This questions aims to evaluate an argument oulined on this blog by Robert Holmstedt:
In a nutshell, 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 indefensible. Period. End of story.
His preferred translation, as rendered in the linked Vetus Testamentum paper by the same author:
In the initial period that/in which God created the heavens and the earth...
With the implication (from the blog again):
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.
Is this accurate?
I include here my summary of the article and a few more specific questions arising from it.1,2
Summary: bǝrēʾšît is in construct with an unmarked, restrictive relative clause.
He illustrates that relative clauses may be unmarked, which has a close parallel in English. Compare marked (“that”):
Jer. xlii 3: wǝyagged-lānû yhwh ʾĕlōhêkā ʾet-hadderek ʾăšer nēlek-bāh
and let Yhwh your God tell us the way that we should walk in
And unmarked (Ø):
Exod. xviii 20: wǝhôdaʿtā lāhem ʾet hadderek yēlǝkû bāh
and you shall make known to them the way Ø they should walk in
He also provides exmples to justify the notion that nouns may be in construct with relative clauses, which are “nominalized” by their relative pronoun. Although the form of rēʾšît could be either absolute or construct, (unambiguosly) construct nouns shows up in construct relationships with (unambiguous) relative clauses elsewhere:
Lev. xiii 46: kol- yǝmê ʾăšer hannegaʿ bô
all the days that the disease is in him
Having established plausibility, the argument is made that, in biblical Hebrew:
All unmarked relative clauses are restrictive. (Interestingly, this appears also to apply to English.)
All relative clauses with a head noun in the construct form are restrictive.
If a relative clause is restrictive, it provides information about its head that is necessary to identify the exact referent.
However, he notes that “in the beginning” + restrictive relative clause is at best awkward in English. Thus, the translation and conclusions above.
The author appears to know a lot about Hebrew relative clauses. I would like to identify counter-arguments that have prevented translations from adopting it. Also, are the two numbered items above (particularly “all” and “always”) disputable?
Note: On the same blog, the author wrote:
I don’t care how people use Gen 1.1-3 theologically. I care how the Hebrew grammar is treated.
While I don’t exactly share this position, I’m hoping that an answer here can specifically address the grammatical argument that is being made.
1.Those familiar with the argument and/or willing to read it and help me should feel free to correct anything I have mis-represented here. The material is actually beyond my Hebrew skills, but the argument struck my fancy.
2. I have used transliterated Hebrew as it is in the paper; quoted material is taken directly from there with slight formatting changes.