Science in Christian Perspective



Further Light on the Translation of Genesis 1:1
G. Douglas Young, Ph.D.

From JASA 10 (December 1958):

In this journal, volume 3 number 4, 1 proposed the following as a translation of Genesis 1:1-3: In the beginning when God had 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 was moving upon the face of the waters, then God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

This translation assumes that these verses do not speak of the original, ex nihilo, creation. That which is expressly stated in John, chapter one, is here assumed as an accomplished fact. After the opening 'w en

clause we find here three circumstantial clauses setting forth three conditions existing at the time when God speaks and says, Let there be light. It assumes that the story of these seven days of God's working begins in a condition' when the world already exists and is in a state without form and void, with darkness over the waters and God's Spirit moving over them.

An article by Dr. William La Sor in the Gordon Resiew, February 1956, concludes with the same general position based on the same line of reasoning from the Akkadian cognate. He observes for that language the transition from noun, to noun in genitive, to modified noun used as a "conjunction" or "preposition." The use of noun in construct with finite verbs is found, he states, in other Semitic languages also to introduce a dependent clause. No illustrations outside of the Akkadian are given and only 2 Samuel 7:7 'as'er is given for the Hebrew.

The syntactic point at issue is that when a noun in the construct state (somewhat analagous to our genitive) is in construct with a finite verb, the clause is a subordinate one. The result for Genesis 1 :1 is: "In the beginning when he . . . " and not "In the beginning he . . . ... In the earlier treatment I supported this by an appeal to a single case in the dialect of Moses, Deuteronomy 4:15, and by an appeal to a case in the cognate Arabic.

The original suggestion may now be strengthened by four additional instances from the dialect of the author of the Pentateuch and by several cases f rom later Biblical writers as well. Furthermore, the same syntactic item is found in Egyptian which indicates that this particular syntactic item is most probably primitive Hamito-semitic and thus very ancient. This evidence strengthens the original position that verse one of Genesis chapter one is a subordinate clause only, and not a full sentence as it is taken traditionally in our English versions.

Preparatory to the presentation of this evidence it should be stated that there is in the Bible no case of bari'Bt, "in the beginning, (preposition plus definite article plus noun). In fact there are only five cases of berj'Bt, "in beginning of" (preposition plus noun). That he could have used bdri'lit is likely from the use of a related form IaW~lt in Nehemiah 12:44. There is, however, evidence that the writer could have started his story with "In the beginning he . . . " had he wished to do so. In Genesis 13:4, and in a score of other places in the Bible, the writer uses a substitute bdrigbnd for "in the first." This he could have used in Genesis 1 :1 had he chosen to make it clear that he was talking about the actual beginning. He did not use this form. We should therefore not gloss over the distinctive beginning of his first book by emending the text into a short declarative sentence. He wanted the subordinate idea, here probably temporal, and so wrote.

That a noun in the construct state preceding a finite verb is a subordinate clause we note in additional places in the dialect of Moses. The first is Exodus 4:13, "Send . . . by the hand of you will send." This is, "Send by the hand of whomever you will send," and is so recognized in our English versions. The cc you will send" is a finite verb in the "imperfect tense." It is not a main clause, however. That which makes it the verb of a subordinate clause is the fact that it is preceded by a noun in the construct state, gelah-nd beyad tillah. It is the construct yad and not the absolute yCid. Another case in point from the Pentateuch is Exodus 6:28. Here the subordinate clause is, like Genesis 1:1, a temporal one. Here, but not in Genesis 1:1, our English versions recognize it to be such. beyom dibber yhwh is, literally, "in the day of he spoke God," and idiomatically, "in the day when God spoke." It is a subordinate clause constructed just like the opening words of Genesis 1 :1 and the sentence noted in my first article from Deuteronomy 4:15. Here, too, we have preposition plus noun plus verb in the "perfect tense"-and the preposition so vocalized as to indicate that the noun is unaccented and so in the construct state.

In 2 Chronicles 29:27 we have another case of preposition plus noun plus verb in the "perfect tense" with the preposition indicating that the noun is in the construct state. Here too the clause is subordin ate, and here too it is recognized as such in our English versions. becit hMil hac6ld is translated "when the burnt offering began . . . " but is literally "in the time of it began the burnt offering."

