Genesis 1:1-4: on not beginning at the Beginning.

Why is the first letter of the Bible bet and not aleph?

I have fallen behind in posting the discussion notes from the Jacob Hirshleifer Faculty Tanakh Study Group, which has been working its way through various Hebrew sacred texts for the past thirty years. The group has finished its reading of The David Story (First and Second Samuel plus the first bit of First Kings), and moved on to reading Genesis. I will try to catch up on the David material &#8212 that document may be, among other things, the world’s first and best historical/political novel &#8212 but I wanted to get my notes of the first week of our Genesis discussion up while the discussion is fresh in my mind.

The text, in its widely-imitated King James version, is familiar to most of us. Here are the first two verses, in Hebrew, transliterated, and then in the King James English:

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַלפְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַלפְּנֵי הַמָּיִם

B’reshit barah Elohim et-ha-shamayim v’et-hah-aretz,

V’hah-aretz mayatah tohu v’bohu, v’choshech al-p’nai tehom, v-ruach elohim m’rachephet al-p’nai hah-mayim.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

So: a creation story, to stack up against the Babylonian Enuma Elish, or the Hesiodic Theogony, or the contemporary Big Bang. “In the beginning (b’reishit), God (Elohim) created (barah) the heavens (ha-shamayim) and the earth (hah-aretz).” The question is “What brought the world into being?” and the answer is “God made it.”

Well, not perzackly. That’s the story as children, Jewish and Christian alike, learn it, but it doesn’t seem to be the story actually embodied in the text. Modern translators have finally caught up with Rashi, who pointed out that the word b’reishit doesn’t mean “in the beginning,” but is in the Hebrew grammatical form called the “construct.” So the translation should be something like “When God began to create…” or “At the start of God’s creating …”

How about “the heavens and the earth”? Does “the heavens and the earth” mean, “Heaven and earth and everything in between?” That is, is the combination of shamayim and aretz equivalent to olam, the world? (Olam is used often in the Hebrew Bible and liturgy, but never in this chapter.) As Lao-tse says, “Heaven and earth are the father and mother of the myriad of things.”

Except that “create” may also be wrong. The cognates of “barah” in other ancient Near Eastern languages mean something closer to “divide,” or “separate,” or even “differentiate.” In the story of Korach, it refers to making a rent in the earth.

Moreover, the story is not, one might say, begun at the beginning. When God began to create, the Earth (hah-aretz) was tohu v’bohu, the phrase the King James translators render “without form and void.” But it is not the case that tohu is a word meaning “formless” or that bohu, standing alone, means “void” or “empty.” Tohu v’bohu seems to be an idiom, like “topsy-turvy,” or “at sixes and sevens.”

“And a ruach elohim swept over the face of the deep tehom.”

“Ruach” is literally wind, but by extension breath, and since to breathe is to live, animation, and thus spirit. The text tells us how it is that spirit interacts with matter.

And “elohim” could be possessive: “A wind from God,” or as the KJV has it, “The Spirit of God,” but also could be adjectival: the wind could be “divine,” or “mighty,” or “awesome.”

In any case, both the aretz and the tehom ( the land and the ocean depths, pre-exist the b’reishit. So do the mayim, the waters, and the chosech, the darkness. It is those materials that God divides or separates or differentiates. [Is it mere accident that shamayim, “heavens,” includes mayim, “waters.” Later on in the chapter the heavens are created to divide the waters above the sky, the source of rainfall, from the waters below, the rivers, lakes and oceans.]

Is tehom, the depths, related to the Babylonian sea-monster Tiamat, representing primordial chaos?

So the story does not one of the creation of something from nothing, but about separation and arrangement. As the Talmud says, the first letter is bet, not aleph. Hebrew alphabetical order is parallel to Greek: for alpha-beta-gamma substitute aleph-bet-gimel. So the text starts with the second letter of the alphabet, not the first.

Or an alternative reading, not as far as I know given by the commenters: Before bet was a phonetic element, it was a word: “house,” as aleph is “ox.” The story describes the construction of a world that we can live it, and that constitutes our home in the most comprehensive sense.

Nor does the text try to answer the question that Hesiod and the authors of the Enuma Elish answer, the question that occurs to any five-year-old: “If God created the world, who created God?”

Some date the text of this chapter to the Exile and place its composition in Babylon; if so, those writing and reading it would have had the Babylonian creation story in the back of their minds. Although “Elohim” is a plural form, it takes (usually) singular verbs. A rebuke to polytheism? And is the identification of the Deity with light a rebuke to Zoroastrian dualism, where Ormuzd and Ahriman, the God of Light and the God of Darkness, eternally co-exist? Does the story in Job of the suppression of the sea-monster Leviathan by the highly anthropomorphic Sky-God Elohim reflect an incorporation of Babylonian creation myth into the Hebrew texts? There is also a belief that the author was a priest, with a strong interest in making careful categories, though on that point we found no consensus.

There is no doubt about the creation of light. “God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” The darkness, we have seen, was present already. And God, having seen that the light was “good,” separated it from the darkness. This is light in the abstract: there is no sun, no moon, no stars, no fire.

“God saw the light, that it was good,” seems surprising; are we to understand that God was surprised? That light was an experiment, that might have come out differently?

To some of us, the lack of a complete creation story suggests that the text cannot have been meant cosmologically, as a physicalistic story of the origins of the world. Therefore, it is said, this must be a piece of poetic metaphysics. But that is not how it has been received. Should we assume that the “real” reading is the esoteric one?

The other striking feature of the chapter is the emphasis on naming. Is naming creating?

I can tell that we’re going to spend a long time on this text, and have a lot of fun with it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: