Monday, February 07, 2011

In the Beginning, God Created ...

Speaking of translations, the Mass readings for today (Feb 7) began with Genesis 1:1. The version used in mass is an adaptation of the NAB, and reads:

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland ...

Interestingly, "when" is not in the Hebrew. The Hebrew, according to the Masoretic pointing, reads "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." I did a study on this some years ago, and all the ancient translations--the Greek (LXX), the Latin (V), the Syriac (S), etc.--also read "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

Nonetheless, the NAB's reading--with the slipped-in "when", which makes v. 1 a temporal clause with v. 2, rather than a separate sentence--is the current "fashionable" approach. That's how the NRSV and the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) versions also read. What's the agenda here?

It also raises an interesting question. What does it mean to say, "The text means X," when there's no evidence that anyone understood the text to mean "X" prior to, say, your own generation? Second Temple Judaism, the New Testament authors, the Church Fathers, the Medievals, etc. all read "In the beginning God created ..." What does it mean to now say, that's not the "meaning" of the text? Can the "meaning" really be different than what everyone understood the meaning to be? Whatever one's answer, it's an interesting question.


Bob MacDonald said...

I have no argument either way - but I have heard and seen the note (and long arguments) that the word is in a construct form: 'in the beginning of' as in e.g. the description of Leviathan in Job הוּא רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכֵי־אֵל He is the beginning of the ways of God. Genesis 1:1 has no noun to be in the second place of the construct, so that is why the phrase is not obvious when it comes to translation.

For instance could Genesis 1:1 have been like this בְּרֵאשׁ בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ

The gematria would no longer add up right but the sentence could be grammatical. Jeremiah 26:1, 27:1, and 28:1 have an identical word with no problem because there is a second noun following. But I have to say that my Hebrew-Latin concordance lists rosh and reshit as two different words. And the construct of rosh is rosh. So one wonders if the fuss is theological rather than grammatical.

Anonymous said...

I think the first observation that leads to this reading is that God did not create the heavens and the earth "in the beginning," but in vv. 6 and 9-10, after Light was created and separated from Darkness, and the waters of the deep were separated. "The heavens and the earth" are more of a summary merism than a part of a strict narrative sequence. That narrative begins in v. 3 and runs through the several stages of creation, but vv. 1-2 are distinct.

Reading בראשית ברא as a construct phrase rather than an absolute is the approach many grammarians are taking (Holmstedt's syntax project notes that בראשית is not absolute) and has explanatory power. Vv. 1-2 can be read as an introduction of sorts, which I think makes the most sense. The only agenda I can see motivating anyone to support this reading would be the desire to undermine attempts to read creatio ex nihilo into the verse, but I don't think many scholars read it that way anyway, so I don't imagine that's a widespread motivation.

John Gary Feister said...

"What one generation allows in moderation, the next will abuse in excess."

It's interesting to me that the more we try to improve on the Bible and make it supposedly easier to understand, we still haven't produced better Christians.
Go figure...

John Bergsma said...

To danielomcclellan: Thanks for the good discussion. The problem I can see with taking breshith as a construct, followed by pointing br' as a construct as well (bro'), is the disjunctive waw at the beginning of the verse 2. In other words, it leaves you with this:
"In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth ... now the earth was formless and void."

In other words, if verse one is a temporal clause attached to verse two, there should not be the waw-disjunctive on ha'eretz in v.2. In fact, ha'aretz and haythah should be reversed, if v. 2 is finally providing the finite verb of the sentence that begins with breshith.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comments. I understand the waw of v. 2 to be part of the temporal clause ("When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was . . ."). According to Jouon/Muraoka (who provide the construct reading as a possible interpretation), when you have a temporal situation taking place in the past and it is an instantaneous action followed by a durative action you have the second action taking a waw with a "buffer word" separating it from the qatal verb (section 166f-h). The first action can take a variety of forms. Common is wayehi at the beginning and then waw-(buffer) + qatal (Gen 15:12; Josh 2:5). It seems reasonable to me that the construct phrase with the temporal beth could be accompanied by the same waw-(buffer) + qatal form.

Anonymous said...

I like the original Hebrew because, as I read it, it sounds like an old story being told to an audience by a wise teacher, it sounds like Oral Tradition.

John Bergsma said...

Daniel--Thanks. I'll take a look at Jouon Muraoka and those examples.

John Bergsma said...


The disanalogy between the examples cited above and the situation in Gen 1:1 is the presence in Gen 15:12 and Josh 2:5 of a finite verb in the temporal clause: wayehi. In both cases, the temporal clause is grammatically complete and can be translated that way: "The sun was going down." "The gate was (about) to be closed at dark." However, in Gen 1:1, if bara' is pointed as the infinitive construct, we end up with a temporal, dependent clause which cannot stand on its own (no finite verb and no predication). This is then followed by a waw-disjunctive, which strikes me as very unusual. The more I examine it, the more it seems to me that the modern translation runs counter not only to the Masoretic pointing but also to the consonantal text (not just Qere but Ketib). I can see why the ancients universally took v.1 as an independent clause (a self-standing sentence)--otherwise the grammar of the sentence becomes very complicated, in a manner uncharacteristic of Hebrew prose. Re'shith can and does function as an absolute: Lev 2:12; Deut 33:21; Isa 46:10; Ps 105:36; Neh. 12:44. It's easier to accept re'shith in the absolute than to explain the waw-disjunctive following a dependent clause. At least in my opinion. :)

Moonshadow said...

Posted today on Facebook is the rationale for retaining the "when/then" construction.

"Sneak Peek #3", NABRE's Facebook page. Scroll down to the footnotes.

I do appreciate that the NAB does nothing for traditions sake.

