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Genesis 1:1 - What the Hebrew Actually Says
Biblical Hebrew Text
בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
“In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.”
This is probably the most famous of all the Bible verses. Countless sermons have highlighted that it was the beginning of everything, nothing existed before God. And while from other verses we know that it is true God existed before everything, it is worth looking at the actual Hebrew of this verse to make sure it is saying what we think it says.
Two particular aspects in the Hebrew challenge this translation and the general understanding of the text.
The first is the use of the definite article. Every English translation I have come across starts with ‘In the beginning…’. However, this is not exactly what it says in the Hebrew.
The text reads: בְּרֵאשִׁית berishit which has the stem of the word ‘beginning’ and the prefix ‘in’ but specifically the pointing (vowel) use of e (a shewa) instead of a indicates it is an indefinite article, not the definite. Because of this, it should be translated ‘in a beginning’.
In the critical notes complied in the Biblia Hebraica, the book of the Hebrew text with notes on the known variations between different manuscripts, shows that in only one place, the Samaritan translation which is not very authoritative, is the definite article used. Therefore, all Hebrew versions start Genesis with the term ‘in a beginning’. This opens up the possibility that there were other beginnings we do not know about.
The second aspect that affects the understanding of the text is the sentence structure. In Hebrew, the main clause or idea always begins with a verb. Any sentence beginning with something else is a sub-clause to the main idea, usually giving background information.
Berishit is not a verb. The main verb does not actually appear until verse 3, ‘And God said (let there be light)’. This is the main idea at the beginning of the Bible. The prior two verses are to give information and context to this concept. For sermon purposes, this means there should be less emphasis on ‘in a beginning’ and the focus should be on ‘God said let there be light’ as that is the main idea for the writer.
Either way the focus is definitely on God and creation. However, it is a good reminder to always be open and prepared to learn what the text is saying, not what we might think it says.