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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


Part III: Between the Lines: An Analysis of Genesis 1:1-2

Chapter 1

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?
     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.

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     Another 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.
     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.

     pg.2 of 8     

     While 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 chaos.
     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

     pg.3 of 8    

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 it.
     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.
     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.

     pg.4 of 8     

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 fruit)."
     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. [Emphasis mine]

      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

3. Ibid.

     pg.5 of 8     


     By this means we satisfy the text as it is, and illuminate the Author's original meaning.
     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 meaning.

"In a former state God created. . ."

     Much has been written regarding the word bara (), translated "created."
     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.

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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 ex nihilo.
     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 in:

Matthew 21:16,                   of perfected praise
Luke 6:40,                           of perfected people
1 Corinthians 1:10,              of perfected fellowship
2 Corinthians 13:11,            of perfected brethren
1 Thessalonians 3:10,          of perfected faith
Hebrews 13:21,                   of perfected behaviour
1 Peter 5:10,                        of perfected saints

     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

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geological "schemes" and the sequence of events as shown in the six creative days.
     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:


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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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