Creation in Genesis 1-3 (Part 1-Introduction and Temporal Clause)

In this series of posts I intend to look at ancient Israelite concepts concerning creation by exploring two important biblical creation texts—Genesis 1.1-2.4a and Genesis 2.4b-3. Mormon scholars have been especially interested in understanding ancient Israelite conceptions about creation for several reasons. For instance, William Clayton’s report of a sermon that Joseph Smith gave during King Follett’s funeral on April 7th, 1844 states that:

“Learned Doctors tell us God created the heavens & earth out of nothing. They account it blasphemy to contradict the idea—They will call you a fool—You ask them why they say don’t the Bible say he created the world & they infer that it must be out of nothing. The word create came from the word Barau—don’t mean so—it means to organize—same as man would use to build a ship—hence we infer that God had materials to organize from—chaos—chaotic matter.—element had an existence from the time he had. The pure pure principles of element are principles that never can be destroyed—they may be organized and re organized = but not destroyed.” [1]

Here Joseph Smith argues that the verb translated “created” in Genesis 1.1 (Hebrew bara’) means “to organize,” not to create something out of (absolute) nothing. As Joseph Smith himself recognizes, his interpretation of creation in Genesis conflicts with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo—or “creation out of nothing”—which has been a common understanding of God’s manner of creating in the broader Judeo-Christian tradition since the early Middle Ages.

In this series of posts I thus want to bring further attention to several of these studies by Mormon scholars, as well as those arguments and conclusions of biblical scholars concerning ancient Israelite ideas pertaining to creation which they utilize. Therefore, I will summarize those portions of these articles that I believe are most important for understanding creation in Genesis 1-3 in its socio-historical context. However, I also intend to supplement these discussions by drawing on and providing further relevant information and arguments from biblical scholarship. For reference, the most important articles (in my judgment) from a Mormon perspective concerning creation in the Hebrew Bible, and especially creation in Genesis 1-3, are by Kevin Barney, Keith Norman, and Blake Ostler. Kevin’s most relevant article may be found here; Keith’s article may be found here; and Blake’s article may be found here. I will draw heavily from these scholars’ articles in certain segments of this series; also, I do not intend to summarize all of their arguments which may be of some relevance. Therefore, I recommend you read their articles when you have a chance.

Finally, as always, feel free to add comments following the post.

The very first word of the Bible in Genesis 1.1 is bereshit, rendered in the King James Version of as “In the beginning.” [2] Bereshit is a compound preposition composed of the preposition be (meaning “in,” “at,” “on,” or “while”) and the noun reshit (meaning “beginning” or “first”). As it currently stands vocalized, the word is in what is termed grammatically as the “construct state.” For those without a Hebrew grammatical background (or another relevant Semitic language), when a noun is in the construct state, as bereshit is vocalized here, the word is grammatically bound to a following word or phrase, in a manner somewhat analogous to the genitival construction in classical languages. Thus the passage says more literally: “in/at the beginning of.” In his influential commentary in the Anchor Bible series, biblical scholar E.A. Speiser explains:

“The first word of Genesis, and hence the first word in the Hebrew Bible as a unit, is vocalized as beresit. Grammatically, this is evidently in the construct state. . .Thus, the sense of this particular initial term is, or should be, “At the beginning of. . .,” or “When,” and not “In/At the beginning”; the absolute form with adverbial connotation would be bare’sit. As the text is now vocalized, therefore, the Hebrew Bible starts out with a dependent clause.” [3]

It must be remembered, however, as Speiser goes on to explain, that vowel points are not original to the consonantal text. Therefore, the current vocalization in itself is not sufficient evidence that bereshit is in the construct state. However, relevant grammatical evidence for bereshit strongly indicates that it is, in fact, in the construct state and thus introducing a temporal clause. For instance, bereshit occurs four other times in biblical literature (Jeremiah 26.1; 27.1; 28.1; 49.34), and in each of these occurrences the word is clearly in the construct state introducing a temporal clause. Furthermore, the word noun reshit (which, as mentioned, is one of the elements of the compound preposition bereshit) occurs around fifty times in the Bible, and it is virtually always in the construct state as well. This too strongly encourage us to take bereshit as introducing a temporal clause, and not as introducing an absolute beginning in a metphysical sense.

Notes

[1] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1994), p. 359.

