Genesis 1.1-3, Hebrew Grammar, and Translation

*(revised after the clarification given in the initial comment)*


Genesis 1.1 is one of the most discussed verses in the Hebrew Bible. It is the first verse of the first book, initiates the Hebrews’ grand cosmology, and … contains an apparent grammatical crux. Phooey! You would think that one could get further than one word into the Hebrew Bible without a grammatical problem.

In fact, there is no problem, only a long-term misunderstanding of Hebrew grammar. In a 2008 article appearing in Vetus Testamentum (which revised a sub-section taken from my 2002 thesis), I argued for an analysis of the first verse that is grounded both in my long-term research on the Hebrew relative clause and comparative Semitic grammar. You can find the article linked here.

But recently I was criticized (on a blog), for failing to explain how my analysis of 1.1 fit into an interpretation of 1.1-3. So, although my argument for Gen 1.1 stands ably on its own, I will take the opportunity presented by the recent criticism to summarize my argument for 1.1 and provide my analysis of vv. 1-3.

The Nature of בראשׁית in Gen 1.1

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.

If one wants to ignore the Masoretic vocalization and read the word with an articular vowel with the preposition, i.e., *בָּרֵאשִׁית, “in THE beginning,” as the Samaritan Pentateuch appears to do, fine. But one must not only recognize that such a choice is a departure from the Masoretic text, but also fails to explain the Greek Ἐν ἀρχῇ, which also lack the definite article.

What is the grammatically justified analysis? The noun ראשׁית is bound to an unmarked relative clause, “beginning-of (that/when) God created …”. This construction, which is found in Ge’ez, Old South Arabian, and Akkadian, must be as old as Semitic itself. In other words, the noun-bound-to-clause structure of ראשׁית ברא in Gen 1.1. finds a clear parallel in the Akkadian pattern di:n idi:nu “judgment (that) he judged/rendered” (Lipinski 2001:533-34; also see Deutscher 2001, 2002 for insightful linguistic discussion of origins of the Old Akkadian relative clause).

Here I should also mention the excellent study, Baasten 2007. Baasten covers much the same ground as I do in my 2008 VT article and it is unfortunate that our library did not receive the book until well after my article came out. I recommend reading Baasten’s study alongside mine.

The biggest difference between Baasten’s study, as well as all previous studies of the noun-bound-to-clause construction in Semitic, and my argument (in my thesis and in the 2008 VT article) concerns the semantics of this unmarked relative clause. I argue that using a bound form of the noun serving as the head of the relative clause is one strategy used to mark the relative clause as restrictive. The other strategy used to mark a Hebrew relative as restrictive is to omit the relative word, i.e., an unmarked or asyndetic relative clause. Interestingly, both strategies are used in בראשׁית ברא! That is, Gen 1.1 is doubly-marked as a restrictive relative clause, meaning that this particular ראשׁית cannot be identified without the information given within the relative. 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.

That is the essence of my argument for Gen 1.1.

The Addition of the Preposition ב to בראשׂית

The difference between the basic di:n idi:nu syntax of ראשׁית ברא … and how Gen 1.1. really starts is the addition of the clitic preposition ב. The preposition takes ראשׁית, with its attached relative clause, as its own complement. The lack of the articular vocalization in the Masoretic tradition leaves open the question whether the ראשׁית should be translated as definite in English. Since ראשׁית is “in construct,” it depends on the definiteness of its clitic host to signal its own definiteness. The problem, of course, is that a clause is never marked as definite. So, we are left with some ambiguity: is בראשׁית ברא “in a beginning period that …” or “in the beginning period that …”? I suggest that the referential nature of the nominalized clause grounds the ראשׁית sufficiently to make it definite (specific, identifiable) and so using “the” in English, as long as no comma is inserted after “beginning,” is the legitimate translation.

As a whole, the addition of the ב preposition indicates that the noun ראשׁית and its relative clause have been assigned a role within a larger clause. Fronting a prepositional phrase as a scene-setting Topic before the main verb is a very common narrative strategy in Hebrew. Once need only look for examples like Gen 22.4, בַּיּוֹם הַשְׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם … “on the third day Abraham lifted …”. Moreover, once it is recognized that the vast majority a high percentage** of occurrences of וַיְהִי in BH narrative are discourse markers and not the main verb for a following prepositional phrase, the use of Topic PPs fronted before a wayyiqtol (past narrative) verb becomes ubiquitous at scene transitions in narrative. In other words, in Gen 4.3, וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן…, the initial ויהי is a discourse marker and the PP מקץ ימים is a Topic-fronted temporal modifier for the verb ויבא, “At the end of (so many) days, Cain brought …”.

