Genesis 1:1-2 – A New Translation

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The BEGINNING. In this post, I describe the first two verses of Bible, Genesis 1:1-2. The two most controversial ideas advanced in this commentary are (1) God did not create the universe from nothing and (2) we learn in the second verse that one of the goals of the creation story is to counter the prevailing myths by which the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations understood creation.

Genesis 1:1-2

When Elohim first created the heavens and the earth, the earth had been formless and void and darkness was above the face of Tehom and the spirit of Elohim hovered above the surface of the waters.

When Elohim first created: This phrase is translated from the first three Hebrew words in the Bible and are not without controversy. Most commonly translated as “In the beginning Elohim created”, a close examination of the Hebrew text suggests an alternate meaning that is more in line with what we now know about Hebrew grammar and expresses what the ancient scholars (e.g., Philo) and Church Fathers understood (see excurses – Something from Nothing).

Literally translated and reading from right-to-left the text is:

אֱלֹהִים

בָּרָא

רֵאשִׁית

בְּ

Elohim

bara

reishit

b’

Elohim

created

{first, beginning}

{in, when}

The words enclosed in braces {} reflect reasonable alternatives according to a number of authoritative Hebrew lexicons. For example, in the text above, ‘when’ and ‘in‘ are offered as translation options for the Hebrew preposition בְּ (b’). Likewise, ‘first‘ and ‘beginning’ are reasonable alternatives for the Hebrew noun, reishit. Also note that in Hebrew, subjects and verbs are usually ordered verb-first (unlike English in which the subject is written first). If the verse is ordered according to English grammar,

{In, When} {first, beginning} Elohim created…

b’: We now have to decide which of the alternatives to use – ‘in’ or ‘when’? The preposition can have a wide range of meanings, but by far the most common is ‘in’. Based on frequency alone, ‘in‘ is the obvious rendering. However, b’ can also be translated as ‘when’, especially where the context involves the passage of time. This is manifestly the case in 1:1-2, suggesting that b’ is reasonably (if not preferably) translated using ‘when‘ (see, for example, Gen 2:4 and 4:8). As we’ll see below, the meaning of 1:1-2 centers on the question of the temporal order of the two verses. Thus, ‘when’ is arguably the better choice to express the meaning of the preposition, b’, in this case.

reishit: The noun, reishit, has as its root the letters, ראש (Resh -Aleph-Shin). Words derived from this root often carry the meaning of primary, chief, begin, first or first-in-line, head of, and so forth. Harris’s Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) is more specific, namely, reishit means

“…first, beginning, choicest, first or best of a group. [Reishit is] a feminine noun derived from the root [Resh-Aleph-Shin], it appears fifty times in nearly all parts of the [Old Testament]. [Its] primary meaning is “first” or “beginning” of a series.”

Accordingly, we can now retranslate b’reishit bara Elohim as “When first created Elohim”, or as we would render in English,

When Elohim first created…

created: This word is translated from the Hebrew verb, bara, meaning “divinely created” – The adverb divinely is appropriate because even though bara is used more than fifty times in the Bible, only God is its subject.

When biblical authors use words that are specific to God, such as bara, the implicit assumption is that the word connotes a characteristic unique to God and not to any of His creations. Since bara expresses God’s creative activity and not man’s, we assume that bara is qualitatively different than עָשָׂה
(asah – he made), its non-divine counterpart. But, this may not be all there is. Nahum Sarna adds that words whose use is restricted to God also serve to accentuate God’s majesty and His ‘otherness’. Using such words, Sarna remind us, emphasizes that God is beyond human imagination.

the heavens and the earth: This expression is likely a merism – a figure of speech meant to indicate a range of meanings. For example, in the sentence, “Jill knows cooking from A to Z“, the phrase “from A to Z” is understood to be a merism meaning that Jill knows everything there is to know about cooking. In 1:1, the heavens and the earth are likely intended to mean all of creation, which to the ancient Hebrews is encompassed by the earth and sky. We’ll encounter another famous merism in the second creation story (2:9) where God warns mankind to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

