In The Beginning When God “Began” to Create…?

If you look at the first words in the 1985 JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Tanakh, you’ll notice this translation: “When God began to create heaven and earth….” Almost all other English translations – including the 1917 JPS Tanakh – translate Genesis 1:1 something like this: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….” I was recently looking into this difference in translation when I ran across John Currid’s helpful explanation. Here’s what he wrote:

A few commentators, both ancient and modern, render the first clause as ‘when God began to create’. This is a translation that is linguistically possible. However, it alters the meaning of the text significantly. Note what happens: ‘When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void …’ This translation suggests that when God began his creative activity, he started with a pre-existent material. In other words, the physical base of the earth already existed, but it was merely without form and it was empty. On the other hand, the traditional rendering, ‘In the beginning …’, is an absolute clause which testifies that there was no physical element prior to God’s creation; that is to say, God created the universe ex nihilo (Latin for ‘out of nothing’).

Four basic arguments fully support the traditional translation:

1. Nothing in the text mentions pre-existent matter.

2. The construction, ‘In the beginning’ is found in every ancient translation without exception.

3. ‘When God began to create’ is a linguistically possible translation, but it does not reflect or represent common Hebrew usage.

4. The verb ‘to create’ (Hebrew bārā’) confirms the absolute sense of verse 1.

This last point deserves further consideration. In ancient Hebrew a variety of words expressed the idea of ‘making’ or ‘forming’. These words may have either God or mankind as the subject (e.g., 3:21; Exod. 38:1–3). The subject of the verb bārā’, however, is only and always God; the word is never used of an action of mankind (in the active Qal stem, as it appears here). The reason for this is that man cannot create ex nihilo, but only out of a pre-existent matter. The verb bārā’ was only used of God because only he could create that way (see Exod. 34:10; Isa. 65:17).

Clearly then, the ancient Hebrews believed that at the starting-point of time, God created the heavens and earth out of nothing. That historical event demonstrated his power, incomparability and sovereignty. All things exist because of the decree and will of God.

Currid, John D. A Study Commentary on Genesis: Genesis 1:1–25:18. Vol. 1. EP Study Commentary. Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, n.d.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015