**According to the study in this new post, the discourse ויהי account for 48.4% of the total ויהי in the book of Genesis.

The Status of Verse 2

The Topic-fronted PP, main wayyiqtol verb pattern of Gen 1.1. is very well-attested in biblical narrative. So what role does verse 2 play, with its shift to a Subject-Verb (qatal/perfective) syntax? The simple answer is that it is a compound parenthesis, consisting of 3 clauses.

Parentheses are constituents (phrases, clauses, or even compound clauses, like Gen 1.2) that interrupt the flow of an ‘argument’, whether the argument is at its core chronological (i.e., a narrative) or logical (i.e., an exposition, as in, e.g., many psalms).

The easiest parenthetical constituents to identify are those that are syntactic interruptions, as in Esth 9.24, וְהִפִּיל פּוּר הוּא הַגּוֹרָל לְהֻמָּם וּלְאַבְּדָם “and one cast a ‘pur’ (it is the lot) to disturb them and destroy them.” In Esth 9.24, the null copula clause הוא הגורל “it is the lot” interrupts the clause within which it sits, separating the core of the main predicate from the adjunct infinitive clauses. Note, though, that parentheses cannot simply be thrown anywhere in its host clause. Rather, they must be placed at word or phrase edges. In other words, one never finds a parenthesis that intervenes between a preposition and its complement, since those two items either form a word (i.e., when the preposition is ב, כ, or ל) or a phrase in which one or both parts cannot stand on their own (i.e., even the preposition is orthographically separate, it still ‘leans’, i.e,. is cliticized, on its complement host). This also applies to collocations of verbs and complements. So, in the case of Esth 9.24, the parenthesis is inserted between the verbal complement and the verbal adjunct. We would not find a parenthesis intervening between the verb and its complement, because those two items combine to form a semantic unit.

A test for parenthesis is to ask these questions:

1. Does the clause in question add an event on par with the preceding event? If so, it is not likely a parenthesis.

2. Does the clause in question add information about a specific constituent in the preceding clause and yet does not appear to be a relative clause? Also, does the clause in question overlap with the preceding clause in almost all the constituents but adds, say, one new constituent? If either (or both) is true, the clause is likely a parenthesis. (Note that this condition distinguishes parenthesis from what are often taken as circumstantial clauses, where the overlap is minimal and the clause does not primarily modify a single constituent, but often an entire event or situation).

3. Does the structure of the clause in question differ from the structure of the clause on either side of it and do those two clauses share a similar structure? If so, and if it does not contribute an action or even on par with the preceding and following clauses (per #1), it may be a parenthesis.

With this description of and criteria for identifying parentheses in hand, we can now turn back to Gen 1.2. Syntactically, the compound clause in v. 2 sits between a Topic-fronted adjunct clause, בראשׁית…, and the main verb, ויאמר in v. 3. So far, so good—it sits at an appropriate phrase edge. Does it add an event on par with the preceding event (#1)? In the case of Gen 1.1-3, this criteria is hardly applicable, since the preceding event is also subordinate. But criteria #2 fits perfectly, since Gen 1.2 picks up with הארץ, which was first presented in v. 1, but then adds something more. So there is overlap, but also additional information. And finally, #3 seals the identification: there is clear structural difference in syntax between, on the one hand, v. 2, with its Subject-Verb order and, on the other hand, the noun-bound-to-clause in v. 1 and the wayyiqtol clause in v. 3. Now, v. 1 and v. 3 don’t share the same structure, but that’s because v. 1 a syntactic part of v. 3. Nonetheless, the shift we see in v. 2 is paralleled many times with other parentheses in the Hebrew Bible.


The overall analysis of Gen 1.1-3 given above has a long history in biblical scholarship. It is also the analysis adopted in Baasten 2007, although with the tie-in to relative clause restrictivenes. Here is a basic English translation that would serve as a starting point for working out one that reflects whatever translation theory one adopts:

“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!'”

Happily, within biblical scholarship, the analysis I have promoted above is being adopted by my peers (e.g., Mark Smith in his Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, and Ellen van Wolde, in her 2009 JSOT article). [John Walton’s book was submitted in 2006, too early to have read either Baasten’s or my articles.]

