Genesis 1:1: independent clause or subordinate phrase?

peter_kirk at peter_kirk at
Mon Dec 6 21:29:09 EST 1999

Dear Prof. Niccacci,

Many thanks for your contribution to the debate about Genesis 1:1. I 
was pleased to receive an analysis of this verse from someone who 
understands the issues in depth, and whose understanding is not driven 
by an attempt to prove a particular interpretation. My further 
comments are indicated by "PK:" in the following copy of what you 

Peter Kirk

You wrote:

Dear list-members,
A discussion is going on concerning Gen 1 & 2. It goes without saying 
that one should carefully distinguish grammar and syntax, on one side, 
from interpretation, on the other. Interpretation should come after a 
correct syntactical analysis has been found. Further, speculations 
about the intention of the text should be sober. 

PK: Indeed. For this reason, and because of my lack of competence in 
this field, I have snipped your references to Jewish interpreters.

        1) I may be allowed to suggest again what I think is the 
correct analysis of Gen 1:1-3. *Bere'$it* is the first part of a 
construct state, whose second part is the phrase *bara' 'elohŒm 'et 
ha$$amayim we'et ha'arets*; literally, "In the beginning of 
God-created-heaven-and-earth," i.e. "When God began creating heaven 
and earth." The Biblical creation story begins with a temporal 
sentence of the type found in the creation stories of the Ancient Near 

PK: Maybe, but I would prefer to demonstrate this from the Hebrew 
rather than presupposing a parallel with other literature, especially 
as Hebrew theology has some clear distinctive features including (at 
least at a later period) creation ex nihilo.

This analysis was already presented in my _Syntax_# 18. In the 
footnotes there I referred to GKC #130d, Joon #158d, and K”nig 
#337v-z, where the phenomenon of a construct state having a finite 
verb as the second member (nomen rectum) is illustrated. Pertinent 
examples are as follows: Exod 4:13; 6:28; 1Sam 25:15; Psa 65:5; 81:6; 
Jer 6:15 + 8:12. Syntactically, the construction *bere'$it bara' 
'elohim [with qatal]* is equivalent to *beyom bero' 'elohim [with 
infinitive]" (Gen 5:1). 

PK: Thank you for pointing me to GKC, the one of these sources which I 
have to hand. I was surprised to see the number of such references, 
including the ones which you mention, which I have looked at. But I do 
note that none of your references have the type of sentence structure 
found in Genesis 1:1-2 in which such a time phrase comes before the 
main clause and is separated from it by waw: B-<time word> <QATAL 
verb> <rest of clause> W-<main clause>... The closest example is Exo. 
6:28, but here there is a WAYHI before the B-; in all the other cases 
the time phrase follows the main clause. Are there other instances of 
time phrases beginning with B-<time word> which are separated from the 
main clause to which they refer by waw? This structure would seem very 
odd, as the waw is usually a clause divider but in such a case it 
would not be, or else the time phrase would be left on its own with no 
sentence to be linked to. Of course the same construction with a 
preposed WAYHI is very common, but there is no verb other than BARA' 
in Genesis 1:1.

PK: I note for example that Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 2 Samuel, Nehemiah 
(after the superscription) and Ezekiel all start with the structure 
WAYHI B-<time phrase> W-<main clause> (sometimes there is more than 
one time phrase). Ezra, Daniel, Haggai and Zechariah start with the 
structure B-<time phrase> <rest of main clause>, where <rest of main 
clause> starts with a QATAL verb, so giving an X-QATAL structure to 
the whole sentence. Esther has WAYHI B-<time phrase> B-<time phrase> 
B-<time phrase> QATAL, with a complex repeated structure but no waw 
before the main clause. These are all of the Bible books apart from 
Genesis which start with a temporal phrase. There are no other cases 
of the structure B-<time phrase> W-<main clause>.

PK: To put this another way, the examples you quote are all consistent 
with an analysis of Genesis 1:1 including a null complementiser (e.g. 
perhaps a missing 'ASHER) as follows:

{time phrase {preposition B-}
             {noun phrase {construct noun RE'SHIT}
                          {noun phrase {complementiser 0}
                                       {sentence {verb BARA'}

where {...} is 'ELOHIM 'ET-HASHSHAMAYIM WE'ET HA'ARETS. On this 
analysis, the whole verse is a time phrase, and so there should be no 
waw separating it from the following clause. Also the embedded 
sentence is QATAL first, not X-QATAL, for BERE'SHIT is not part of it.

