Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields – Is Gen 1:1 a Subordinate Idea or a Main Clause?
The creation stories in Genesis are fodder for the arguments of Bible believers and skeptics alike. Even Gen 1:1, one of the Bible’s most familiar verses, is not free from dispute on linguistic grounds. The traditional translation is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
But alternatives have been offered. Here is a sampling:
At issue structurally is how v. 1 relates to vv. 2 and 3. In the traditional translation, Gen 1:1 is a summary of the creation event and what follows is the details. In the non-traditional translations, v. 1 is a subordinate clause and the main clause is either v. 2 (NRSV) or it is v. 3, with verse 2 being a parenthesis (Tanakh).
At issue theologically is whether (1) God is the only one in existence before the creation of heavens and earth, the traditional interpretation, or (2) God exists with matter before the creation of the heavens and the earth.
In “Hebrew and You,” we are exploring Hebrew grammar and biblical interpretation. There is not time to go into every detail of even Gen 1:3. Many commentaries give good treatments. Here we will discuss the grammar of Gen 1:1 so we can understand the issues involved in translation and interpretation. We will treat the first two words,בְּרֵאשִׁית and בָּרָא, but we will treat them in reverse order.
The verbal component of v. 1 is ברא. The Masoretes, scholars who worked AD 500–1000, developed the Hebrew vowel pointing system most commonly used today to record how they pronounced the text. They pronounced it as בָּרָא (bārāʾ, Qal Perfect 3ms), “he created.” This makes v. 1 a main clause. Most translations follow the Masoretic pronunciation.
In unpointed text and without a context, however, one cannot tell whether the word is to be pronounced בָּרָא, as the Masoretes did, as בְּרֹא (berōʾ, Qal Infinitive Construct), “create,” or as בֹּרֵא (bōrēʾ, Qal Participle ms), “creating.” The non-traditional translations are taking the verb as an infinitive construct (InfC).
An infinitive is a verbal noun (for previous blogs on the InfC, see [Aug 2015, Mar 2016]). This means that it has some characteristics of verbs and some like nouns, and the Hebrew InfC has much in common with the English infinitive. Among its other qualities, the InfC can be in construct with a following substantive (for previous blogs on the construct state, see [July 2014, May 2015]). The non-traditional translations see the InfC as in construct with a subjective genitive, which might literally be translated “the creating of God,” or better, “God’s creating.”
An infinitive, like a finite verb, describes an action, but it has no grammatical subject. It can also take a direct object. In this case there are two direct objects. This makes the phrase mean “God’s creating the heavens and the earth.”
The Prepositional Phrase
The word בְּרֵאשִׁית is made up of the noun רֵאשִׁית, “beginning,” with the prefixed preposition בְּ, “in.” There are two factors regarding the word בְּרֵאשִׁית, definiteness and state. Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 219, explains,
The first word in Hebrew is a prepositional phrase, בְּרֵאשִׁית, “in (the) beginning.” The Hebrew pointing has no article. Yet a definite beginning seems to be in view. The Lexham Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible, along with some commentators, parses רֵאשִׁית in the [construct] state rather than the absolute state, and suggest the translation “in the beginning of.” … [If all this is true, the] result would be a long construct chain made definite by the tail noun, God. A formal translation would be, “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.”
The traditional translations follow the Masoretic Text understand the noun as definite, even though it is undetermined (on determination see Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 10, especially, pp. 108–109), and as in the absolute state.
So, should we follow the Masoretes’ understanding of Gen 1:1 or not? First, the modern reader must seek to determine if the ancient writer is conforming to contemporary historical literary context or contrasting with them (see commentaries). Second, the Masoretes must be respected. I do not hold that the Masoretes and their vocalization of the text were inspired and inerrant any more than any copyist. However, they knew the language and the Bible. And they preserved ancient pronunciations.
If the ancient writer is contrasting the Lord with other ancient near eastern (ANE) myths and religions, then the traditional understanding is correct. A major contrast has to do with the origins of the gods. Whereas the ANE myths tried to explain how the gods came to be, the Hebrew Bible does not. God simply always was and is, and “the heavens and the earth,” i.e., the universe, has its beginning in God.
If the Bible is correct – and I think that it is – then as Creator the Lord is the master. He alone is the one who makes the rules of right and wrong. We as creatures owe him worship.
Learn more about what Lee M. Fields has to say in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible.