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Insights: What do the Biblical Languages Offer?

Master of Divinity students take Hebrew and Greek courses as part of the curriculum. What do such languages offer? In one word, “immediacy.”

The biblical languages enable readers to approach the Scriptures directly rather than indirectly through translation. In forthcoming posts I’ll offer examples of insights from the biblical languages, and today we’ll begin with the first word of the Bible.

In Jewish convention, the titles of the first five books of the Bible (The Torah) are taken from the initial word of each book. In English Bibles, the first book is called “Genesis.” In Hebrew Bibles, by contrast, the title is drawn from the first word: berē’šît (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית), pronounced  ray sheet´. It roughly means, “In (the) beginning.” berē’šît (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית) is made up of two words: the preposition be (בְּ), meaning “in” or “at,” and the noun rē’šît (רֵאשִׁית), meaning “beginning” or “starting point.” berē’šît (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית) appears elsewhere only in the Book of Jeremiah in reference to the beginning of the reigns of the Judean kings Jehoiakim (Jer. 26:1) and Zedekiah (Jer. 27:1; 28:1; 49:34).

At this point, you may be asking, “Why is it that the first book is called ‘Genesis’ in English Bibles?” A great question! That title comes to us through the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, meaning “seventy” (that’s a story for another time!). The title of Greek translation of the Old Testament is spelled in equivalent English letters as genesis (representing the Greek noun γένεσις). It is a fitting title in terms of content, because the Greek term means, among other things, “origin, source, generation.” The Hebrew title berē’šît (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית) is appropriate too, for it takes us back to the very beginning and reminds us that God was “in the beginning” before the divine act of creation itself (cf. Ps. 33:6, 9). 

James Sweeney, PhD
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament Studies
Director of the Master of Divinity program