PK: Your following analysis of this verse as an X-QATAL sentence seems 
to go against your interpretation. The X-QATAL analysis demands a 
sentence structure like:

{sentence {time phrase {preposition B-}
                       {noun phrase {noun RE'SHIT}}}
          {verb BARA'}
PK: Now I realise that two sentences connected only by W- may be 
understood as in a temporal relationship of simultaneity, as in GKC 
164a. This is possible, but is a different claim from the one you are 
making that BERE'SHIT BARA'... is to be understood as a construct 
chain. But in such cases simultaneity is generally indicated by a 
participle or a word like `OD or HINNE (see GKC). There is no such 
indication in Genesis 1:1.


The complete text (Gen 1:1-3) reads as follows: "When God began 
creating heaven and earth [sentence 1, x-qatal], the earth was chaos 
and void [sentence 2, waw-x-qatal], darkness was on the surface of the 
abyss [sentence 3, waw-nonverbal sentence], and the Spirit of God was 
hovering over the surface of the water [sentence 4, waw-nonverbal 
sentence with participle]. Then God said [sentence 5, wayyiqtol] etc." 
Sentences 2-4 are coordinated; they are main with regard to sentence 
1, which depends on them.  As a syntactic unit, sentences 1-4 depend 
on sentence 5, which contains narrative wayyiqtol. This wayyiqtol 
begins the mainline of the narrative. What precedes gives the setting 
of the story, i.e. it specifies how the situation was when God began 

PK: Thank you for this analysis. I am happy with this apart from your 
view of the role of sentence 1, as outlined above. I feel certain that 
this would not have been the natural understanding of the Hebrew text 
as presented. If the author had wanted to say what you suggest, he 
could have avoided ambiguity in many different ways e.g. 1) by adding 
WAYHI at the start, or 2) by using the infinitive construct rather 
than the QATAL of BARA' and starting verse 2 with HAYTA HA'ARETS TOHU 
WEBOHU. But he has left us with no clear indication that he intends 
the rather rare construction which you have put forward. The first 
verse clearly can be understood as a main clause (as in 1 Kings and 
Job, which both start with an X-QATAL main clause, giving background 
information), and so I do not believe that an intelligent author, 
particularly of such a significant verse, would have left open a 
possibility which he did not intend. On the other hand, I have not 
found any Hebrew example with the sentence structure which you propose 
for this verse, leaving open the possibility that the ambiguity was 
resolved by your interpretation being rejected by native speaker 
hearers and readers as ungrammatical.

PK: I now feel obliged to give an alternative understanding analogous 
to the one which you presented and I rejected. I realise that this is 
difficult, but I would prefer to see verses 1 and 2 as somehow in 
parallel. Thus I would tentatively suggest: "In the beginning God 
created heaven and earth [sentence 1, x-qatal], at that time the earth 
was chaos and void [sentence 2, waw-x-qatal]...". But the precise 
temporal relationship between verses 1 and 2 is, I admit, obscure. I 
wonder if you can comment on whether in general pairs of X-QATAL 
clauses joined by waw should be taken as simultaneous, sequential or 

PK: This leaves open the question of how the Jewish interpreters came 
to give such a surprising interpretation. Were they perhaps motivated 
by some other doctrinal viewpoint? It is possible, but unlikely, that 
they were trying to avoid a creation ex nihilo interpretation. Perhaps 
they spotted something which I pointed out to Ian, that my view 
requires God to act before the first numbered day; this could have 
offended the Jewish interpreters' sensibilities, and so they found an 
alternative interpretation. Pure speculation, I know, from one who 
knows little of this subject.

        2) The question of creatio ex nihilo versus eternity of the 
matter is beyond the intention of the text. As in the Ancient Near 
East, creation is presented as a transformation of chaos into cosmos. 
This does not mean, of course, that the biblical writer(s) believed 
that God did not create the matter...

PK: I agree with the first sentence of your 2), but I don't think the 
second has been demonstrated, at least as the full scope of the 
understanding of the author of Genesis.

        3) Gen 2:4 can hardly be divided in two parts as the literary 
critics usually maintain...

PK: This is very interesting, but I think this E-mail is long enough 
already, so I will leave this for another time.


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