One of the most well known preambles of all time. America’s “When in the course of human events…” is a distant second.
The first two Hebrew words used are Be-reshit Elohim. literally: Beginning God.
The rabbis through the ages remark on the austere language, the parsimony of words and the symbolic order given to these first few chapters detailing the creation of the world. One of the best Jewish commentaries on Genesis – cited below – contains this reverential analysis of the text:
The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable. The Genesis narrative does not seek to make intelligible what is beyond human ken. To draw upon human language to explain that which is outside any model of human experience is inevitably to confront the inescapable limitations of any attempt to give verbal expression to this subject.*
As we approach this book of Genesis – one of the first things to note is what is NOT there: there are no warring gods. We know there are other cosmologies (creation stories) around the Near East at this time, many containing an epic struggle from which one god asserts power over the others. In contrast this great Hebrew narrative of Genesis contains one who asserts his will over everything and does so in an orderly and deliberate fashion.
The second thing to notice is generally lost to us in our rush to just move along but for those with a bent toward really getting into the text there is a numerical ordering and a syntax ordering that is particularly beautiful. I’ll leave it to the commentary of JPS (Jewish Publication Society) and simply quote it in its entirety:
“[Throughout the opening sequence] The Narrator employs the device of number symbolism, the heptad, to emphasize the basic idea of design, completion, and perfection. The opening proclamation contains seven words; the description of primal chaos is set forth in twice seven words; the narrative’s seven literary units feature seven times the formula for the effectuation of the divine will and the statement of divine approval; and the six days of creation culminate in the climactic seventh.”
While other creation stories of the time are very interested in God’s origins, the Hebrew text is not. God simply is. There is no attempt to determine how or why God came to be. That is accepted on faith.
That seems important to note at the beginning as well. This is a document of faith. Remarkably and delightedly we of the 21st century have the ability to see a glimpse of this beginning which the narrator wisely knew was beyond the realm of human words. I urge you to spend a few minutes here
It’s the Hubble telescope – which so far has been able to look back in time more than 13.5 billion years. What you are watching is the creation of a new galaxy. Amazing! Awe inspiring! For an even more amazing experience, read Genesis chapter one while you view this.
Genesis one boldly declares: This is the One who creates the heavens and the earth. Elohim. The one who was, is and forever shall be.
*Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.