The End And The Beginning

The joy of Sukkot reaches its peak during Simchat Torah, the holiday that follows immediately after the festival of Sukkot and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah reading, and the beginning of a new cycle. Last year, we spoke about the first Torah portion, Bereishit (In the Beginning), but the cycle begins again, and today we are going to touch on a few additional points of this incredibly deep portion of beginnings.

IN THE BEGINNING

Bereishit bara Elohim … In the beginning God created…[1]

Be-reishit – In the beginning – the very first word of the Bible, the word that introduces God’s revelation to mankind, starts with the letter Bet: בְּרֵאשִׁית. Even if you know nothing of Hebrew, you can probably guess that this letter, like B in English, is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Wouldn’t it seem more proper to start the book of beginnings from the first letter?  So, why not Alef?

Rabbinic writings offer different explanations. According to one Midrash, since the numerical value of Bet is 2, Torah opens with a message of two worlds – this world and the world to come. Another Midrash explains that we must approach Torah with the attitude of Bet – thus acknowledging a process that began long ago. We have to start, not as Alef, ignoring everything from the past, but rather as Bet, drawing from and building upon ancient Torah tradition.

There is yet another answer to this riddle: we are not meant to know everything. “There was no beginning to His beginning”[2] – but the secret things belong to the LORD. God never intended to reveal everything to us; He only revealed enough for us to know and to fulfill His will:  those things which are revealed belong to us…  that we may do all the words of this law”[3]

So, Bet in the beginning, is like a wall separating the things that belong to the Lord and His beginning – from the beginning of His revelation to us. It is not accidental, but rather it is extremely meaningful, that this Bet in the Hebrew text is bigger in size than other letters. There are only a few cases like this in the whole Tanach, and all of them have deep meaning. In this case, this is indeed the Beginning, with a “capital letter”, even though there are no capitals in Hebrew: the Beginning of the things revealed!

 

RUACH ELOHIM

… the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters[4]

When we read the Bible in English, we encounter God’s Spirit in the very beginning of the creation story: the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, says Genesis 1:2. However, in many Jewish translations of Torah the same verse speaks about the wind of God sweeping over the water. Which translation would be correct? You probably know that ruach in Hebrew means both wind and spirit, but how do we distinguish between the two meanings? How do we know what the text means? Is it God’s Spirit that hovers over the primordial waters, or just a wind that sweeps over these waters?

We find an answer through the verb that follows ruach: merahefet. This verb occurs only once more in Torah, in Deuteronomy 32:11, here expressing the utmost care, love and affection – a mother eagle flutters (merahefet)) over  her young and bears them upon her wings.

Whilst there is a certain similarity between the spirit and the wind (that is why Jesus compares them in the NT), there is also a very profound difference: a wind can’t express tender love, care and affection! A wind blows dispassionately and indifferently – while the Spirit of God caringly and lovingly flutters over His creation. This loving, personal, passionate hovering that we see in Deuteronomy 32:11, in Genesis 1:2 can only refer to God’s Spirit, and not to the wind!  Through this one word alone, we catch a glimpse of the amazing depth of the original Hebrew text.

 

BEREISHIT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

The first thing we learn from the first chapter of the book of Genesis is that the world is created by the Word of God’s power.  Nine times during six days of creation we hear:  “And God said” ” –   וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים. This verb VaYomer – and He said – helps us understand, not only that God is the only one who has this creative life-giving power, but that the source of this life-giving power is His Word:  He creates everything and gives life by the authority of His Word alone.

According to the New Testament, Jesus is the Word of God – therefore,  we are not surprised to find almost the same description of the beginning of the creation   in the New Testament, in the Gospel of John. The language of John clearly and purposely echoes the language of Genesis 1:1:

 IN THE BEGINNING was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made[5].

“Word” here  translates Greek logos and corresponds to Aramaic “memra” (also “word”), a technical theological term used by the rabbis in the centuries before and after Jesus.  The parallel between the beginning of John’s Gospel and the beginning of the book of Genesis is unmistakable. Moreover, it seems that John wants to provide a fuller understanding of the account of Genesis: it is the Word of God that brings forth life – both in the Genesis account and in the Gospel.

WHEN DO YOU MEET ADAM?

