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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:

  1. All unmarked relative clauses are restrictive. (Interestingly, this appears also to apply to English.)

  2. All relative clauses with a head noun in the construct form are restrictive.

By definition:

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.


Footnotes
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.

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    (Because one can only have so many “notes”): Although it may sound pedantic, the linked paper is surprisingly accessible to anyone with a good grasp on English grammar. (OK, one needs a basic idea about the construct state as well.) Have a look; this is fun! – Susan Feb 22 '15 at 4:45
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    Hoped to add a "proper" answer; alas! cannot afford the time. Quick take FWIW: (1) I wouldn't argue with Holmstedt on relative clauses. (2) I think he overstates the case for rēʾšît being an indefinite construct, although his argument depends (as I understand it) on the construct for the unmarked relative. (3) It's a sound argument as far as it goes, but overly restrictive in scope (IMO): context is required, relevant issues are excluded. For conversation, cf. James Barr "Was Everything that God Created Really Good?", (1998) esp. pp. 57-58. – Dɑvïd Feb 22 '15 at 15:01
  • The Targumim may offer some insight into your first question. For example, Targum Onkelos opens Genesis 1:1 with בְּקַדְמִין בְּרׇא יי "In the earlier times G-d created...". Targum Onkelos is considered to be one of the translations which remains most true to the original Hebrew text. And it is clear that the word בְּרֵאשִית was being interpreted to mean something other than the categorically first moment in time. – Tim Biegeleisen Feb 22 '15 at 15:56
  • This seems like it may be splitting hairs a bit unless there is a larger question in mind. So, the discussion of whether it says "beginning period" or "the beginning" is moot and pedantic unless you are using this to support something like the day-age theory. For example, to say the word for day needs to be read in light of this. If this is being used in order to support a specific interpretive framework, then there are a great deal of other important things that may be noted. As such, may ask in what context this is being used? – James Shewey Feb 23 '15 at 0:27
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    בראשית contains two words -- the preposition ב followed by the noun ראשית. As frequently in English (including all reasonable translations of this verse), preposition + noun (+ verb modified) = adverbial prepositional phrase. – Susan Sep 23 '17 at 18:55
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The most that can be said -- from the perspective of a non-scholar, as I am, who can only study the scholars -- is that a number of competent scholars make a case for translations that differ from Holmstedt's.

As to some of the discussion from those who have written above:

The idea of a "period" of creation is implied in the context for any translator. The first verse speaks of the creation of "the heavens and the earth"; and the second verse then focuses on "the earth", with the creation of "the heavens" coming in verses 7 and 8; the rest of the account includes successive acts of creation. So verse 1 cannot be a reference to a mere point in time at which the process only started. Therefore, even a translation without the word "period" would still imply a beginning period.

My only interest in Holmstedt's translation is its theological implications. Though he speaks as a grammarian for the most part, he actually went beyond a mere grammatical exposition and offered a theological observation. He wrote:

"The notion that a creator deity [in the Genesis account] began forming the observable world with materials … already in existence [is] a logical possibility [with] the greatest of likelihoods."

I communicated directly with Holmstedt about this in the following way with the following response from him. After restating his translation and his observation, I wrote,

"I entertain a different possibility: Perhaps the contents of verse 2 is not a description of the earth – prior to – the ראשׁית period, but as it came to exist – within – that period.

So as far as grammar and syntax is concerned, I assume that this explanation – though you do not consider it the most likely – is a logical possibility.

Please respond."

Holmstedt's response was simple:

"The grammatical patterns of Hebrew would allow your interpretation.

Regards."

This exchange represents my only concern when I read the several possible translations of Gen 1:1 that the scholars offer. And I believe this is the major concern of those who have joined this thread of messages.

I personally do not believe that any translation the scholars propose necessarily indicates that the empty-and-void earth existed -- prior to -- the beginning of God's creation.

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    +1 For the great answer. But, it has a huge whole in the logic. "Cosmology" is a huge thing in Scripture, the stratification of deities, etc. The idea that "Bereshit" is the name of a "Cosmological Era" is un-credible, if it is only ever mentioned in Genesis 1, and nowhere else, - not even in eschatology contexts. To begin validating this theory, There would have to be a basis in other ancient cosmological constructs. Because otherwise, readers wouldn't have any idea what was being discussed, (as logos is mentioned in John 1). The Akkadians, or even Vedic cosmology could suffice. – elika kohen Jul 3 '17 at 1:08
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There are others who support the idea that this verse has grammatical issues as Holmstedt has indicated, for example,

http://www.jtsa.edu/Conservative_Judaism/JTS_Torah_Commentary/Breishit_5770.xml

but Harris concludes that "in the beginning" is a reasonable interpretation and here:

http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8165/jewish/Chapter-1.htm#showrashi=true

Rashi gives 6 different interpretations none that include that of Holmstedt variation.

