw at the beginning of direct speech.

Let us now turn back to the structure of Gen 1.1-3, specifically the role of the initial PP בראשׁית in the larger structure (vv. 1-3) to which it belongs. I partially rested my analysis on the PP-ויהי structure I mentioned at the outset of this post. Such Topic-fronted PPs serve to situate the following action or event in a specific temporal or locative context. This structure often follows a preceding ויהי that is syntactically unconnected. The first ויהי is the use of ויהי as a discourse marker, often used to signal scene transitions.

Certainly, ויהי can function as a true copular verb, and it also functions (although rarely) as the existential verb. But the ויהי (specifically the 3ms form) may also stand separately and function as a discourse-marker of the temporal location of the following information (this is also true for the irreal-future והיה, but that is for another post). Generally the discourse usage of ויהי will be obvious from the lack of any clear subject or complement.

To find out just how many of these discourse ויהי exist in Genesis, we did a simple search in our syntax module within Accordance. There were 59 hits in Genesis.

Discourse ויהי (search and results) — update Jan 29 2015: as Accordance searching has changed slightly, it was necessary to update my first screenshot for an accurate search


In the 59 examples, what follows the discourse ויהי is a PP (either with NP complement or Infinitival Phrase complement) [53x], a adjunct כי clause [5x], or one case of an independent clause [15.17]. In all but 15.17, the fronted phrase/clause is an adjunct within a following clause, most of which are wayyiqtol clauses (i.e., PP-wayyiqtol).

To find out what percentage these examples constitute within the book of Genesis, we did a simple morphological search for 3ms “wawConsecutive” (in Accordance parlance) and there were 122 hits. This means that the discourse ויהי accounts for 48.4% of the overall ויהי use in Genesis.

Finally, we searched for all the cases where an adjunct phrase is Topic-fronted and the following verb is a wayyiqtol (actually, we widened the search to look for all waw+verb combinations).

PP-Waw-Verb (search and results)

The results are interesting. They highlight that not only does a fronted PP adjunct occur with wayyiqtol verbs, but also with waw+irrealis qatal (3.5). They also highlighted a few of the cases where והיה (irrealis qatal היה) is used as a discourse marker (9.14, 27.40, 30.41, 47.23). More important for understanding Gen 1.1 are the cases where there is no initial discourse ויהי before the fronted PP (besides 1.1-3, see 3.5, 22.4, 27.34, 28.6, and 37.18).

In conclusion, the data support that validity of the analysis of Gen 1.1-3 (given in the previous post by RDH) with respect to this pattern: Topic-fronted PP (1.1) before a wayyiqtol (1.3). The examples that are particularly strong are those without an initial ויהי. Those examples, together with the discourse ויהי proposal, encourage the identification of many more, i.e., all those that follow a discourse ויהי.


* Holmstedt, Robert D. 2009. Word Order and Information Structure in Ruth and Jonah: A Generative-Typological Analysis. Journal of Semitic Studies 54 (1):111-39.

* Miller, Cynthia L. 1999. The Pragmatics of Waw as a Discourse Marker in Biblical Hebrew Dialogue. Zeitschrift für Althebraistik 12 (2):165-91.

16 Responses to “Genesis 1.1 and Topic-fronting before a Wayyiqtol”

  1. On the Web (November 17, 2011) « New Testament Interpretation Says:

    […] Robert Holmstedt and John Cook discusses “Genesis 1.1 and Topic-fronting before a Wayyiqtol.” […]

  2. Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants Says:

    […] addressing also the relation of that verse to what follows in Genesis 1.2-3. In a further post, Robert provides further parallels to בראשׁית ברא in ancient Hebrew which involve “a …wayyiqtol”, and analysis of the use of ויהי in […]

  3. Jody Says:

    I’m curious as to why you label the ויהי as a discourse marker and what exactly you mean by this term. Could you unpack this?

    Why not consider ויהי in these cases as an expletive verb, whose use is shown to be optional by the the cases without it? (Or, alternatively, that the cases without it differ in some as yet unspecified way, or that these cases have something that blocks the expletive.)

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Interesting question. But I need a little clarification before going further — what precisely is an “expletive verb”? (I know what “expletive” means, but combining it with “verb” is a new one to me.)

  4. johncookvw Says:

    Likewise, I’m interested to know what precisely you mean by “explicative verb.” But in answer to your question: the discourse ויהי sets the time frame as past temporal reference. The closest I can come to a gloss translation into English would be “Then”—as in, at that (past) time and not as in “next.”

  5. Robert Holmstedt on the Grammar of Gen 1:1 « Daniel O. McClellan Says:

    […] (and John Cook) discuss the reasons for this reading on the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog here and here. They make a solid case. GA_googleAddAttr(“AdOpt”, “1”); GA_googleAddAttr(“Origin”, “other”); […]

  6. John Hobbins Says:

    Rob and John,

    I am just getting around to reading these blog posts. The best part for me has been to see examples of the Accordance syntax module in action. It is quite impressive and makes for interesting comparisons with the AFPMA analysis I have in my Logos suite.

    The second best part has been the clear assertion that the first wayyiqtol clause of Genesis 1:3 is the matrix clause with respect to the preceding. If I remember correctly, Rob’s VT article was neutral on that score.

    Though I’m convinced that a construal of Gen 1:1-3 in this sense was current in the late Second Temple period (the construal compatible with Wisdom of Solomon 11:17), as was the construal of the first part of Gen 1:1 as an independent clause (the interpretation compatible with 2 Maccabees 7:28), Rashi is the first interpreter we know of who identified Gen 1:3a “[and] God said” as the matrix clause. In modern times, I believe it was Heinrich Ewald more than 150 years ago who first argued for this construal ( “Erklärung der biblischen Urgeschichte. I, 4 Die geschlechter des ersten Weltalters” JBW= Jahrbuch der Biblischen Wissenschaft 6 (1853–1854) 1–19). Among linguists, Frank Andersen probably deserves the honor of being the first to lay out the analysis (see his AFPMA, which I discussed with Rob three years ago at ); the earliest cite I can give offhand (though I believe he advocated for this already in the 1970s) is from his 1980 AB Hosea volume. Here is an excerpt:

    2. At the beginning, when Yahweh spoke with Hosea. Literally “the-beginning-of [construct] spoke Yahweh,” the nomen rectum being a verbal clause. This is an acceptable construction, and there is no reason for preferring the versions, which render dbr as a noun. Davidson (1894:§25) lists thirty-five examples, a conservative count; cf. GKC §130d. The most famous instance, Gen 1:1, illustrates the epic use of this construction to mark a major onset in narrative. This construction probably marks the original beginning of the prophecy; i.e. the editorial title of the whole work is 1:1 and 1:2a is the beginning of the narrative proper. It is a distinctively literary, rather than an oral, device.

    Andersen, F. I., & Freedman, D. N. (2008). Hosea: A new translation with introduction and commentary (153). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

    BTW, take a look at Andersen’s comments on Hos 1:4 in that volume: it includes a nice discussion of another extraposed excuse me preposed temporal phrase. I believe Frank’s analysis of Gen 1:1-3, besides being visualized in AFPMA, is also laid out in his, “On Reading Genesis 1-3,” in Backgrounds for the Bible (ed. Michael Patrick O’Connor and David Noel Freedman; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1987) 137-50), but I could be wrong about that; it’s been 20 years since I read the article and I don’t have it handy.

    Which brings me to my substantive question: in what important ways does your analysis of Gen 1:1-3 differ from Andersen’s analysis?

    As I see it, it is compatible with it, but your analysis of the Gen 1:1a in terms of a relative clause and in analogy with din idinu phraseology in Akkadian moves into new and relatively uncharted waters.

    • robertholmstedt Says:


      I know well Andersen’s analysis: I quoted from one of his many words on the topic in my VT 2008 article. The novel proposal in that study of mine was the argument that Gen 1.1 was a *restrictive* relative clause. No one had claimed that before (only Ewald came slightly close). Everything else (it’s a relative, it’s in construct with a verbal clause [not quite accurate, but close], etc.,) has been said, although I’d say not with the same linguistic (ahem) verve.

  7. Drew Longacre Says:

    Hi Robert,

    I found your post quite interesting, but it also raises some questions about ויהי, which has been a particular concern of mine recently.

    First of all, the overwhelming number of temporal adjuncts preceding wayyiqtols are preceded by ויהי, giving the prima facie impression that it is necessary (or at least standard) when fronting temporal clauses. This raises questions about the rare counter-examples. For instance, Gen 27:34 seems to be due to textual error in the MT, as the SP and LXX include ויהי and there is an easy haplographic trigger at the end of the preceding verse. Both the SP and LXX in 37:18 also lack the ו separating בטרם from מרחק, indicating that they probably understood the temporal clause to be modifying the preceding wayyiqtol, rather than the following (this is somewhat less likely to be original, I would say, but at very least it shows the perceived awkwardness of the MT construction). The lack of a ו before the temporal clause in 28:6 leaves open the possibility that the temporal clause could simply be in the default position for temporal clauses following the verbs they modify, rather than preceding. 22:4 (and 3:5) are somewhat more compelling examples, but given the difficulties that all theories of ויהי have had in explaining all of the data, are these exceptions sufficient to show that temporal clauses could regularly be fronted before wayyiqtols without also adding ויהי? It seems at first glance more syntactically natural (especially given the regular pattern) to say that the temporal clauses are rather left-dislocated and function syntactically (if not semantically) in conjunction with ויהי as separate sentences than to say that fronting of temporal clauses before wayyiqtols is normal and common and that ויהי is entirely optional (even though it almost always occurs) and syntactically disjointed from the temporal clause. Can you point to other examples (like 22:4) which might shore up your point a little more convincingly?

