When God began to create

The Bible displays an elegant informality in the way in which God is introduced. “Beresheit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim vet ha-arets”– “When God began to create the heavens and the earth”. God is introduced as the One whom we all know has created the heavens and the earth. There is no attempt to prove His existence, no attempt to say what He was doing before He began to create, no attempt to explain the mechanics of his creation. Simply “When God began to create”.

God is the One who needs no explanation as to His existence, and Moses (the author of Genesis) makes no attempt to probe behind God’s self-revelation in His creating of the universe. God is a personal friend of Moses, One with whom he spoke face to face, we are told. God’s presence and His being are plain to all.

Now traditionally, and even still today, most versions of the Bible translate this opening phrase as “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But Hebrew scholars would challenge the traditional English translation of verse 1. They point out that the phrase “beresheit bara Elohim et hamashayim vet haaretz” is actually an irregular construct phrase that should more correctly be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth”. [1]

Apart from its linguistic correctness, this translation also gives the first two verses more fluency. If we use the traditional translation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, then we get a logical discontinuity with the next line, “Now the earth was without form and void”.
Somehow we have gone from the heavens and earth having been created by God in verse one, but then reverted to a pre-creation state of formless and void in the next verse.
Now it is possible to explain away this chronology shift by reading verse one as an executive summary and calling upon Hebrew parallelism as an explanation, but it is still a clumsier way of introducing the story than the linguistically correct version. So why have translators persisted with this version?
It seems to me that there are a couple of factors here.

Firstly, nobody wants to muck about with upsetting tradition, especially on these fundamental sentences in the Bible. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be” has a lot of ecclesiastical weight. But secondly, it feeds our philosophical presuppositions on the nature of the universe, especially those derived from Plato and other Greek thinkers.

When we talk about “the beginning” we like to think of that period, before time and the universe began (if that makes sense), as a perfect state of nothingness; a pristine vacuum where nothing at all existed besides God, who presumably sat somewhere inside this pristine nothingness pondering His next move. This nothingness was a perfect vacuum, totally neutral in terms of morality and ethics. It was the ultimate Platonic form of nothingness, eternally immutable and out of reach of mortals.

But we run into problems here, because if God is infinite and the empty universe is infinite, then you have to explain how God can both fill the perfect nothingness and yet remain outside of it. And if He remains outside of it, then He cannot fill the nothingness.
The nothingness has to be a separate entity to God.

When we talk about “the beginning”, then we are talking about a time when you effectively had two eternal entities; God and the nothingness. And so we need to place God either outside or inside of the container of nothingness, thereby reducing Him to a God either inhabiting or co-habiting with the Platonic form of nothingness.

God must now account for His every action when He begins to create, and this sets the playing field for the totally fruitless debate between creationists and evolutionists.

“The beginning” is also a concept used by science when talking about the Big Bang, that initial explosion which, they say, began the evolutionary process leading to the creation of our current universe. This concept fits in well with an investigative approach to the universe, because it makes even the beginning of time subject to our research.

Their discussion has also arrived at the existence of two entities, nothingness and “pregnant nothingness”, which led to the Big Bang.

When we create a concept like “the beginning”, we create a rival for God.

If God is the source of both matter and time, then there can be no “beginning” that is not part of God, and if part of God, then it ceases to exist in its own right. And yet, by allowing this concept to become entrenched in theology, we have created a competitor for God.

Evolutionary theory cannot exist without a concept of a “beginning”, otherwise it has no vantage point to observe what happens. It must interpose itself between God and His creation to ensure that what God told us is really “true”.

So we need to read Genesis 1:1 as “When God began to create”.
For us, there is no time before this and there is no universe before this – they don’t even come into the picture. We hear of nothing besides God who is already active creating the universe. This is the proper place to start from. We only know the God who created the heavens and the earth, we don’t know of some God who existed in some Platonic state of ethereal nothingness. Our investigation of the world begins with the God who has revealed Himself to us – nowhere else.

We do not begin with a noun, but a verb; not with a detached state of nothingness, but with a God active in His kingdom.

[1] See A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew By Jouon Paul, Muraoka Tamitsu pp442, 443

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