How to Make Sense of Hebrew Word Order

Whether you’ve studied Greek and Hebrew or just read the interlinear line, you’ve probably noticed that the ordering of Greek and Hebrew words sounds remarkably like you’d expect Yoda from the Star Wars saga to speak. Most introductory grammars don’t even tackle the issue of word order. So is there any exegetical significance to the Greek and Hebrew word order? Absolutely!

Most traditional grammarians like Gesenius or A. T. Robertson recognized two general motives for placing information in front of the verb: contrast and emphasis. Newer grammars like Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar and Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, applying principles from modern linguistics, have sharpened our understanding of word order. But unless you are a biblical language expert specializing in information structure, you’d be hard-pressed to accurately analyze word order until just recently.

The Lexham Discourse Hebrew Bible and the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament provide you with sentence-by-sentence word order analyses. Accompanying introductions help you understand the important difference between emphasis and frame of reference (traditionally called contrast). The Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament is currently available in a special bundle with six other resources including the Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament and the High Definition Commentary: Philippians.

The Lexham Discourse Hebrew Bible will be shipping soon, helping you identify and understand the same useful concepts that pastors and teachers have come to value in the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament. The initial release will provide an analysis of Genesis–2 Samuel. The entire database is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013.

For those of you who’ve never studied Hebrew or Greek, the Lexham High Definition: ESV Edition resources mark every place where the biblical writers have used word order or some other device to emphasize important ideas. If you buy the Greek or Hebrew database, the ESV Edition comes bundled with it. All these resources include a glossary and introduction to help you get the most out of the text.

Remember how I said you’d need an expert in biblical languages to properly analyze word order? Well, about a year ago Logos hired Josh Westbury as a Hebrew language specialist to partner with me in completing the Lexham Discourse Hebrew Bible/HDOT project. He is currently in a doctoral program with my former adviser and friend Christo Van der Merwe. Look for Hebrew versions of popular resources like Discourse Grammar of the GNT and Lexham High Definition Commentaries written in conjunction with my new colleague, Josh!

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9 Responses to “How to Make Sense of Hebrew Word Order”

  1. Paul Strickert July 5, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Thrilling to hear! Keep up the excellent work!

  2. Andrew Baguley July 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    Hi Steve

    This is great for those of us who aren’t language experts, but I’m guessing some of the discourse marker decisions are more controversial than others. Is there any way that controversial decisions can be shown, possibly alongside alternative possibilities? Otherwise, it seems that many of us are forced into an all-or-nothing acceptance of the discourse markers given.


    • Steve Runge July 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

      Hey Andrew,

      You raise a great point that’s been the focus of extensive discussions over the years. There’s not room to go into detail here, but one of Runge’s Rules of Order is that if there are are two plausible readings, i.e. one for a special device to be present and one for a “normal” reading, the “normal” will always win the tie.

      I regularly consult experts about tough cases, emailing folks like Stephen Levinsohn, Randall Buth and Christo Van der Merwe. I also receive feedback from scholars in the field who use the resources.

      But the reality is that commentaries that we rely upon for exegesis are making the same kinds of decisions and judgments about the text as I am. As with commentaries, you have the same right-of-refusal in accepting one of my claims as with any commentary.

      One of the purposes of “Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament” was to give readers more background to the discourse concepts so they would be better able to critically interact with the database.

      The same kind of question was asked back in 2008 when the Greek discourse resources were first shipping. I used that question as the starting point for a blog post on the issue. Here’s the link: At this time there is not support for multiple analyses.

      Thanks for the great question Andrew, hope the Rungeianite post is helpful.

      • Andrew Baguley July 6, 2012 at 12:03 am #

        Thanks, Steve. That was helpful and I understand that there are limitations in any format.
        My one response would be to note that the best commentaries don’t just give a right-of-refusal, but also a selection of alternatives, particularly popular ones, often with pointers as to why they have not been chosen. Maybe in the future we could have a single resource that does this for discourse markers as well, rather than having to search around on a blog or through conference papers to see a particular issue discussed. Meanwhile, I await the Discourse Grammar, and I’m sure I’ll appreciate it as much as I do that for the Greek.
        Thanks again for the response, especially for the speed of response.

      • John Doty July 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

        I’ve been following this line of study since Steve came on board and am very excited to have this option. I wonder, what is the similarity to Daniel P. Fuller’s syllabi that teach “relationships between propositions,” especially in adverbial clauses? A different question is related to the “sound” of Hebrew. I think part of the “music” of the Psalms and other writings are often missed when we transfer them into English. Kind of like translating the National Anthem into, say Spanish, then translating from the Spanish back to English. Is there much discussion of rhyme, meter, and other literary devices? I once asked Ralph P. Martin, while he was teaching about the “hymns” of the new testament, what Greek mode they were written in—Locrian, Doric, Ionian–all I got for an answer was a cold stare. Thanks for any insight you care to offer on either or both. JHD

        • Steve Runge July 29, 2012 at 9:45 am #

          Hi John,
          From what I can tell of Fuller’s work (and more recent developments by folks like Tom Schreiner), his approach seems much more like a semantic structural analysis like that used by SIL in their Semanticand Structural Analysis series. My structural analysis is based on functional/syntactic relationships, whereas the SSA approach and that of Fuller seems more focused on logical/semantic relations. This semantic layer is something I’d love to add to the Lexham series, but there are no firm plans in place to make this happen.

  3. Kevin M. Shaw July 8, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    As an example, can you show us how the tool would help us interpret Isaiah 59:19 … considering that different tranlators have translated the verse differently?

    • Steve Runge July 9, 2012 at 7:15 am #

      Hi Kevin,
      There is nothing out of the ordinary to comment on with respect to word order. However, some versions change the order to create what I refer to as a “frame of reference.” In Hebrew the first thought is structured as in the LEB: “So they shall fear the name of Yahweh from the west, and his glory from the sunrise, for he will come like a narrow stream; the wind of Yahweh drives it on.” (Isaiah 59:19, LEB) NRSV and NET introduce contrast in their translations that is not present in Hebrew by moving “from the west” to the beginning of the sentence. The LEB provides a more literal rendering. The second thought about “his glory” does not have a verb of its own, so is relying on “fear” in the first thought. The desire for balance between these two ideas is likely what led translators to render it “In the west…, in the east…”. The discourse resource will provide a propositional display that preserves the original, labeling the second thought as “Elaboration” rather than as a separate Sentence equal and parallel to the first. Our current prototype includes Gen-2 Kings, so I do not have a screen shot to offer. These resources will help you sort out structural issues like this, but will not comment on the choice of one word over another in the translation (e.g. “east” vs. “sunrise” in the second thought). Hope this helps!

  4. Kevin M. Shaw July 9, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Thank you!