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Part III: Between the Lines: An Analysis
of Genesis 1:1-2
Analysis of Genesis 1:1
"In the beginning. . . "
IT IS USUALLY
noted in the more scholarly commentaries that this first Hebrew
word in the Old Testament in the form in which it appears cannot
be too readily translated. What we have in almost all versions
is therefore an interpretation, an effort to recover for the
reader the meaning intended by the original text. It may seem
strange that the very first word should present this problem,
but the difficulty is undoubtedly there, and various learned
commentators have adopted various means of getting around it.
What is the difficulty?
1 of 8
This word is actually composed of two elements,
a preposition and a noun, which according to Hebrew usage are written
together as one form. The preposition is beth () meaning "in," and the noun reshith () which means "first."
The definite article is entirely absent. As it stands this cannot properly
be translated "in the beginning."
It is a familiar fact to all acquainted
with Hebrew, that the vowels (referred to as "pointing")
were not written into the text in the original manuscripts. Nevertheless
the correct pronunciation of each word was carefully guarded
by tradition, and all kinds of steps were taken to preserve it.
If the original form of the first word was intended to be read
"in the beginning," a long a would have been
written under the initial beth, to give ba-reshith
instead of be-reshith. For some good reason
this was not done.
On the other hand, the word beginning
is a noun and cannot be read as a participle. We may not
therefore fall back upon the idea that the passage should be
taken to mean "in beginning" in the sense of "to
begin with." As far as we know, no other ancient manuscript
gives any variant reading, although many critical scholars, noting
the peculiarity of the text here, have suggested a different
"pointing" so as to change the vowels and give the
Hebrew the sense "in the beginning." In short,
one could only derive the meaning "in the beginning"
by changing the original text.
alternative is a little difficult to explain to a reader unacquainted
with Hebrew, but the proposal is to translate it as "in
the beginning of the creating. . . " in which the word create
is turned into a participle. Rudolph Kittel, having
examined well over one hundred manuscripts or codices of the
Old Testament, including all the more famous ones and many minor
fragments not so well known, was unable to list any such alternatives
in his critical edition of the Hebrew text. In the footnotes
he merely points out that perhaps it should be read according
to one of these alternatives. But no authority can be given for
any change in the present text other than the feeling that it
does not make good sense. As it stands, the form of the word
is unusual and appears always to have been so written without
the definite article.
It was suggested at one time that
the word bereshith was in what is known as the Construct
form, the whole of the rest of the sentence being in the genitive
which would properly follow. The idea would be expressed something
like this: "In the beginning of. . . [the occasion when]
God created the heaven and the earth. . ." However, this
may be considered equally unsatisfactory, since the conjunction
and which opens the second verse would then have to be
deleted. Thus, while it might be possible in this way to save
the present form of the first word in the first verse, the first
word of the second verse would have to be changed! Once we begin
to make changes simply because we do not yet understand the meaning,
there is no fixed point at which to call a halt: and we really
never know whether we have the original meaning at all.
But in connection with this same
word bereshith, one or two interesting points are raised
by a study of Schrader's Cuneiform Inscriptions and
the Old Testament, as translated by Owen C. Whitehouse. (1)
One is that there is the same controversy
over the exact meaning of the cuneiform word which opens the
Babylonian account of Creation and which therefore stands in
the same relation to the rest of the cuneiform text as this Hebrew
word does to the Hebrew text. The Chaldean account opens with
the form i-nu-ma, which is variously translated
by different authorities. For example, Lenormant has "At
a time when," Haupt translates this as "There was a
time when," and Oppert gives it as "Formerly"
without specifying when. None of these can be exactly equated
with the English phrase "in the beginning."