And the earth had been: The Hebrew text of this phrase, וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה (v’haaretz hay’tah), has been traditionally read as, “The earth was” by translating the Hebrew verb, הָיְתָה (hay’ta), as ‘was’. For example, in almost all of the familiar English translations (e.g., RSV, NIV,JPS, KJV,NAS, TNK, and many others) this text is rendered, “And the earth was“. These older translations, however, fail to reflect what scholars have recently learned about the verbal system in biblical Hebrew and its underlying grammar – especially concerning the manner in which Hebrew expresses two or more actions that occur in the past in time-relative order.

In English this is easily handled by the past perfect tense (also called the pluperfect or the “flashback” tense). For example,

When Alex wrote his first novel, he had been in London for over eight years.

Thus, Alex’s presence in London preceded the completion of novel. Likewise, if hay’tah in 1:2 is translated as a past perfect verb, then verses 1:1-2 would read,

When Elohim first created [the universe], [the universe] had been

In this translation the universe was already in existence when God began His creative work. What is the evidence supporting the translation of hay’ta as a past perfect verb? The evidence is purely grammatical. To this we now turn.

Until recently, the grammar of biblical Hebrew was thought to be unable to denote explicitly the past perfect. Whether a verb was past perfect needed to be inferred from its context. Recently, scholars have been able to show that, in addition to context, Hebrew verbs can express the past perfect by the way in which the author structures his verbal clauses.

In verses 1:1-2, the key observation is that the ordering of the verbal clauses in these two verses demonstrate that the verb in the second clause of 1:1, הָיְתָ֥ה (hay’ta), is in the past perfect. In English the past perfect is formed using the auxiliary verb “had” with the main verb’s past participle – hence the translation as “had been“.

In Hebrew, whether a verb, verbal clause, or sentence is past perfect is much more complicated and requires that three conditions be met:

  1. The preceding verbal clause contains a verb in the perfect tense (similar to the English past tense).
  2. The subject of the verb in question is prefixed with a waw (the Hebrew letter וְ)
  3. The subject in the second clause precedes the verb.

What can we say about the structure of verses 1:1-2? Study the following table (read from right-to-left):

הָיְתָה

וְהָאָרֶץ

אֱלֹהִים

בָּרָא

had been (hay’tah)

And the earth (v’haaretz)

Elohim

created (bara)

perfect tense

waw-subject

subject

Simple perfect

Inverted: subject-verb

Normal: verb-subject

The grammatical structure of the text unambiguously indicates that the verb, hay’tah, meets all three requirements necessary to be translated as a past perfect. Thus, a better translation of 1:2 will use the English past perfect tense – “had been“.

The theological implication is profound. By structuring the sentence using the past perfect, the divine author makes the claim that some substance was already in existence, albeit in a primordial state, prior to God arriving on the scene to begin His creative activity. Clearly, creatio ex nihilo was not in view when the creation story was developed. Philo and the early Christian fathers were correct.

As an aside, this same construction occurs elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Genesis 4:1 is normally translated as “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived…“. However, the structure of the Hebrew verb is very similar though not identical, to that in 1:2 and can reasonably be translated as “Now the man had known his wife Eve, and she conceived…“. In other words, the grammar of the text supports the understanding that Adam and Eve had had sexual intercourse while in Eden.

unformed and void: Translated from the Hebrew תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ (tohu va-vohu), this phrase occurs again in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision of the return of the primal chaos (Jer 4:23-27). As such, there can be no doubt that the divine author is referring to the initial chaotic state of the world.