    Second, if ויהי is syntactically unnecessary, optional, and disjointed, what then is its purpose? From your post, I see two different explanations. 1) It is a discourse marker indicating that the following temporal clause should be situated in the past (also John’s comment). 2) It is a discourse marker indicating scene transitions. The former does not seem to work, because that significance does not seem to be integral to ויהי. Most ויהי expressions are already clearly past from context, so disambiguating ויהי would then be superfluous. It would also be difficult to explain the uneven distribution of ויהי, since some past-tense passages do not have any occurrences and others have multiple occurrences strung together. Furthermore, in those cases where ויהי does indicate a past tense situation, it does not differ from other wayyiqtols, which can also situate a narrative in the past. ויהי, then, does not appear to have a unique tense-marking role. I personally think the second explanation (ויהי is a discourse marker indicating scene transitions) is much more helpful, but it raises another question more specific to your exegesis in Genesis 1:1. Why does בראשית not have a preceding ויהי? It is by far the most common construction. It also commonly marks the beginning and orientating information of narratives as here. And it does not seem to me valid to argue that ויהי would be inappropriate because it is a continuation form dependent upon previous context, since numerous narrative books begin with ויהי. If your fronted temporal clause understanding is accurate, it seems we would expect to see ויהי as the first word of the Bible on nearly every theory of ויהי!

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      I am swamped with coursework, so my answers below will sound blunter than I intend.

      I find many issues in your comment troubling from a methodological perspective.

      First, I am of the view that we must deal with the grammatical evidence that exists. I certainly think that there are cases where the text has been changed in the transmission process, but it also the case that those predisposed to see textual errors often confuse what may or may not “grammatical” or “conventional” for the ancient Hebrew authors with what was or was not for the later translators and copyists.

      Suffice it say, I am unconvinced by your textual arguments.

      Of course Gen 27.34 could be missing an initial ויהי, since many things are possible. But the fact is the Hebrew text does not have it and there appears to be no counter Hebrew mss evidence means that we are left with two options — take the Hebrew verse as it stands (and it is not the only example without an initial ויהי) or conjecture it away. Given that I have shown the lack of the initial ויהי to be grammatical, and that the precise conventional usage has not been nailed down, it would be highly methodologically problematic to emend it away based on a partial overlap with the word in the preceding clause.

      As for Gen 37.18, what in the world would taking the temporal PP בטרם with the preceding clause mean? The notion that “they saw him at a distance before he drew to them” is redundant, whereas “before he drew near to them, they plotted to hill him” is quite logical. Moreover, the waw really has nothing to do with it, since as we’ve argued the waw simply marks phrases edges and is not always there (a view you can find in various forms in any reference grammar under “asyndesis”).

      On the issue of the default position for temporal clauses being *after* the main clause (your contention), all I can say is, work up such a study. You won’t find many grammars or commentaries on your side, since they typically take (either explicitly or implicitly) the ויהי in temporal clauses as otiose and then associate that clause with the following main clause. Indeed, it’s not far from our own argument. Moreover, cross-linguistically, scene-setting temporal phrases and clauses are often before the main predicate, so you have quite a bit of work to do to support your claim.

      Your comment suggesting that these are better taken as Left-Dislocation reflects an inaccurate understanding of the syntax of dislocation, which has as it basic definition the presence of a resumptive constituent within the main clause. These aren’t resumed.

      The function of the ויהי is two-fold. First, it helps to structure the narrative (for how that might be argued, look up the thesis of B. Harmelink (2004, republished by SIL in 2011). It don’t agree with the thesis across the board, but it illustrate the way that the ויהי can be analyzed in terms of a discourse structuring device. Second, ויהי provides a temporal grounding for the scene that follows and as such is more of a processing aid. Without it, the initial temporal phrase, which is often either a null copula (“verbless”) clause or an infinitive clause, is initially unmarked with regard to the temporal situation and the listener/reader must wait until the verb in the main clause to process the temporality. The initial ויהי alleviates that processing burden. Clearly, like most such processing aids, it is neither required by the grammar or absolutely needed for interpretation, and so it can be omitted (as it is in the cases I list).