1. Schrader, Eberhard, Cuneiform Inscriptions
and the Old Testament, translated by Owen C. Whitehouse,
Williams and Norgate, London, 1885.
the parallels between the Chaldean and Hebrew accounts are easily
recognizable, they are by no means exact. To begin with, the
Babylonian texts all start with chaos. But as we shall see, the
Hebrew word for creation as applied to God's activity
in no way allows the idea of chaos, but clearly signifies that
which is finished and perfect. In this connection, Schrader observes,
"While the Universe is evidently thought of as still a liquid
mass, [the god] Bel cleaves the darkness in twain, and separates
Earth and Heaven from one another to produce an ordered earth."
Order comes out of chaos. On the next page he continues, "The
re-creation of Chaos into an ordered universe, is expressly
attributed to Bel and the other gods." Thus Schrader divides
the general picture as given in the cuneiform text into sections
(verses 1-6 and verses. 7-11), the first section representing
a chaos, the second section a re-creation to restore order.
The significance of this parallelism
is that the opening word does not strictly convey the idea of
a point in time which could properly be termed a beginning, but
rather an extended period in which the earth was in a different
state. In this account the state is one of chaos which is converted
into order; but in the Hebrew account, as will become apparent,
the original state is one of perfect order -- which becomes a
We must therefore look elsewhere
for some English equivalent for this phrase which will make sense
of the original as it stands and justify its present form. The
problem is, then, to know how to translate this opening Hebrew
form. The best and perhaps the only legitimate way is to examine
its usage elsewhere throughout the Word of God.
In the first place it should be
stated that the exact Hebrew phrase represented here in the Authorized
Version by the words "In the beginning" is never repeated
elsewhere in the Old Testament. In all the other passages of
Scripture in which we find the same English wording (as for example,
Jeremiah 26:1; 27:1; 28:1; 49:34: "in the beginning of the
reign of. . ."), the Hebrew original is put in what is called
the Construct form. This form is used whenever a noun is followed
by the word of; the noun itself is written in a modified
form -- which has not been employed in Genesis 1:1. This is the
rule; although there are exceptions to the rule, they occur under
circumstances which do not apply here. The shortened form not
only modifies the noun itself, but affects all prepositions attached
to it, by eliminating the sign of the definite article, whether
or not the article is required in English.
This statement is not an exact
enunciation of the rule, because
this is not a textbook
of Hebrew grammar or syntax. But it means this: on the only occasions
where we might otherwise have been able to cite parallel cases
of the use of the word, the Hebrew original is actually different
despite the fact that the English translation does not reveal
To the ordinary reader unacquainted
with the Hebrew, it might appear that many of the other passages
in which the same phrase occurs in the English could be taken
to indicate the proper meaning here. Unfortunately this is not
so. The original Hebrew in all such passages differs from the
original Hebrew as found in the first word of Genesis 1:1.
An excellent illustration of this fact will
be found in Isaiah 1:26, where the sense of a "beginning" appears
twice in one verse and is written in two different ways in the original.
In the first instance the Hebrew is found in the form (ke-barishonah), in the second
in the form (ke-batehillah). Both
incorporate the definite article the, but neither uses (ba-reshith) which is the form sometimes
proposed as an emendation of the text in Genesis 1:1.
It is significant that in Proverbs 8:23,
where a true beginning is clearly intended, the word reshith is
not used at all. In fact, as modern cosmology seems to hold that the
universe is of approximately the same age in every part of it and the
earth therefore almost as old as the sun and the stars, a time "before
ever the earth was" is a time very near the beginning of the creation
of the universe itself. Such a time would clearly represent the conditions
that are popularly supposed to be intended in Genesis 1:1. It is important
to note therefore that the Hebrew is (me-rosh)
and not (be-reshith)
as in Genesis 1:1. It is not that Hebrew lacked a word for a true beginning.
