God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

First Things First: Stress, Focus, and Biblical Hebrew Word Order

The importance of word order in Biblical Hebrew recently came up regarding Genesis 1:1, and in particular how we know that that verse answers the question “when?”

Here’s some more information and some additional examples.

An English Diversion

In English, stressing different words changes the implications of a sentence.

For example:

Example 1.

  1. This is my friend.
  2. This is my friend.
  3. This is my friend.

Sentence 1.1 is neutral, and might be used simply to introduce someone.

But 1.2 has addition implications, and it doesn’t make sense as a neutral introduction. But it does make sense in more narrow contexts. For example, it could answer the question, “whose friend is this?” And it makes sense if, because of context, there is already a sense that this is someone else’s friend. In both scenarios — specifically answering a question and clarifying an unasked question — it’s convenient to say that 1.2 “answers the question: whose friend this is?”

Example 1.3 cannot be used to answer the question “whose friend is this?” (Try it: -“Whose friend is this?” -“This is my friend.”) But it can be used if it’s already clear that this person has a relationship to me, but the nature of that relationship is not yet established. And, again, this could be in response to a specific question (e.g, “and how do you know each other?”), an implication, or some other context that causes the speaker to highlight the nature of the relationship.

One particularly interesting consequence of this is that stressing a word sets up alternative scenarios in the mind of the hearer. When I say, “this is my friend,” an English speaker automatically considers other possibilities: this is my enemy; this is my lover; etc.

Example 2.
1. We have landed in LGA. (This is the safe statement.)
2. We have landed in LGA. (This is risky.)

This is why “airplanese” stresses the words that are normally unstressed in English. For example, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport.” This phrasing only sets up one other possibility in the mind of English speakers who hear the sentence: “we have not landed in LaGuardia airport.” But the more usual sentence, “we have landed in LaGuardia airport” makes people consider other undesirable possibilities, like “we have crashed into LaGuardia airport.”

Example 3.
1. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is the safe answer.)
2. I killed Mary with a knife. (This is incriminating.)

Similarly, a witness at a murder trial might be asked, “how did you kill Mary?” The safe answer is “I killed Mary with a knife.” The dangerous answer is, “I killed Mary with a knife,” because that response assumes other pairs of people and weapons to which “I killed” might apply. Just changing the sentential stress is tantamount to admitting to additional murders.


Biblical Hebrew uses the pre-verbal sentence-initial position much the way we use sentential stress in English. This is how we know that Genesis 1:1 answers the question “when?” not “what?” or “who?” — the first word is breishit, “in the beginning.” A spoken-English translation of Genesis 1:1 might be “God created heaven and Earth in the beginning.”

Further Examples

Another example comes from Genesis 3:16-17. The first words of Genesis 3:16 are el ha-isha amar, “to the-woman [God] said.” This deviation from normal word order, like Example 3, has the effect of focusing “the woman,” as if to say, “this is what God told the woman.” The Hebrew reader naturally wonders, “okay. And what did God tell the man?” Genesis 3:17 answers that question, using the word order ul’adam amar…, “and-to-Adam [God] said…” — that is, “and God told Adam…”

We see the same thing in Genesis 45:22. The verse has two parts. The first begins, “to all [of the brothers] [Joseph] gave….” and the second one, “to Benjamin [Joseph] gave…” The point is to contrast Benjamin with the other brothers.

Hosea 5:7 reads badonai bagadu ki vanim zarim yaldu, “God they-betrayed when/for children alien they-bore.” Again, the point is expressed in English with stress: “they betrayed God by fathering illegitimate children.” Hosea is emphasizing the connection between human action and the divine.

All of these nuances come to light when we take Hebrew word order into account.


May 5, 2010 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I agree with you that the grammar of this verse does not suggest itself as an answer to the question who or how. Does this then make the entire first clause adverbial, as an ‘In the beginning when…’?

    Comment by Gareth Hughes | May 7, 2010

    • I don’t think so.

      I think we might try to compare Genesis 1:1 to modern sentences that focus the time element.

      For example, “On Friday the jury rendered a verdict.” There are at least two possible ways to assign focus:

      1. [On Monday the jury got the case and] on Friday the jury rendered a verdict.

      2. [It looked like it was going to be a mistrial, but] on Friday the jury rendered a verdict.

      In (1), the point of the sentence is to explain when the jury rendered a verdict, while in (2) the point is to explain that the jury rendered a verdict. Genesis 1:1 is like (1) here.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 12, 2010

      • I see what you are saying, and since you feel strongly that this is the linguistic force, the next step is to figure out what this emphasis imports, correct?

        Could the sense be “At the *beginning* (when God was making the sky and dry land) it was like *this*:…


        In other words, he is giving us the situation up to the first “let there be.”


        Comment by WoundedEgo | May 12, 2010

  2. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that I just made up:

    “A translation without emphases is like a song with only one note.”

    I’ve often noted the misplaced emphases in John 8:58. By preserving the word order of the Greek, translations give the wrong impression of where the emphases lie, since in Greek, the words moved to the front are emphasized, where in English, the result is emphasis on the last words:

    John 8:58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

    The proper emphases would look like this:

    Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you all, *I* am *before* Abraham’s birth.”

    I don’t know of any translations that practice translating emphases, and the result is consistently flat, often misleading readings.

    Excellent post, Joel.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | May 8, 2010

  3. […] have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and […]

    Pingback by On Genesis 1:1 « God Didn't Say That | July 19, 2010

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