Holmstedt’s blog on Genesis 1:1-3 is a follow up to his article on Genesis 1:1 which begins with this abstract:
Although many Hebraists have departed from the traditional understanding of בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית in Gen i 1 as an independent phrase with the grammatical reference to “THE beginning,” it is a view that continues to thrive by the majority of modern translations. Even advocates of the dependent phrase (e.g. “when God began”) struggle with a precise and compelling linguistic analysis. In this article I offer a linguistic argument that will both provide a simpler analysis of the grammar of Gen i 1 and make it clear that the traditional understanding of a reference to ‘an absolute beginning’ cannot be derived from the grammar of the verse. Instead, the syntax of the verse, based on well-attested features within biblical Hebrew grammar, dictates that there were potentially multiple בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית periods or stages to God’s creative work. [The Restrictive Syntax of Genesis i 1]
In the blog he states this is a better translation of Genesis 1:1-3:
“In the beginning period that God created the heavens and earth (the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the wind of God was hovering over the surface of the waters), God said, ‘Let light be!'” 1
The essence of this position is the Genesis creation account cannot be taken literally as a basis for establishing the created age of the physical world since Genesis is describing only portions of a singular work or one of many works of creation. Whether Holmstedt, and others who have reached the same conclusion, is motivated by a need to explain the apparent inconsistencies between the “young earth” of the Bible and the “old earth” found in nature is not stated. Nevertheless, the implications of this position speaks to solutions such as the “gap theory” or unwritten works of creation which others have suggested as a way to resolve the issue. If Holsmtedt is correct the literal biblical text may be dissociated from the natural world resolving the allegded contradictions.
Testing the Result
Holmstedt's translation subordinates what follows to a temporal meaning of “the beginning periods.” Since the consonants בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית are used in four other places, this result may be put to test:
In the beginning (בְּרֵאשִׁ֗ית) of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah came this word from the LORD, saying (Jeremiah 26:1 KJV)
In the beginning (בְּרֵאשִׁ֗ית) of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah came this word unto Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, (Jeremiah 27:1 KJV)
In the beginning (בְּרֵאשִׁית֙) of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah came this word unto Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, (Jeremiah 28:1 KJV)
The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah the prophet against Elam in the beginning (בְּרֵאשִׁ֗ית) of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, saying, (Jeremiah 49:34 KJV)
Each case calls for the definite article. In each case a translation of “in the beginning periods” fails. The meaning of the word is derived from the events which follow, not from בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית (with or without markings). Despite having three separate and distinct events when the word of the LORD came, each took “in the beginning of Jehoiakim’s reign.
Any suggestion the grammar of בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית means what follows may have occurred in “potentially multiple periods or stages” of Jehoiakim’s reign is impossible because Jehoiakim's reign is an event with one beginning.
Holmstedt also sees the Septuagint translation as consistent with his conclusion. The LXX translators chose ἐν ἀρχῇ and failed to add the definite article. This supposition may be tested by examining how ἀρχῇ is used in the New Testament when placed in the context of Genesis:
And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, (Matthew 19:4 KJV)
ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐκ ἀνέγνωτε ὅτι ὁ ποιήσας ἀπ᾽ἀρχῆς ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς
As in Genesis 1, the definite article is not written yet it clearly belongs. Male and female were not made in “potentially multiple periods or stages.”
When Jesus asks “have you not read…” He is referring to events found in Genesis and cites the Greek text of Genesis 1:27 verbatim:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (Genesis 1:27 KJV)
καὶ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον κατ᾽ εἰκόνα θεοῦ ἐποίησεν αὐτόν ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς
As in the Hebrew, "the beginning" is correct due to the reality creation was a physical act on a singular day in history which demands it be the beginning.
This same result may be seen in the Law:
He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:8 KJV)
λέγει αὐτοῖς ὅτι Μωσῆς πρὸς τὴν σκληροκαρδίαν ὑμῶν ἐπέτρεψεν ὑμῖν ἀπολῦσαι τὰς γυναῖκας ὑμῶν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς δὲ οὐ γέγονεν οὕτως
The lack of the definite article in the Greek text does not support the idea the meaning is "potentially multiple stages or periods" because it is not the grammar which conveys the meaning. It is the singular work in history which makes it "the beginning."
Whether intended or not, Holmstedt's translation is purely theological. 2 It only makes sense if in fact there were multiple stages or periods. On the other hand, if Genesis 1:1 is seen as describing work of creation with a definite starting point, the definite article belongs, just as it does in every other use of the word, because it was "the" beginning.
The First Fruit
The issue is how the word should be translated into English. The word רֵאשִׁית means first as in time (beginning); it also may mean chief, first fruits, first parts, or principal thing. [H7225-re'shiyth] Using Holmstedt's conclusion to remove the definite article demands moving away from any meaning associated with time and considering a different sense to convey.
Holmstedt’s belief the word embodies stages or periods of is a reflection of the fact the creation of the “darkness” is not recorded:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep… (1:1-2 ESV)
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (1:3-4 ESV)
The first recorded work is the creation of light which separates the darkness. This act requires darkness to be present. God had created it but this detail is not recorded in Genesis:
I form light and create darkness… (Isaiah 45:7 ESV)
The unrecorded act of creating darkness does not constitute one of Holmstedt's periods it embodies the reality the word is used in a way which correctly conveys a current existence, a fact which is obvious since God (and darkness) exists.
Early scholars may have presumed “darkness” is describing a state of nothingness, a type of blank sheet upon which God works. But modern scholars have facts showing the created world is dominated by real physical "darkness." Estimates are dark energy accounts for 68.3% and dark matter 26.8% of the total cosmic density. [Dark matter]
As Genesis 1:2 states, darkness was present at the beginning. Light separated darkness on the first day and again on the fourth day. Today darkness is still present: it is in God's work of creation.
As Holmstedt's own translation shows the definite article cannot actually be removed, the the idea is to shift the emphasis. Following this logic the proper translation would reflect the presence of darkness in creation:
“In the first fruits God created the heavens and earth (the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep…
Note either "In the beginning..." or "In the first fruits..." would be correct. If the meaning of time is seen, it is "the" beginning. If the meaning of chief part is seen, the darkness is "in" God's work of creation.
1. After showing the definite article does not belong, Holmstedt uses it in what he offers as a better translation.
2. The stated disinterest in the theological aspect of this question is at odds with the use of "wind" not "Spirit" - "...and the wind of God was hovering..."