This is not mere quibbling over
small, inconsequential differences. In Proverbs 8:23 the term
means quite literally "from the very first." In Genesis
1:1 the phrase has a different meaning and, as we shall see,
is never a complete idea in itself. Although the words appear
to be related since they share certain radicals, it is fairly
certain that the longer form of Genesis 1:1 is not derived from
the shorter form of Proverbs 8:23 even though it might be supposed
that it was. (2)
We cannot therefore find any light
from other passages to show why this opening sentence should
be translated "In the beginning. . ." Thus we should
probably look for some other meaning for
2. Skinner, John, A Critical and Exegetical
Commentary on Genesis, in The International Critical Commentary,
Clark, Edinburgh, 1951, p.12.
the noun which will permit
the Hebrew text to stand as it is.
The next important point, then,
is to observe that the meaning of the noun itself is "first"
or "former" and not "beginning." Actually
it is never complete without the addition of some other English
word. So we find, "the first (born)" -- Genesis 49:3;
"the first (part)" -- Jeremiah 26:1, etc.; and "the
former (state)" of Job (in Job 42:12) as contrasted with
his latter end. It does not mean that God blessed his death,
a point in time, more than his birth, a point in time, but rather
the state of his latter days as opposed to what preceded. This
is clearly the meaning as seen by reference to Job 8:7. So likewise
in Isaiah 46:10 we have "former (time)" and in Proverbs
4:7, it is used in the sense of "first (thing)." Then
again in Genesis 10:10, referring to Nimrod's depredations against
his neighbours, we are told that the "first (extension)
of his kingdom was Erek."
The word is used on numerous occasions
in the sense of "first (in importance)" -- cf. Amos
6: 1; Dan. 11 :41, etc.; "first (in point of value)"
-- 1 Samuel 15:21. Then in Deuteronomy 33:21 we have "first
(part)," and in Hosea 9:10 "first (occasion of bearing
In his Critical and Exegetical
Commentary on Genesis, Skinner elucidated this as follows:
It signifies primarily the first
(or best) part of a thing. From this it easily glides
into a temporal sense as the first stage of a process
or series of events: Deut. 11:12 (of the year); Job 8:7 (a man's
life), and 40:19; Isa. 46:10 (starting point of a series), etc.
. . .
It is of more consequence to observe
that at no period of the language does the temporal sense go
beyond the definition already given, viz., the first stage
of a process, either explicitly indicated or clearly implied.
In many instances
we can get some light on such words by reference to the Aramaic versions
currently in use at the time of the Lord. In this instance, the Targum
of Onkelos has (be-qadmin),
a composite form in the plural, of which the root has merely the meaning
"ancient" or "former times." In Hebrew this same root
appears in the form has exactly the same significance, being
frequently used when reference is made by the prophets, etc., to the times
of the patriarchs so long ago.
Thus we find it is practically
essential to add a word to get the full significance, and if
we follow the pattern of Job 42:12, we might permissibly render
Genesis 1:1 as
IN A FORMER STATE GOD CREATED
THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH.
By this means
we satisfy the text as it is, and illuminate the Author's original
"In a former state God created.
Hebrew has at least two perfectly good words
to express exactly what we mean by our word beginning. One has
been referred to in Proverbs 8:23, (i.e., me-rosh). The
other word is tehillah (), which simply means "commencement." It is frequently
used, and it applies essentially to a true commencement, a point in time,
never in value. It was not, therefore, a lack of vocabulary that determined
the choice of this Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1; it was evidently used to
convey a precise idea. It is in fact exactly parallel to the Greek of
John 1:1, where the definite article is also missing: "In a former
(time or state) the Word was God." Theologically this is a far more
exact and significant statement of fact. There is really no question of
a beginning at all -- it is entirely a matter of a prior circumstance.
And since the Septuagint translators were careful to translate Genesis
1:1 by the same phrase(en arche), not (en
te arche), it was probably a deliberate choice to convey a specific
Much has been written regarding
the word bara (),
The word means strictly "to
cut out" or "to carve out," and thence from the
idea of sculpture it came to mean "to put the finishing
touch," "to polish," and so "to perfect."