Even Holmstedt says his idea is awkward (see "Vetus Testamentum 58 (2008) 56-67" page 65, note 19). The focus of Holmstedt's interpretation is on the words "initial period". The definition of period is the following "An interval of time characterized by the occurrence of a certain condition, event, or phenomenon". He mentions the word "periods" once in his opening abstract. He places the word "periods" next to the Hebrew word ראשית (reishit) as if ראשית (reishit) means "periods". But he qualifies it by saying potentially multiple "periods". The phrase potentially multiple is not valid since the word ראשית (reishit) is not a plural word. If the word ראשית (reishit) is translated as a "period", it must be a single one. I think this word is a major element to his interpretation of Genesis 1:1, so he needs to prove how he came up with "period" as its definition. Did he use other scriptures to point him in that definition direction? The requirement of plain meaning in hermeneutics means you use words in their normal meanings. Of course there are exceptions, but they are mostly connected through their root meanings. In any case he must explain since Strongs (NASB) only lists the following definitions for the word ראשית (reishit): beginning (19), choice (2), choicest (3), finest (2), first (16), first fruits (7), foremost (2).

Now I can understand that "the beginning" is time related thus infer it refers to the "initial time period", but I believe he should make the case and not let me draw my own inferences. So while I am inferring, I suppose I can infer that there are multiple "periods", for example "days", or years, or "pre millenium"/"post millenium". Also he writes about "God's creative work". I can infer much about that also. So far this approach appears to be midrashic.

The next time he writes the word is in reference to the Reformation "period". This use has nothing to do with Genesis 1:1. But I am glad he wrote that because it shows that a period covers an interval of time for the example of Reformation. Another example might be Creation "period" for the time of Creation, or the Old Testament "period".

Continuing on, the next time Holmstedt references the word "period" is on page 65 when he just lays it on us about how accurate his translation is by writing the verse to include the word as follows 'In the initial "period" ...'. He never explains the connection between the Hebrew word ראשית (reishit) to the word "period". He could have placed any word in the sentence ie, 'In the initial "recording" ...', or 'In the initial "function" ...'. He never mentions the reason he chose the word "period". In my opinion this connection to the Hebrew word ראשית (reishit) must be explained. When he does the next question is how does he justify adding the word "initial" to his interpretation or does he believe ראשית (reishit) always means "initial period"? This third reference to "period" has a lot of unanswered questions.

The fourth and last time Holmstedt mentions the word "periods" on page 66 in his last paragraph, where he says again that there were potentially multiple periods. I suppose, though he does not explain it, that if ראשית (reishit) was the "initial period" then there could be follow up periods. However, now he writes a second time about God's "creative work". Just mentioning it in the abstract and the conclusion is not sufficient without defining it for historical reasons. It is critical to his definition of the "initial period".

Too many unanswered items before an interpretation like this can be accepted. According to general interpretation rules the sentence has to have a plain/literal/normal reading, be grammatically and historically correct, and in context. In my opinion, this attempt has a long way to go.

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  • +1 For, "Too many unanswered items before an interpretation like this can be accepted." Which is a reminder that it isn't possible to validate this as a "correct interpretation" until all other rival hypotheses have been excluded - especially the "plain meaning" interpretation rule, (that you mention). – elika kohen Jul 3 '17 at 1:10
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As Dr. Michael Heiser notes1, the first word of Genesis ‘Bereshith’ בראשית can be translated as "when" as well as "in the beginning". When we read the first word as "when" then the gematria2 of the text answers the question: When were the heavens and the earth created?

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

In the beginning (220) created (203) Elohim (86) ath (+) The Heavens (98) vath (and +) The Earth (296).

Elohim 86 + the Heavens 98 + the Earth 296 = 480.

Professor David Miano[3] suggests that 480 years represents an ‘Era’ and he notes that biblical writers appear to have written or adjusted their open chronology to fit an idealized period of time:

45 years for the Exodus and Conquest (Josh 14:10)

70 years for the periods of oppression (Judges 3:8, 14; 4:3; 6:1; 10:8)

200 years for the periods of rest (Judges 3:3, 11; 5:31; 8:28)

76 years for the minor judges (Judges 10:1-4; 12:7-15)

3 years for the reign of Abimelech (Judges 9:22)

40 years for the Philistine oppression (Judges 13:1)

2 years for Saul (1 Sam 13:1)

40 years for David (1 Kgs 2:11)

3 years for Solomon (1 Kgs 6:1)

45 + 70 + 200 + 76 + 3 + 40 + 2 + 40 + 3 = 480 years by ordinal measurement.

