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Possibly the most famous phrase in the Hebrew Bible is: "In the beginning." Anyone can recite it without ever having read the Hebrew Bible. But is that the accurate translation? With a background in Hebrew, I know that there is no "hey" (Hebrew letter = "the") nor vowel corresponding to the "hey" being assimilated into the "bet" (Hebrew letter = "In"). Thus, "beginning" is not a direct object, but actually an indirect object. So shouldn't it be translated as "In A beginning"? If so, what implications does this have? Does this mean that there are more than one beginning -- multiple beginnings? If so, what does that mean in regards to the creation, our existence, etc.?

Or do you think it was an ancient scribal error to neglect the "hey" or a Masoretic misplacement of the vowels?

Why do we always assume it's "In THE beginning"? Is it because we don't know how to explain it otherwise?

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    For one way of handling it, see this question and linked references. This is closely tied up with the issue of subordinating the first verse. (I don't understand what you mean by the direct/indirect object distinction here. Definite or not, רשאית is the object of a preposition.) – Susan Jul 20 '16 at 6:54
  • Please remember the context... This is poetry. You cannot disregard the author's intent, and writing style - and superimpose what we think should have been proper grammar. Fundamentally, you can even argue that "Beginning" and "Created" are the same words, with different morphologies - meaning that "IN [beginning]" might not be proper, but "Creating, God Created ..." ... The point is - IT'S POETRY. The author expects the reader to exercise their own discretion. There are all kinds of plays-on-words like this in Scripture. Throwing a "grammar book" at this won't solve it. – elika kohen Jul 3 '17 at 19:13
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I agree with Elika Kohen. The way I see it, there could have been multiple beginnings (whether before, after, or both) but it is also not incorrect to say "In the beginning" because the phrase is referring to this particular beginning, but it is also not incorrect to say "In a beginning" either because I think it refers to the infinite complexity of God's creation. Then again I personally believe that an infinite God created an infinite amount of universes because everything God does is therefore by nature infinite.

"Yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end."~Ecc. 3:11; "Whatever exists is far off and most profound-- who can discover it?" ~Ecc. 7:24; "I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it [You cannot take away or add to infinity]. God does it so that people will fear him."~Ecc. 3:14

The plurality of Elohim could also refer to the infinite amount of branches or subsections of Almighty God for each of these particular universes, if this theory is true. Of course, I am also trinitarian so therefore I believe that Elohim has multiple applications, including the inclusion of the family of God (i.e. "sons of God")

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Leon R. Kass, in The Beginning of Wisdom, page 27, agrees that because the Hebrew lacks the definite article, the popular translation, “In the beginning” is incorrect. He cites Robert Alter (Genesis Translation and Commentary), who treats the first (and second) verse not as a declarative sentence but as a subordinate clause: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said ...”

As Kass reads Genesis 1 (ibid, page 50), creation need not mean ex nihilo. He says the text says nothing to require such a notion and, in particular, is silent about the origin of the primordial watery chaos.

So, on the view of Kass and others, this was not a scribal error but an error on our parts in reading into the text a meaning that does not seem to be there.

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  • The sense is still singular however, and not one of many beginnings which "a beginning" would imply. – curiousdannii Jul 20 '16 at 6:55
  • @curiousdannii Agreed. I know the OP suggests 'multiple beginnings', but that is not a view that I find published. – Dick Harfield Jul 20 '16 at 7:00
  • @SimplyaChristian You've confused me... If in construct one could argue that it's definite despite lacking the article, but.... it lacks the article.... right? – Susan Jul 20 '16 at 10:19
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    @SimplyaChristian I won't comment on the second comment (that's the content of the question, after all), but to the first: I believe ב would be expected to take the pointing of the article if present (+elided), in this case qamets. See Gesenius §35n. – Susan Jul 20 '16 at 12:13
  • @Susan. Ah, you're right. Thank you for the clarification. – user862 Jul 20 '16 at 16:09
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1. Question Restatement:

“In A Beginning” vs. “In THE beginning”? What is the proper way to interpret Genesis 1:1?


2. Clarification - In Hebrew, the definite noun can be indicated in more than one way:

NASB, Genesis 27:15, Hebrew Interlinear - Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her elder son, which were with her in the house | בַּבָּ֑יִת, and put them on Jacob her younger son.

So, the question's observation about the omission of the traditional "H" definite article is not valid.

In fact, this ambiguity was only tackled by the Karaites (900 AD), (or perhaps Rabbinicists? Long story / debate...), by placing a "vowel pointing", (see above), into the text, to indicate a definite noun, one "beginning".

But vowel pointings in 900 AD are not "proof" of how Biblical passages were interpreted 1400+ years earlier, let alone evidence that Biblical authors were even intendeding to be clear, (many Scriptural writers were intentionally vague).


3. Answer - Multiple interpretations can be held simultaneously:

The false dilemma behind this question is the assumption that Genesis must be about: A.) THE beginning or B.) the LAST beginning of a series of beginnings. This wrongfully excludes another possibility:

The author of Genesis might have been alluding to another beginning - still yet to come. Genesis might be "A FIRST" beginning, (rather than "the only", or "the last").

The possibility of Genesis being "a first beginning" is very consistent with "New Earth"-ish theologies in Isaiah, other prophets, and the New Testament.


4. Answer - Holding multiple interpretations is valid and consistent:

Theologians today, (and historically), have had a very difficult time with ambiguity in Hebrew Scripture. But, this is like pointing out English teachers have inconsistent interpretations of Maya Angelou's poetry.

Genesis 1 is clearly poetic, in form - as most Hebrew is. Poetic authors expect the readers to exercise discretion - to explore, to contemplate, and seek out meanings and significance.

In other words, "In the beginning" and "In a beginning" and "In the First Beginning", are not mutually exclusive. Here, the reader is invited into a contemplation, that expects them to pursue intimacy with God for the proper solution, (Scripture is full of this kind of expectation - with the aid of the Holy Spirit, through prophets, etc.).

There is no reason to exclude the plausibility of a "Play on Words":

Personally, I feel there is most merit in observing the fact that the very first word in the Bible appears to be an amalgam of multiple words ("beginning" and "create"), which doesn't exist in any other text, and that no editor, (Ezra, Documentary Hypothesis, etc.,), understood it as appropriate and significant, (the vowel pointing "correction" only happened in 900 AD).

In a Documentary Voice:

In The Beginning, God created ...

In a Narrative Voice:

[While / When / In] Creating, God created the Heavens and the Earth.

In a Prophetic Voice: Bereshit as a compound of both "Head/Beginning" and "Create" -

During the First Creation, God Created ...
- or perhaps, "A first creation, God Created ..."

There is no theological reason, no hermeneutical reason, to force ONE particular interpretation onto the reader when the writing style is poetic. This idea is completely contrary to poetic and metaphorical writing.

Another non-literal phrase in Genesis 1:

If the Sun wasn't set as a "sign" for days until the fourth day, then how were the first three, literal, 24 hour periods reckoned if the Sun wasn't present to serve this purpose? This requires any reasonable reader to infer that the text isn't speaking of literal "24 hour" days.

It is a very bad argument - to dogmatically state - that poetic language can, and should, only be interpreted one way.

Poetic interpretation often clashes with "grammatical exegesis" - and, that is actually okay.

Conclusion: The fact that this verse can be interpreted in so many non-contradictory ways points to its significance. On the other hand, constricting this verse to only one interpretation removes significance and its presence in the text is rendered meaningless. A restrictive interpretation requires the reader to contemplate "the beginning of the universe" - an idea not in any Biblical context. However, poetic interpretations require the reader to make inferences about the ages of mankind - an idea which appears throughout Scripture.

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“In A Beginning” vs. “In THE beginning”? Different implications?

Certainly, and very huge implications.

It's a case of 'back to the drawing board especially by creation apologists that base their arguments on this erronous translation. As Butterfly and Bones mentions, there's no 'the' and the word rendered as beginning is wrong, rather it's head or chief , more over, its plural.

The verse points to an idea of utility, and not a point in time of this creation.

Gen 1:1 is a simple figure of speech. It's same allegory which God uses on Abraham in Genesis 22:18 saying 'in your seed' shall all nations be blessed. and the same device in Genesis 48:20, where 'in Ephraim Israel blesses', this being a follow up alluding to the blessing upon Abraham.

So Gen 1:1 should be translated as;

''By the heads or chiefs, God created the heavens and the earth.''

Ok, so what? The big deal is, this figure of speech doesn't refer to planetary bodies as the sun and the moon etc, but to an intention of YAH to form rational creatures by the agency of the entities signified as heads or chiefs.

Illustration is Isaiah 51:16., also John 1:1-3 refers to Gen 1:1 as it should be interpreted. Further, a keen eye will note how Messiah refers to himself as the beginning in John 8:25, a verse made a mess of in translation because of uncharted waters in this figure of speech.

The aspect of a beginning in time of this 'creation' is undeniable, because at some point they were non-existent, yet this is besides the point as indicated by the structure of the rhetoric observed throughout the creation account.

Take for example the two great lights created to rule the day and the night in Genesis 1:16; the word great refers to seniority, and the term to have dominion lends itself to no other interpretaion than that of a setting of seniors and juniors, which isnt a mark of inanimate objects as the sun and the moon, but of an environment of rational and sentient beings capable of disorderliness. Which is why the two great lights are created to contain it in the event of it, this disorderliness denoted as the evening in Genesis.

So the big implication is that the current translation of Genesis includes as majority of the content things that aren't given in the account, even though they were by the same Creator. On the other hand, to correctly translate it untangles the toughest kinks in the account that just don't make sense in the current translation. For example, the wife of Cain, enigmas like the arrangement 'earth and heavens' in Gen 2:4 etc.

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  • @ Butterfly and Bones, Much appreciation..I am still 'loitering' about the site, so many good qns asked here its overwhelming.. – Witness Aug 4 '16 at 9:04
  • How do Mt 19:4 and Mk 10:6 play into this? – Sola Gratia Jul 3 '17 at 19:54
  • @Sola Gratia Just reflect a little on Messiah's words, when He said Adam and Even where formed male and female in the beginning, what would be so special with that statement, don't we all know that man and woman have been male and female from the beginning? Yet we all don't seem to know He was pointing out a 'form' to man when ADAM was ONE 'composite' being as the Cherubim, but which form God later split up. But you see, as it is today, that speech was lost on many! Messiah then indicates the ideal in that form that was 'joined' to be reflected in the cohesion forged by marriage... – Witness Jan 29 '19 at 18:59
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"In the beginning..." is not a good translation. The most literal translation that flows grammatically in English is "God initially created..." I use "initially" instead of beginning because "beginning" is a noun and the original Hebrew word, בּראשׁית, is an adverb [1]. Thus, the English adverb "initially" is a good choice.

You could also use the transliteration "Elohim" instead of God if you prefer. Elohim (pronounced Eloheem) is more accurate because it is plural. If you put "Gods" instead, it would confuse the reader. Elohim is the supreme eternal being who can take on multiple roles in interacting with humans.

[1] Baltsan, Hayim, "beresheet בּראשׁית (or bresheet)" 1. adv at the outset; at the beginning. Webster's New World Hebrew Dictionary. 1992

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  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE - we're not a forum, so do take the site tour if you haven't already. We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Note that unsourced material may be disputed or deleted. – Dɑvïd Jul 4 '17 at 12:38
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    +1, for pointing out "Initially" - however, this idea really is from the root, "Rosh", (head). I think "Gods" doesn't confuse readers - and they are smart enough to make their own inferences. Theology and tradition on the other hand - very confusing. – elika kohen Jul 4 '17 at 23:47
  • @elikakohen, all Hebrew words that aren't root words come from a root. Other letters, prefixes, etc. can change the root into an adverb or verb. I think if the word is defined as a verb, it should be translated as a verb. If it is an adverb, it should be translated as an adverb if possible. "Initially" means "at the start" of some action which could also be "at the head" of some action. All of these concepts fit nicely with computer coding jargon. – Dan Randolph Jul 5 '17 at 20:29
  • Dan - You are of course right, syntactically verbs should be translated accordingly, etc. Though intransitives, adverbs, etc., are a bit more complicated in Hebrew. Either way, the primary objection to all of this still holds, you don't interpret poetic texts the same as expository texts - let alone impose the same grammatical expectations. "This is known," (every poet, ever). – elika kohen Jul 5 '17 at 21:40
  • Genesis 1:1 is not a poetic text. It is a narrative. – Dan Randolph Jul 5 '17 at 23:23
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Writers both in this exchange and in Biblical commentary over the centuries have struggled with various interpretations, insertions, etc. to somehow put the "the" into Genesis 1:1. While they may succeed at the cost of not adhering to the Hebrew original as it was written, some even fail to achieve the objective of meaning "In THE beginning, God created the heaven and the earth". For example, "At the beginning of God's creating the heaven and the earth, ..." fails to preclude that there might be creatings of other heavens and earths. Indeed, the second part of Genesis 2:4, upon which this example is based itself lacks any "the" in front of "earth" and "heaven".

My own opinion is that we should accept the literal meaning "In A beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" and see where this reading goes.

Please see Berry, D.M. "Understanding the Beginning of Genesis: Just How Many Beginnings Were There?," Jewish Bible Quarterly, 31:2, pp. 90--93, 2003, which can be found online at <https://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/312/312_berry.pdf>

There is a technical report that is an extension of this published paper at <https://cs.uwaterloo.ca/~dberry/FTP_SITE/tech.reports/breshit.pdf>

There is a still more complete paper: Berry, D.M., "Understanding the Two Creation Narratives in Genesis: Just How Many Beginnings Were There?," CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, LX:IV, pp. 148--170, 2013 Unfortunately, it is not online, although you can see the issue's ToC at <https://www.ccarnet.org/fall-2013/>.

Daniel Berry

dberry@uwaterloo.ca

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