More troubling is the attitude exhibited in the critical blog I mentioned at the outset. The owner [RDH: the author requests attribution], Peter Kirk ( presents himself as a representative of was formerly a professional Bible translator but is no longer; he wrote this:

But the traditional understanding of 1:1 has a history going back over 2000 years to LXX. To overturn such a tradition you will always need overwhelming evidence. And neither I nor the majority of professional Bible translators have seen that overwhelming evidence. So for the moment you need to accept that your position is considered one of the possible alternatives …

Beside the mistaken view of the LXX on Gen 1.1 (it does not reflect an article, just like the Masoretic vocalization; see above), what is disturbing about this comment is that professional Bible translators, to my knowledge, rarely have PhDs in biblical studies and are thus not experts in Hebrew grammar or Hebrew exegesis. [RDH: Peter Kirk has clarified what he referred to by professional translators—those who made English translations like the NIV11; this was not how I was taking him; see my comment below.] And yet, this one has clearly set himself up as a greater expert on the grammar, textual tradition, and literary features of Gen 1.1 than me, Martin Baasten, Mark Smith, Ellen van Wolde, and over a century of Semitists who understood the basic grammatical noun-bound-to-clause structure of Gen 1.1.

Disturbing, indeed, and not a good sign for the quality of the interpretation behind Bible translations done by “professionals” with this relationship to Hebrew grammarians.

[RDH: clarification in the comment below. I do not mean to disparage all professional translators, of both types, as I specify in my comment; rather, their respective skill sets indicate that one would think both would look to developments in Hebrew grammatical analysis. Hmm…digging self deeper hole. Oh well.]


* Baasten, Martin F. J. 2007. First Things First: The Syntax of Gen 1:1-3 Revisited. Pp. 169-88 in Studies in Hebrew Literature and Jewish Culture Presented to Albert Van Der Heide on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Martin F. J. Baasten, and Reinier Munk. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer.

* Deutscher, Guy. 2001. The Rise and Fall of a Rogue Relative Construction. Studies in Language 25 (3):405-22.

* Deutscher, Guy. 2002. The Akkadian Relative Clauses in Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 92:86-105.

* Lipiński, Edward. 2001. Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar. 2nd ed. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 80. Leuven: Peeters Publishers.

* Smith, Mark. S. 2010. The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

* Wolde, Ellen J. van. 2009. Why the Verb ברא Does Not Mean ‘to Create’ in Genesis 1.1-2.4a. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34 (1):3-23.

30 Responses to “Genesis 1.1-3, Hebrew Grammar, and Translation”

  1. Peter Kirk Says:

    Robert, your quotation starting “But the traditional understanding of 1:1 …” comes from a comment on my blog, which you have quoted without attribution and so in breach of my license terms. I realise you may have withheld the attribution to avoid making personal the accusations you make against me. But as I wish to refute these accusations I am forced to identify myself.

    I do not “present[] [my]self as a representative of professional Bible translators”. As a grammarian you should recognise that the English phrase “neither A nor a majority of B” does not imply a claim that A is a member of the group B, still less a representative of that group. I was formerly a professional Bible translator, but I am speaking for myself, not as anyone’s representative.

    In fact the Bible translators I primarily had in mind here were those responsible for recent English versions like NIV 2011, ESV, CEV, HCSB, and NLT. All or most of the translation teams for these versions “have PhDs in biblical studies” – and I make no claim to represent these teams. Yet all of these versions chose the traditional rendering for their main text, and only CEB among recent versions preferred something similar to your suggestion – with a footnote showing the team’s uncertainty. Against the large number of top notch scholars in those teams put together, you put forward yourself and three others, plus what I understand to be a minority opinion, if a long held one, among Semitists. I hardly think you can claim to have the kind of overwhelming academic consensus on your side which justifies comments like “In fact, there is no problem, only a long-term misunderstanding of Hebrew grammar.”

    Indeed LXX omits the article, and this may be evidence that the Hebrew did not originally have the article. But LXX also shows that the pre-Christian era translators understood the Hebrew of verse 1, even without the article, as an independent sentence, and not as dependent on verse 3 as you seem to insist that it must be.

    As I have said elsewhere, I accept that your exegesis may well be right. It deserves a place as a footnoted alternative in a Bible version. But I don’t see here the kind of academic consensus which I think should be required before making a theologically significant change to our translated Bible texts. Still less do I think the matter is sufficiently settled that you can claim that “there is no problem”.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      First, I did not attribute the statement to you because I thought you were embarrassing yourself intellectually. But you want attribution, you got it.

      Second, nowhere have I stifled your ability to express yourself. Resorting to the free speech rhetoric is a sign of desperation and anti-intellectualism. If you are referring to the lack of attribution of your quote, the fact that I sent you the link the moment it was posted refutes that I was attempting to continue the discussion behind your back. I was extending you the common courtesy of choosing to engage, rather than forcing you to. That you should interpret my actions as you have says much.

