Genesis 1:1: independent clause or subordinate phrase?

Jonathan Bailey jonathan.bailey at
Mon Dec 6 14:08:35 EST 1999

I noticed some of PK's criticisms of Prof. Niccacci's examples, but did not say 
anything because almost all of my posts concerning grammatical issues have turned 
out to be blundering faux pas resulting of a lack of knowledge combined with a love of 
entertaining English. Added to that, I just did not feel I had the stuff needed to tangle 
with somebody who can publish in Italian. But I would like to present the verse from 
Hosea 1:2 which is almost exactly the type of phrase as Genesis 1:1 with the 
exception that there is a vayyiqtol instead of a ve-noun after the initial time 
phrase/qatal clause. Does this verse support Professor Niccacci's view that Gen 1:1 
is not ex-nihilo? What do you guys do with that verse? Apparently the versions emend 
the text.

Jonathan Bailey
MA Kandidat
Hochschule für Jüdische Studien

---------- Original Message ----------

>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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