The Genesis of Creation
The opening verses of Genesis, describing God’s first acts of creation, contain phrases that are difficult grammatically and lexically. Their meaning has long been debated by commentators, traditional and modern.
The first verse reads:
בראשׁית א:א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
The King James Version (KJV) translates the verse: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is also how the phrase is understood by R. Moses Naḥmanides (ca. 1195–ca. 1270).
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), however, renders the first three words, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, as “when God began to create.” This is how the phrase is understood by Rashi (ca. 1040–ca. 1105) and the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (JPS).
Neither of these translations is correct. The verb בָּרָא is a 3rd person masculine perfect verb, “he created,” and the subject is clearly God. However, the first word, בְּרֵאשִׁית, is in the construct state, i.e., “in the beginning of,” which cannot be followed by a verb. Thus, the Hebrew syntax is problematic, and the literal translation “in the beginning of God created” would be gibberish.
The phrase “in the beginning of” must be followed by a noun or nominal phrase. We see this construction several times in the Bible, for example:
ירמיה כו:א בְּרֵאשִׁית מַמְלְכוּת יְהוֹיָקִים בֶּן יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה הָיָה הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה מֵאֵת יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר.
Jer 26:1 In the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came from YHWH.
דברים יח:ד רֵאשִׁית דְּגָנְךָ תִּירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ וְרֵאשִׁית גֵּז צֹאנְךָ תִּתֶּן לּוֹ.
Deut 18:4 You shall also give him the first of your new grain and wine and oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep.
Since grammatically a noun must follow a construct, Rashi interprets the verb baraʾ, “he created,” as if it were the gerund baroʾ, “creating,” i.e., reading “in the beginning of God’s creating the sky and the earth.” As a traditional sage, Rashi would not suggest that the Masoretic pointing is wrong, but indeed this vocalization does resolve the problem with the text.
Verse 2 Continues Verse 1
Verse 1 is an introductory clause, and the rest of the sentence is in verse 2:
בראשׁית א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.
In the opening phrase of this verse, the words תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, “tohu and vohu,” present their own problem. The KJV translates the phrase as “unformed and void,” while the NRSV and JPS prefer “a formless void.” These translations appear to follow that of the late 1st millennium B.C.E. Septuagint Greek translation, which renders tohu and vohu as ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος, “invisible and unformed.” Similarly, the Latin Vulgate (5th century C.E.) has inanis et vacua, “void and empty.”
This translation does not fit with the other biblical usage of the phrase, which appears in the book of Jeremiah:
ירמיה ד:כג רָאִיתִי אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְאֶל הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵין אוֹרָם. ד:כד רָאִיתִי הֶהָרִים וְהִנֵּה רֹעֲשִׁים וְכָל הַגְּבָעוֹת הִתְקַלְקָלוּ. ד:כה רָאִיתִי וְהִנֵּה אֵין הָאָדָם וְכָל עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם נָדָדוּ. ד:כו רָאִיתִי וְהִנֵּה הַכַּרְמֶל הַמִּדְבָּר וְכָל עָרָיו נִתְּצוּ מִפְּנֵי יְ־הוָה מִפְּנֵי חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ.
Jer 4:23 I saw the earth, and lo, it was tohu and vohu ; and to the skies, and they had no lights. 4:24 I saw the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. 4:25 I saw, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. 4:26 I saw, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before YHWH, before his fierce anger.
Jeremiah has envisioned what the situation in Jerusalem would look like after the Babylonian destruction. The earth was there; he looked on it. In fact, he was standing on it, but it was tohu and vohu. He looked at the sky, so thus there was a sky, but there was no light shining in it. There were no stars, no sun, no moon to cast light. He saw the mountains and the hills quaking and moving, thus there were mountains and hills, but there was no one there. The birds, animals, and people had all fled. The fruitful land was a desert—there were no trees, no flowers, no cities. The land and the skies were completely empty. This Jeremiah describes as tohu and vohu.
Thus tohu and vohu do not mean “unformed and void.” Rather, they mean empty and completely unpopulated, barren of life. Therefore, in Genesis, when God begins his creative activity, the sky, the land, and the waters are all there, but empty of life.
The Earth Had Been Empty of Life
Moreover, grammatically, the opening verse is a dependent clause, the time expressed in the second verse actually precedes the time expressed in the first. This works with the grammar of the second verse.
In Biblical Hebrew, the verb preceding its subject expresses the normal narrative tense. When the subject precedes the verb, however, as in verse 2, the sentence must be translated by the pluperfect. There are many examples of this:
בראשׁית ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן....
Gen 6:4 The Nephilim had been in the land in those days, and also afterward.
That is, at the time described in verse 4, the Nephilim had already been in the land and had continued to be in the land while the activity described in the preceding verses, 6:1–3, occurred. Similarly,
בראשׁית ו:ח וְנֹחַ מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה.
Gen 6:8 Noah had found grace/acceptance in the eyes of YHWH.
That is, before or during the activity described in the first seven verses of the chapter, Noah had been acceptable to God.
Translating the Opening Sentence
Correspondingly, Genesis 1:2 must be translated by the pluperfect, or at least this should be implied in the translation. This verse does not describe the beginning, but what had been before the beginning.
Thus, the first two verses of Genesis must be translated:
בראשׁית א:א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.
Gen 1:1 At the beginning of God’s creating the sky and earth, 1:2 the earth had been empty and unpopulated, darkness had been upon the face of the deep, and a wind from God had been swooping over the face of the waters.
All of this describes the state of affairs before God began to act.
Populating the Heavens and the Earth
Thus the story in Genesis 1 describes how God changes an empty earth engulfed by an empty ocean and turns it into sky, earth, and seas bursting with life. God’s first creative act is to create light:
בראשׁית א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר.
Then God said, “Let there be light.”
As the chapter continues, God divides the light from the darkness. In further acts, God populates the earth by creating grasses, trees, and fruit.
God then populates the sky by creating the sun, the moon, and the stars to live in and move in it. He populates the waters with fish and marine life, and the air between the sky and the land he populates with birds. Finally, he populates the land itself with animals and then with mankind.
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Dr. Lisbeth S. Fried is Visiting Scholar at the University of Michigan’s Department of Middle East Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaism Studies from NYU and another in psychology from University of Michigan. Among her many publications are The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire, Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition, Ezra, a Commentary (Sheffield Academic Press, 2015), and Nehemiah: A Commentary (Sheffield Academic Press, 2021).
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