God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Genesis 1:1

While most translations agree that the translation of Genesis 1:1 should read, “In the beginning…” the (Jewish) JPS translation offers instead, “When God began to create…” And the NLT and some others offer a footnote with that possibility. What’s going on?

The answer dates back 1,000 years to Rashi. He notes that the usual word for “in the beginning” would be barishona. And he further notes that b’reishit is never used except preceding a noun to mean “at the beginning of.”

He therefore concludes that Genesis 1:1 does not say that creation took place “in the beginning,” but rather that it was “in the beginning of” creation that the first part of the story takes place. That is, the earth was in disarray when God began to create.

Rashi’s analysis gives us, “When God began to create,” or (as the translation in Artscroll’s Rashi edition has it) “In the beginning of God’s creating.”

Rashi’s analysis has at least two kinds of problems.

The first is a matter of detail. For his analysis to work, he needs the verb bara to be a participle, though it’s unclear how that’s possible. Secondly, he needs the “and” of “and the earth was…” to mean “when.” That one is possible, though unlikely.

The second kind of problem, though, is methodological.

Rashi is right that b’reishit is never used except before a noun, but there are only four other times the word is used, all of them in Jeremiah, and all of them before words having to do with “kingdom” or “reign.” This is hardly a large enough sample to deduce what b’reishit means. (The same reasoning would force bara to mean something about kingdoms.)

Rashi’s point is actually more generally about reishit. (The b- prefix means “in/when/at/etc.”) But here, too, he runs into problems, wrongly assuming that a word is the sum of its parts.

Furthermore, while Rashi is correct that barishona means “at first,” that doesn’t really have much bearing on what b’reishit means. Perhaps the two words are nearly synonymous, for example. Or maybe barishona means “at first” in the sense of “the first time around” while b’reishit means “at first” in the sense of “the first and only time around.” (I just met someone who introduces his wife as his “first wife.” She is his first, only, and last wife.)

All of which is to say that Rashi’s commentary here is interesting — and it explains the JPS translation — but I don’t think it helps figure out what the first words of the Bible originally meant.

I have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and here.

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July 19, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this! It seems that you conclude like we concluded that in some sense it could go either way? Do you think there is much at stake either way?

    Comment by Brian LePort | July 19, 2010 | Reply

    • I do not think that it could go either way. I think that b’reishit is a sentence level adverb here, and that it answers the question “when?” As I’ve described elsewhere, including in And God Said, I think that the position of the adverb before the verb points in the direction of: “it was in the beginning that God created….”

      According to Rashi, the sentence explains only what the first step of creation was, not when creation occurred. I think he’s wrong (“with all due respect”).

      Comment by Joel H. | July 19, 2010 | Reply

      • He’s a lot older than you. He’s been teaching Hebrew exegetes for centuries now. Therefore, he’s right. And you’re wrong.

        But seriously: good post. With my middling Hebrew skills, this was very helpful. Thank you, Joel!

        Comment by Gary Simmons | July 19, 2010

  2. He’s a lot older than you. He’s been teaching Hebrew exegetes for centuries now. Therefore, he’s right. And you’re wrong.

    You meant it in jest, but, in fact, this is essentially the traditional Jewish approach (which I sometimes summarize as “the deader you are the smarter you are”). This makes it hard for Jews to produce a translation that is both scientifically accurate and religiously authentic.

    Comment by Joel H. | July 20, 2010 | Reply

    • Yeah, I was hesitant to actually post it, since I know you’ve probably heard it before and not in good fun. If it crossed a line, I apologize. It really sounds like Rashi was extremely dedicated and worthy of respect.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | July 21, 2010 | Reply

      • Don’t worry about it at all.

        Every so often I’ll be giving a lecture and someone will take me to task for not kowtowing to Jewish tradition, and I try to explain that — at least for me — the tradition and the science can exist side by side. Most people seem to agree.

        As for Rashi, I do wonder how much of his fame comes from the quality of his work and how much from the historical accident that his teachers were slaughtered after he returned home.

        Comment by Joel H. | July 21, 2010

      • Well, if he does even just a half-decent job as the only one left with access to a wealth of otherwise-forgotten lore, that does increase his prestige regardless of the unfortunate fate of his teachers.

        In response to the Ten Commandments post: I’ve decided to buy your book now. I had intended to at some point, but I’m thinking that point would be now. Thanks again for both linguistic and spiritual insight. The Lord bless and keep you, and make his face shine on you.

        Comment by Gary Simmons | July 21, 2010

      • Thanks. Enjoy the book.

        Comment by Joel H. | July 22, 2010

  3. […] possibility that b’reshit might mean more than just the sum of its parts.  Read his thoughts here. This entry was posted in uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a […]

    Pingback by in the beginning | July 28, 2010 | Reply

  4. Doesn’t one’s translation also depend upon whether they (or the writer) believes in creation as a single event at a single point in time or as a process over time? Whether they believe God created a void & formlessness from nothing and that is “the beginning” or else God created/formed an earth from the waste and formless “mud and water” that pre-existed the “creation” and it is that “forming or building” that is the “beginning”, which either is or maybe even comes before the 1st day?

    Comment by Randy R. | August 17, 2010 | Reply

    • I don’t think so. I think that the translation of the original text can (and should) be created based only on what the text is, not on what we want it to be. In this case, the first step is figuring out what the Hebrew in Genesis 1:1 means. The next step is incorporating the passage into a larger theology.

      Comment by Joel H. | August 22, 2010 | Reply

  5. The comments that refer the reader to Rashi’s interpretation tell only a part of the story. For a more modern interpretation of the NJPS wording one must look at the arguments of Ephriam Speiser in the Anchor Bible edition of Genesis. There in the commentary to Gen. 1:1 he details the whole argument with parallels from other ANE texts to show that this is the right translation. Speiser was also responsible for the first draft of the New Jewish Publication Society translation ca. 1960. That draft was probably very close to the Anchor Bible translation, but as per the conditions of the JPS did not deviate from the Masoretic text as Speiser had done in a few places in the Anchor Bible.

    Comment by Michael M. Eisman | January 22, 2016 | Reply


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