Can Genesis 1:1 be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth”?
By Frank Luke
Genesis 1:1 has been the topic of much controversy in the last few decades. A recent retranslation has the above sentence. The justification is that this is one possibility that an ancient Jew or Hebrew would understand. This essay will attempt to explore that possibility from a grammatical standpoint.
There are at least four reasons that the above translation will not work under Biblical Hebrew’s rules of grammar.
- Changes the state of the verb. The Hebrew verb bara’ is in a finite form. Specifically, the Hebrew verb used here is in the Qal perfect state (more specifically the Qal perfect 3rd masculine singular). The perfect state is always a finite verb. The translation in question requires a Qal infinitive construct (‘to create’) and would read bero’ (as in Genesis 5:1). There is no way to confuse a Qal perfect 3ms with a Qal infinitive construct.
- Turns a noun into a verb. “When God began to create” not only requires confusing an infinitive construct and perfect but also requires that one confuse a noun and a verb. Though several Hebrew words are translated “begin, began” none can be confused with re’shith (used 51 times in the Old Testament). The most common word for “began” as a verb in Genesis is chalal. The two words look nothing alike in Hebrew. Similarly, the Bible never uses a verb form for re’shith or its root re’sh.
- Puts the prepositional phrase in the wrong place. As many languages (Hebrew included) do not allow splitting an infinitive, Hebrew also forbids splitting the prepositional phrase. In fact, the most common Hebrew prepositions are prefixed onto the noun they modify (hence the grammars refer to them as “inseparable prepositions”). Genesis 1:1 uses one of the inseparable prepositions on “beginning” but not “God.” The text reads bere’shith not beElohim. Therefore, God is not the object of the preposition and we cannot justify “When God” instead of “in beginning.”
- The new verse becomes a dependent clause. Hebrew grammar and syntax forbid a dependent clause (rare enough in Hebrew anyway) from being joined to the independent clause by a waw conjunction. Genesis 1:2 begins with this waw conjunction meaning “and” or “but.” The traditional (and correct) translation of these two verses renders, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth, and the earth was¼”
The next two observations do not deal with the translation offered above but with similar arguments that could be made.
- There is no other way of saying “when” in Hebrew besides the simple preposition be. Actually, there is. One way is beyom. This is the normal word for “day” prefixed by the preposition for “in.” It reads literally as “in day” (no article). However, the Hebrews use this construction idiomatic for “when” (for example Gen 2:4, 17).
- What about “When beginning¼?” This translation fares little better. Though the preposition be can mean “when” in the proper context, doing so makes this occurrence an adverb. As mentioned above, re’shith is not a verb, cannot be confused with a verb, and is never used as a verb.
In conclusion, Genesis 1:1 should not be translated as proposed. The translation breaks no less than four rules of Hebrew grammar.