Some translations render Genesis 1:1 as a dependent clause like “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” while others understand this verse as being an independent sentence. “in the beginning God created ..” The difference between the two understandings of this verse stem from how one reads the first-word berē’šît .
Because Berē’šît lacks a definite article and it has a sh’va vowel it looks like berē’šît is in construct form followed by a noun. like Jeremiah 26:1, Deuteronomy 18:4, Genesis 10:10. So, if understood that way it might be rendered “At the beginning of …”. If it were not in the construction state we might expect ‘Barishonah’ or bareishit(in the beginning). Since the first word lacks the kamatz vowel and the definite article many understand it is in the construction state. However, It surprisingly has a verb following it (bara/create) rather than a noun as the rules of grammar might lead us to expect.
On the other hand, If berē’šît is in the construct state we should ask ourselves what is the modifier. And, why did the Massorets place the Tifkha accent under berē’šît and use it in a sof pasuq clause if is really in the construct state and is a dependent clause? Also, if one takes this line of thought one may find comfort in knowing a number of early translations of the pre-Masoretic text like the LXX, and the targums also appear to have understood this verse as an independent absolute clause/sentence.
Okay and here are a few opinions on the verse:
Opinion one: We are confronted at the outset by a troublesome question of syntax which affects the sense of every member of v. 1. While all ancient Vns. and many moderns take the verse as a complete sentence, others (following Rashi and Ibn Ezra) treat it as a temporal clause, subordinate either to v. 3 (Rashi, and so most) or v. 2 (Ibn Ezra, apparently). On the latter view the verse will read: In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth: בְּרֵאשִׁית being in the const. state, followed by a clause as gen. (cf. Is. 29:1; Hos. 1:2 etc.; and see G-K. § 130 d; Dav. § 25). In a note below reasons are given for preferring this construction to the other; but a decision is difficult, and in dealing with p 13 v. 1 it is necessary to leave the alternative open.—In the beginning] If the clause be subordinate the reference of ראשית is defined by what immediately follows, and no further question arises.
Skinner, John, 1851-1925. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis. New York: Scribner, 1910.
Opinion Two: “When God begun to create This rendering of the Hebrew looks to verse 3 for the completion of the sentence. It takes verse 2 to be parenthetical, describing the state of things at the time when God first spoke. Support for understanding the text in this way comes from 2:4 and 5:1, both of which refer to Creation and begin with “When.” The Mesopotamian creation epic known as Enuma Elish also commences the same way. In fact, enuma means “when.” Apparently, this was a conventional opening style for cosmological narratives. As to the peculiar syntax of the Hebrew sentence—a noun in the construct state (be-reʾshit) with a finite verb (baraʾ)—analogies may be found in Leviticus 14:46, Isaiah 29:1, and Hosea 1:2. This seems to be the way Rashi understood the text.”
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989)
Opinion there: “The first word of Genesis, and hence the first word in the Hebrew Bible as a unit, is vocalized as berẹ̄ʾšīt. Grammatically, this is evidently in the construct state, that is, the first of two connected forms which jointly yield a possessive compound. 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 bārẹ̄ʾšīt. As the text is now vocalized, therefore, the Hebrew Bible starts out with a dependent clause.
The second word in Hebrew, and hence the end-form of the indicated possessive compound, appears as bārāʾ, literally “he created.” The normal way of saying “at the beginning of creation (by God)” would be berẹ̄šīt berōʾ (ʾelōhīm), with the infinitive in the second position; and this is indeed the precise construction (though not the wording) of the corresponding phrase in 2:4b. Nevertheless, Hebrew usage permits a finite verb in this position; cf. Hos 1:2. It is worth noting that the majority of medieval Hebrew commentators and grammarians, not to mention many moderns, could see no objection to viewing Gen 1:1 as a dependent clause.
Nevertheless, vocalization alone should not be the decisive factor in this instance. For it could be (and has been) argued that the vocalized text is relatively late and should not therefore be unduly binding.
E. A. Speiser, Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 1, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008)
Opinion four: Heb. lacks the def art in בראשׁית (lit., “in beginning”) but “in the beginning” is an acceptable translation (Joüon, 137k). Omission of the def art is regular in temporal phrases and does not necessarily indicate that ראשׁית should be taken as constr (cf. Isa 46:10; Prov 8:23).
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1–15. Vol. 1. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1987. Word Biblical Commentary.
Opinion Four part two: 1–3 “In the beginning God created.” The stark simplicity of this, the traditional translation, disguises a complex and protracted debate about the correct interpretation of vv 1–3. Four possible understandings of the syntax of these verses have been defended.
- V 1 is a temporal clause subordinate to the main clause in v 2: “In the beginning when God created …, the earth was without form.…”
- V 1 is a temporal clause subordinate to the main clause in v 3 (v 2 is a parenthetic comment). “In the beginning when God created … (now the earth was formless) God said.…”
- V 1 is a main clause, summarizing all the events described in vv 2–31. It is a title to the chapter as a whole, and could be rendered “In the beginning God was the creator of heaven and earth.” What being creator of heaven and earth means is then explained in more detail in vv 2–31.
- V 1 is a main clause describing the first act of creation. Vv 2 and 3 describe subsequent phases in God’s creative activity. This is the traditional view adopted in our translation.
Theologically these different translations are of great consequence, for apart from #4, the translations all presuppose the existence of chaotic preexistent matter before the work of creation began. The arguments for and against these translations must now be reviewed.
1 was first propounded by Ibn Ezra but has attracted little support since, apart from Gross (VTSup 32  131–45). Though NEB and NAB appear to adopt this translation, by placing a period at the end of v 2, they probably regard the main clause as “God said” in v 3, i.e., option 2. It is the least likely interpretation in that v 2 is a circumstantial clause giving additional background information necessary to understanding v 1 or v 3 and therefore either v 1 or v 3 must contain the main clause.
2 was first propounded by Rashi, though there are hints in rabbinic texts that it may have been known earlier (Schäfer, 162–66). More recent defenders include Bauer, Bayer, Herrmann, Humbert, Lane, Loretz, Skinner, and Speiser, as well as RSV mg., NEB, NAB, and TEV.
This interpretation begins with the observation that the first word בראשׁית literally, “in beginning,” does not have the definite article. It may therefore be construed as a construct and the whole clause may then be translated, “In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth.” In this type of construction the verb is usually in the infinitive (בְּרֹא) whereas here it is perfect (בָּרָא “he created”). However, this is not without parallel; cf. Hos 1:2 (F. I. Andersen and D. N. Freedman, Hosea, AB24 [Garden City: Doubleday, 1980] 153.)
In support of this being the right interpretation of v 1 the following arguments are also cited. First, ראשׁית “beginning” rarely, if ever, has the absolute sense: it means “formerly,” “firstly,” not “first of all.” Second, Gen 2:4b, usually regarded as the start of the second account of creation, begins, literally, “in the day of the making by the LORD God of heaven and earth.” Third, Enuma elish and the Atrahasis epic both begin with a similar dependent temporal clause. However, the majority of recent writers reject this interpretation for the following reasons:
First and fundamental is the observation that the absence of the article in בראשׁית does not imply that it is in the construct state. Temporal phrases often lack the article (e.g., Isa 46:10; 40:21; 41:4, 26; Gen 3:22; 6:3, 4; Mic 5:1; Hab 1:12). Nor can it be shown that ראשׁית may not have an absolute sense. It may well have an absolute sense in Isa 46:10, and the analogous expression מראשׁ in Prov 8:23 certainly refers to the beginning of all creation. The context of בראשׁית standing at the start of the account of world history makes an absolute sense highly appropriate here. The parallel with Gen 2:4b disappears, if, as argued below, the next section of Genesis begins with 2:4a, not 4b. As for the alleged parallels with Mesopotamian sources, most of those who acknowledge such dependence point out that better parallels with extrabiblical material may be found in Gen 1:2–3 than in 1:1. The first verse is the work of the editor of the chapter; his indebtedness to earlier tradition first becomes apparent in v 2.
On these grounds most modern commentators agree that v 1 is an independent main clause to be translated “In the beginning God created …” However, within this consensus there is still dispute as to the relationship between v 1 and vv 2–3. The majority (Driver, Gunkel, Procksch, Zimmerli, von Rad, Eichrodt, Cassuto, Schmidt, Westermann, Beauchamp, Steck) adopt the view that Gen 1:1 is essentially a title to what follows. 1:1 is in a chiastic correspondence to 2:4a (create, heavens and earth // heavens and earth, create), and these two clauses thus frame the intervening account. This argument proves little, although it could also be argued that the closing words of 2:3, “which God created,” make a telling inclusion with 1:1. On this view, vv 2–30 expound what is meant by the verb “create” in v 1. Creation is a matter of organizing pre-existing chaos. The origin of the chaos is left undiscussed, and given the background of oriental mythology, it may be presumed to be eternal.
In support of this view it is urged that only it does justice to the exact wording of v 1. The traditional interpretation supposes that God first created chaos and then ordered it, whereas elsewhere Scripture speaks of God creating order, not chaos (e.g., Isa 45:18). Even here the text says God created “heaven and earth,” which most naturally denotes the whole ordered cosmos. The strength of these arguments depends on the exact interpretation of the terms in v 1, and this will be discussed below. Here it suffices to observe that if the creation of the world was a unique event, the terms used here may have a slightly different value from elsewhere. Furthermore, Gunkel argued that there is a contradiction between vv 1 and 2, if v 1 is merely a title. How can God be said to create the earth (v 1), if the earth pre-existed his creative activity (v 2) as this view implies? A diachronic literary explanation is usually advanced, namely, that v 1 is a later addition to an earlier source: Gen 1:1 is P’s own interpretative comment on the traditional material in vv 2–3. Before Genesis reached its present final form, the account simply spoke of God addressing a dark chaotic world (cf. vv 2–3). Then the author or editor of Genesis prefaced this older version with v 1, stating that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The contradiction between v 1 and vv 2–3 is thus explained in terms of a reviser’s not integrating his remarks adequately with earlier material. However, a text ought to be interpreted synchronically as well, i.e., in its total final form. This tends to support the traditional view, for it is preferable to suppose that the editor did not leave obvious contradictions within his work.
Finally, interpretation #4, the traditional view, still has many adherents. The versions and Masoretic pointing imply this was the standard view from the third century B.C. LXX) through to the tenth century A.D. (MT). Modern advocates include Wellhausen (Die Composition des Hexateuchs), König, Heidel, Kidner, Ridderbos, Young, Childs (Myth and Reality in the Old Testament [London: SCM, 1960] 31–43), Hasel, Gispen, and Notter.
The antiquity of this interpretation is the greatest argument in its favor: those closest in time to the composition of Gen 1 may be presumed to be best informed about its meaning. However, Hasel has argued that this interpretation becomes the more likely since it is apparent that vv 2–3 are not a straight borrowing of extrabiblical ideas. Mesopotamian sources formulate their descriptions negatively—“When the heaven had not yet been named”—whereas v 2 is positive, “the earth was total chaos.” In other words, it looks as though vv 2–3 were composed by the writer responsible for v 1, and not simply borrowed from a pre-biblical source. This makes it most natural to interpret the text synchronically, i.e., v 1: first creative act; v 2: consequence of v 1; v 3: first creative word. Notter (23–26) points out that the idea that a god first created matter, the primeval ocean, and then organized it, has many Egyptian parallels. Whether this, the traditional understanding of these verses, does justice to the exact wording of Genesis must now be investigated. 1 ראשׁית “beginning” is an abstract noun etymologically related to ראשׁ “head,” and ראשׁון “first.” In temporal phrases it is most often used relatively, i.e., it specifies the beginning of a particular period, e.g., “From the beginning of the year” (Deut 11:12) or “At the beginning of the reign of” (Jer 26:1). More rarely, as here, it is used absolutely, with the period of time left unspecified; only the context shows precisely when is meant, e.g., Isa 46:10. “Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times (מקדם) things not yet done” (cf. Prov 8:22). The contexts here and in Gen 1 suggest ראשׁית refers to the beginning of time itself, not to a particular period within eternity (cf. Isa 40:21; 41:4; H. P. Müller, THWAT 2:711–12).
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1–15. Vol. 1. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1987. Word Biblical Commentary.
Opinion five: When God was about to create. בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים (b’reishit bara elohim); other translations render this: “In the beginning God created.” Our translation follows Rashi, who said that the first word would have been written בְָּרִאשׁוֹנָה (ba-rishonah, at first) if its primary purpose had been to teach the order in which creation took place. Later scholars used the translation “In the beginning” as proof that God created out of nothing (Latin: ex nihilo), but it is not likely that the biblical author was concerned with the question of matter’s origin . On creation in the light of science, see p. 6.
The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Torah Modern Commentary) General Editor: W. Gunther Plaut General Editor Revised Edition: David E. S. Stein Copyright 2005, 2006 by URJ Press