Literary Function of Beresit in Hebrew Genesis

Syntax, Linguistic and Grammatical Analysis

Suggested Music to Listen to While Reading: Antti Martikainen - Xian

The importance of this word and conversation are many but maybe none more important than getting the first words of Scripture correctly. The first modern analyses of Enuma Elish in the 19th century sparked a common suggestion that the syntax of Genesis 1:1 is comparable to the opening line of Babylonian cosmogony ("When on high.."). Though, this thought predates the 19th century by a longshot in the commentator Rashi who expounded on the Scripture in the medieval period. 

We will discover quickly, the interpretation and translation of the first complex word, בְּרֵאשִׁית, in the Masoretic text of the Leningrad Codex as an absolute temporal prepositional phrase, “in the beginning, …” is grammatically less plausible when put to the test. If one wants to neglect the Masoretic vocalization and read the word with an articular vowel with the preposition, i.e., *בָּרֵאשִׁית, “in THE beginning,” as the Samaritan Pentateuch appears to do they will have to uphold a large mass of opposition grammatically. 

Holmdest says the biggest variable of the noun-bound-to-clause construction in Semitic, and his argument concerns the semantics of this unmarked relative clause. We can then argue that using a bound form of the noun serving as the head of the relative clause is one strategy used to mark the relative clause as restrictive. The other strategy used to mark a Hebrew relative as restrictive is to omit the relative word, i.e., an unmarked or asyndetic relative clause. Interestingly, both approaches are used in בראשׁית ברא That is, Gen 1.1 is doubly-marked as a restrictive relative clause, meaning that this particular ראשׁית cannot be identified without the information given within the relative. It is the particular ראשׁית during which God created the heavens and the earth. It is not an absolute ראשׁית, “THE beginning”, but just one specific ראשׁית that is being referenced in Gen 1.1 as we will explore further. 

The movement is between a finite and infinitive verb form, which shifts an independent clause to a dependent temporal clause. That is to say, "when God began to create the cosmos.." which would put the main clause in either v2 or v3. The objections to this are found almost exclusively in grammatical and syntactical academics, but some rare theological discussions do emerge. 

Here we see that some point out the logical following of a temporal adverb would contain an infinite construct. Still, some have shown that BHS (Biblical Hebrew syntax) of temporal adverbs do not necessitate the infinitive verbal form to follow. Alongside that, though, the temporal adverbs do not require definite articles; this would allow the standing treatment of the opening phrase as an independent temporal clause. 

There are a few treatments, and they attend as follows. In which, all of these had ancient and modern support. 

1. V-1 is a temporal clause subordinate to the main clause in v 2: "In the beginning when God created  .  .  .  , the earth was without form.  .  .  ." 

2. V-1 is a temporal clause subordinate to the main clause in v 3 (v 2 is a parenthetic comment). "In the beginning when God created  .  .  . (now the earth was formless) God said.  .  .  ." 

3. V-1 is the main clause, summarizing all the events described in vv 2– 31. It is a title to the chapter as a whole and could be rendered "In the beginning, God was the creator of heaven and earth." What being the creator of heaven and earth means is then explained in more detail in vv 2– 31. 

4. V-1 is the main clause describing the first act of creation. Vv 2 and 3 describe subsequent phases in God's creative activity. This is the general view.

The theological question that is raised with these varying views centers around "creation ex nihilo" or creation from nothing. The thought is that if option #4 is not utilized, then it gives way to suggest that there is an existence of preexistent matter (chaos matter) before the work of creation occurred. This sounds drastic, but there is no reason to assume that chaos matter didn't preexist the beginning period, it doesn't necessitate that God did not create chaos matter prior and this highly imposes a modern ontology into an ancient ontology which is never wise to do when reading such literature.

#1 was first driven by Ibn Ezra but has drawn little support since, apart from Gross (VTSup 32 [1981] 131– 45). Though NEB and NAB appear to adopt this translation, by placing a period at the end of v 2, they probably regard the main clause as "God said" in v 3, i.e., option 2. It is the least likely interpretation in that v 2 is a specific clause giving further background knowledge necessary to understanding v 1 or v 3 and therefore, either v one or v three must contain the main clause.

#2 was first shown to us by Rashi, though there are hints in rabbinic texts that it may have been known earlier (Schäfer, 162– 66). More recent defenders include Bauer, Bayer, Herrmann, Humbert, Lane, Loretz, Skinner, and Speiser, as well as RSV mg., NEB, NAB, and TEV.

This interpretation begins with the observation that the first word literally, "in beginning," does not have the definite article. As we stated prior, the Hebrew syntax does not require an article for this to occur [Temporal phrases often lack the article (e.g., Isa 46: 10; 40: 21; 41: 4, 26; Gen 3: 22; 6: 3, 4; Mic 5: 1; Hab 1: 12).] However, the rendering would read: "In the beginning of God's creation of heaven and earth." (In this type of construction, the verb is usually in the infinitive () whereas here it is perfect ("he created").