      In Genesis 1.1, the first question is simply to determine the “what” of the grammar, which I have done. Asking “why” enters us into the realm of speculation that I try to avoid in serious grammatical work. But if I feel compelled to ask “why” and so speculate on the non-use of other available constructions, then I look around for other examples to suggest a pattern. They are not too hard to find if one looks outside of Genesis (my two posts were explicitly limited to Genesis): PPs without an initial ויהי also begin the books of Haggai, Zechariah, Daniel, and Ezra. From a discourse perspective, this may be to signal that the authors took the wayyiqtol as a convention used to “continue” from another narrative, and none of these are so presented. Speculative, yes, but it’s plausible (and is similar to what commentators for many years have suggesting regarding the use/non-use of wayyiqtol at the beginning of books).

      Perhaps more interesting is that if there was a change in convention, from beginning a “book” with a discourse ויהי + temporal PP to the main clause (e.g., Joshua, Judges) to avoiding the discourse ויהי at the beginning (Genesis, Haggai, Zecharia, Daniel, Ezra), we may be looking at a rough diachronic marker.

      So, I don’t think your final claim (or the exaggerated rhetorical flourish) is at all good and nothing you’ve claimed so far makes me think I need to “shore up” the argument.

      • Drew Longacre Says:

        Hi Robert,

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

        I would generally agree with you that we must be careful not to hastily emend away forms we do not understand. I, myself, would not accept many of the possible explanations I mentioned. That said, I still think we cannot avoid textual questions, and I would stick by my claim in Gen 27:34. Both the Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew) and LXX attest to ויהי.

        As for the unmarked position for temporal adjuncts being after the verb, I took that from van der Merwe in Hebrew Studies 40 (1999) pp. 93-94 in his study of ויהי. He bases his conclusions on the work of Walter Gross. For van der Merwe, fronting temporal clauses puts them into focus. In the Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, van der Merwe et al. (p. 339) also call “fronted” temporal adjuncts “dislocated” when they are separated from the main verb by a waw, even though there is no resumptive element. Would you then disagree on both accounts, or have I misunderstood something?

        By the way, after looking at more examples of fronted temporal clauses without ויהי, I am now convinced that these temporal clauses modify the following main verb (even across a waw) and that ויהי is optional.

      • robertholmstedt Says:


        Well, unless I am mis-reading you, it looks like you’ve concluded that the argument I’m making is correct, that the ויהי in many cases is not associated with the following PP and that this PP is to be associated with the following verb, even across a ו.

        I think we were talking past each other on the “default” position of adjunct PPs. Indeed, the basic position for such PPs is post-verbal; that is uncontroversial. In each of the cases I’ve identified (and I also should have cited Gross 1987, who lists many of these, but due to the hyper-taxonomic approach of his research, has missed important generalizations), the PP preceding the wayyiqtol has been fronted for Topic (not Focus, contra van der Merwe, if that’s what he says — I read that article a long time ago and wasn’t impressed, so I haven’t read it again).

        On the point of dislocation — I’m actually re-writing an old study of mine for AOS in 2 weeks. While I will argue that there is a special case of fronting that shares the pragmatics of Left-dislocation even though it does not show resumption, I will also argue that it is not, strictly speaking, topicalization, either. But this is a special type of construction that we almost only see in Leviticus. The PP-wayyiqtol type we’re talking about are most certainly not dislocation, but fronting for Topic. Of course, I suggest that my study will clarify what we do and do not have (and their pragmatics functions) in Hebrew, since previous studies on these fronting issues have been wonderful examples of lack of clarity (often due to fuzzy theory).

        Oh, and you are free to disagree on Gen 27.34, but you’re wrong nonetheless.

        How’s that for a pre-2nd cup of coffee comment?!

  8. Drew Longacre Says:

    Surprisingly helpful for something written before 9 a.m.! :) Thanks; that clarifies a few things.

  9. R B Says:

    >In no case is it syntactically necessary, which is why we suggest it is a pragmatic function of the waw used to facilitate syntactic processing.
    Why don’t you call vayyisa and venixrat for the choice that was made? A promotion to main line status. Both had “non-sequential” forms available, but chose the “sequential” gram.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Because we are investigating first “grammar proper” and then only after that discourse conventions. Blurring those lines — indeed, proceeding bass-ackwards by trying to create a “discourse grammar” and then read it back onto syntax-semantics—is what has plagued BH linguistics for, oh, nearly 30 years.

      But you expected that answer from me, didn’t you? :-)

  10. A Few Notes on the Wiki Bible, Genesis 1:1 | Mitchell Powell's Blog Says:

    […] altogether, or else to simply link out to the work of a competent professional, perhaps here and here, or […]

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