      Finally, it is good that you have clarified that you are no longer a professional translator and are not speaking for them. I was interpreting in light the fact that I was aware that you did this, but not that you quit, and also of your status as official contributor to the Better Bibles Blog. I will amend my statements at the end. One important clarification is that I used this term to refer not to those on translation committees, like those behind the NIV11, but to those translators working in the field and on languages very different than English. In most cases, these are two very different types of translators–one set is mostly biblical scholars and the other set are field linguists.

      The former set should be aware of the Semitic scholarship on the construction in Gen 1.1. If they are and have ignored it, it is likely due to ideological bias regarding creationism. The latter should not be expected to know such details in the history of Semitic scholarship, but would hopefully pay some attention to contemporary Hebrew linguists.

      Now, for a few clean up issues you raised in another comment on your blog, which readers can access through your link above if they want:
      1. I resent the suggestion that I’m defending a faith position. That’s the same sort of rhetorical rubbish as the free speech claim. I don’t care how people use Gen 1.1-3 theologically. I care how the Hebrew grammar is treated.

      2. I am arrogant. I don’t need more friends. Enemies are more fun, anyway. There are too many students applying to study their doctorate with me as it is. I get frustrated each year that we have to turn down even the best of them. And I do assert some authority in matters of Hebrew grammar, and I back it up every time I teach or publish. And when I write things like “Period. End of story.” in a blog post, it is intentionally provocative. But you should take note and learn from what follows: I back up my assertions with evidence-based argument.

      A postscript for other readers:
      Blogs. Sigh. They can be put to such good use, or they can be wasted. Dear readers, don’t waste your blogs. Say something useful (and if you are making claims, be sure to support them with evidence).

      Prof. Arrogant S.O.B. Hebraist

      • Peter Kirk Says:

        Thank you for adding the attribution I requested and the clarifications. I never meant to suggest that you were doing anything behind my back. I fully agree with your point that “these are two very different types of translators–one set is mostly biblical scholars and the other set are field linguists.” I was once in the latter category but have never claimed to be among the former, although I have interacted with them on blogs and provided formal input to their discussions.

        Thank you also for clarifying that your defensiveness is not about a faith position, but only about an academic position. However, since you resented my suggestion, you might like to consider the Golden Rule and reconsider the similar suggestion you made about “translation committees, like those behind the NIV11”, that they have “ideological bias regarding creationism”. I doubt if many of them are young earth creationists. They probably mostly believe in the traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo. But your interpretation does not contradict that doctrine, although it does not positively teach it either. An accusation which might be closer to the mark is that these committees are reluctant to depart from traditional wording especially in well known passages. As I wrote elsewhere, it might have been better if more of these teams had put your interpretation in a footnote.

        Well, you have successfully put at least one potential student from considering you as someone to study for a doctorate with. Anyway I wouldn’t fancy Toronto winters.

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        The difference between your suggestion w.r.t. theological beliefs behind my argument of Gen 1.1 and my suggestion w.r.t. translators involved in popular English Bible translations is this: 1) in many cases, the institutions those scholars come from explicitly require their faculty to take a creationist stance (I know, I have studied and taught at such institutions in the past, although never as a full faculty), and 2) many years ago I studied with a wonderful man who was on the original NIV translation committee and things he told me about the translation decisions concretely support my statement. So, while my statement will not make me any new friends, it is also sufficiently accurate (there are, I’m sure, individual and institutional exceptions).

        It is true: Toronto winters are only for those insanely dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the face of physical inconvenience (e.g., the loss of toes to frost-bite).

        Peter, I am sorry that we have had a rather pointed and unfriendly back-and-forth. This won’t be comforting, but it will illustrate that I engage in these discussions out of principle — last summer I had a similar heated series with John Hobbins, whom I have counted as a friend for a dozen years. The topic had nothing to do with anything I’ve written on, but was simply about a claim regarding the nature of ancient Hebrew and translation technique. Why did I get John so mad at me? Because I am adamant that blog posts and comments should be held to the same standards as any academic discourse: if a claim is made, it must be supported. Call me what you want (and I’m sure you can think of plenty of colourful terms), but my intention to to be a pit bull for scientific standards in scholarly discourse, regardless of medium.