Tehom: Tehom is the transliteration of the Hebrew word תְה֑וֹם (Tehom). In most English Bibles, Tehom is rendered as “the deep” or “the waters” or something similar. However, recent research, especially comparisons with similar stories in closely related languages (Ugaritic and Akkadian) and similar cultures (the Sumerians and their descendents the Akkadians and Babylonians), calls this understanding into question and suggests an intriguing alternative. Could Tehom be a reference to a god in another creation story? A god the divine author intended to demythologize.

Supporting this thesis are two key observations: First, from a purely philological perspective, Tehom is thought by some scholars to be related to the name Tiamat, the goddess of the salt water in the Babylonian legend, Enuma Elish. Second, Tehom occurs in the Bible twenty-one times and appears as a proper noun. If Tehom is a proper noun it may have been understood by the ancient Hebrews as the Hebrew version of the much more ancient Akkandian name, Taimat.

In addition to these two reasons however, there is another reason to suppose that Tehom might refer to Tiamat of the Enuma Elish. The Genesis creation story serves, among many purposes, the objective of demythologizing the predominant creation stories of the time – the most prominent of which was the Enuma Elish.

Tiamat, above left, became the Tehom of Genesis. Marduk, the Hero of the Enuma Elish is portrayed on the right.

As a polemic work, the story’s author may be representing Elohim as overpowering Tehom (a.k.a Tiamat) by creating light and exposing her for what she was – just a vast abyss, an emptiness without divine substance.

With appropriate intonation, the Hebrew can be read to create the sense of a fearsome presence (Tehom) hidden by the precreation darkness until Elohim comes along and creates light, exposing Tehom to be nothing more than inanimate, primordial ooze. To get a feeling of what this might have been like for an ancient listener, imagine that you are a young child in Sunday school hearing this story for the first time. To create the intended effect, your Sunday school teacher might read verse 1:2 something along the lines of,

“And the earth was formless and void and was so dark that no one could see the monster Tehom lurking behind the primordial darkness. But the spirit of God came over the blackness and said, ‘Let there be light!'”

the spirit of Elohim: The English word spirit in this phrase is translated from the Hebrew word, ר֣וּחַ (ruach). Ruach has various meanings other than spirit, notably wind or breath. More generally, ruach is thought to express the idea of “air in motion”. In living beings (including animals) ruach is synonymous with breath. In this text, however, ruach is best understood as the immaterial and ineffable presence of the transcendent God. Later, in the second creation story (2:7), it is God’s “breath”, נִשְׁמַ֣תnishmah, not ruach, that is used to animate mankind. This has some theological implications in that God’s spirit (ruach) was not passed to mankind, just His breath. Thus, nishmah is regarded as something less that God’s spirit but, given its divine origin, nishmah is thought to constitute the force animating man’s rational and moral life.

hovered: The English word ‘hovered’ is rendered from the Hebrew word, מְרַחֶפֶת (m’rachephet) and describes the state of the spirit of God immediately before God’s first creative act. The use of this word is curious, if only because nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is the spirit of God pictured in this way. Gerald Schroeder, an MIT physicist and Old Testament scholar suggests, but does not claim, that the divine author’s intent may have been to symbolize the second stage of physical creation — the initial expansion of the universe after the Big Bang. In any case, the distinction between God and His spirit is elusive.

One thought is that the transcendent God enters His created world in spirit, not in His physical body (see Excurses, the Flatlanders). It is through His spirit that creation is commanded and occurs. But, if such were the case, why didn’t the author subsequently write “the Spirit of God said…”. Perhaps it was understood by the ancient reader that the distinction between the Spirit of God and the physical God was unimportant.


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3 Responses to Genesis 1:1-2 – A New Translation

  1. Ruth Henriquez says:

    *This is very well written and answers questions I’ve had about the first part of the first Chapter.  I tried to find your book but was unable to do so.

    • mtpeterson1948 says:

      I took the book off of Amazon and am working on a revision that I intend to publish in both hardcopy and on-line. Sorry this took so long to reply.

  2. Ruth Henriquez says:

    *OK I wish you the best with your revision.

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