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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields - Gen 1:2: A Disjunctive/Offline Clause

Categories Hebrew and You

In last month’s blog, we looked at different ways Gen 1:1 can be understood with respect to the following verses. In this blog, we want to look at v. 2 and analyze how vv. 1–3 relate.

Of Conjunctions and Clauses

The key to identifying clauses is noting how they are joined together. There are three categories of clause connections: (1) those connected by Waw, (2) those connected by another conjunction or subordinating word, and (3) those without any conjunction whatsoever. For the conjunctions, you may like to read Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 81–85, and especially on Waw, pp. 81–82.

Waw is the king of conjunctions. It is always prefixed to a word; it never stands alone. It is most commonly translated “and,” but it is not accurate to say that it means and. When Waw is the connecter, the thing to notice is whether the Waw is prefixed to a verb or a non-verb. Waw + Verb constructions are called Conjunctive or Online clauses; Waw + Non-verb constructions are called Disjunctive or Offline clauses.

If you would like an overview of clause types and another example of disjunctive clauses, please see the blog for October, 2014, on 1 Sam 16:14–24. That post also gave a short bibliography for advanced readers. For a simpler treatment I would also refer readers to Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 20.


Identifying Clause Types

Notice that in vv. 2–3 there are five clauses comprising the narrative, not counting the quotation of the words of God (which is indented) as a separate clause.

Verse one begins with no conjunction. This makes sense in English (though Hebrew can start a book with the word Waw, something to be treated at another time). Each of the five clauses in vv. 2–3 begins with Waw, but while in v. 3 (again, ignoring the quotation), the structures are Waw + Verb, in v. 2, the structures are all Waw + non-verb.

Disjunctive Clause Functions

The chart below is drawn from Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 250–51, which is based on other grammarians, especially on Robert Chisholm’s A Workbook for Intermediate Hebrew, 264. The chart lists six different functions of disjunctive clauses, gives a brief description, and lists key words, i.e., various ways to translate the Waw.


So the Waw conjunction, most often translated and, can legitimately be translated many other ways, including being left untranslated. In fact, translating it and all the time can be misleading.

Translations of Genesis 1:2–3

Four common translations illustrate different ways of understanding how v. 2 relates to Genesis 1:1. Note the beginning of v. 2 in each clause.


Here are a few observations:

  1. Sentences: KJV and ESV identify 2a–2b as one sentence and 2c as another. NIV takes all three clauses as one sentence. NRSV views v. 2a–c not as a new sentence, but as the conclusion of v. 1.
  2. Conjunctions commencing 2a: KJV uses and; NIV Now, ESV and NRSV leave Waw untranslated.
  3. Conjunctions commencing 2b, c: The KJV translates each with and. NIV translates only the third Waw, and the translation and makes all three clauses parallel. ESV translates only the second and third occurrences of Waw. NRSV translates only the second Waw, making 2b parallel to 2a; 2c is translated by the word while, making an English subordinate clause. Furthermore in the NRSV, 2a and 2b are main clauses and v. 1 is a subordinate clause.

Functions of the Disjunctive Clauses of Genesis 1:2

In the chart below I have labeled the functions each of the clauses in Gen 1:2 as each of the four versions might be interpreted. There is room for disagreement, and some translations are ambiguous, so try it yourself and see how your answers compare with mine.


What Do We Learn?

The main lesson is that careful reading of the versions can be enlightening. Reading them with some knowledge of Hebrew gives even greater understanding.

The disadvantage of translating all of these with and, as in the KJV, is that the reader might infer that these three clauses are all in some sequence. The NRSV rendering is troublesome, since the Waw in a disjunctive clause is not how Hebrew usually introduces the main clause after a subordinate clause. On why the NRSV might treat Gen 1:1 this way, please see the last month’s blog.

Which version do you think best captures the functions of the three clauses in Gen 1:2? What are the implications for interpretation?

Devotions on the Hebrew Bible by Lee Fields and Milton EngLearn more about what Lee M. Fields has to say in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible.

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