Examining Translations of Genesis 1:1 in Relation to Genesis 1:1–3 (Part One)

In previous posts we have assumed the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1, “In-the-beginning God created the-heavens [or heaven] and-the-earth.” This familiar rendering interprets Gen. 1:1 as an absolute statement, grammatically independent (i.e., not subordinate) to what follows. This interpretation has a long precedence in translation history. The earliest example is the Septuagint, a major pre-Christian era Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is partially reflected also in the opening of the Gospel of John (1:1, 3). Later Greek translations of the Old Testament adopted this translation too: Aquila (ca. A.D. 140), Theodotion (mid. 2nd cent. A.D.), and Symmachus (late 2nd cent. A.D.).

Third and fourth century (A.D.) Aramaic Targums exemplify absolute renderings of Gen. 1:1. {Targums are Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures for the benefit of Aramaic-speaking Jews for use in synagogue services.} The fourth-century A.D. Latin Vulgate also translated Gen. 1:1 in an absolute sense. {The Vulgate was a translation commissioned in A.D. 382 by Pope Damascus [pope from 366–384] and carried out by Jerome [A.D. 347–420], one of the early church fathers who had facility in Hebrew.} In English, the absolute rendering was adopted by the 1599 Geneva Bible (“In the beginning God created …”) and the influential King James Version (1611/1769). It was likewise adopted in several 19th century English translations like The Webster Bible (1833), The Darby Bible (1884/1890), English Revised Version (1885), and The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition. The vast majority of early, mid, and late 20th century English versions favor this translation, as do several early 21st century versions.

Grammatically speaking, however, it is possible to interpret and translate Genesis 1:1 as a grammatically dependent (subordinate) statement. Proponents interpret the initial berē’šît not as a prepositional phrase indicating an absolute beginning (in-the-beginning), but rather as a Hebrew construct. {In Hebrew, nouns have two states: absolute [the normal state] and construct. [Often, but not always, nouns in the construct exemplify changes in form and/or vocalization in contrast to absolute nouns.] The construct state refers to a noun that is used in a formal ‘construct’ relation with another noun; the relation is so close that the two nouns together constitute a compound idea. For example, in the frequently used phrase, “the sons of Israel” [‎בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל: benê yišrā’ēl], “sons” is in the construct state with “Israel,” which is in the absolute state: hence, “the-sons-of-Israel.” The noun in the construct state never bears the article [“the”] in Hebrew. In this example, the article is used with “sons” in English because “Israel” [in the absolute state] is a proper noun; hence, the whole ‘construct chain’—construct noun [sons] + absolute noun [Israel]—is rendered definitely: “the-sons-of-Israel.”}

Young’s Literal Translation (1862/1887/1898) is an early example of an English translation that understood berē’šît of Gen. 1:1 as being in the construct state in relation to “God” (אֱלֹהִים: ’elōhîm). Young translated Gen. 1:1–2a (rather awkwardly) as follows: “In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth— 2 the earth hath existed waste and void …” {Note: “hath existed” of v. 2a of Young’s translation is a present perfect tense; it is equivalent to “has existed” in contemporary English; “hath” is an Archaic present active indicative third person singular of the verb “to have,” while “existed” is a past participle of the verb “to exist.”} The bottom line: Young’s interpretation and consequent rendering makes the opening statement of Gen. 1:1 subordinate to the beginning of 1:2.

Contemporary English translations that interpret berē’šît as being in the construct state, by contrast, more commonly render it adverbially (and less awkwardly than Young) as “when … began …” In adopting this interpretation and consequent translation, the translators of translation committees subordinate grammatically the whole of Gen. 1:1 to either 1:2 or 1:3. These two alternative interpretations to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 as an independent (non-subordinate) statement are credited to two prominent medieval Jewish scholars. One is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaqi (Solomon son of Isaac) (A.D. 1040-1105), known more briefly by the acronym Rashi. He was a medieval French rabbi and author of comprehensive commentaries on the Talmud (a compendium of rabbinic interpretive traditions and interpretations of those traditions) and the Hebrew Bible (aka: Tanak). He took Gen. 1:1 to be dependent on 1:3 and understood 1:2 to be a parenthetical statement. The other Jewish scholar is Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (A.D. 1092/93-1167), known more simply as Ibn Ezra. He was a Spanish native and distinguished Jewish biblical commentator and philosopher. Ibn Ezra interpreted Gen. 1:1 to be dependent on 1:2. It is interesting to note, however, that neither scholar adopted these positions on the basis of grammar, but rather on the cosmological assumption that the “waters” (הַמָּ֫יִם), first referenced in Gen. 1:2, existed prior to the creation of the heavens and earth. {For accessible and detailed information on these two Jewish scholars’ interpretation of Gen. 1:1 in relation to 1:2–3, see John Sailhamer’s commentary on “Genesis” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], 21–23.}

In our next post, I’ll examine examples of late 20th century and early 21st century translations that reflect these alternative interpretations to the traditional understanding of Gen. 1:1 as an absolute beginning. In the meantime, take a look at a website like biblegateway.com that provides access to a wide range of English (and other) translations (https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/) and peruse the various renderings of Gen. 1:1–3 in the translations available.

James P. Sweeney, Ph.D.
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament
Director of the Master of Divinity Program