  2. OT News Around the Web Says:

    […] Robert Holmstedt offers up an entertaining and informative exchange with Peter Kirk on the translation of Gen. 1:1-3 at Ancient Hebrew Grammar. […]

  3. Robert Holmstedt on the Grammar of Gen 1:1 « Daniel O. McClellan Says:

    […] Holmstedt (and John Cook) discuss the reasons for this reading on the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog here and here. They make a solid case. GA_googleAddAttr(“AdOpt”, “1”); GA_googleAddAttr(“Origin”, […]

  4. The Naked Bible » There’s a Lot to Think About When Translating Genesis 1:1-3 Says:

    […] I tried to go easy. One of my doctoral classmates from the UW-Madison, Rob Holmstedt, provided a recent glimpse of the complexity involved. Rob’s stature as a Hebrew linguist and grammarian is rapidly rising, so I’m […]

  5. Ed Says:

    I am not sure why this translation leads anyone to abandon any of their traditional views of creation… perhaps someone could explain that to me?

    • Peter Kirk Says:

      Ed, the traditional understanding of Genesis 1 clearly affirms the traditional Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and thus that God is Lord over the whole of creation. But Holmstedt’s preferred rendering suggests that God was working to shape pre-existing matter, of whose existence he is not the cause. That implies that God is not supreme Lord of all but is only some kind of secondary agent, subject either to eternal matter (does anyone explicitly teach this?) or to a higher level Creator who caused the matter to be (as in ANE religions). Of course how the passage is translated should not depend on these theological matters. But the fervour with which people might argue for a particular interpretation might reflect their theological presuppositions. And mine are, with no apologies, that God is Creator and Lord of all.

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        Peter’s argument in the above comment is specious.

        Our analysis of Genesis 1.1-3 says nothing about our ideas about how matter came into existence or God’s role in it. Our analysis, if you read it carefully (including my 2008 Vetus Testamentum article), is about what this text, Gen 1.1-3 claims — that this narrative starts with a specific ראשׁית period in view. Whatever happened before that is not in this text’s view. One can accept our analysis and still easily hold to a creation ex nihilo position, whether based on other biblical texts or some philosophical/scientific arguments.

        The assertions made and the oppositions set up in Peter’s comment have nothing to do with our grammatical analysis or our (unstated) theological and/or cosmogonic views.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      I don’t remember making the claim that our grammatical analysis of Gen 1.1-3 necessitates anyone abandoning their cosmogonic views. But I am certainly willing to unpack the implications of our analysis in light of your question.

      To put it simply: there is no direct connection between the grammar of the passage and giving up one’s views. Rather, it works the other way: our analysis of the grammar of Gen 1.1-3 opens the passage up so that one cannot simply assert that “It’s about THE beginning.”

      As a restrictive relative, this “beginning” is defined as the one in which God created the heavens and the earth. Thus, the grammar indicates the statement to be ambiguous with regard to the modern old-earth-vs-young-earth debate. It might have been the first and only ראשׁית period, but it also might have been one of many ראשׁית periods.

      So, a young-earth person can say, “this is the only and first ראשׁית,” but such a claim does not proceed directly from the grammar; it interprets the meaning of the text in light of a view brought to the text from some other place. And an old-earth person can say, “this relativizes the claims Genesis 1.1-3 makes so that the old-earth and the big-bangity-bang are not disallowed by the text”. Take your pick, but you must do it based on texts or issues outside Gen 1.1-3; the decision cannot be tied directly to the grammar of the passage since the grammar allows for both.

      (None of this says a durned thing about evolution, of course, since 1.1-3 are strictly speaking irrelevant to that debate.)

      Does that help?

      • Peter Kirk Says:

        Robert, thank you for both your responses here, which help to clarify what you mean. For the record, I am by no means a young earth creationist. Nor am I any sort of creationist in the sense of believing that God created animals, plants and humans without using evolutionary processes broadly as described by the scientific consensus. But I am a creationist in the sense of believing that God is the ultimate cause of everything that exists, and I consider that to be fundamental to Christian theology.

        And it is this teaching which I see as being questioned by your interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3. Would it be correct to paraphrase this as “Before God began his work on the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void, and then God said…”? If that is true, it implies that matter was in existence before God began his work. Or is your suggestion more that God created matter, and then at a later time formed this matter into the heavens and the earth? I accept that that is a logical possibility, but is it actually likely that the author of Genesis believed this?

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        The notion that a creator deity began forming the observable world with materials that were already in existence — by whatever means — is not only common in ANE cosmologies, it is the likeliest background to the Hebrew version.

