"When God Began to Create…": Nouns Bound to Verbs
In order to post on this, I have to break an informal but firm rule I have kept for myself: not to blog on Genesis 1–3. I have no wish to attract any debate or controversy about the truth/historicity/inerrancy of the story/myth/history/polemic/whatever of Gen 1. That said, my Hebrew students are at a point now where they can make sense of the Bible’s very first phrase, so let me have this, please.
As for my Hebrew students: sit up and pay attention. You won’t know the Akkadian, but you can still follow the argument: just give the Hebrew special attention. I am throwing in the Akkadian for my enjoyment, and because I am up to my neck in some texts at the moment.
The text in view is Genesis 1:1:
בראשית ברא אלהים
Traditionally, “In the beginning, God created…” But, more recently, “In the beginning, when God created…” Or even, “When God began to create…” Students naturally want to see a definite article in the first form: BA-rēšīt ("in THE beginning"). They are told (if they are told anything) that the form is in construct, and therefore unable to take a definite article. The obvious question is, “To what is it in construct? It precedes, not a noun, but a perfect verb.”
In Hebrew relative clauses, one permissible construction is a construct noun followed by a finite verb: קרית חנה דוד “The-district-of David encamped,” that is “The district where David encamped” (Isa 29:1). Similarly, for Akkadian relative clauses, one permissible construction is a bound (“construct”) form followed by a finite verb (with -u of subordination): bīt ēpušu “the house-of I-built,” that is “the house (which) I built.” (Note that, in both Hebrew and Akkadian, we will more often see the relative particle in such a clause: Hebrew אשר, Akkadian ša.)
This construction is often used with verbs of time. So in Hebrew: ביום הציל יהוה “In-the-day-of YHWH delivered,” or “In the day when YHWH delivered” (2 Sam 22:1). That the noun of time is in construct is more clearly shown in examples with distinct bound forms: בליל שדד ער “in-the-night-of Ar was devastated,” or “in the night when Ar was devastated” (Isa 15:1). In Akkadian: UD-um É.GAL KUG.BABBAR i-r-i-[šu], or Ūm ekallum kaspam irrišu: “The-day-of the-palace receives silver,” or “The day when the palace receives silver.” (CT 8 36a, cited in Huehnergard exercise 19.G.2.)
An excellent parallel to our text is found in Hosea 1:2: תחלת דבר יהוה “The-beginning-of YHWH spoke,” that is “When YHWH first spoke” or even “When YHWH began to speak.”
By now, it is clear that these constructions are parallel to that of Genesis 1:1. Looking at it again, we can translate:
“In-the-beginning-of God created,” that is, “In the beginning, when God created,” or even “When God began to create.” In other words, the Bible begins with a subordinate clause, preceding the main clause. Where, then, would you say that the first main clause in the Bible begins?