Genesis 1:1-3 – Does Hebrew Grammar Matter for Understanding the Hebrew Scriptures?

Posted By on August 26, 2013

Stupid question? To anyone thinking clearly it is. There are, naturally, exceptions. It’s just unfortunate that you can find them in Christian ministries.

Readers may recall that I have posted several items about the grammar and syntax of Genesis 1:1-3. One such post discussed the problem of the clauses in those first three verses – how the grammar and syntax really don’t allow for a linear, chronological reading and why that’s important for translation and interpretation. That post introduced my readers to the work of Rob Holmstedt, an established Hebrew grammarian who happens to be a friend, as we went to graduate school together at the UW-Madison. Alas, Answers in Genesis doesn’t like our take on Genesis 1:1-3 (they discovered it through Ben Stanhope’s post). It seems all that Hebrew talk about the Hebrew Scriptures muddles the clarity of their view of those verses – the one that keeps their ministry ship afloat. Bummer.

Rob Holmstedt (together with another friend and grad school colleague, John Cook) blogs online about – you guessed it – Hebrew grammar. Rob recently had this to say about the Answers in Genesis invective against him. While I get shot at in their post as well, it’s mostly directed at Rob. He’s an easy target. As a professor at the University of Toronto, they can readily portray to their loyalists as a secularist Hebrew professor who writes un-Christian stuff about Genesis. Rob’s a Christian (Wheaton grad before our days at the UW-Madison).

Frankly, what Rob’s faith happens to be is a non-issue here. You either take the text for what it says within the constructs of the rules of language or you don’t. Hebrew grammar really does matter for understanding the Hebrew Bible. Kind of like English grammar matters for understanding stuff written in English. You’d think that would be self-evident. Answers in Genesis shows us that, sadly, it isn’t.

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12 Responses to “Genesis 1:1-3 – Does Hebrew Grammar Matter for Understanding the Hebrew Scriptures?”

  1. Mike says:

    This was a good walk down memory lane. Thanks for the reminder to go recover some drive space at home by deleting some Ham/AIG/Hovind (oh my! Hovind) material from my archive.

    This stuff isn’t complicated once Rob (not Skiba) & you explain it. More importantly, it is also NOT faith destroying the way people fear it might be. It doesn’t widen the scripture to make the faith inclusive of Eastern beliefs or anything like that.

    The one argument I never got around was the possibility of death entering creation before Man’s sin. For me, that’s a linchpin, but not necessarily a good one. However, I don’t see that being undermined by Mike’s explanation given in the video. Is this issue really touched on here, or is that a debate for dinosaurs, as Rob (not Skiba) had in his posts? Dinosaurs aside, why must people behave in such a threatened way?? (Rhetorical question.)

    If they could work out the difficulties with Part Deux from that series, we’d appreciate it. If it’s something like the audio track didnt’ get recorded, well, that can’t be worked out unless someone lip-reads and over-dubs. 😛

    • MSH says:

      Had to chuckle here – appreciated. For anything technical (the difficulties alluded to) I’m out of that loop – I’d email them directly.

  2. RGD2 says:

    Maybe if “Hebrew Syntax View” got used more as a reference/label, that would help promulgate understanding and communication. I’m assuming there’s not another convenient label for this view of Gen 1:1-3.

  3. O Normann Sæterlid says:

    Micheal Heiser.
    Hello Brother, I find all your discourses on Gen 1:1-3 and Gen 2 quite interesting and have studied them over some time now.
    It is so unfortunate when New discoveries arises that believers react with Fear and Fury.
    Not to repeat what is said but fast forward to some conclusion:

    – The first failure theology does is to mix two distinct outcomes when; A) denying the Gen 1:1-3 Hebrew syntax and; B) not separating Gen1 and Gen2 as chronological orders.

    A) When applying the Hebrew syntax 3-1-2 we see that the universe is not created ex nihilo, but that it came out of God’s Light substance – sound just great to me.
    B) Because Theology mixes Gen2 back into Gen1 we get the confusion between 6 day creation, which the Hebrew syntax does not change at all, – That the universe is 6000 years, which is never hinted in the bible, are rather an outcome of eisegesis by taking Adam’s Generation, Gen2, back into the 6 day creation story of all creation. Which is strange since the rest of genesis is written in a historical chronological order. Not to speak of the how opposite pictures are their creation story – Gen1, Adam is last into a complete creation and – Gen 2, where Adam sees a barren land and creation begins anew on earth.

