Genesis 1:2 והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על־פני תהום ורוח אלהים מרחפת על־פני המים׃

(My translation of the bolded part) And darkness is on the face of the deep

My question regards the bolded section of the verse. Is the Author of Genesis making use of the so-called "historical present," or is something else going on here?

Here are some ideas:

  1. He is indeed using the historical present, i.e. the clause is grammatically in the present tense in order to speak of the past as if it were happening now, pehaps to make it more vivid.

  2. The Hebrew grammar tutorials are oversimplfying by saying that the sentence שרה מלכה means "Sarah is a queen." The sentence could just as well mean "Sarah was a queen" or "Sarah will be a queen."

  3. The bolded section actually refers to the earth in the present (or when Genesis was composed), but this doesn't make the verse fallacious since there is always darkness on the face of the deep in some part of the world, even in the present day.

  4. The Author is using ellipsis. He would have written וחשך היתה על־פני תהום , but omitted the word היתה for the sake of brevity.

  5. Because היתה appears earlier in the verse, this automatically makes the rest of the verse past tense.

Which idea (if any) is correct? If either #1 or #3 is correct, I would translate the verse as "And darkness is on the face of the deep." But if #2, #4, or #5 is correct, I would translate it as, "And darkness was on the face of the deep."

  • I'm no Hebrew scholar, but it's 5: when the relatively rarely used verb 'to be' is implied/supplied in translation, it's always in the contextual tense, never just assumed. And the historical present doesn't have anything to do with making the past more vivid, FYI. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:1: "And he [the Lord >] calls Moses, and the Lord speaks to him..." It's just relating past events, not making it more vivid. Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 0:24
  • 1
    I too endorse option 5. The explicit copula and the existential are rare. In theory the only reason you would need to include היתה at all is to specify the past tense, not because a copula is needed. Since that function has been performed for this sentence, it's not repeated. My two cents, anyway. Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 3:58
  • 1
    5, and therefore 2: the verbless clause is unmarked for tense. Also 4 (which just explains why 5).
    – user2672
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 5:24
  • The reason 5 is correct is because וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם has no verb. Thus, the previous verb is understood.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 20:16
  • I wonder why you didn't ask about מרחפת and not רחפה. Anyway "בראשית god create.. And the earth was... And god was flying from above" - should be the right translation.
    – A. Meshu
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 12:27

1 Answer 1


People in the comments have answered correctly. It's 2, 4 and 5, not 1 and 3. Point 3 is utterly fallacious and point 1 is irrelevant since there's no evidence throughout Biblical Hebrew that this would be happening in Gen 1.2.

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