Gen. 1:1-2, and the Hebrew of it

From: Edward Hobbs (
Date: Wed Feb 21 1996 - 16:48:15 EST

        Since this discussion of Gen. 1:1-2 and Creatio ex nihilo was, for me,
"deja vu all over again," I decided to stay out of it. Almost everything so
far posted (with the exception of Carl Conrad's masterful one of today--Feb. 21
--beginning "Okay") reads like many sets of seminary-papers (no offense
intended; it's just that there's little new under the sun) I have had to read
and comment on. But David Moore's statement about Hebrew, in response to Will
Wagers, cannot be left unchallenged.

> (Will:) . . . . there are sufficient
> grounds for understanding the text of Genesis 1:1 in terms of a
> pre-existent chaos or "matter" (TOHU W'BOHU) shaped by the creator into a
> cosmos. The question Will raises is really (I think?) WHEN the doctrine of
> CREATIO EX NIHILO really emerges and whether it is in fact implicit in NT
> texts.

(David:) It looks as though one would practically have to torture the
Hebrew to get it to say anything very far from, "In the beginning God
created the heavens and the earth." I suspect that the interpretation,
"In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth..." would
depend more on the interpreter's presuppositions than on the Hebrew. The
waw at the beginning of v. 2 pretty much rules out v. 1's being a general
title of the section, and it (the waw) falls very unnaturally between the
temporal prepositional phrase and the rest of the sentence if we are to
understand, "In the beginning of God's creating...."
> Another reason is that it may not be a matter of how the Hebrew text was
> understood but rather of how the LXX of Genesis 1 was understood. For that
> we have ready to hand Philo's treatise De Opificio Mundi, to which I've
> made reference before. Even any antecedents of the Logos doctrine are
> likely to be found in those very Wisdom texts most (even if not all) of
> which come from Alexandria and Hellenistic Judaism.

        The LXX supports taking the first verse of Genesis as a sentence
unto itself. And most of the other textual and exegetical evidence seems
to point in that direction, so why look for any other *emergence* of the
idea of CREATIO EX NIHILO? If Gen. 1:1 is taken in the most
straightforward manner, what we should be asking is why other ways of
interpreting this passage emerged that drew on the Greek philosophical
idea of preexisting material.

        (This is Edward now:)

                "Torturing the Hebrew," then, is what much of the Jewish
tradition has done, and what most Hebrew scholars of this century have
done! While I am not among the great Hebrew scholars of our time, the
University of Chicago Press thought well enough of my competence in 1950 to
publish my translation of part of the Ben Asher text (at the University's
request, it having never been done before). And I can assure you that a clear
majority of the first-rank Hebraists consider the opening sentence of the
narrative to begin with a temporal clause, "When God began to create the
heavens and the earth, ...." The vowel points are of course not ancient at
all, so no argument based on them holds much water. The implication of
creatio ex nihilo, according to Encyclopaedia Judaica (5:1059), "first
appears in II Maccabees 7:28."

        While it is possible to paint-and-read the text as did the Alexandrian
Jews who produced the Old Greek, there is no necessity to do so, from any
standpoint of Hebrew grammar. Barney Anderson, cited by Carl Conrad, is no
slouch, either. And especially NOTE: The main translations of the past
half-century--RSV, NRSV, NEB, REB, NAB, Tanakh, covering Protestant, Catholic,
Jewish scholars and sponsors, none of them self-appointed translators--have
every one included "When God began to create..." either in the text or in the
margin. To say that ALL these scholars conspired to "torture the Hebrew" seems
a bit much.

        A Greek trifle: KTIZW (Josephus, Aquila) can even less than POIEW be
forced to mean "create from nothing"; its main meaning is to build something,
like a house or a city, or to found something, like a city, or to populate (a
country, for example).

        But even this is deja-vu all over again!

Edward Hobbs

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