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My question is about the alternative interpretation given on page 110, note 22 of this excerpt of the Zohar, Pritzker Edition. The note posits that אלהים might have been created by the unnameable rather than אלהים Himself being the subject (Creator) in Genesis 1:1. That is, although unwritten by virtue of being unnameable, the unnameable is to be mentally "read" in between ברא and אלהים (or, a bit unlikelier, between בראשית and ברא).

At first glance, there seems to be two issues with that theory. First, the absence of את that would be followed by אלהים. But based on this comment, the direct object marker is not required.

Second, there is no waw preceding את השמים, as there is in את המים . But this other comment points to a passage where the use of waw occurs only in the last item of a list.

Furthermore, the note refers to a concern among the rabbis of the Talmud regarding this alternative interpretation, thereby indicating that these two "issues" are not grammatically untenable so as to disregard the theory that אלהים was the object in Genesis 1:1.

Could you provide some insight as to the feasibility of this alternative interpretation? Or are the Zohar proponents overly stretching the language on this issue? I am not asking for speculation on how it happened or who created who, but on the hermeneutical soundness of that theory.

Edited to add quote of the paragraphs at issue (see comment)

The subject of the verse, אלהים (Elohim), God, follows the verb, ברא (bara), created. In its typical hyperliteral fashion, the author(s) of the Zohar insists on reading the words in the exact order in which they appear, thereby transforming God into the object! This means that the subject is now unnamed, but that is perfectly appropriate because the true subject of emanation is unnamable. The opening words of the Bible no longer mean: In the beginning God created, but rather: With beginning [by means of the point of Hokhmah], the ineffable source created Elohim [the palace of Binah].

The rabbis of the Talmud were aware of the danger of misinterpreting Elohim as the object of that sentence, which could promote Gnostic dualism (see BT Megillah 9a; Rashi and Tosafot, ad loc.). Various early kabbalists also adopt such a reading.

(brackets and italics in original, collecting additional references)

These two paragraphs are part of note 22 on page 110 (or [1:15a]) of Zohar book Parashat Be-Reshit, roughly in the middle of the pdf indicated in the link.

  • That sounds like a second century gnostic twist to fit their theology. You've mentioned the grammatical problems with that interpretation. – Perry Webb Nov 28 '18 at 21:50
  • Good question; but it would be helpful if you would quote the paragraph or sentences as I cannot find precisely which you refer to. – user25930 Nov 28 '18 at 21:58
  • @DrPeterMcGowan Thank you. I have reproduced the two relevant paragraphs of that note. – Iñaki Viggers Nov 28 '18 at 23:07
  • @PerryWebb Exactly, but based on those two comments in the answer to that post, it appears that neither of these two grammatical departure suffices for discarding the argument advanced in the cited excerpt. Hence why I find it puzzling. – Iñaki Viggers Nov 28 '18 at 23:21
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At first glance, there seems to be two issues with that theory. First, the absence of את that would be followed by אלהים. But based on this comment, the direct object marker is not required.

The direct object is not required, but more frequent for animate, definite and discourse-prominent entities (For discussion, see Bekins' 2014 dissertation Transitivity and Object Marking in Biblical Hebrew). God definitely is all of those, so you would expect the object marker. This is even more likely because the other objects in the clause have it.

Although the function of את is not primarily disambiguating (i.e. marking the object when it could be understood as a subject otherwise), it can have this function, and one definitely would expect this usage here: the alternative has massive theological implications which can be resolved easily by including את.

Second, there is no waw preceding את השמים, as there is in את המים . But this other comment points to a passage where the use of waw occurs only in the last item of a list.

As in many languages, the conjunction is possible between all elements of an enumeration but only required for the last one (e.g., English "Alice, Bob and Eve"). This is indeed not a solid counterargument.

Could you provide some insight as to the feasibility of this alternative interpretation? Or are the Zohar proponents overly stretching the language on this issue?

The remark concerning the direct object marker is a strong counterargument to this reading. There is no reason in the text to understand אלהים as the object rather than the subject (the only reason to read it like this is to make it fit some theology). The one textual argument that is given, is that the subject follows the verb and for some reason this would be impossible:

In its typical hyperliteral fashion, the author(s) of the Zohar insists on reading the words in the exact order in which they appear, thereby transforming God into the object!

But word order is rather fluid in Hebrew and Verb-Subject-Object is not at all uncommon. And especially in a poetic/literary text as Genesis 1, there can be various reasons for deviating from typical word order. This may be simple topic fronting (where the topic of the sentence, ברא, is moved to the front for emphasis), or it may be moved next to בראשׁית for assonance, to name just two possible reasons.

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  • Nice. Agreed, it's particularly odd for את to appear on some but not all objects. And the word order suggestion is hilarious — imagine how many verbs would suddenly be without a subject if we applied that definition of "literal" across the OT. Another counter is that the OT doesn't often omit the explicit subject (it seems much more fond of redundant repetition of each speaker and their pedigrees), and when it does, as we just saw, it's not a nameless entity but a general "one does this or that", functionally similar to a passive. – Luke Sawczak Nov 29 '18 at 13:28
  • @Keelan Thanks. I'l look for the dissertation by Benkins. And yes, VSO is common whereas SVO is used for emphasis on Subject (at least in Arabic and I presume that also in Hebrew). I would be curious to read a argumentation (if any) of the alternative Zoharic interpretation, but the distinction you explain certainly is enlightening. – Iñaki Viggers Dec 2 '18 at 12:54
  • @LukeSawczak Yes, it would be disruptive to impose that notion all over the OT. But being Genesis 1:1 (regarding Creation), it certainly matches the gnostic (kabalistic) idea of God (Ein Sof) being unknowable to humans and akin notions. – Iñaki Viggers Dec 2 '18 at 13:10

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