Discussing Genesis 1:1 Translation

The discussion around Genesis 1:1 is vast and that is because of the way the western translations have forgone early translations to better adapt a translation to the current culture of the time.

As we’ve stated in early articles - Science took the world by storm through Christianity and it was by this that the discussions of time start to expound and eventually become a mainstay of apologetic discussion.

The two most common English translations of Genesis 1:1-3 are:

(a) 1. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the water. 3. God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.

See, for instance, the texts in notes 1, 2 and 3.

(b) 1. In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth (or: In the beginning of creation, when God made the heavens and the earth) – 2. The earth being unformed and void with darkness over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God sweeping over the water – 3. God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.

This rendition is found, among others, in the texts listed in notes 4, 5 and 6, and with variations in the texts listed in notes 7 and 8.

In both versions, the translators had apparent difficulties with the first two words of the original Masoretic Hebrew text, “be-reisheet bara.” One meaning of be-reisheet is in a beginning, clearly unsuitable for the authors of version (a). Consequently, they took the liberty of altering the vowel of the bet from a sheva to a kamatz, to read ba-reisheet, in the beginning. Small as is it, this alteration is totally unnecessary, as we shall see in the following discussion.

Version (b) is radically more different. Its proponents took be-reisheet to be in its construct state, In the beginning of…, which, in turn, posed a ‘peculiar syntax of the Hebrew sentence – a noun in the construct state with a finite verb bara.’[6]

This is essentially obliterating the original texts not just forgoing the Septuagint but also the Masoretic text itself and for what? We shall see the small but incredibly difficult situation these texts have given us today.

It has been argued that in order to remedy the difficulties of both versions, let us recall a rule of Hebrew morphology: The prefix be- in front of an abstract noun converts it into an adverb.

Examples in Biblical and modern Hebrew abound:

  1. “Go and eat joyfully” (be-simcha, from simcha, joy), Eccl. 9:7.

  2. “You will die peacefully” (be-shalom, from shalom, peace), Jer. 34:5

  3. Be-sheket, silently, from sheket, silence.

  4. Be-chavod, respectfully, from kavod, respect.

  5. Bi-re-tzinut, seriously, from re-tzinut, seriousness.

In our case here, reisheet, origin, is an abstract noun; with be- it becomes the adverb be-reisheet, originally. Thus, the translation reads:

1. Originally, God created the heavens and the earth. 2. And the earth was without form and void… . 3. God said, ‘ Let there be light’, and there was light.

You can take this and render it “When God had created…” or “When God began to create” for the English reader. Alter and many other translations headed by Jewish Scholars render it without “In the Beginning…” for the same reason we should remove it from our translations - it does not exist in any manuscript.

The Issue

The issue that I raise is not one of translation alone, though I think it should be improved and fixed in every translation that is used today. My issue contends further into the arguments that “never should be”. That is to say, every single argument around the Bible, science and time are arguments that never should have taken place.

Google “time and the Bible” and you’ll find thousands of articles written about this topic from the perspective of atheist, Christians and agnostics. You’ll find dissertations, like that of William Lane Craig, and many more written on the time and cosmos from a Biblical perspective. You’ll find the arguments between Christians and atheist that revolve around Genesis and the creation and the “beginning of time” as it were.

The entire scope of the Cosmological Argument by Craig is written and based around the fact that Christianity shows a beginning of time and “It is right there in Genesis!” but it really is and isn’t. Further, you have the divided kingdoms of “Young Earth Creationist” and “Old Earth Creationist” which I have spent a great deal of time exploring and refuting both sides of that coin - a coin that should not exist.

The Hebrew concept of time is extremely important and while I would love to indulge in a massive essay upon it I will just quickly give you the spark notes needed to grasp the point being made here in this article: Time as we know it, study it and explain it today was never how it was known, studied or explained in the Ancient Near East. It wasn’t linear, everything had cycles, everything was circular and measuring time was not something that the ANE did - not because they couldn’t but because their cosmogony did not call for them to do such a thing.

We’ve given sufficient argument that Genesis is Polemic in nature, specifically and especially the Genesis 1 text (see other articles). This is why we see creation cycles occur within it, we also see such cycles in other early ancient texts on the creation of the world. Note, I said world, because we are not talking about UNIVERSE considering Genesis only speaks of the world, not the universe as we know it today.

Therefore, any argument starting with or involving “the Scripture say IN THE BEGINNING” is irrelevant as it does not say that nor does it elude to such a thing. It simply states that God, being the original and sole creator of the world, is the supreme and only God to ever be. Further, it makes no claims upon the age of the universe, the beginning of the universe or the age of the world as we know it to be. Every argument involving such things and attempting to base it around Scripture is speculative at best.

If you absolutely insist on using “In the beginning” you can by stating it correctly or near correctly as IN THE BEGINNING OF GODS CREATING. Not comma, no separation that suggest a beginning of time or cosmos.

That is all the text allows for.

[1] Holy Bible, King James Version. (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1973) p. 1.
[2] The Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1968) p. 5.
[3] J.H. Hertz (ed.), Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 2nd edition (London: Soncino Press, 1976) p. 2.
[4] The English New Bible.(Oxford: Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1970) p. 1.
[5] The Chumash: the Stone Edition. ( Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1993) p. 3.
[6] N. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publications Society, 1989) p. 5.
[7] A. Berlin, M. Brettler and M. Fishbane, The Jewish Study Bible Featuring the JPS Translation (Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 12.
[8] W.G. Plaut. (ed.), The Torah – a Modern Commentary (NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981) p. 18.