Another case is found in this same writer at chapter 24 verse 11. It is becit yabi "at the time when he brought . . . " This particular preposition plus noun combination with a following finite verb is used temporarily in addition in at least the following places: Genesis 31:10, Deuteronomy 32:35, job 6:7, 2 Chronicles 20:22, 24:11, 28:22 and 29:27.

As a transition to the Egyptian evidence it will be interesting to note that the subordinate clause, temporal as well as other, in Hebrew as in Egyptian may be expressed by the preposition, with or without noun, plus infinitive, just as LaSor indicated for the Akkadian also. This is probably the inost usual manner of subordination in Hebrew. Jeremiah 31:31 is a case selected at random. beyjm heheziqj is "in the day when he took me." Here we have preposition in the form to indicate that the noun is construct state, plus infinitive. This more common infinitival use does not detract f rom the f act that the same idea may be expressed by a finite verb after a preposition plus genitive noun.

It is common in Egyptian to find clauses subordinated by either the infinitive or a finite verb preceded by preposition or genitive, just as in Hebrew. In either case the clause may be introduced by a preposition or a genitive. In Egyptian the use of ~dm.f, finite verb, after prepositions runs parallel, in afm-ost every case, to preposition plus infinitive. Here we find a restrictive consideration that if it was necessary to express the subject they used the tense form but if it was not necessary to express the subject they used the infinitive after the preposition and noun. That distinction became lost in Hebrew before the Hebrew developed to its 15th century B.C. form.

Illustrations are provided. (References are to Egyptian Grammar, A. H. Gardiner, Second Edition, Oxford, 1950.)

gm.n.f sw hr prt in sb,3 n pr.f, "he found him under to go forth from the door of his house," that is, "he found him when he was going forth from the door of his house" (paragraph 304). This is infinitive after a preposition. A case of infinitive after a genitive (analagous to the Hebrew construct state) is found in paragraph 305, grh pf n Irt h3k)- "on the night of celebrating the H3kr- festival," that is, "on the night when he celebrated, etc."

But, as in Hebrew, and this is the item of significance in our consideration, the same can be done with the finite verb as the verbal element in the clause. indw.k hft wM.f tw, "You shall speak in front of he addresses you," that is, "you shall speak when he addresses you." (paragraph 155). This is a case of preposition plus finite verb like 2 Samuel 7:7 and the Akkadian cases. Two cases of genitive plus verb are noted in paragraph 191: hr-zv n nis.s, "on the day of she gives birth," that is, "on the day when she gives birth." tr n wnn.k, "in the time of thou shalt be," that is, "in the time when you live (as long as you five)."

In the same paragraph is found a case of the genitival adjective not preceded by a noun. It serves the same function. ib.k n.k n wn.k tP t3 "thy heart is to thee of thou wast on earth," that is, "you have your heart as when you were on earth."

The inference from the Egyptian evidence is quite clear. A noun in the genitive relationship to an immediately following finite verb introduces a subordin-1 ate clause which, on occasion, can be temporal.

This syntactic item is, then, primitive Hamitosemitic, being found in several of the cognates, Arabic and Akkadian, and in the Hamitic group as well. It is an early syntactic item-preposition and noun in genitive plus finite verb introducing a temporal clause, just as in Genesis 1 :1.

Thus the need for recognizing the first verse of Genesis as a subordinate temporal clause rather than as a complete declaratory sentence is required by the two considerations: the reluctance to emend the text, which should be characteristic of those who believe in verbal inspiration, and the clear evidence in the Hamito-semitic languages that supports this particular syntactic structure.

The implication, then, of the opening sentence of Genesis, verses one through three, is that the Genesis account starts with an already created material universe (John 1 :3 requires an ex nihilo origin of this material universe). Genesis starts its account not so far back as does John but with darkness over the earth which was "without form and void" at the time under description. God's Spirit was moving "upon the face of the waters." When this was the earth's condition God makes His first declaration: "Let there be light."