Q&A: What is the mystery in Genesis 1:1?

Book of Genesis 1:1

For me, as a Hebrew translator and speaker, the biggest mystery is why is the verb tense used in the term ‘created’ the simple past tense bara (ברא), and not the narrative past tense, vayavré (ויברא).

Typically, the narrative past tense is used in relating a sequential narrative—as is the case with subsequent verbs: vayomer … vayar’ …. vayavdel …. vayiqra…. (And [He] said …. And [He] saw …. And [He] divided […] And [He] called […]. So why is ‘created’ different?

Some commentators believe that the answer is that it’s not really a past tense at all, but a type of past continuous, i.e. ‘When God was creating the heaven and the earth’, etc. But that smacks of intentional interpretation, and anyway the pointing of the word (בָּרָא, not בְּרָא) suggests otherwise.

To my mind, the real reason is simpler, and twofold:

  1. Beresheet bara (..| –|) rolls off the tongue, whereas Beresheet vayav (..| – –|) is clunky, and an inauspicious start to such an august literary work.
  2. Although the prefix va- is known as vav hahipukh (‘the inversion vav’—i.e., a vav that turns a seemingly future tense into a past one), it is still (for Hebrew speakers) inexorably associated with its primary meaning of ‘and’. So the use of the simple past tense for the verb ‘created’ underscores the fact that it was the very first action, and not just another in a sequence of actions, like all the ones that followed.

God indeed moves in grammatical ways.


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