        The fact that the writer did not discuss where the material came from accords with other rhetorical features of Genesis 1, such as the implicit denial of violence (such as in the Enuma Elish) or sexual imagery (such as with Atum in Egyptian cosmologies), or the conspicuous non-naming of astral entities (i.e., “the bigger light” instead of “Sun/Shamash”). In other words, by skipping right over where the material came from, the Hebrew writer implicitly rejects, for example, the Mesopotamia view that the cosmos was formed from the carcass of a killed primordial goddess or the Egyptian view that a divine being was self-begotten and then proceeded to ejaculate to create the rest.

        So, if you read broadly and deeply in ANE cosmologies, you’ll find that not only does our analysis make the best sense of Hebrew grammar, it allows for a better contextualization of Genesis 1 in its cultural context. It’s not just a logical possibility, it’s the greatest of likelihoods.

      • Ed Says:

        Yes… thanks, helps a lot… you explained the consequences of the grammar… that is exactly what I was hoping for…

  6. robertholmstedt Says:

    You are most welcome. One of my life’s passions is to explain Hebrew grammar, so I’m very happy to have been of some service.

  7. Matthias Says:

    Dear Robert,
    I am a lay person and have a question concerning Genesis 1: Do you think it is grammatically possible that the original author intended to mean that the first day started in Genesis 1:6 and that the second day started in verse 9 and so on?

    There are a few reasons why I am asking this:

    The Aramaic and Greek translations (as far as I have seen) have “sixth day” instead of “seventh day” in Genesis 2:2a which seems to support that the sixth day started with Genesis 2:1 and did not end in Genesis 1:31 like traditionally is thought.

    Evening in the Bible seems to begin with the going down of the sun and morning seems to be the time of dawn until sunrise (though I am not sure if all priestly texts support this?). The traditional understanding reflected for example in the KJV of Genesis 1:23 cannot be a correct translation in light of what evening and morning means in biblical texts. So if I understand the Hebrew of Genesis 1:23 correctly it does seem to mean: “and it was getting dark, [night], and it dawned (or grew light). [On] the fifth day …”.

    Time references are most of the time used in the beginning of sentences and not at the end. One example you had mentioned in your post is Genesis 22:4.

    The meaning of the Hebrew word (1961) before the words evening/morning does also seem to support this view, when I compare it to other places where it is used.

    The Hebrew word for “made” (H6213) is used first in Genesis 1:7 and not before. Considering that Genesis 2:2a read “sixth day” (LXX, Aramaic) originally this view does seem to agree much better with Exodus 20:8-11. The first act of creation happens in Genesis 1:7 and the last one in Genesis 2:2a.

    Your suggested translation of Genesis 1:1-3 does also seem to be in favor of this view more than the traditional understanding of the first day starting already either in Genesis 1:1 or 1:3.

    I would be very interested to know what view the Hebrew Grammar supports?


    • robertholmstedt Says:


      Interesting question. I’ve not looked at the version in great depth for the end of the passage, but from what I have access to, the Aramaic versions all have the same as the MT, while it is the Samaritan Pentateuch and the LXX that have “he finished on the SIXTH day” in 2.2a.

      As for the idea that the phrase “and morning happened and evening happened, day X” was an opening unit, rather than a closing unit, there is no grammatical way to argue either way. Of course, the Masoretic tradition took it as a unit closing device (we can tell by the Petuha (פ) after every occurrence).

      But I am inclined to see the act of speaking in Gen 1.3 as the first creative activity. This parallels acts representing creative authority in both Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmogonies. As such, I think it is an important Hebrew claim about Yhwh — that he (like the Egyptian view of Ptah and like the Babylonian view of Marduk) creates by speaking.

      • Matthias Says:

        Thanks for your quick response, Robert.

        I would argue that the Petuha (פ) would have to be placed here:

        “… and evening happened and morning happened, Petuha (פ).
        Day X …”

        From what I have seen the biblical (calendar-) days seem to start with sunrise and end at sunrise. Only the Sabbath rest starts already in the evening (at sundown) on the day before (compare Leviticus 23:32). I think that would also explain the “missing” evening/morning part in Genesis 2:2-3. There happened no normal evening so to speak, because the Sabbath which was hidden in creation and later revealed at Sinai (according to P) started in the evening of the sixth day.

        The Aramaic Peshitta (at least the translation of George Lamsa) does also have “sixth day” in Genesis 2:2a

        May I ask what Aramaic versions you are referring to which have “seventh day” in Genesis 2:2a? (I hope this is not a stupid question)

        I agree with you that Genesis 1:3 is the first act of creation, namely the creation of the week (I also agree that it is a polemic against other creation myths). However I also think that the new moon days in the Bible are never part of the weeks, the only week days are the six working days and the seventh-day Sabbath. The new moon days are not weekdays (contrary to our modern weekly cycle). There is a clear 7-day weekly cycle visible in the phases of the moon with one or two new moon days outside of the four 7-day-weeks each month. So I would expect some kind of creation activity (but not H1254 or H6213) before the creation week proper starts, namely on the new moon day before the creation week.

