Word Order


In Biblical Hebrew the verb normally comes first in a sentence or clause. In cases where another grammatical element precedes the verb, especially the subject, the context must determine whether or not a new narrative or section of text is being introduced, or whether or not the narrator is introducing a break in the narrative.


In verbal sentences (that is, sentences with a verb), the structure of the sentence in Biblical Hebrew is: (1) the Verb, in first position; (2) the subject, in second position; (3) the object, in third position. Other grammatical elements such as Adverb, prepositional phrases, discourse particle, etc. can be inserted at various points within that general sentence structure. In most cases, variations from the standard word order are for literary reasons or to add some emphasis (usually on the word moved to the beginning of the sentence), but this does not fundamentally change the meaning. Sometimes however, if a grammatical element (often the subject) is placed before the verb, it has implications for the general structure of a narrative and/or how to best divide up the text in smaller blocks. In these cases, the context must determine whether this introduces a new narrative or section of text, or if it indicates a break in the narrative.

Poetic portions of the Hebrew Bible generally not follow the standard structure for several reasons. For example, they use a lot of nominal sentences that do not have a verb, they use parallelisms where the same thought is repeated twice, as well as other poetic tools.

The standard word order

Example: GEN 1:4 – with a direct object
וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאֹ֖ור
wayyar ‘elohim ‘eth-ha’owr
and-he-saw God [dir.obj]_the-light
and God saw the light
Example: EXO 9:1 – with an indirect object
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה
wayyomer yehwah ‘el-mosheh
and-he-said Yahweh to_Moses
And Yahweh said to Moses

Deviation with no change in meaning

Not indicating a break in the narrative, because here the deviation happens in the middle of a sentence.

Example: GEN 1:5
וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה
wayyiqra ‘elohim la’or yom welahoshekh qara laylah
and-he-called God to-the-light day and-to-the-darkness he-called
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
Example: 2KI 3:22
וַיַּשְׁכִּ֣ימוּ בַבֹּ֔קֶר וְהַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ זָרְחָ֣ה עַל־הַמָּ֑יִם
wayyashkimu vabboqer wehashemesh zorhah ‘al-hammayim
and-they-rose-early in-the-morning and-the-sun had-risen
They awakened early in the morning and the sun reflected on the

Introducing a new narrative or section of text

Though it is common to begin a book or major portion of a book with the Verb Sequential Imperfect, it is also possible to put the subject of the first sentence at the beginning of the book.

Example: JOB 1:1 – indicating a new narrative
אִ֛ישׁ הָיָ֥ה בְאֶֽרֶץ־ע֖וּץ אִיּ֣וֹב שְׁמ֑וֹ
‘ish hayah ve’erets-‘uts ‘iyyov shemo
man there-was in-land-of_Uz Job his-name
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job
Example: 2KI 3:4 – indicating a new section of text
וּמֵישַׁ֥ע מֶֽלֶךְ־מוֹאָ֖ב הָיָ֣ה נֹקֵ֑ד
umesha’ melekh-mo’av hayah noqed
and-Mesha king-of_Moab was sheep-breeder
Now Mesha king of Moab bred sheep

A subject placed before the verb can also indicate a new, smaller section of a narrative, or a continuation after there has been a short break in the narrative.

Example: 2SA 19:11 – indicating a new section of a narrative
וְהַמֶּ֣לֶךְ דָּוִ֗ד שָׁ֠לַח אֶל־צָד֨וֹק וְאֶל־אֶבְיָתָ֥ר
הַכֹּהֲנִים֮ לֵאמֹר֒
wehammelekh dawid shalah ‘el-tsadoq we’el-‘evyathar hakkohanim
and-the-king David sent to_Zadok and-to_Abiathar the-priests
King David sent to Zadok and to Abiathar the priests saying
Example: 2SA 18:19 – indicating a continuation after a break in the narrative
וַאֲחִימַ֤עַץ בֶּן־צָדוֹק֙ אָמַ֔ר
wa’ahima’ats ben-tsadoq ‘amar
and-Ahimaaz son-of_Zadok he-said
Then Ahimaaz son of Zadok said

Indicating a small break in the narrative

Sometimes a grammatical element (usually the subject) placed before the verb can indicate a break in the narrative action to provide the reader with some extra information about the story being told. Usually, these instances will be clearly discerned from the context.

Example: 2KI 3:21
וְכָל־מוֹאָב֙ שָֽׁמְע֔וּ כִּֽי־עָל֥וּ הַמְּלָכִ֖ים לְהִלָּ֣חֶם בָּ֑ם
wekhol-mo’av shame’u ki-‘alu hammelakhim lehillahem bam
and-all_of-Moab they-heard that_they-came the-kings to-fight
Now when all the Moabites heard that the kings had come to
fight against them
Example: 2SA 18:18
וְאַבְשָׁלֹ֣ם לָקַ֗ח וַיַּצֶּב־ל֤וֹ בְחַיָּו אֶת־מַצֶּ֙בֶת֙
we’avshalom laqah wayyatsev-lo vehayyaw ‘eth-matseveth
and-Absalom had-taken and-he-built_for-him in-his-life
Now Absalom, while still alive, had built for himself a large
stone pillar