"When God began to create" (Gen 1:1)
Reading through the story of creation
We’ll start our close reading of the creation story with Genesis 1:1. As you see, in my translation this is not a complete sentence, but an introductory clause.
1 When God began to create the sky and the earth —
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
In the Beginning … Not!
When God began to create. This translates the first 3 Hebrew words of the Bible: b’reishit bara elohim, בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים. The traditional English translation of these words is “in the beginning, God created,” but, as we’ll see, there are some grammatical difficulties with that translation. An English translation that would convey the unusual flavor of these words is “at the beginning of ‘God created’.”
As Rashi (the French Jewish scholar whose 11th-century Hebrew commentaries have shaped how Jews understand both the Bible and the Talmud ever since) explains:
The word b’reishit בראשית is always used in the Bible to mean “at the beginning of …” (It occurs 4 other times, and all in the book of Jeremiah.)
The word bara ברא looks like the simple verb form indicating “[he] created.” (We will see this very form 3 more times in our story, with its standard meaning.)
There is an occurrence in Hos 1:2, “the start of YHWH’s speaking with Hosea” (teḥilat dibber YHWH b’Hoshea תְּחִלַּ֥ת דִּבֶּר־יְ׳הוָ֖ה בְּהוֹשֵׁ֑עַ) where what looks like the ordinary past tense verb is used like a noun, to describe the activity rather than to pinpoint when it took place.
Our word, therefore, both can and must be interpreted as if it were the verbal noun “creating” rather than the past tense verb “he created.” (You will find the normal form of this word in Gen 5:1, “on the day of God’s creating humanity” b’yom b’ro elohim adam בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם).
It is common to translate this kind of biblical phrase in more standard English with a “when” clause – not “at the beginning of God’s creating” but “when God began to create.”
We now think that the story may begin this way because it seemed natural in the Bible’s original ancient Near Eastern context to begin telling about the creation of our world as if joining a story that was already in progress. The Babylonian creation epic begins with the two Akkadian words enuma elish, which mean “when on high …” The implication is that the gods who will create our world are already part of a story whose actual beginning we are not told: Who are these gods, and how did they themselves come into being and acquire the powers (and the relationships) they seem to have?
A side note: We call the Babylonian work Enuma Elish precisely because those are the first words of the text. When texts were still inscribed on clay tablets, their first words were easiest to read and the fastest way to identify them – and this, of course, remained true when books began to be written on scrolls. Our English name “Genesis” describes the subject of the Bible’s first book (generously understood), but the Jewish name for the book is indeed B’reishit, the first word of the text. (That apostrophe is pronounced like the first e of Jerusalem or the first a of Maria.) It is another feature in which the Jewish Bible is very much an ancient Near Eastern work, not a modern one.
Genesis, like the Enuma Elish, begins in medias res – with the curtain going up on a story that is already in progress. Even if you disagree with my translation and prefer the familiar “in the beginning, God created” version, you must realize that our Bible introduces God in just the same way the Mesopotamian version introduces its divine characters. God exists and (to jump far ahead of our first three words) thinks and acts, but who is this “God”? Genesis 1 does not tell us.
A later Jewish tradition looks at the letter the Bible begins with (ב, the equivalent of our B) and finds it unusual that the world was not created starting with א, the first letter (A of our alphabet). One of the explanations for this notices that this letter ב opens in just one direction, to the left, the direction that Hebrew is read. The tradition passed down by R. Jonah in the name of R. Levi took this as an indication that the text was refusing to tell us “what is above,” “what is below,” and (most critical for the current point) what is to the right, that is, “what came before.”
That’s a playful tradition, but – like so many of the creative traditions that grew up around the Bible – it is quite profound as well. It is pointing out to us just what we’ve learned in scholarly fashion, by careful attention to the grammar and to the ancient Near Eastern civilization in which the Bible first appeared: Our Bible does not start “in the beginning,” but (at the very least) with God already on the scene, ready to begin the work of “creating.”
We’ll talk more about what that means on Tuesday.