"In A Beginning..." ?: A Look at Genesis 1.1

Recently I happened upon something very fascinating in Genesis 1.1. Now, this is nothing novel and of course, interpreters before me have taken note of it. However, if I had to hypothesize, I would guess that the majority of Bible readers do not realize that the very first word of the Bible is such a riddle. It can be translated, at least from a grammatical point-of-view, a number of different ways:

1. “In the beginning”
2. “In a beginning”
3. “When God began to create”

However, any intelligent reader of the Bible (or a reader of just about any other text for that matter) knows that when a certain number of interpretations are plausible or possible, the evidence has to be weighed and the best interpretation accepted. One of the questions to ask regarding Genesis 1.1, then, is: Do we have enough evidence to select one reading over others? I would suggest that we do. What I want to do here is to try to dissect the issues surrounding the text and then offer my understanding of the most plausible and permissible reading.

In English, we often use a part of speech that we likely don’t know the technical word for. The term I’m referring to is the word “THE.” This term, “THE” is what is known in grammatical terms as a “Definite Article.” In the phrase, “The cat,” “THE” is the definite article and “cat” is the noun. Thus, in this phrase, the noun is defined by its Definite Article. That is, it is not just any old cat or a cat, it is “THE” cat.

The Definite Article, as we might expect, is the opposite of an Indefinite Article. The difference between the two has to do with one being “specific” and the other being “general.” Thus, the Definite Article is “specific” while the Indefinite Article is “general.” To give an example I’ll use the following sentence: “The boy is young.” Or a similar sentence: “A boy is young.” Do you see the difference between “The” (Definite Article) and “A” (Indefinite Article) in the two sentences? Thus, we would say that the first sentence is Definite and the second one is Indefinite.

Now, in Hebrew, to make a word go from general to specific, one only has to add “he / ha” to the beginning of the word. The problem we confront in Genesis 1.1 is that there is no such prefix; there is no Definite Article. Thus, the text seems to read “In a beginning” (a more general sense) as opposed to “In the beginning” (a more specific sense).

Though the word “bereshiyt” (literally: “in beginning”) lacks the Definite Article, there is an explanation as to why we can still include it in translation:

Just as with English, the Hebrew writers had ways of denoting when a phrase was time-oriented (a.k.a. “temporal”; which does not necessarily mean temporary).

If we reference texts such as Isa. 41.4 and 41.26 we find out, as T. K. Lim has noted, that temporal phrases often lack a Definite Article. In other words, in temporal phrases, the Definite Article is assumed because something is happening at a specific moment in time. Isaiah 41.4 reads: “Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from (the) beginning?” Here, the Definite Article is missing but because this is a temporal phrase, the Definite Article is implied. It is the same in Isaiah 41.26, 46.10, 48.16; Prov. 18.23; Eccl. 3.11 and Genesis 1.1, among others. (*Note: As with temporal phrases, this same idea of an implied Definite Article shows up in cosmological phrases.)

It has been suggested by some that though it is a temporal clause, Genesis 1.1 is also a dependent clause. What this means, according to some, is that for 1.1 to make grammatical sense, it depends on 1.2 or 1.3. In other words, because 1.1 lacks the Definite Article, it cannot stand alone. It is well known by scholars that the interpreter Rashi (1105 AD) made 1.1 dependent on 1.3. To him, 1.2 was a parenthetical statement (that is, it should be put in parenthesis as a kind of transitory side-note). By doing this, Rashi believed that the first word, “bereshiyt,” took on an absolute sense. Yet, such a grammatical move is not necessary. Neither is Abraham ibn Ezra’s (1167 AD) argument that 1.1 is dependent on 1.2. Thus, the argument that we have here a “construct state,” which seems so en vogue at present, actually appears to create nothing but more questions and problems. Again, the Definite Article is implied in the temporal / cosmological clause of 1.1.

While the Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) also lacks a definite article (e.g. it simply reads “en arche”), various Greek scholars have suggested that the clause has an absolute sense to it. This comports well with the temporal / cosmological argument above. Lim also points out that The Samaritan Pentateuch actually points the article as Definite (bareshiyt). (*Note: If you click on the link above to view the SP, you will notice that there are no Hebrew vowel markers!)

So, there are strong evidences for 1.1. reading “In the beginning.” Indeed, this appears to be the strongest reading after all. The theological implications for this are huge too. Here are some implications of such a reading:

1. It assumes that God exists and is before all; theologically, this suggests His supremacy
2. It assumes that God is one (even while Elohiym is in the plural and the Spirit is spoken of here, not to mention the plurality of Gen. 1.26-27; though, in Hebrew, terms that are plural in form often contain a singular meaning, so, this is nothing incredibly exceptional)
3. It teaches that God existed before any matter / creation and that nothing existed before God
4. It suggests that God created out of nothing (ex nihilo), which comports with other Scriptures
5. It suggests that, if Moses, the author of Genesis, knew of other creation myths (e.g. Marduk), that he didn’t borrow language or imagery from them but rather, argued against them (*Note: The Genesis account is widely different than any of the other battle myths or what have you)
6. It suggests the moment when God started to create (e.g. the beginning point) and then successive acts that follow (e.g. each day of creation)


  1. Very well thought out. Your education has served you quite well. I wonder, though, if you're making something simple into something unnecessarily hard. Isn't all of what you just said pretty evident by a simple honest reading of scripture?

