Thursday, November 10, 2011


“In Genesis, the ‘beginning’ (rēʾšît) refers to a preliminary period of time rather than a first point in time. This is comparable with the Akkadian term reštu, which means ‘the first part’ or ‘the first installment’; as well as with the Egyptian phrase introduced (above, p. 126), a term that plays a significant role in cosmological texts. In these texts, the Egyptian phrase refers to “when the pattern of existence was established and first enacted.”[Allen, Genesis in Egypt, 57] In English, we might refer to an initial period such as this as the primordial period. All of this information leads us to conclude that the ‘beginning’ is a way of labeling the seven-day period of creation described in the remainder of Genesis 1 rather than a point in time prior to the seven days. As an independent clause, it offers no description of creative acts but provides a literary introduction to the period of creative activity that then flows into the tôlĕdôt sections that characterize the remainder of the book.”— Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, page 127

<idle musing>
Rob Holmstedt posted a comment yesterday where he mentioned an article he had written with an alternative explanation.

Which do you prefer?
</idle musing>


Robert Holmstedt said...


By the way, John Sailhammer was the first to make the argument about ראשׁית not referring to a "point" in time but a "period". I don't know if Walton mentions Sailhammer's argument or not (since I don't have Walton's book yet), but it's a good analysis.

I generally like Walton's interpretation of Gen 1. You know, if you keep posting paragraphs, I won't have to buy the book at all. :-)

jps said...


I doubt I will post enough that you can avoid buying the book :)


Edwardtbabinski said...

One of the world's foremost experts on the meaning of Genesis chapter one in its ancient Near Eastern environment is Mark Smith. In his book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, he explains (keep in mind I have only cited a few passages, not including his extensive endnotes):

"It is the relative clause that makes 'in beginning' definite in the NRSV and NAB translations, which allows for their translation 'the beginning,' instead of an indefinite rendering, 'a beginning.' At the same time, this translation may make it seem that the verse is talking about the beginning. So it is better to avoid using 'the beginning' in a translation. It is for this reason that I have instead adopted the translation: 'When at first God created' (this is fairly similar to the NJPS translation: 'When God began to create'). . . . Most modern translations, such as NRSV, NAB, and NJPS, follow this understanding. The reasons in favor of this interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3 have been nicely expressed by the biblical scholar Jack M. Sasson, professor at Vanderbilt University: Although there are competent philologists who still defend the traditional translation, I personally think that this exegesis is really beyond dispute: first, because it is supported by grammar and syntax; second, because other creation narratives similarly open with temporal or circumstantial clauses; and third because the first of God’s creative injunctions does not come until v. 3. Despite the length of such a sentence, it falls entirely in line with the openings of creation accounts from Mesopotamia. For example, Enuma Elish, which we discussed above, begins in this manner. Such introductions start with a clause beginning 'when,' and often follow with a description of the conditions lacking for life, followed by a 'then' statement describing an important, initial act of creation. Significantly, this is also essentially the structure of Genesis 2:4 (in the second half of the verse) through Genesis 2:7: verse 4, second half, is the when clause, verses 5-6 are the parenthetical clause describing the conditions prevailing at the time, and verse 7 describes the divine act.

"The implication of this interpretation is that Genesis 1:1 does not talk about “the beginning” in an absolute sense. Instead, it simply refers to the remote time when God began to create. We will study the meaning of the word 'in beginning of' (bere’shit) shortly, but we should be careful that we not allow the traditional interpretation of the meaning of Genesis 1:1 to dictate about how we think about it. This verse presents the situation of the world when God first started creating—a point that was well recognized by ancient writers. The great Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (roughly, a contemporary of Jesus) put the point this way: "'in (the) beginning he made' is equivalent to 'he first made the heaven first.'"

"Modern commentators have followed this approach as well. According to the giant of German biblical scholarship of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen, re’shit does not denote 'the commencement of a process which goes forward in time, but the first. . . part of a thing.' The account talks about “the beginning,” namely the beginning of God’s creating the world, not the absolute beginning of everything. In the words of the great twentieth century scholar, Wilfred G. Lambert, Genesis is “about the processes by which the universe we know reached its present form, with no attempt to delve into the question of ultimate origin.” This is the general understanding of biblical scholars today. As we will observe below, the idea of creation from nothing arose in the Greco-Roman period and is alien to the Hebrew Bible. With this question about “the beginning” addressed, we may turn to the specific words of verse 1."

jps said...


I noticed that you made the same comment on Peter's blog. I would take a somewhat different tact: The LXX took it as a prepositional clause and translated it Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν. So, already by the third/second century BCE, it was being translated the way most modern English translations do.

Now, you can argue that wasn't the original intent. Fine, but if you hold to a late writing of Genesis, you are in trouble, because the "Hellenistic" understanding was already there at the time it was supposedly composed, as evidenced by the LXX rendering.

Additionally, there is a clear parallel by the author of John in 1:1: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, which shows that in the first century CE, it was understood temporally.

So, while I respect Mark Smith's work and have used it extensively, I think he is incorrect here.