In the initial post, we looked at the first word of the Bible, berē’šît (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית), often translated as “In-(the)-beginning.” (In a future post, we’ll look at other translation possibilities for this word in relation to Genesis 1:1–3.) This time, we’ll look at the second word of Genesis 1:1, bārā’ (בָּרָא), a verb. (It is pronounced as ba-ra´: the ‘a’s are pronounced like the a in father].)
bārā’ is translated consistently in English versions as “created.” You may want to ask, “How is bārā’ the second word?” Answer: berē’šît (“In-[the]-beginning”), a compound word in Hebrew, is the first. The second word is the Hebrew verb bārā’: literally, “he-created.” You may be asking yourself, “If berē’šît (‘In-the-beginning’) is the first word, how is bārā’ (‘he-created’) the second? Doesn’t ‘God’ come before ‘created’ in English?” Yes, but it will require some explanation as to why bārā’ (“he-created”) actually comes second.
In contrast to English sentence structure, which exhibits a subject-verb-object sequence (S-V-O), Hebrew sentence structure commonly exhibits a sequence of verb-subject-object (V-S-O). In addition, Hebrew finite verbs (verbs that take a subject and express tense) have pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.) built right into their formation (they are called pronominal suffixes). English verbs, by contrast, use separate pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.) in connection with verbs. Hence, the Hebrew verb bārā’, as previously noted, means “he-created.” The sentence sequence, as traditionally understood (an absolute beginning), is: “In-the-beginning he-created …” The subject, “God,” is the third word of Gen. 1:1 and immediately follows the verb, while the objects, “the heavens and the earth,” follow the subject. The Hebrew word order looks like this:
Prepositional phrase Verb Subject (Compound) Objects
In-the-beginning he-created [, namely,] God the-heavens and the-earth
The explicit subject (“God”) that immediately follows the verb gives further specification as to who did the creating: “In-the-beginning he-created [, namely,] God …” In translating this common Hebrew sequence into English, when there is an explicit subject like there is here in Gen. 1:1 (“God”), one simply replaces the built-in pronoun of the verb (‘he-created’) with that explicit subject for clarity in English. The resultant English word order is:
Prepositional phrase Subject Verb (Compound) Objects
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth
Hence, while the verb “created” (bārā’) appears after the subject “God” in English, it actually appears before it in Hebrew as the second word of the sentence (see the first chart above). The verb bārā’ (“[he]-created”) itself is used 54 times in the Old Testament overall in various forms and 11 times in the Book of Genesis. In the Book of Genesis, God (Hebrew: Elohim) is always the subject of this verb, as in 1:1. (Other instances are found in Gen. 1:21, 27 [3 times]; 2:3, 4; 5:1, 2 [2 times]; and 6:7.) The initial verb of the Bible, bārā’ (“he-created”), is consequently an important reminder of something that Scripture affirms or assumes throughout the remainder of its pages: the God of the Bible is a God who created. While this truth is commonly denied or under-appreciated by human beings in today’s scientific and technological society, it is foremost in the minds of the enthusiastic worshipers of the heavenly council portrayed in Revelation 4, the last book of the Bible. There the four living creatures and twenty-four elders celebrate God’s creatorship: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power, for you created [Greek: σὺ ἔκτισας (su ektisas)] all things and owing to your sovereign will they were [Greek: ἦσαν (ēsan)] and have been created [Greek: ἐκτίσθησαν (ektisthēsan)]” (v. 11, my translation).
The opening and closing books of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament together affirm something very important to Christianity: namely, that God created.
James Sweeney, PhD
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament Studies
Director of the Master of Divinity program