[2] For the subsequent analysis, I recommend also reading Blake Ostler’s discussion which can be accessed at http://www.fairlds.org/New_Mormon_Challenge/TNMC04.html. See his section entitled “3.2.1 The Argument from beresit as a Temporal Clause.”

[3] E. A. Speiser, Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (The Anchor Bible Vol. 1) (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., 1964), pg 12.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Creation in Genesis 1-3 (Part 1-Introduction and Temporal Clause)

  1. Hey this is great! I recently wrote about Ostler’s essay, where I collected into one short list the non-LDS quotes Ostler uses.

    For example, since you quote Speiser:

    “To be sure, the present interpretation precludes the view that creation accounts in Genesis say nothing about coexistent matter.” E.A. Speiser, Anchor Bible, Genesis, pg. 13

  2. m00tpoint

    You have some problems here …

    1) A construct noun needs another noun to be in construct WITH. And there is no such noun in the verse. “In the beginning of” what, exactly? Where’s the noun that tells you?

    2) The fact that bereshith is in construct elsewhere does not prove it is in construct here.

    3) The Hebrew construction you propose is simply not how a Hebrew puts a temporal clause together. You have yielded to eisegesis of the text … you already have reached a conclusion, and now the conclusion is driving you to mangle the text.

    m00tpoint

  3. m00t- “A construct noun needs another noun to be in construct WITH.”

    Actually, it does not require another noun. The doyens of Semitic and Hebrew grammar disagree with you, though this is usually the way the ‘construct’ is taught to undergrads.

    “A noun may be in the construct before a finite verb…. This is well recognized for Acc., as in the construction awāt iqbû ‘the word (that) he spoke.’ Heb. has numerous, though not generally recognized, examples; e.g. the opening words of Genesis: in the beginning of he-created’ (the sense is ‘when god began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was chaotic–’). That we are not to emend to (inf. const.) is shown by Hosea 1:2 and Num 3:1. cf. Arabic يَوْمَ followed by the finite verb in temporal clauses equivalent to a when-clause in English.” Gordon, Cyrus Herzl. Ugaritic Textbook: Grammar, Texts in Transliteration, Cuneiform Selections, Glossary, Indices. (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965): 56, ft 1.

    Cf. Gesenius, section 130 “Wider Uses of the Construct State.” and Jouon-Muraoka, section 129. I’ve also heard several prominent Semiticists say this in lecture explicitly of the construction in Gen. 1:1.

    “The fact that bereshith is in construct elsewhere does not prove it is in construct here.”

    Technically correct. Yet, context and usage certainly should play a role in our interpretation, no? Note the Jewish tradition at play here, with Rashi and Harry Orlinski.
    “The passage does not intend to teach the order of creation, to say that these [namely, the heaven and the earth] came first; because if it had intended to teach this, it would have been necessary to use the form berishonah, ‘At first he created the heaven’, etc., **since there is no instance of the form resheit in Scripture which is not in construct with the word following it.**” Rashi, as quoted by Orlinsky, “The Plain Meaning of Genesis 1:1-3,” Biblical Archeologist 46:207-209

    Now for some eisegetical comments. Keil and Delitzsch in their commentary on Gen 1:1 claim that “this construction is invented for the simple purpose of getting rid of the doctrine of a creatio ex nihilo, which is so repulsive to modern Pantheism.”

    “In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause. [See above. Rashi the Jewish Pantheist, right K&D?] This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin- including the one that starts at 2.4b” Jewish Study Bible on Gen 1:1.

    The parallel creation account in 2:4 begins with a temporal clause (NIV “When the LORD God mad…”), as do ANE accounts such as the Enuma Elish, which means “When on high…”

    In short, I think ANE context, OT context, and Hebrew grammar all support the contention that breishit is in construct with the 3ms G-stem perfect, bara’, resulting in the phrase, “When god began to create…”

    Thanks for visiting!

  4. Thanks Nitsav. I appreciate your typing up those quotes too. I don’t think I have much more to add.

    As a side note, my next two posts are actually about parallels between the openings of P, J, and the Enuma Elish.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  5. I was just reading Psalm 20 and I happened upon a passage that I think might be relevant example of what Nitsav just said in response to m00t’s first point. For those who can read Hebrew, verse 10 reads:

    יְהוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם-קָרְאֵנו

    Here the word beyom appears to be in construct with the 1st pl. perfect G of q-r-’.

    TYD

  6. Nitsav, do you like the exegetical work of Franz Delitzch on this topic?