In the preceding post, I noted that it is grammatically possible to interpret and translate Genesis 1:1 as a dependent (subordinate) statement. Proponents of this interpretation and translation thereby make the whole of Gen. 1:1 grammatically subordinate to either 1:2 or 1:3 as an adverbial clause. These alternative translations interpret berē’šît in Gen. 1:1 as a Hebrew construct (rendered adverbially as “when … began”), rather than a prepositional phrase (“in-the-beginning”). I noted further that these two alternative interpretations are credited to two prominent medieval Jewish scholars: Rashi (A.D. 1040-1105) and Ibn Ezra (A.D. 1092/93-1167). Rashi interpreted Gen. 1:1 to be dependent on 1:3 and understood 1:2 to be a parenthetical statement. Ibn Ezra, by contrast, interpreted Gen. 1:1 to be dependent on 1:2. In this post, I’ll examine representative 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.
Among late 20th century English translations, the 1989 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), 1991 New American Bible (NAB), and 1992 Good New Translation (GNT) are contemporary examples of Ibn Ezra’s view. Each translates berē’šît in Gen. 1:1 as “when … began” and each makes Gen. 1:1 dependent on 1:2. The NRSV reads: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The 1991 NAB offered a similar rendering: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.” The GNT differs from the NRSV and 1991 NAB by adding a period after 1:2a: “In the beginning, when God created the universe, 2 the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water.” In summary, these three translations interpret berē’šît in Gen. 1:1 as a(n adverbial) Hebrew construct (“when … began”) and render Gen. 1:1 as being grammatically subordinate to either all or part of 1:2.
The other leading alternative to the traditional interpretation of Gen. 1:1 as a grammatically independent statement interprets Gen. 1:1 to be dependent on 1:3, with 1:2 being parenthetical (Rashi’s view). It is exemplified in the following late 20th and early 21st century English translations: The 1985 Jewish Publication Society’s TANAKH, the 2010 NAB, and the 2011 Common English Bible (CEB). The JPS TANAKH (1985) reads: “When God began to create heaven and earth—2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—3 God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” The 2010 NAB, reflecting a change from the 1991 edition, offers: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth— 2 and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters— 3 Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” The CEB is similar: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth—2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—3 God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And so light appeared.” In each of these instances, Gen. 1:1 is grammatically subordinate to 1:3, while 1:2 is taken to be a parenthetical comment and hence is marked off with dashes in these versions.
These two alternative translations of Gen. 1:1 reflect different interpretations of the opening verse of Genesis. Both alternatives interpret berē’šît in Gen. 1:1 as a(n adverbial) Hebrew construct (“when … began”) and subordinate Gen. 1:1 to either 1:2 or 1:3. One considers Gen. 1:1 dependent on 1:2 (NRSV, NAB 1991, GNT), echoing Ibn Ezra’s view. The other maintains Gen. 1:1 is dependent on 1:3, with 1:2 being parenthetical (TANAKH, NAB 2010, and CEB), reflecting Rashi’s view. Conversely, the widely-adopted and more familiar rendering interprets Gen. 1:1 as a grammatically independent statement, thereby indicating an absolute beginning: “In-the-beginning God created the-heavens and-the-earth.” In subsequent posts, I’ll examine whether either of the alternative interpretive possibilities is preferable to this traditional understanding. Stay tuned!
James P. Sweeney, Ph.D.
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament
Director of the Master of Divinity Program
Photo by Thomas Kinto, Unsplash