You probably know that the name Adam comes from the Hebrew אָדָם  (adam), but do you know when you meet adam in the bible for the first time? In this particular case, the difference between the English and Hebrew texts is striking. When we read our English Bible, there is no Adam in Genesis 1 – we first encounter Adam in Genesis 2. (Most translations introduce him in Gen. 2:20, although some speak about Adam in verse 19).  However, if we read this text in Hebrew, we find adam in chapter 1 – Gen. 1:26.  What is going on here?

The explanation, of course, comes from the Hebrew language. While in English Adam is always a personal name, in Hebrew it simply means “human”. In fact, in Hebrew the term for ‘human beings’ is ‘Benei Adam’ – ‘the children of Adam’. In Genesis 1:27 “adam” is used in the collective sense: not only the individual Adam, but all humans are created on the sixth day. In Genesis 2 and 3, the generic and personal usages are mixed. This interplay between the individual “Adam” and collective “humankind”, and the ambiguous meanings embedded throughout the narrative, add a new dimension and bring additional depth to the crucial events of Genesis 3 – something that is completely missed in English translations.

 

A NEW READING OF THE OLD STORY, OR WHO WAS CREATED FIRST

We all know the story: in Genesis 2, God fashions Adam from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden, and only at the end of this chapter is Eve created from one of Adam’s ribs. This is the traditional understanding: The creation of the Man occurs first, whereas creation of the woman occurs much later, after the creation of the animals. However, some Jewish commentaries read this story in a very different way.

As we just saw, the Hebrew word “adam” doesn’t denote a male only. The first time “adam” occurs is in Genesis 1:26 when God says: “let us make adam[6] – and the explanation, “male and female He created them,[7] clarifies the nature of this human being. We find the same idea later: “He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them adam[8]Thus, Genesis first refers to adam in the singular, but then says that God created “them” male and female.

Was it one being or two, then?  A number of rabbinic passages see the first human actually comprised of both genders. Thus, midrash Bereshit Rabba says: “man and woman were originally undivided, i.e. adam was at first created … hermaphrodite.” In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah we read: “At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynous”. So, from the dust of the earth God forms a human who is both male and female.

God looks at this two-gendered creature and says: lo tov – “not good”[9].  This was definitely not the ideal way of creating a male-female couple, so God divided them into two people. That’s why, when a man and woman marry, they become “one” flesh: they return to God’s original design before the man and the woman were separated.

 

 

I would like to remind you, my dear readers, that we offer a course on the Weekly Torah Portion, and those interested to study in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, are welcome to sign up for this course or to contact me for more information and for the discount. Also, for those interested in  my book  about Hidden Messiah, As Though Hiding His Face , or my other books (they  all have Hebrew insights), here is the link to my page on this blog: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/.

 

 

[1] Gen.1:1

[2] Shaharit, Jewish morning prayer

[3] Deut. 29:29

[4] Gen.1:2

[5] John 1:1-3

[6] Gen.1:26, adam here is usually translated as “Man”.

[7] Gen. 1:27

[8] Gen 5:2, adam here is usually translated as “Mankind”.

[9] Gen.2:18

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Victor O Olear

    Brilliant commentary!!!
    Thanks.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Felix and Victor for your kind and generous words, I’m so glad you find my articles interesting and helpful!

  2. Felix Twum Antwi

    Thanks Julia, amazing insights as usual.
    Thanks once again.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Felix and Victor for your kind and generous words, I’m so glad you find my articles interesting and helpful!

  3. Nick

    Thanks again Julia-the basics of the Beginning are so important in seeking a proper perspective of who we are and who we should become!
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Nick! Indeed, we can learn so much from these first chapters about God’s original plan and design for us. That’s why it’s so important to be able to understand the original meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures – and it’s what I’ve been trying to do here!

  4. Marge Schwartz

    I’ve heard that the 1st word in Genesis is related to “Bar” which means “Son”, showing that the bible begins with Yahweh’s plan for manifestation as Savior and redeemer.

    1. Julia Blum

      You are right Marge, the first two letters of the word בראשית (in the beginning) are ב and ר. The word בר (“bar”) in Hebrew has several meanings, but the main one is “son” ( you probably know the expression “bar mitzvah”- the celebration of Jewish boy becoming a man, literally “son of commandment”). So it can be said that the Bible starts with the word “son”. Of course, as always, it is a question of faith, whether one accepts it.