    A)- nuanced: The Adversary has now created a “replacement creation” (and a replacement theology for that matter) from this ex-nihilo called the Big Bang, of which came evolution from nothing and where we came from the Goo via the Zoo. I actually find it to be a Master Tactic by our Lord Jesus, that – In the Beginning – and ex nihilo creation – was intended as the general theological assumption before our modern time of “observation”.
    In their “replacement creation”, the Adversary has been had “Big Time”, because; by our true understanding of the Hebrew syntax 3-1-2, there is no Ex nihilo. And:
    I do not know if most people realize that Einstein has been proven dead wrong in his misconception that prevails; that the so-called “Schwarzschild solution” is a solution for the vacuum field. Not only is this incorrect, it is not even Schwarzschild’s solution.
    This has stirred the academic society of cosmology “Big Time” as the implication is grave – as no Black hole, Black matter or Black energy does exist at all, and has never been proven by observation, rather to the contrary. Looong story. But to take one simple observation: When Hubble telescope probed a black spot into deepest space estimated over ten Billions of years back, they found countless Galaxies FULLY Formed. Stupid as they are before announcing the finding and not realizing that: How could those galaxies be fully formed at all when everything where supposed to be in a chaotic plasma flux at that age.

    B)- nuanced: By keeping the correct chronology between Gen1 and Gen2, we do not have to argue the 6 day creation; we simply do not know and God can do anything. But what we do know from earth formation – is that the micro structure from plasma-matter formation into solid rocks must have been an almost instant formation into the solid structures duo to what we call isotopic radiohalo signature created in the rock, as it’s isotope decays. This narrows the creation window considerably and testify the local space-time signature, and testify almost instant creation. ( ).

    The other interesting element is that that of our current Genome research. We have much scientific evidence that the Flood did happen, and this would create a genetic bottleneck. By keeping Gen2 as a chronology after Gen1, how long we do not know, but it does not contradict the biblical Generation of Adam, that is 6000 years. We have thus a Time gap between Gen1 and Gen2 which we cannot answer. But it opens a whole lot of possibility for which “true scientific observation” can give us many answers, only that their dating methods are horribly flawed: ex: Dating the age of rocks by radioactive isotopes is a lucky guess, lava from the 1801 Hawaiian volcano eruption gave a K-Ar date of 1.6 million years, one in 1959 from Mt. Kilauea dated 8.5 million years, Mt Etna, Sicily in 1972 dated 350,000 years, Mt. St. Helen 1980 gave 1 to 2.8 million years. Analogy, measuring Isotopes in rock are like guessing when an adjustable and slowly dimming light bulb where switch on before entering the room.

    Discussion. Dogmatic Christians who argue these New Discoveries, both scientifically and scriptural, misses the remarkable testimony that the Bible now again is proving itself to be. The Lion need no defense only to be let loose. Instead we are now arguing from incomplete understanding, maybe genesis is not to be a scientific document, but its history told could now be a perfect legitimacy of the our scientific observations.

    Yours in Christ – Normann

  4. And ironically your divine council work is much more important to understanding the background to Gen 1-2 and the ancient Hebrew’s concept of creation than my work on a small bit of grammar in one verse.

  5. JT says:

    Does the idea of self-preservation from the AiG group come to mind?

  6. Jim says:

    Hello Dr. Heiser, I appreciated your video and discussions regarding Gen 1:1-3. Can you help me with the big picture, significance of, i.e. argument for going with the alternate, grammatically correct, translation for v1? Can you help me understand why most translations don’t use “when”?

    It seems to me that if you use “when” instead of “in the beginning” the meaning may not have necessarily been changed. “when” can be read “at the time”, which in this case is the beginning of the heavens and the earth. Is “in the beginning”, as applied to the heavens and earth, not a more accurate translation of thought?

    Does “in the beginning” imply to some that God did not exist before that time?

    It also seems that you imply matter was present in the universe, the heavens, before God decided to form the heavens and the earth, which would mean that he began, before the beginning.

    Am I wrong to presume that he created that matter from nothing? If that is the case, could he not have done it all at once when he decided to begin? In the same line of reasoning, if he created the dust from nothing and then created Adam from the same dust then can Adam be accurately said to have been created from nothing?

    I don’t mean to belabor the point, but just as grammar matters, words matter. I believe God existed eternally prior to creating the heavens and the earth, I’m just struggling with the significance of saying “when” he decided to create as opposed to beginning the message with “in the beginning”. How does changing the words change the message? Thank you for sharing your critical and insightful reading of scripture. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Very respectfully,

    • MSH says:

      “When” doesn’t undermine God’s pre-existence. “When” I get home I get something to eat. And I existed before I started that process. “When” situated the activities of the do-er in (relative) time; it doesn’t comment on the do-er’s existence before acting.

  7. B. Stanhope says:

    I’ve been tinkering with the notion that animal death was not envisioned by the author of Genesis as occuring within the garden but that it was assumed to exist outside of the garden. Do you think this position is implied given ANE parallels like Dilmun?

    • MSH says:

      I see no reason to think that death wasn’t occurring outside the perfect realm of Eden. ANE “evidence” of that idea can be found in ANE material (but it’s not really evidence – that material is only relevant in that it shows a common conception, meaning that the biblical story is like the others, despite its own differences at points / theological messaging).

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