Creatio Ex Materia – Genesis 1:1-2

Since this claim stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, I want to take some time to dig more deeply into the details of the grammar of underlying Hebrew text. As a preview, I will show that the verbal structure of the first two verses express a past perfect verbal clause (also called a pluperfect).

Let’s begin with a literal translation of the Hebrew. In the verse below, both the English and the Hebrew are to be read from right to left:

אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא רֵאשִׁית בְּ
Elohim bara reishit
God created {first, began, beginning} {in, when}

NOTE: The words enclosed in braces {} reflect reasonable alternatives according to a number of authoritative Hebrew lexicons.

For example, in the text above, ‘when’ and ‘in’ are offered as translation options for the Hebrew preposition בְּ (bə)[1]In Hebrew, some prepositions are inseparable from their object and always occur as a prefix. In this case, the word, bəreishit is a compound word formed by prefixing the preposition bə to the noun, … Continue reading. Likewise, ‘first’ and ‘beginning’ are reasonable alternatives for the Hebrew noun, reishit. Also note that in Hebrew, subjects and verbs are usually ordered verb-first (unlike English in which the subject is written first). If the verb and subject of this verse are reordered according to natural English grammar  we read:

{In, When} {first, beginning} Elohim created…

bə: We now have to decide which of the alternatives to use – ‘in’ or ‘when’? This preposition can have a wide range of meanings, but by far the most common is ‘in’. Based on frequency alone, ‘in’ would be the obvious rendering. However, bə can also be translated as ‘when’, especially where the context involves the passage of time. This is manifestly the case in vv 1:1-2, suggesting that bə is reasonably (if not preferably) translated using ‘when’ (see, for example, Gen 2:4 and 4:8). As will be discussed below, the meaning of vv 1:1-2 centers on the question of the temporal order of the two verses. Time is manifestly in view here and therefore  ‘when’ is arguably the better choice to express the meaning of the preposition, bə.

reishit: The noun, reishit, has as its root[2]In Hebrew most words are derived from three letters called the “root”. The root of a word usually (but not always) connotes a basic meaning common to many of the derived words. the letters, ראש (Resh -Aleph-Shin). Words derived from this root often carry the meaning of ‘primary’, ‘chief’, ‘begin’, ‘first’ or “first-in-line”, “head of”, and so forth. Harris’s Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) is more specific, namely, reishit means

“…first, beginning, choicest, first or best of a group. [Reishit is] a feminine noun derived from the root [Resh-Aleph-Shin], it appears fifty times in nearly all parts of the [Old Testament]. [Its] primary meaning is “first” or “beginning” of a series.”

Accordingly, we can now retranslate bəreishit bara Elohim as “When first created Elohim”, or as we would render in English[3]Unlike English, Hebrew is a verb-first language. English translations usually take this into consideraton (as I do here).,

When Elohim first created…

And the earth had been: As mentioned previously, the Hebrew text of this phrase, וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה (vəhaaretz haytah), has been traditionally rendered as, “The earth was” by translating the Hebrew verb, הָיְתָה (hayta), as ‘was’ (e.g., RSV, NIV, JPS, KJV,NAS, TNK, and many others). These older translations, however, fail to reflect what scholars have recently learned about the verbal system in biblical Hebrew and its underlying grammar – especially concerning the manner in which Hebrew expresses two or more actions that occur in the past in time-relative order.

Chart of the Perfect "tenses"

Chart of the Perfect “tenses”

In English this is easily handled by the past perfect tense[4]For the sake of simplicity, I use the word ‘tense’ to note when a verbal action takes (took) place – past, present, or future. In Hebrew, the concept of tense does not exist. Rather, Hebrew … Continue reading (also called the pluperfect or the “flashback” tense). For example, consider the following sentence:

When Alex began writing his first novel, he had been in London for over eight years.

In this sentence we learn that Alex did not begin writing his novel until he had been in Longon for eight years. Likewise, if haytah in v 1:2 is translated as a past perfect verb, then verses 1:1-2 would read,

When Elohim first created the heavens and the earth, the earth had been

In this translation the universe, in some form or other, was already in existence when God executed His first creative act, the creation of light.  This raises the question, what if any evidence exists to support the translation of hayta as a past perfect verb? It is to this question we now turn.

Until recently, the grammar of biblical Hebrew was thought to be unable to denote explicitly the past perfect. Whether a verb was past perfect or perfect was to be inferred from its context. Recently, scholars[5]More formally known as The Anterior Construction. Recently, its grammar has been thoroughly described by Zion Zevit, “The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew”, SBL Monograph Series No. 50. have been able to show that, in addition to context, Hebrew verbs can express the past perfect by the way in which the author structures his verbal clauses.

In vv 1:1-2, the key observation is that the ordering of the verbal clauses in these two verses demonstrate that the verb in the second clause of 1:1, (hayta), is in the past perfect.

Here’s how: in English the past perfect is formed using the auxiliary verb “had” with the main verb’s past participle. To the verb “to be”, the past perfect is “had been”.  In Hebrew, unfortunately, whether a verb, verbal clause, or sentence is past perfect is much more complicated and requires that three conditions be met:

  1. The preceding verbal clause must contain a verb in the perfect aspect (similar to the English past tense).
  2. The subject of the verb in question must be prefixed with the Hebrew letter ו
  3. The subject in the second clause must precede the verb.

The question is whether the the author structured these two verses as a past perfect in order to claim creatio ex materia creation. An examination of the second verb, haytah, is revealing. Applying Zevitt’s rule to the two verses and we observe that…

  1. The preceding verb, bara, is a perfect verb.
  2. The subject of the second verse is preceded by a ו.
  3. The subject (vəhaaretz – “[and the] earth”) of the second verse precedes its verb (haytah).

In this way, translating the second verse using the English past perfect, “had been”, is a grammatically correct rendering. The theological implication is profound. By structuring the sentence using the past perfect, the author asserts that some substance was already in existence, albeit in a primordial state, prior to God arriving on the scene to begin His creative activity. Clearly, creatio ex nihilo was not in view when the creation story was developed.


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