    As an aside, what is your take on the "Let there be Light" statement? Some scholars suggest that the Hebrew here does not suggest a creative act at all, but rather a 'restorative' act. Meaning, the light was already there.

    If we consider the Law of First Mention, Jeremiah 4:23 suggests a relationship to Genesis 1:2, and Jeremiah 4:24-26 that there MAY have been, as some theologians believe, something on this earth PRIOR to Genesis 1:2, and that because of judgment it was made 'void' and 'without form'.

    Anther verse in Genesis 1 also suggests a restorative act, rather than creative: Genesis 1:11 suggests that the seed from which the plants and trees and grasses were to spring forth were already in the earth. Seeds have been known to last hundreds of years and still remain viable. Recently, in Israel, they've managed to germinate a date palm from a seed that was almost two thousand years old.

  2. elashley,

    thank you for the kind words. i do not have much time to respond to much of your inquiry at the moment but I definitely will respond soon. as far as making something simple, hard to undestand, I was actually doing the opposite; I was laying out the debates and arguments, untangling them and then offering evidence.

    again, I will have more time to comment later but I have to go for now. check back and thanks for visiting and commenting, I will check your profile soon to see if you have a site. later.

  3. Yes, I heard about this in Lawson Stone's Intro to OT class. If I remember correctly, he favored #3. Which really turns our eschatological time on its head.

  4. John,

    Actually, Stone appears to prefer the second (or so it seems from the work he has put out, he speaks about Gen. 1.1 as a construct on a blog post from a while back; of course, I do not take that position). I've never been a student under Stone so I don't know what he has verbally said; you could be right; I'm going by the blog post.


    As for Jer. 4.23-6 and Gen. 1.1, which I want to say more about soon but just cannot seem to find the time, I do not agree with these hypotheses. I think it is imposing more on the texts than they were aiming to say; or better yet, imposing something on them that they were not trying to say.

    I believe in a young earth but I don't believe that the writer of Gen. was being geological or scientific. I believe the evidence from these scientists makes sense but where I disagree with them is when they try to put those words in the mouths of the Biblical authors. I believe that the science can in some ways illumine the texts but I don't believe the authors had science or geology in mind when they were writing. Certainly, Moses wasn't carbon dating anything.

    Again, I want to say more on this soon.

  5. elashley,

    getting back to your hypotheses above...

    1. Jeremiah 4.23-36 and the phrase tohu va bohu do not suggest that there was something on this earth prior to Gen.1.1 or 1.2. Nothing was "judged" - this is not a judgment scene and it would harldy make sense if we read it that way; I would say it is forcing something onto the text that is just not there.

    In Jeremiah, the context does allow tohu va bohu to have a sense of judgment but again, the context is the key here; it is concerning strife between Bablyonians and those in Jerusalem. Nothing even close to this exists in Gen. 1 anywhere.

    As any close reader of the Bible knows, the same words and phrases can be used in different contexts to mean different things; context is the determining factor, not a post-Enlightenment scientific theory. It is the same with our language (English). Take, for example, the phrase "book it." Depending on the context, that could mean different things: 1) To run fast, 2) A boss telling his secretary to book a flight, 3) A librarian telling a co-worker to catalog something, 4) A husband telling his wife, let's book it this afternoon (a time of reading together). It could mean a number of things. In the context of Gen. 1, this is not a judgment scene, especially since God deems everything God. God's creative work here is not judgment - everything is good.

    2. As for Genesis 1.11 and the restorative act. If you know any Hebrew, you know that God does not command the seeds to grow here. Even if they were "already" in the earth, it does not matter. The command is for the "earth" to bring forth the plants, etc. It is God's command to the earth to produce; not the seeds (vatotse' ha'arets dese' - and the earth bore tender sprouts). We have a Verb, Subject, Object relationship here, where the action of the verb is related to the subject (the earth) not the object (the seeds / plants). It is only "after" this that the "seeds" carry out a verbal act. Thus, the reader is meant to acknowledge that the earth is causing the seeds to do this via God's command, they're not doing it on their own.

    It is neat that seeds can last that long but even so, our Biblical writers did not have the science to know this and even more importantly, they were simply telling the story as it was - 6 days of creation. They weren't expecting people to jumble their words with scientific hypothesis adn theories. In the end, the NT writers agreed with the creation account, one only needs to read Paul to recognize this!

    Hope this helps. More thoughts and discussion are welcome.