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The verse in the Masoretic text consists of 7 words and 28 letters and is as follows:
- Unvocalized: בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ
- Vocalized: בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
- Transliterated: Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'aretz.
Bereishit, "In the beginning [of]...". The first word is b'reishit, or Bereishit (בְּרֵאשִׁית). Its elements are:
- be- ("at / in")
- -reish / rosh- (ראש, "head")
- -it ית, a grammatical marker implying "of".
The definite article (i.e., the Hebrew equivalent of "the") is missing, but implied. The complete word literally means "at [the] head [of]", or more colloquially, "in [the] beginning [of]". The same construction is found elsewhere in the Hebrew bible, usually dealing with the beginning of a reign.
bara, "[he] created/creating...". The second word is the Hebrew verb bara (ברא). It is in the masculine form, so that "he" is implied. (English verbs do not distinguish between he, she, and it.) A peculiarity of this verb is that it is always used with God as its subject, meaning that only God can "bara"; it is the characteristic verb for God's creative activity in Genesis 1. "Bara" is also used in Genesis 2 verses 3 and 4. The meaning of "bara" is not "create" in the modern sense, but to differentiate/separate and to allocate roles - e.g., in the creation of Adam and Eve, God allocates gender roles to "male and female".
Elohim, "God...". Elohim (אלהים) is the generic word for God, whether the God of Israel or the gods of other nations. It is used throughout Genesis 1, and contrasts with the phrase Elohim YHWH, "God YHWH", introduced in Genesis 2.
et hashamayim ve'et ha'aretz, "... the heavens and the earth...". Et (אֵת) is a particle used in front of the direct object of a verb; in this case, it indicates that "the heavens and the earth" (a figure of speech meaning "everything") is what is being created. The word ha preceding shamayim (heavens) and aretz (earth) is the definite article, equivalent to the English word "the". Shamayim has the plural -im ending, indicating that the word is "heavens" rather than "heaven".
Genesis 1:1-2 can be translated into English in at least three ways:
- As a statement that the cosmos had an absolute beginning (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth).
- As a statement describing the condition of the world when God began creating (When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was untamed and shapeless).
- Taking all of Genesis 1:2 as background information (When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth being untamed and shapeless, God said, Let there be light!).
By the 2nd century CE, the first meaning had become the dominant one in Christianity, and was crucial in developing the concept that God created the universe out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Modern religious scholars believe that the second may be closer to the original meaning.
The idea that God created the universe out of nothing has become central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but it is not found directly in Genesis, nor in the entire Hebrew Bible. The Priestly authors of Genesis 1, writing around 500-400 BCE, had been concerned not with the origins of matter (the material which God formed into the habitable cosmos), but with the fixing of destinies. This was still the situation in the early 2nd century CE, although early Christian scholars were beginning to see a tension between the idea of world-formation and the omnipotence of God. By the beginning of the 3rd century this tension was resolved, world-formation was overcome, and creation ex nihilo had become a fundamental tenet of Christian theology.
- Alter, Robert (2004). The Five Books of Moses. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-33393-0.
- Bandstra, Barry L. (1999). Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Wadsworth Publishing Company. p. 576. ISBN 0-495-39105-0.
- Blenkinsopp, Joseph (2011). Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1-11. T&T Clarke International.
- Dumbrell, William J. (2002). The Faith of Isarel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament. Baker Academic.
- Hamilton, Victor P (1990). The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17. New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-2521-4.
- Knight, Douglas A (1990). "Cosmology". In Watson E. Mills (General Editor). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Mercer University Press. ISBN 0-86554-402-6.
- May, Gerhard (2004). Creatio ex nihilo. T&T Clarke International.
- Nebe, Gottfried (2002). "Creation in Paul's Theology". In Hoffman, Yair; Reventlow, Henning Graf. Creation in Jewish and Christian Tradition. Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN 9780567573933.
- Walton, John H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Baker Academic. ISBN 0-8010-2750-0.
- Wenham, Gordon (2003). Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch. Exploring the Bible Series 1. IVP Academic. p. 223.
- Curzon, David. Modern poems on the Bible: an anthology. Phila: Jewish Publication Society, 1994.
- Full translation of Rashi on Genesis 1:1
- "Genesis 1:1." Online Parallel Bible. 
- Jewish Publication Society. The Torah: The Five Books of Moses (3rd ed). Philadelphia: 1999.
- Kselman, John S. “Genesis” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary.
- Rosenbaum and Silberman. Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary.
- The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha
- Torat Chaim Chumash. Mossad HaRav Kook. 1986
- Urbach, Ephraim E. The Sages: the world and wisdom of the rabbis of the Talmud.
- Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A commentary. Phila: The Westminster Press, 1972
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