Every beginning is auspicious, and few if any beginnings are as well-known and momentous as the one that opens the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (so the King James Version of 1611 and most subsequent English translations). This translation of
What does the first word in the Hebrew mean?
The earliest Bible translation, the third-century BCE Greek Septuagint, and the earliest complete Aramaic translation of the Torah (Pentateuch), the first-century CE Targum Onkelos, both interpret the first verse of Genesis as a main clause: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” However, this rendering rests on a problematic analysis of the grammar of the first two words. The first word—bere’shit—comprises two elements: the preposition be- (“in, with, by, through, when”) and the noun re’shit (“first, former, or best thing”). The word could easily be understood as “in the beginning” but for two things. (1) The noun re’shit is rarely used as a free-standing noun; ordinarily it is used with another noun to refer to “the beginning of” something. (2) The preposition is vocalized be- and not ba- (a contraction of be- and the definite article ha- ). If it began with ba- it would mean “in the beginning,” but because it begins with be- it means “in the beginning of (something that follows).” Taking these two points together, bere’shit should be understood as “in the beginning of” (something).
What does the second word in the Hebrew mean?
What that something is, is conveyed by the second word, the verb bara’, “he created.” There are three ways of dealing with this construction. Option 1 explains the construction as “in the beginning of he-created.” The most influential Jewish exegete of the High Middle Ages, Rashi (1040-1105 CE; Northern France), made such an argument, drawing upon a similar construction (albeit with a different noun and verb) in
Option 2: Accordingly, we should consider another suggestion made by Rashi: understand the finite verb bara’ (he created) as an infinitive (“to create” or “creating”). But since finite verbs do not substitute for infinitives in Biblical Hebrew, we would need to change the vowels in the form bara’ to bero’ (“creating of”). The noun that governs it would be the next word in the verse: ’elohim, “God.” We thereby get the following sense: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.” The very same construction is found close by in
The Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma Elish, begins with a similar clause: “When above the heavens had not been named, / And below the earth had not been called by name….” In light of all these considerations, in 1926 James Moffatt translated
Option 3: There is one way to analyze the syntax of
I prefer option 2, which finds parallel constructions in
- Skinner, John. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis. 2nd ed. ICC. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1930. Pp. 12–15.
- Speiser, E. A. Genesis. AB 1. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964. Pp. 11–13.
- Orlinsky, Harry M., ed. Notes on the New Translation of the Torah. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1969. Pp. 49–52.