What does this mean? It means the scribe was saying something that translates as “a very long time ago”.

[Note - this answer was originally posted to a question that is now marked as a duplicate. I was requested to repost it here. If this answer fails to address the question above then please consider whether the previous question really was a duplicate or not? Strictly speaking - a duplicate question should not require the adaptation of duplicate answers, otherwise it can not logically be described a duplicate.]


1 Genesis and Creation (Part 1) - Michael Heiser, Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2 This gematria is from the Seven Palaces of the Merkabah. Gematria key: א 1 ב 2 ג 3 ש 3 ד 4 ת 4 ה 5 ו 6 ז 7 ח 8 ט 9 י 10 כ 20 ל 30 מ 40 נ 50 ס 60 ע 70 פ 80 צ 90 ק 100 ר 200

3 Shadow on the Steps: Time measurement in ancient Israel, by David Miano, pg 57.

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Background
Holmstedt’s blog is a follow up to his article, The Restrictive Syntax of Genesis i 1 which he 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.

In his blog he gives what he believes 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” 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. If Holsmtedt is correct, then the literal text may be dissociated from the natural world resolving the alleged contradictions.

Application
Holmstedt's translation subordinates what follows to a temporal meaning of “the beginning periods.” Since the consonants בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית are used elsewhere, his analysis may be tested:

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)
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)
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)

Each text requires the definite article. In each a translation of “in the beginning periods” fails because the meaning 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."

Conclusion
The position that grammar dictates בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית means what follows occurred in “potentially multiple periods or stages” cannot be applied to the use of the word elsewhere in Scripture. Therefore, it is improper to maintain the first use of the word must have this meaning. Rather, if one was to insist on a singular understanding, it would be the definite article is necessary.

As the use elsewhere demonstrates, the events which follow determine whether the definite article is appropriate. In the case of Genesis 1:1, it remains a matter of belief whether the literal text describing the events which followed were completed in seven days without "gaps."


1. Ironically, the definite article which Holmstedt maintains does not belong, is necessary in what he offers as a better translation: "In the beginning period...".
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  • I’m down voting even though I think there are some interesting observations here, because you haven’t actually interacted with the argument in question. You suggest to retain the meaning of the word while seeking to understand the specific grammar. So consider Genesis 1:1 to be: "Firstfruits God created heavens and earth.” However, (that translation doesn’t make sense to me and) you haven’t shown why this is a correct understanding of the grammar. I acknowledge that that’s a possible meaning of that word, but I’m not seeing how that works with the bet preposition (“in”), for starters. – Susan May 11 '15 at 5:52
  • Exactly what is "the argument in question". This give the example of Genesis 1:1, but then asks if the rule is always true that "All unmarked relative clauses are restrictive." etc. Clearly, you have gotten 2 answers that "don't address the question". I thought maybe it was just me who was missing something here, but clearly, I'm not the only one. The question's author states "I would like to identify counter-arguments that have prevented translations from adopting it." Therefore, if "in the beginning period" is not a proper translation, it would be topical and stand as such a counter argument – James Shewey May 12 '15 at 1:00
  • @JamesShewey My hangup is about the defensibility of the syntax of the hypothesized restrictive relative clause and its construct relationship with רשית; it’s evident that few others share this hangup. :-) This answer has been expanded for the better, I think, but the last quote box ‘if Holmstedt’s grammatical analysis is accurate...’ presents a translation without the relative clause that comprises the substance of the argument, suggesting that we still haven’t touched on ׳the argument in question.׳ All the same, the points about context that are made in this answer are much appreciated. – Susan May 12 '15 at 7:46
  • RevelationLad- thank you for expanding. I have removed my down vote, although see the caveat above. FYI, re. ....Holmstedt concludes what translators have been doing for years is wrong and yet is unable to commit to what he believes is correct. : I agree that the blog is somewhat unsatisfying in that regard, but the linked VT paper draws out the argument quite eloquently and accessibly IMO, with a clear commitment to what he believes is correct. – Susan May 12 '15 at 7:49
  • +1 - I can only imagine Joshua asking, "Moses, is this an unmarked relative clause, and restrictive?" ... +1 for the argument that the reader has the discretion to adopt an interpretation theory. It's poetry! /facepalm The idea that these writers, let alone their readers, remotely used any of these suggested linguistic theories in interpretation is ludicrous. – elika kohen Jul 3 '17 at 0:52

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