John Bergsma said...

The NABRE rationale, as I see it, gives two major justifications:
(1) Other ancient cosmologies begin with a "when ... then" construction.
(2) The traditional interpretation "doesn't fit the syntax."
I wonder if the biblical cosmology might be antithetical to pagan cosmologies current in its day. I wonder if that's possible.
It's a shame that the third century BC Jewish translators of the LXX didn't understand Hebrew syntax of Gen 1:1. Neither did St. Jerome, the author of Maccabees, or even the author of Jubilees. Masoretes, either. And those guys that did the Peshitta, too. Amazing.

Anonymous said...

Since Daniel brought my name into this, I'll add my 2 cents.

I don't think it's an issue of the various ancient translators not understanding the Hebrew grammar, but of them making a choice about an uncommon and somewhat ambiguous syntactic construction. To wit, it is interesting to note, of course, that the LXX did not include an article either, but simply en arche.

Reshit does indeed function as an absolute, but then it's not formally definite. So then in Genesis 1, you would translate "In a beginning." This is a valid analysis of the verse, although I have argued (see my 2008 Vetus Testamentum article -- pdf at my blog) that it is better taken a noun bound to an unmarked relative clause, which has both biblical and broad Semitic parallels.

The non-wayyiqtol sequence in v. 2 marks v. 2 as background, non-mainline narrative information. That is, it's a parenthesis. The prepositional phrase (with the embedded relative clause) in v. 1 is formally continued in v. 3.

The various English translations that use "when" are a bit misleading, though, since "when" forces a non-restrictive reading in English. Better would be "in which" with no comma preceding, to force the restrictive reading.

"In the initial period in which God created the cosmos (the earth was chaotic, etc.), he said ... "

Robert Holmstedt

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for your 2 cents!

Bob MacDonald said...

Thinking about the definite article - in [the] beginning. It seems to me that the definite article is anything but definite across languages.

David Aune has a long section in the Word commentary on Revelation - behold I create a new havens and a new earth. His argument is that when Greek leaves off the article we are supposed to sit up and pay attention because we don't yet know what the author is talking about.

In English we sometimes use the definite article generically and the reader passes over it without noticing.

In Hebrew, it seems more like what we mean in English when we say 'definite'.

Nonetheless it is good to see the note from Robert Holmstedt and the clarity of the parenthesis of verse 2. Thanks.

Bobby Garringer said...

My interest is in preserving the conception of "creation from nothing" in the midst of the back-and-forth discussion of the content of Gen 1:1-3.

In reading all the previous comments for this post, I was pleased to see the input of Robert Holmstedt. I believe that anyone who thinks about the syntax of the opening verses of the Bible must take into account the massive effort and careful analysis he brings to the table.

As a layman, I cannot decide who is right on how best to translate these verses. But I have decided that Holmstedt has done careful work that must be respected.

However, based on simple logic, I take issue with him on the significance of his research and the potential implications of his own translation.

Holmstedt, on p. 124 of “The Relative Clause in Biblical Hebrew: A Linguistic Analysis,” states that the following are the valid "narrative and theological" implications of analyzing Genesis 1.1, syntactically, as a restrictive relative clause:

1) There were multiple potential beginnings to God’s creative work (although not necessarily other real ones).
2) The author of Gen 1:1-3 was concerned with the particular beginning defined by the relative clause in v 1 in which God created the world.
3) God initiated this event by commanding forth the presence of light (Gen 1.3).

However, as indicated in comments below, based on his translation of Gen 1:1-3, I believe only his point 2 holds true if his relative-restrictive analysis is correct.

1 "In the particular beginning that God created the heavens and the earth"

Comment: A “particular beginning” is indicated in contrast with either:

1) other – previous – beginnings in which God had created something else
2) other – later – beginnings in which God – will – create something else
3) other beginnings in which God did or will do something – other than – create
4) other beginnings in which someone – other than God – will create something
5) other beginnings in which someone other than God will do something – other than – create

The least likely of the above suggestions seems to be no 1, the only one Holmstedt acknowledges.

The whole passage is forward-looking with no hint of the author’s knowledge of or interest in previous realities or events.

No doubt, the beginning spoken of here is ranked above all other possible beginnings as the time in which God created the whole heavens and earth. This would be an "absolute" beginning despite of - and perhaps because of - its expression in relative restrictive terms.

2 "now the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the surface of the deep and the wind of God was hovering over the surface of the waters"

Comment: Verse 2 indicates conditions that existed – in – the beginning period, not prior to it.

Scholars who take v 1 to be constructively related to v 3, as well as those who relate it to v 2, have concluded that the conditions existed then because the creator found them that way, but there is no necessary logic in this conclusion.

Other constructive clauses indicating time, lead into an expression of what was happening at a particular time, without hinting at conditions or events prior to it. (See Gen 2:4b, Jer 26:1).

Noting that the term for "earth" appears twice, in immediate succession in vv 1 and 2, it would be logical to take the second occurrence of the term (in v 2) to indicate the same reference as in v 1.

So v 2 is describing the earth that God had just created – subject to further development - unformed, empty, covered by water and darkness - but - with God’s presence hanging above it all, ready to act.

3 "God said, 'Let there be light!' Then there was light."

Comment: With this grand move, the - perfecting - of God's creation begins, not creation itself.

Conclusion: God created everything, from the heavens above to the earth beneath, by process of bringing it all into existence and then shaping and filling it.

Bobby Garringer said...

I was pleased to receive a note today from Dr. Holmstedt in which he told me that the "grammatical pattern" of Gen 1:1-3 does allow for the interpretation that the earth as described in Gen 1:2 allows for the interpretation that it had been created in the "beginning period" indicated in v. 1.