The basic idea appears to be that God's creative work is a finished
product and therefore perfect. Yet it means more than this. Man's
creative works are the result of some considerable effort before
the article is finished, but God simply speaks and it is done.
In keeping with this, we find that the verb is used only in what
is termed the Kal or Simple form with respect to God's activity.
But when man's creative works are under consideration, an intensive
form of the Hebrew word is employed. In the things of the Spirit,
there is a sense in which God's creative work is not without
great effort, for the perfecting of the saints is indeed a difficult
task. But in the material realm God does not experiment. His
work is direct, perfect, and complete, and while the same verb
is occasionally applied in Scripture to man's creative activity,
it is never used in the form which occurs here. The really difficult
task was man's salvation. Creation was the work of God's Fingers
(Psalm 8:3), judgment the work of His Hand (Psalm 39:10), but
salvation was the work of the whole Arm of God (Psalm 77:15).
It is sometimes stated that bara
means to create from nothing.
But man himself was not
created out of nothing. The materials for his body were already
at hand (Genesis 2:7), though perhaps his spirit was created
As to the perfection of God's creative activity,
Scripture bears ample testimony. Deuteronomy 32:4 tells that His work
is perfect, and in 1 Corinthians 14:33 Paul affirms that God is not the
author of chaos. The word he uses here, (akatastasias), is a strong one and
was also used by the authors of the Septuagint -- as for example, in Proverbs
26:28, "a flattering mouth worketh ruin." While God is not the
author of chaos, He appears to have been made so by the English rendering
of Genesis 1:1,2, for as we shall see, every word in verse 2 is associated
elsewhere in Scripture with that which is ruined and under God's judgment.
Moreover, the perfection of God's
creative work is clearly implied in Hebrews 11:3, where it is
said "the worlds were framed by the Word of God." Here
the Greek word used is katartidzo, which means "to
make perfect." It is used accordingly in Hebrews 10:5 with
reference to the Lord's prepared body. And it is similarly used
Matthew 21:16, of
Luke 6:40, of
1 Corinthians 1:10, of
2 Corinthians 13:11, of
1 Thessalonians 3:10, of
Hebrews 13:21, of
1 Peter 5:10, of
From these passages we
might conclude that as originally created, the universe was in every way
beautifully appointed for the purposes for which God brought it into being.
It was in fact, as Isaiah 45:18 says, in no sense "created a chaos"
(so the Hebrew), but "formed to be inhabited." The Greek word
kosmos (), which in the New Testament is applied
to it, basically means "order," or the very opposite of chaos.
This concept is comprehended in the Hebrew word translated creation.
There are many who hold that far
from being perfect as created, the universe was a nebular mass,
a kind of chaos awaiting the Hand of God to bring it into order.
And those who adopt this view interpret Genesis 1:2 as the primeval
state of chaos. They argue that the rest of the chapter is then
to be understood as a revelation of how God ordered it and arranged
it as a setting for life and finally for mankind. It is considered,
in this light, that the "days" of Genesis are geological
ages; some parallelism is felt to be apparent between current
and the sequence of events as shown in the six creative days.
IN A FORMER STATE GOD PERFECTED THE
HEAVENS AND THE EARTH.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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We are not concerned with these
arguments one way or the other at the present moment, for this
would be to anticipate our subject. We are concerned in determining
if possible the exact implications of the actual Hebrew in the
original text of these two verses. And for the present we can
only examine this text word by word, comparing each part with
the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Not one of these points alone
will carry much weight, perhaps not even all of them together
when once set forth. Somewhere there must be a final court of
appeal as to the exact meaning of a word or phrase or construction.
We have to go on examining this portion of the Word of God till
we reach a measure of finality. It will not do to try to complete
by dogmatic assertion what we know is lacking in factual evidence.
But this much is fairly clear: the Hebrew word bara, when
used in the Kal form, does mean to create in a state of perfection,
to finish perfectly. It does not mean to create a chaos.
We therefore have: