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#84 - Gen 1:1 - Do Bible scholars believe "in the beginning" means "the only"
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
In the first chapter of Genesis, does 'the beginning' represents 'the only' to Bible scholars in general or just to Mrs. Eddy?
In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy writes:
Genesis i. 1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
The infinite has no beginning. This word beginning is employed to signify the only, that is, the eternal verity and unity of God and man, including the universe. (S&H 502:24-27)
The Hebrew word translated as "beginning" is Strong's Hebrew word #7225 and can be transliterated as ray-sheeth, re'sit, or re'shit. One authoritative Hebrew dictionary (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume II, edited by Harris, Archer, and Waltke, Chicago: Moody Press: 1980, pages 825-826) writes:
Re'shit. First, beginning, choicest, first/best of a group. A feminine noun derived from the root of ro'sh… The primary meaning is "first" or "beginning" of a series. This term may refer to the initiation of a series of historical events (Gen 10:10; Jer 26:1) but it also refers to a foundational or necessary condition as the reverence or fear of God (Ps 11:10; Prov 1:7) and the initiation, as opposed to the results, of a life (Job 8:7; 42:12). It is used frequently in the special sense of the choicest or best of a group or class of things, particularly in reference to items to be set aside for God's service or sacrifice. The "first fruits" (Lev 2:12; 23:10; Neh 12:44) and "choicest" (Num 18:12) fruits are so distinguished… The most important use of re'shit in the OT [Old Testament] occurs in Gen 1:1 where it is combined with the proclitic preposition b (q.v.). There has been a great deal of debate over this use of re'shit. Many commentators both ancient and modern have tried to read the phrase as "when-" rather than "in the beginning" as do several modern versions… The NT [New Testament] (Jn 1:1) translates the Hebrew and follows the LXX [the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, used by early Christians as "the Bible] precisely in its reading of (Gen 1:1) the first phrase of the OT. The use of this root leaves no doubt that Gen 1:1 opens with the very first and initial act of the creation of the cosmos.
As mentioned above the root of re'shit is ro'sh or ro's <Strong's Hebrew word #7218>, which means "head".
Another highly respected Hebrew lexicon (The Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, Volume 3, edited by Ernst Jenni and Claus Westerman, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997, page 1184) writes:
The root *ra's- underlying Hebr. ro's is common Sem. [Semitic]… The specifics of the meaning of *ra's- in the Sem. languages are remarkably uniform. The lit. [literal] use for "head" is joined by fig. [figurative] usages: in the social sense for "superior, leader," the local sense for "peak, point," the temporal sense for "beginning," or the valuative sense for "the best."
All of the above is is consistent with what other dictionaries and commentaries say on the meaning of the Hebrew word that is translated as "beginning."
I will have to let you draw your own conclusion regarding Mrs. Eddy's description that the word "beginning is employed to signify the only…" In considering this you may wish to keep in mind that she used the word "signify" rather than "mean." Mrs. Eddy sometimes articulates a "spiritual sense "of biblical passages that eludes clear-cut explanation based upon the original texts. Here she seems to be referring to the spiritual sense of the passage, not a translation of the Hebrew word.
The official Webster's dictionary of Mrs. Eddy's day defines "signify" as follows:
1. To make known something, either by signs or words; to express or communicated to another any idea, thought, wish, purpose or command, either by words, by a not, wink, gesture, signal or other sign…
2. To mean; to have or contain a certain sense…
3. To import; to weigh; to have consequence…
4. To make known; to declare...
(Noah Webster's First Edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Anaheim, CA: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967, Volume II, page 73)
To get an honest sense of what Mrs. Eddy (or any author) intended, it is helpful to explore how she expressed herself in similar words and phrases elsewhere. She in fact refers to "in the beginning" and "the only" in the same paragraph elsewhere in Science and Health. She writes:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." (Genesis i. 1, 2.) In the vast forever, in the Science and truth of being, the only facts are Spirit and its innumerable creations." (S&H 479:18-23)
Rather than retrofitting selected facts and re-used inspiration to justify our already determined opinions, it is exhilarating to let the facts and inspiration lead us into fresh, honest insights.
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer