Bereishit: A First-Rate Beginning

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, King James Version)

I used to find flaws in the King James translation of the first line of the Bible: Bereishit bara Elohim eit hashamayim ve-eit ha-aretz. Consider the first word, a compound of

be- = a prefix meaning “in”, “with”, “at”, “by”, or another preposition, depending on context and idiomatic usage

+ reishit = beginning, first, first-rate, best

I knew that “in the” was ba, not be. So I preferred modern translations of bereishit as “In a beginning”. But this year, I checked all the other places where the word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible, and I discovered that reishit itself often implies a definite article (i.e. “the”). So the King James version’s In the beginning is accurate after all.

The second Hebrew word is bara, “created”. Before I learned Biblical Hebrew grammar, I made the translation mistake the Talmud warns against (Megillah 9a) and wondered if bereishit bara Elohim means that “In-a-beginning” created God. Then I found out that the subject follows the verb in Hebrew, so the correct translation of bara Elohim is “God created”, not “created God”.

What about the word Elohim? It is a plural noun, used in the Torah for both God and for other peoples’ gods. But the book of Genesis/Bereishit would hardly say that other peoples’ gods created the heavens and the earth!

The word translated in the King James version as “the heavens”, hashamayim, is either plural or double, not singular. So I would translate it as “the heavens”. But that is nit-picking.

When I began researching this blog, I still hoped I could come up with a more interesting, yet accurate, translation. Over the years I have enjoyed reading alternate translations, especially when they lead to intriguing ideas about the nature of God.

For example, here is one of 19th-century Rabbi Raphael Samson Hirsch’s translations: From the very beginning God created the heaven and the earth. I notice that this version implies not only that God (Elohim) is the original, and perhaps the only, creator, but also that creating the heavens and the earth is an ongoing process.

For another example, here is Rabbi David Cooper’s 20th-century translation in God Is a VerbWith a beginning, [It] created God (Elohim), the heavens and the earth. Cooper explained that in kabbalah, the ein sof (“without end”) precedes Nothingness, and out of Nothingness comes Beginningness. From Beginningness comes Elohim, the plural name of God, and then plural creation follows, starting with the heavens and the earth. The first part of this amazing progression occured before the first word of the Torah. The word bereishit catches the kabbalistic progression at the stage of Beginningness.

Yet the 17th-century King James translation, prosaic as it seems, is closer to the original Hebrew. So then I wondered if I could invent an interesting alternate translation by using one of the other meanings of reishit.

The word reishit appears in the Hebrew bible 50 times. It is used most often (23 times) to indicate one kind of offering to the temple: an offering of the first or the finest sample of an agricultural product–usually fruit or grain, but sometimes bread, oil, or livestock. Another common use of the word (10 times) is to indicate that something else is first-rate: a person, a group of people, a father’s vigor, a land’s fertility, a fig’s flavor.

If the reishit part of the first word in the Bible meant “first-rate”, the first sentence could be translated: With the best, God created the heaven and the earth. We would learn that our universe is first-rate (or at least the best of all possible worlds), and that God also created other, inferior universes!

But this is stretching too far, when the Hebrew bible uses reishit to mean “the beginning” 17 more times after the opening Bereishit. Twelve of these occurrences refer to the beginning of something that unfolds over a period of time: a year, an episode in someone’s life, a king’s reign, a person’s lifetime, a kingdom’s duration. Two more occurrences refer to the beginning of a process of divine creation: the book of Job claims the behemoth was the beginning of God’s creation of animals, while the book of Proverbs claims wisdom was the beginning of God’s creation of the world. The word reishit is also used three  times for a more abstract beginning, as in Psalm 111:10 (The beginning of wisdom is awe of God).

The compound word bereishit shows up four times in the book of Jeremiah. All four times, bereishit merely gives the approximate date of a prophecy, by placing it “in the beginning of the reign of” a certain king. So the bereishit in the first sentence of the Torah must also be the beginning of something that unfolds over time, like a king’s reign. But this beginning came before everything. It is the beginning of time as we know it (one new thing after another), or the beginning of being.

Maybe Elohim, the god of plurals, means God the Creator, the God of Time, and the God of Endless Beginnings. Then what came before the beginning of time and creation, before Elohim? If the answer is God, this is a god we cannot even imagine. The Ein Sof (“Without End”) of kabbalah is, by definition, inconceivable. As the Zohar says, “No thought can grasp You at all.” Yet Elohim, the God that we can think about, points back at the Ein Sof, the inconceivable God  that began Rabbi David Cooper’s kabbalistic progression.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is more profound than I thought.

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