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In the beginning … or When God began…? (Word Study)


Every beginning is auspicious, and few if any beginnings are as well-known and momentous as the one that opens the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (so the King James Version of 1611 and most subsequent English translations). This translation of Gen 1:1, though hallowed by tradition, has been questioned by exegetes since medieval times and has been changed in some modern translations by a rendering that interprets the Bible’s first verse to describe the circumstances of creation rather than the act itself: “When God began to create heaven and earth …” (so the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh of 1985 and some others). What is at issue is the grammar of the first two words in the Hebrew; what is at stake is the nature of creation. Does the Bible’s first story of creation (Gen 1:1-2:4) describe a creation out of nothing (ex nihilo) or an activity of the deity that begins when the water and the land were already in existence?

What does the first word in the Hebrew mean?

The earliest Bible translation, the third-century BCE Greek Septuagint, and the earliest complete Aramaic translation of the Torah (Pentateuch), the first-century CE Targum Onkelos, both interpret the first verse of Genesis as a main clause: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” However, this rendering rests on a problematic analysis of the grammar of the first two words. The first word—bere’shit—comprises two elements: the preposition be- (“in, with, by, through, when”) and the noun re’shit (“first, former, or best thing”). The word could easily be understood as “in the beginning” but for two things. (1) The noun re’shit is rarely used as a free-standing noun; ordinarily it is used with another noun to refer to “the beginning of” something. (2) The preposition is vocalized be- and not ba- (a contraction of be- and the definite article ha- ). If it began with ba- it would mean “in the beginning,” but because it begins with be- it means “in the beginning of (something that follows).” Taking these two points together, bere’shit should be understood as “in the beginning of” (something).

What does the second word in the Hebrew mean?

What that something is, is conveyed by the second word, the verb bara’, “he created.” There are three ways of dealing with this construction. Option 1 explains the construction as “in the beginning of he-created.” The most influential Jewish exegete of the High Middle Ages, Rashi (1040-1105 CE; Northern France), made such an argument, drawing upon a similar construction (albeit with a different noun and verb) in Hos 1:2. However, the construction is not comparable. In Hos 1:2 the noun “the start of” is the object of the verb “he-spoke.” Literally this yields: “The start of what the LORD spoke to (or through) Hosea.” In Gen 1:1 “the beginning of” is not the object of “he-created”; it is an adverbial phrase, stating when the deity did the creating.

Option 2: Accordingly, we should consider another suggestion made by Rashi: understand the finite verb bara’ (he created) as an infinitive (“to create” or “creating”). But since finite verbs do not substitute for infinitives in Biblical Hebrew, we would need to change the vowels in the form bara’ to bero’ (“creating of”). The noun that governs it would be the next word in the verse: ’elohim, “God.” We thereby get the following sense: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.” The very same construction is found close by in Gen 5:1: “This is the book of Adam’s generations, on the day of God’s creating the human …” Moreover, a similar construction introduces the second creation story (Gen 2:4): “On the day of YHWH God’s making the earth and the heavens….”

The Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma Elish, begins with a similar clause: “When above the heavens had not been named, / And below the earth had not been called by name….” In light of all these considerations, in 1926 James Moffatt translated Gen 1:1: “When God began to form the universe.” In this reading, verse 2 continues the circumstances of verse 1: the earth was already in chaos and darkness prevailed, and a wind-spirit of God already hovered over the watery deep. Then the first act of creation comes in verse 3, when God said: “Let there be light!” By this reading, verse 3 is the main clause, following the circumstances of the two preceding verses. God did not create the world out of nothing; something was already there.

Option 3: There is one way to analyze the syntax of Gen 1:1-3 correctly, without altering the vocalization of the verb bara’ (“he created”). One can understand the opening word “in the beginning of” to be governed by the rest of the sentence, parsing it as a nominalized sentence. In other words “God created the heavens and the earth” is treated not as a verb and its object but rather as a single complex noun: “In the beginning of God-created-the-heavens-and-the earth….”

I prefer option 2, which finds parallel constructions in Gen 2:4 and Gen 5:1, although option 3 is possible. Either way, Genesis does not attribute the creation of the primordial matter to the deity. The creation of the primordial matter is either presupposed or unimagined.

  • Greenstein-Edward

    Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He is widely published in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. His book Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019) received an award from the Association for Jewish Studies, and he was awarded the prestigious EMET Prize (“Israel’s Nobel”) in Biblical Studies in 2020.