        Anyway, I think this would explain the text best and give proper weight to all the words used. But I am not a scholar and I hardly understand anything of Hebrew grammar. That is why I am interested to know if this is grammatically possible or not.

        I realize that all of this goes against virtually all traditional teachings, but I am only interested in what the text actually says.

      • robertholmstedt Says:


        Again, I don’t think this is a grammatical issue. Your proposed re-division is primarily literary. A case for taking “Day X” as a heading for the next section would need to be build by looking for other “and it so was X” … “Title” sequences (i.e., “and it was morning and it was evening. [end of previous section / beginning of new section ] Day X…”).

        The Aramaic I was referring to was the Targums. What you’re referring to is the Syriac Peshitto (also called Peshitta). And that Version does indeed have 6th. But the typical analysis of the “6th” in the Peshitta, LXX, and Samaritan Pentateuch is that these versions reflect an intentional editorial emendation to avoid any hint that God did any work on the 7th day. For example, Gordon Wenham writes this in this commentary on Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary, 1987):

        To say that God finished work on the seventh day might seem to imply that he was working on that day. For this reason some versions and modern commentators changed “seventh” to “sixth” (Newman, BT 27 [1976] 101–4). This spoils the threefold repetition of “seventh” in vv 2–3, and it overlooks the exact nuance of כלה “and he had finished.” Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, e.g., Gen 17:22; 49:33; Exod 40:33, the phrase indicates that the action in question is past, and a pluperfect is used in English translations. There is no implication in the Hebrew of 2:2 that God was working on the seventh day before he finished.

        So, you will need to address the compositional/editorial issues, the structural changes as a whole, and dig pretty deeply into ancient calendar issues (and we don’t have a lot of Israelite calendar information until the late Hellenistic period, unless I am mistaken).

        But it is an interesting idea. Don’t give up.

  8. On Genesis 1 « Insomniac memos Says:

    […] a discussion of some of the grammatical features of the text. In the end, our interpretation has to match with the features found in the text… Like […]

  9. Edward T. Babinski Says:

    One of the world’s foremost experts on the meaning of Genesis chapter one in its ancient Near Eastern environment is Mark Smith. In his book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, he explains (keep in mind I have only cited a few passages, not including his extensive endnotes):

    “It is the relative clause that makes ‘in beginning’ definite in the NRSV and NAB translations, which allows for their translation ‘the beginning,’ instead of an indefinite rendering, ‘a beginning.’ At the same time, this translation may make it seem that the verse is talking about the beginning. So it is better to avoid using ‘the beginning’ in a translation. It is for this reason that I have instead adopted the translation: ‘When at first God created’ (this is fairly similar to the NJPS translation: ‘When God began to create’). . . . Most modern translations, such as NRSV, NAB, and NJPS, follow this understanding. The reasons in favor of this interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3 have been nicely expressed by the biblical scholar Jack M. Sasson, professor at Vanderbilt University: Although there are competent philologists who still defend the traditional translation, I personally think that this exegesis is really beyond dispute: first, because it is supported by grammar and syntax; second, because other creation narratives similarly open with temporal or circumstantial clauses; and third because the first of God’s creative injunctions does not come until v. 3. Despite the length of such a sentence, it falls entirely in line with the openings of creation accounts from Mesopotamia. For example, Enuma Elish, which we discussed above, begins in this manner. Such introductions start with a clause beginning ‘when,’ and often follow with a description of the conditions lacking for life, followed by a ‘then’ statement describing an important, initial act of creation. Significantly, this is also essentially the structure of Genesis 2:4 (in the second half of the verse) through Genesis 2:7: verse 4, second half, is the when clause, verses 5-6 are the parenthetical clause describing the conditions prevailing at the time, and verse 7 describes the divine act.

    “The implication of this interpretation is that Genesis 1:1 does not talk about “the beginning” in an absolute sense. Instead, it simply refers to the remote time when God began to create. We will study the meaning of the word ‘in beginning of’ (bere’shit) shortly, but we should be careful that we not allow the traditional interpretation of the meaning of Genesis 1:1 to dictate about how we think about it. This verse presents the situation of the world when God first started creating—a point that was well recognized by ancient writers. The great Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (roughly, a contemporary of Jesus) put the point this way: “‘in (the) beginning he made’ is equivalent to ‘he first made the heaven first.'”

