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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 1

I have recently finished working through Dr. Adina Moshavi’s 2010 monograph, Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Finite Clause; see here for a table of contents. Below are my thoughts on her book—not a full review but rather an engagement with it. This post will constitute the first part of a 3-part series on Hebrew word order, each of which represents “blogified” components of a article I am writing. Hebrew word order has been an ongoing area of interest for me as long as it has for Moshavi (her book is a revision of her 2000 Yeshiva University PhD thesis).

I take issue with specific, critical parts of Moshavi’s argument. In the three posts of this series I will not interact with her book chapter-by-chapter, section-by-section, and example-by-example, which would be both tedious and a tacit surrender of how the study of word order variation should proceed. (And I don’t like tedium any more than I care to let others establish the parameters and direction of a debate I’m in, and in this case, a debate I overtly joined a decade ago). Instead, I will address Moshavi’s interaction with my previous work on word order in this post (post #1); then in post #2 I will detail what I consider sound methodology and describe what I take to be a balanced typological approach to the issue of basic word order; finally, in post #3 I will build on the previous posts and present an analysis of the data in Genesis, a revision of the analysis I carried out in my 2002 thesis.

It may be helpful to state up front at the beginning that none of these three posts will address the full scope of word order diversity and, in particular, fronting in the biblical texts. Although I am engaged in a long-term project to address this, I will simply say here that there is much in the preceding works on the topic (e.g., Heimerdinger 1999, Shimasaki 2002, Lunn 2006, and Moshavi 2010) with which I agree. While I occasionally gainsay their analyses of specific verses (see, for examples, my reviews of Shimasaki and Lunn), and there are slightly different approaches to defining the term Topic and Focus, etc., there remains some general agreement on the reason for and function of fronted constituents.

Now, to Dr. Moshavi’s book:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Nexus between Text Criticism and Linguistics: The Case of Leviticus 1:17

At the end of May I will deliver a paper on this topic at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. The paper is finished, although I have it out to a couple trusted readers. When I feel it is complete, I will post it on the blog and note it here.

Below is my summary of the paper.  I welcome your thoughts, especially those of you more text-critically inclined, since I do not claim to be a text critic as such.


1. Introduction

There is an uncomfortable truth that linguists of ancient languages admit only rarely and even then with some reticence (and usually in a dark, empty room): we are, plain and simple, dependent on the paleographer, the epigrapher, and … (dare I admit it?), the text critic. For without those scholars who concern themselves with the decipherment of scripts, the first reading of texts, and the reconstruction of textual histories, the linguist would have nothing to analyze.

The difficulty of facing this truth is manifested in the modus operandi of ancient Hebrew linguists: rarely do scholars of biblical Hebrew question the wholesale acceptance of using the Masoretic text, dating to 1008 C.E., as representative of the linguistic system(s) of ancient Hebrew from 1500 years prior. They use the text of the standard printed critical edition, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia – or its electronic form from some computer program, without qualification, without reckoning with complex textual history represented by the data.

Ancient Hebrew linguists do not always seem to have learned the lessons taught by the Qumran texts, that while some scribes were quite passive transmitters, other scribes expanded, rearranged, and clarified the materials they were transmitting. It is thus clear that ancient language linguists rely on those scholars who investigate the features of an ancient text’s scribal history (using scribal here to refer to author and/or copyist). It is equally clear that, while we need not become experts in textual criticism ourselves, we must understand the issues involved.

Conversely, everything I have said indicates that if the linguist must be aware of text, the text critic must be aware of the linguistic systems. For if the scribe updates a text based on his native grammar and that grammar differs, in large or small ways, from the grammar of the text being copied, the text critic must also be aware of the diachronic changes in linguistic systems in order to understand properly the diachronic changes in the text. It is from this perspective, what a text critic may learn from a linguist, that I shall consider the case of a pronoun variant in Lev 1:17.

Read the rest of this entry »

“On their own terms”: Book Goals and Book Reviews

What follows may seem to depart from our stated purpose on the blog to maintain a tight focus on issues of ancient Hebrew grammar. However, since it concerns writing projects in which we are both involved, it seemsrelatedclosely enough for the departure to avoid being an egregious one.

In her 2002OTL commentary on Lamentations(Louisville:WJK), Adele Berlin observed that “a commentary need not be encyclopedic” (ix). Given the massive history of scholarship on every biblical book, which seems to increase exponentially every year, she was wise, in my opinion, to avoid representing “every interpretation put forth or every issue debated in the scholarly literature.” Taking the position that “a commentary gets its character from what is selected for comment, both from the text and from the secondary literature,” she flatly states what her approach is and leaves the rest for others.

Read the rest of this entry »

Verbs in Habakkuk 3

The theophanic vision report in Habakkuk 3* contains variations among verb forms that seem to defy explanation. For some scholars the solution is simply to ignore the variation. For example, note the treatment of the verb tense-aspect-mood (TAM) in some major English versions/ translations of the vision report of 3:3–15 (comprising 32 verb forms in all): NRSV, NIV, and NKJV translate all the verbs with past forms; while the REB, NAB and JB use mostly present verbs; and the NASB and NLT both show a split between present verbs in verses 3–7 as past verbs in verses 8–15. Recently de Regt (2008: 92) argued for a future temporal reference for the verbs vision based on treating the Perfects as “prophetic perfects.”

Read the rest of this entry »