Genesis 1:1 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
1 5. The Beginning of all Things, and the First Creation Day
1. In the beginning ] B’rêshîth: LXX ἐν ἀρχῇ : Lat. in principio. This opening word expresses the idea of the earliest time imaginable. It contains no allusion to any philosophical conception of “eternity.” The language used in the account of Creation is neither that of abstract speculation nor of exact science, but of simple, concrete, and unscientific narrative.
The opening words of John’s Gospel ( ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος , Gen 1:1) are based upon this clause. But, whereas St John refers to the Word’s eternal pre-existence before time, the Hebrew writer simply speaks of “the beginning” of the universe as the historic origin of time and space.
In the Hebrew Bible the book of Genesis is called “B’rêshîth,” deriving its title from this first word.
God ] Elohim: LXX ὁ Θεός : Lat. Deus. See Introduction on “The Names of God.” The narrative begins with a statement assuming the Existence of the Deity. It is not a matter for discussion, argument, or doubt. The Israelite Cosmogony differs in this respect from that of the Babylonians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, &c. The Cosmogonies of the ancients were wont to be preceded by Theogonies. The existence and nativities of the creating divinities were accounted for in mythologies which were often highly complicated, and not seldom grotesque. The Hebrew narrator, by beginning with the Creation, emphasizes his entire freedom from, and exclusion of, polytheistic thought. If Polytheism had existed in the earliest Hebrew times, it had been abandoned in the growing light of the Israelite religion. “God” is infinite; He was before all time: “In the beginning God created.” Upon the subject of the Divine Existence prior to “the beginning” the writer does not presume to speculate. That Israelite imagination did not wholly avoid the subject, we know from Job 28:25-28, Pro 8:22-30, Wis 9:9 , Sir 24:9 .
Concerning the Israelite conception of God ( Elohim), we learn (1) from the present verse, that He (i) is a Person, and (ii) exists from all eternity; (2) from the whole passage, Gen 1:1 to Gen 2:4 a, that He is (i) supreme in power, and (ii) perfect in wisdom and goodness. The attribute of power is shewn in creative omnipotence; that of wisdom in the orderly sequence of creation; that of goodness in the benevolent purpose which directed its successive phases.
created ] The word so rendered ( bârâ, LXX ἐποίησεν , Lat. creavit) is used especially of the acts of God, in doing, or calling into existence, something new or marvellous: cf. Exo 34:10, “I will do marvels such as have not been wrought (Heb. created) in all the earth”: Psa 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart.” In the present section it occurs again in connexion with (1) the creation of living organisms (Gen 1:21); (2) the creation of man (Gen 1:27); (3) the creation of the whole universe (Gen 2:3-4). It is used in Psa 148:5, “He commanded, and they were created,” where the reference is to this section.
It is, however, a mistake to suppose that the word bârâ necessarily means “to create out of nothing.”
the heaven and the earth ] These words express the Hebrew conception of the created universe. They do not denote, as has of late been suggested, “matter” in the mass, or in the rough. They embrace sky, earth, and ocean: cf. Gen 14:19; Gen 14:22, Gen 24:3; Deu 3:24.
Attention should be called to an alternative rendering of this verse, preferred by many eminent commentators. It turns upon the grammatical point that the first word of the verse, “ B’rêshîth,” means literally “In beginning,” not “In the beginning,” which would be “ Bârêshîth.” Consequently, it is contended that “ B’rêshîth,” being grammatically in “the construct state,” should be translated “In the beginning of,” or “In the beginning when”; and not, as if in “the absolute state,” “In the beginning.” If this contention, i.e. that b’rêshîth is in the construct state, be correct, Gen 1:1 will be the protasis; Gen 1:2 will be a parenthesis; Gen 1:3 will be the apodosis: “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth (now the earth was waste, &c.… upon the face of the waters), then God said, ‘Let there be light.’ ”
In comparison with our familiar translation (in both R.V. and A.V.) the alternative rendering seems to present the serious disadvantage of opening the book with a long, cumbrous, and involved sentence. The reply, that the second creation narrative (Gen 2:4-7) opens with a similarly long sentence, hardly meets the objection. The opening words of the whole book can hardly be compared with the opening words of a subsequent section.
The simplicity and dignity of the short opening sentence in the familiar translation impress themselves upon every reader. The author of the Fourth Gospel was evidently conscious of it.
The force of the grammatical objection is weakened by the parallel case of the anarthrous use of b’rêshîth in Isa 46:10. It is doubtful whether rêshîth is found with the article. In the present instance, it may be pleaded that the absence of the article lends a significant indefiniteness. The rendering of the LXX, in ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν , which supports the anarthrous b’rêshîth ( ἐν ἀρχῇ , not ἐν τῇ ἀρχῇ ), was evidently the traditional rendering of the Jews in at least the third century b.c. The rendering of the Targum of Onkelos, “In the first times” ( b’qadmin), supports it in the second century a.d.
Consult other comments:
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".