In the provision of this being the right interpretation of verse one, the following arguments are also cited for further understanding. To begin, "beginning" rarely, if ever, has the complete sense: it means "formerly," "firstly," not ever "first of all." Secondly, Gen 2: 4b, usually viewed as the beginning of the second account of creation, begins, literally, "in the day of the making by the LORD God of heaven and earth." Third, Enuma elish and the Atrahasis epic both begin with an equal dependent temporal clause. 

Though many commentators simply adhere to the fourth view there are still many that dispute the relating verses of v1 and vv2-3. These would be: (Driver, Gunkel, Procksch, Zimmerli, von Rad, Eichrodt, Cassuto, Schmidt, Westermann, Beauchamp, Steck)

Though exploring further, we find what follows. Lexically, P. Humbert's two studies are quite correct in their observation that rēʾšîṯ is almost always used in the OT in the construct state, the one departure being Isa. 46:9–10—"I am God . . . declaring the end [ʾaḥarîṯ] from the beginning [mērēʾšîṯ]." It cannot be disputed that the prophet, in quoting God, is believing in terms of God's perfect disposition over beginning and end, with beginning and end, indicating not "a specific period within history, but rather historical time as such."

Further, into research, we see Sailhamer points out something inescapable, the unique function of the Hebrew term beresit. It doesn't refer to a specific point in time but rather a duration of time. This case can be verified by Job 8:7 and Jeremiah 28:1 where we see early portions of Job's life and beginning periods of Zedekiah's reign. Thus, in Hebrew, a king's accession year was refrered to as the resit of his reign, and this is an initial period, not a point in time as the day of enthronement would be. This distinction is further nuanced by S. Rattray and J. Milgrom in TDOT, which gives way to the semantics of the term resit, granting us an alternative way of understanding "beginning." 

This serves as a literary introduction to the period of creative activity that then flows into the toledot's that cover the characterization of the remaining books. Now, the objection still stands that this contains within it a theological nudge that would harm "creation out of nothing" but rather what we see in both the usage of בָּרָא "he created" is the verb is being used in both the qal and niphal forms. An etymological relationship with the piel "to cut," "split" (e.g., Josh 17: 15) is doubtful. It is particularly easy to read English notions of creation into the Hebrew verb, given the theological importance of the idea. It is, therefore vital to scrutinize usage to determine its meaning. NET Translators even note, "The verb does not necessarily describe creation out of nothing." Though, it should be noted that God, the God of Israel, is always subject of בָּרָא. Creation is never predicated of pagan deities. Note also, the text never says what God creates out of. Lastly, the most commonly named products of creation are man, (e.g., 1: 27), and unexpected novelties (e.g., Num 16: 30; Isa 65: 17); more rarely mentioned are the sea monsters (Gen 1: 21), mountains (Amos 4: 13), and animals (Ps 104: 30). 

Though, we find ourselves back in similar texts that state he created everything by his word. This again tells us that chaos matter could have been created before the beginning of the creative activity. In verses 6-8, 16 we see that God uses pre-existing material to create, orchestrate and fashion new creation. 

Therefore renderings such as: "In a beginning" "In the beginning period, God had created" or "When God created the heavens...." are not only plausible and syntactically correct, but they are proportioned with other scriptures and several other ancient near eastern accounts. 

Citations and Resources


Hamilton, Victor P.. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (NEW INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY ON THE OLD TESTAMENT) (p. 109). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. 

See the comments in Keil, Driver, Gunkel, Cassuto, von Rad; specifically see Eichrodt, pp. 3-6; Hasel, pp. 156-159; Waltke, pp. 222-224; Westermann, pp. 95-98; Wenham, p. 12; Sailhamer 1990, p. 21; JM, p. 510; Lim, pp. 305-306; Hamilton 1990; Walton 2001). Note also that both WOC (p. 156) and JM (p. 471) classify the construction in Gen i 1 as "non-relative

Wenham, Gordon John. Genesis 1-15, Volume 1 (Word Biblical Commentary) (p. 71). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition. 

Genesis: Translation and Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

Historical, Literal and Grammatical Commentary. Kunst, RC, 2018 

The Masoretic tradition represented in B19a receives some versional support from the LXX, which translates the MT Hebrew with the anarthrous phrase en archē instead of en tē archē. It is accurate that archē is often not preceded by the article in the LXX, i.e., it is typically anarthrous when it translates rē ʾšît in the construct (this point is often cited to assert that the LXX supports an absolute state, but inherently semantically determined reading of the MT's bǝrē ʾšît). But archē is used with the article elsewhere in the LXX to reference a "beginning" (e.g., in Gen. xli 21, where it translates battǝh.illâ). This indicates that the LXX gives an enigmatic witness at best, and absolutely does not support reading MT bǝrē ʾšît as definite. Although versional support beyond the LXX is often cited for reading rē ʾšît as an absolute noun with the article (Waltke, p. 223; Lim, p. 305), see Rüterswörden and Warmuth, who review the testimony and decide that the "Die Änderung des masoretischen Textes in tyviareB…ist eine freie Konjektur, die sich weder auf griechische Transkriptionen der Väter noch auf das samaritanische Material stützen kann" (p. 175).