    “Modern commentators have followed this approach as well. According to the giant of German biblical scholarship of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen, re’shit does not denote ‘the commencement of a process which goes forward in time, but the first. . . part of a thing.’ The account talks about “the beginning,” namely the beginning of God’s creating the world, not the absolute beginning of everything. In the words of the great twentieth century scholar, Wilfred G. Lambert, Genesis is “about the processes by which the universe we know reached its present form, with no attempt to delve into the question of ultimate origin.” This is the general understanding of biblical scholars today. As we will observe below, the idea of creation from nothing arose in the Greco-Roman period and is alien to the Hebrew Bible. With this question about “the beginning” addressed, we may turn to the specific words of verse 1.”

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Smith’s book is an excellent study.
      And I am honored that he cites my VT article on Gen 1.1 favorably in footnotes 37 and 38 for the paragraphs you have quoted.

  10. Josh Says:

    Hi Robert, I had a question regarding the relationship between Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 in light of your grammatical analysis. There is an obvious parallel in English between Genesis “in the beginning God created” and John’s “in the beginning was the word”

    Does the Greek of John 1:1 have a similar indefinite relative view of “the beginning” or does it carry the idea of the definitive “THE Beginning”?

    Given that John is relating to the eternal existence of the Word and his co-existence and co-divinity with God I would not be surprised if it does express a definitive “THE beginning” but I’m also curious if it might happen to express the same idea you are proposing for Genesis 1:1?

    • robertholmstedt Says:


      The simple answer is that I think the NT writer was mimicking the LXX of Gen 1.1, not the Hebrew. The structure is identical at the outset:

      Gen 1.1 LXX Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν
      John 1.1 Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος

      But to answer whether Greek allows unmarked relatives like I’ve shown for Hebrew and thus this would be a legitimate analysis of the LXX Gen 1.1, you’d need to ask a good Greek grammarian.

      Off hand, I’d say that Greek probably does allow this (but I could be wrong), but it doesn’t make much sense of John 1.1. Note also the lack of an article does not *necessarily* make the “beginning” indefinite (i.e., the following restrictive relative makes it definite by indicating it as an identifiable and specific “beginning”). My guess is that the author of John inferred the LXX beginning to be definite (however he thought of it in absolute or relative terms — we don’t know) and so intended the same for the first verse of his gospel. That is, just as with Gen 1.1, the important point in John 1.1. is that “when this story (i.e., the story concerning the world we know and the humanity we know) began, God said … // the “word” was with him …”.

  11. John Hobbins Says:

    Hi Rob,

    A very helpful post and a great comment thread. Sorry I am so late to the party.

    FYI I summarily presented Francis Andersen’s analysis of the grammar of Gen 1:1-3 back in 2008, with comments at the time from Rob Holmstedt. The AFPMA analysis has much in common with that presented in this and the following post, but also some salient differences. For the presentation referred to, additional discussion and supplementary bibliography, and related posts, go here:

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      The differences from AFPMA and our analysis is the following:
      1) we explicitly identify v. 2 as a parenthesis,
      2) Gen 1.1 is explicitly identified as a PP adjunct to the main verb in v. 3 and within the PP is a NP (reshit) following by a *restrictive* relative clause.

      We made few claims to novelty; rather, our work often takes the ad hoc set of examples, the lack of linguistic frameworks, etc., represented in previous analysis and re-does all the work so that the argument is actually on firm linguistic ground. And when we come across some novel detail, then we happily claim it. But we know our place in the larger history of interpretation.

  12. John 1:1 - Page 18 - Religious Education Forum Says:

    […] It affirms that Jesus is a god (An Angel, as Angels are called gods), not God when read correctly. The incarnation of Wisdom, or the Logos, as mentioned in PRoverbs 8.[/quote] Some good points, but it should be noted that the "sons of God" from Job 38:7 (and Gen 6:2, 4; Deut 32:8; Ps 29:1; 82:6; 89:7; Job 1:6; 2:1) were not identified with angels until the Greco-Roman period. I discuss this further here. By way of support for your comment about John 1:1, I would also point out that the first word of Genesis 1:1 is best read not as an absolute, but as a construct phrase. In other words, "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was . . ." It is not "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." A good discussion of this is found here. […]

  13. A Few Notes on the Wiki Bible, Genesis 1:1 | Mitchell Powell's Blog Says:

    […] the issue altogether, or else to simply link out to the work of a competent professional, perhaps here and here, or […]

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