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Examining Translations of Genesis 1:1 in relation to Genesis 1:1–3 (Part Three) 

In the previous two postings, I introduced two alternative interpretations to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 as an absolute beginning, “In-the-beginning God created the-heavens [or heaven] and-the earth. These alternative translations interpret berē’šît in Gen. 1:1 as an adverbial Hebrew construct (“when … began”) and consequently subordinate Gen. 1:1 grammatically either to 1:2 or 1:3. In the following series of postings I will evaluate the strength of these two leading alternatives over against the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1. The evaluation will be based on four interrelated lines of inquiry: grammar, style, theology, and historical precedence in translation. In this post, I’ll focus on grammar. In subsequent postings I’ll address the others. 

Unlike Rashi and Ibn Ezra mentioned in the two previous postingssome scholars who render Gen. 1:1 as being grammatically subordinate to 1:2 or 1:3 appeal to grammarThey point to the absence of the Hebrew article (equivalent to the English “the”) as a basis for concluding that berē’šît is in the construct state. An example is Ephraim Avigdor Speiser (1902–1965)a Jewish Polish-born American specialist in Assyriology who taught from 1947 to 1965 at the University of Pennsylvania. In his major Anchor Bible (now Anchor Yale) commentary on Genesis, htranslated Gen. 1:1–3 along the lines of Rashi’s view: “When God set about to create heaven and earth—2 the world being then a formless waste, with darkness over the seas and only an awesome wind sweeping over the water—3 God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Genesis, Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 1, [originally 1964; New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2008], 3, 12). In support of this rendering, Speiser maintained that since the first word of the Hebrew Bible is vocalized as berē’šît rather than bārē’šîtit “is evidently in the construct state …. Thus the sense of this particular initial term is, or should be, ‘At the beginning of …,’ or ‘When,’ and not ‘In/At the beginning’ … As the text is now vocalized, therefore, the Hebrew Bible starts out with a dependent clause” (Genesis, 12). The difference Speiser identified is a distinction between be (“in” [= “when” in the construct]) and bā (“in-the”). Concluding that berē’šît is in the construct state, he resultantly interpreted Gen. 1:1 adverbially (“When … set about”) rather than absolutelyThis same rationale is reflected in the “when … began” renderings of TANAKH, NAB 2010, and CEB (all reflecting Rashi’s view). It is also the basis for the renderings of the NRSV, NAB (1991), and GNTalthough, unlike Speiser, these latter three versions subordinate Gen 1:1 to 1:2, reflecting Ibn Ezra’s view.  

Speiser’s argument, while grammatically possible, is not fully compelling in the light of Hebrew usage. A frequently referenced counter example iIsaiah 46:10. Isaiah 46 is part of a prophetic polemic directed to Jacob (= “Israel”) (note 46:3–5, 8–13) in the light of Babylon’s idolatry (note 46:1–2, 6–7). In 46:10, the noun rē’šît (רֵאשִׁית) is used with another preposition מִן (min: “from”) to form a prepositional phrase mērē’šît (מֵֽרֵאשִׁית) (= “from-the-beginning”). It is used in the absolute state without the article. Isaiah 46:8–10 reads, Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, 9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning [mērē’šîtand from ancient times things not yet done, saying, My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention (NRSV; underlining added). This example shows that the absence of the article in prepositional phrase with the noun rē’šît (רֵאשִׁית [beginning]) does not automatically indicate that it is in the construct state.  

SecondlyBritish commentator Gordon J. Wenham (correctly) observes that temporal (i.e., time-related) phrases in Hebrew often lack the article (Genesis 1–15, [Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998], 12). Beyond Isa. 46:10 (noted above), Wenham points also to Isa. 40:21; 41:4, 26; Gen. 3:22; 6:3, 4; Mic. 5:1; Hab. 1:12; and Prov. 8:23. An examination of each text is beyond our brief scope here and not all of these examples are easily detectable in the language of standard English translations. I’ll confine myselfthereforeto the first three texts from Isaiah and Prov. 8:23, for they are closest conceptually to Gen. 1:1Each of these examples employs the temporal prepositional phrase mērō’š (מֵרֹאשׁ), “from the beginning” (from רֹאשׁ [a noun {here = beginning}and מִן [a preposition = from]). It overlaps partially in some contexts with rē’šît (רֵאשִׁית [beginning]), the term used in Gen. 1:1 and Isa. 46:10In the following examples mērō’š (מֵרֹאשׁ) is in the absolute state, but has no article in Hebrew. It is consequently rendered absolutely in English—that is, with a definite article. For convenience, I’ll cite from the NRSV for the first three examples and the JPS TANAKH for Prov. 8:23. In Isa. 40:21, part of a longer oracle of divine comfort that opens with Isa. 40:1–2, the prophet asks rhetorically, in relation to the subject of God’s incomparability, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning [mērō’š (‎‎מֵרֹ֑אשׁ)]? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” (NRSV). In 41:4, part of another oracle addressing the coastlands (note “O coastlands”: 41:1; cf. 41:5), a rhetorical question is posed in connection with the LORD’s deeds, “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning [mērō’š (מֵרֹ֖אשׁ)]? I, the LORD, am first, and will be with the last” (NRSV). Later in 41:26 a similar rhetorical question is issued: “Who declared it [sc. the stirring of “one from the north”—v. 25] from the beginning [mērō’š (מֵרֹאשׁ֙)], so that we might know, and beforehand, so that we might say, ‘He is right’? There was no one who declared it, none who proclaimed, none who heard your words” (NRSV). In Prov. 8:23 Wisdom personified speaks: “In the distant past I [sc. Wisdom] was fashioned, At the beginning [mērō’š (מֵרֹאשׁ֙)], at the origin of earth (TANAKH). Each of these examples support Wenham’s observation that temporal (i.e., time-related) phrases in Hebrew often lack the article. 

In the present post I looked at one commonly-advanced reason for favoring the two alternatives to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 (“In-the-beginning God created the-heavens [or heaven] and-the-earth). It is a grammatical argument that maintains that berē’šît, the initial word of Gen. 1:1, is in the construct (“when … began”) because of the absence of the article (“the”). In the light of other examples, however, this argument is far from compelling. In the future postings I’ll examine additional areas of inquiry: style, theology, and historical precedence in translation. 

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

Photo by Egor Kamelev from Pexels

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