Hebrew Poetry and Word Play in Genesis 1:1-2

Bereshit "In the beginning" opening word in Hebrew scripture or Old Testament Genesis.
Berei’shit “In the beginning” opening word in Hebrew scripture or Old Testament Genesis.

By Patrick Hunt – 

While this is not in any way comprehensive, some of my favorite word plays from Hebrew literature show a deliberate use of language for suggesting multiple ambiguities, sometimes even steganographic – hiding things in plain sight – and often paronomasic – having connections in both sound and meaning. Genesis 1:1-2 is one such passage rich in poetic nuances.

Genesis 1:1-2

One of the most subtle Hebrew word plays opens up the biblical text. Genesis 1:1 starts out “In the beginning God created…”. In the Hebrew word order here, the prepositional phrase “in beginning” comes first, followed by the verb “created” where the subject noun “God” comes third.  The Hebrew preposition is be- (בְּ) for “in” and this is compounded with the word rei’shit (רֵאשִׁית) for “beginning” to create berei’shit (בְּרֵאשִׁית). The first three Hebrew consonant letters for “in beginning” are beit (בֹ), reish (ר), aleph (א)exactly the same first three letters of bārā’ (בָּרָא) for “createdwith repeated beit (בֹ), reish (ר), aleph (א), so when one examines these first two words “In the beginning created” in the Hebrew scriptures they start out exactly the same. This is highly unlikely to be coincidental and forms a clever paronomasia (sharing sound and meaning [1]) as well as likely being a mnemonic device for the poetic opening of scripture. One of the first to notice this particular opening biblical paronomasia in the Anglophone world was Gary Rendsburg. [2] One could even poetically suggest here that “in beginning” has “created” embedded in it as a form of steganography.

That this phrase is paronomasic with “In the beginning created…” may not be as important as some of its possible purposes such as memorability and the use of poetry to make a theology manifest even nobler by rendering it poetically where the genre of poetry further elevates the register of ideas more than prose for already elevated thought.  Other poetic devices embedded in Genesis 1 include the assonance of tōhû wābōhû (תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ) for “formless and empty”, [3]  along with the repetitions and shared patterns throughout (“And God said”, “…Let there be…”,”And God saw that it was good”, etc.). Another example of assonance in this Genesis 1:1-2 passage, likely also paronomasic given the parallels between sky and water,  may be in the euphonic and semantic connection of shāmayim (שָּׁמַיִם) “heavens” to māyim (מָּיִם) for “water”.

Furthermore, there is a lovely extended poetic figure that functions eidetically (multiple sensory evocation or dramatic intensification as an image [4]) in the imagery of Gen. 1:2b, where “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.”  Since the word for “spirit” rûach (רוּחַ) can also be used for “breath or wind”,[5] one might be able to visually imagine this by noting, for example, how on a bright day when sunlight shines across a lake, suddenly the wind comes up. Blowing gently across the sunlit water, the wind breaks up the light into a kaleidoscope of bright fragments with its ripples. One cannot see the wind but one can see what it does, possibly even feel it on face and hands so that close up it can also be a multi-sensory experience. Like steganography, or hiding things (in this case invisible God?) in otherwise plain sight, the image becomes all the more mysteriously profound because wind itself cannot be seen, only felt, and that instead its effects can be seen in a sensory paradox. Because it also implies movement, this can also be an image of kinesis. Even if this eidetic word picture is not a primary meaning in the passage, [6] it is nonetheless a possible intended ambiguity.

Then there is the prior image that “darkness was on the face of the deep” in Genesis 1:2a. One more very tentative idea is that the word for “deep” in tehôm (תְהוֹם) might refer not to sea, its customary meaning and primary domain in its other biblical uses. Of course this is not the normal context for this word given the already noted water imagery [7] – although as also mentioned above with shāmayim – māyim there is a strong connection between sea and sky – but perhaps it can also suggest here not only a looking down but rather also a looking up to the huge abyss of night sky? Could this be another possible intended multiple ambiguity, often a feature of great poetry?

In conclusion, what if the original material for this prose text was in fact poetry and orally transmitted for some time before written down? It could have been originally all the more memorable – possibly intended to be memorized – as hinted in the few poetic fragments that may remain. What better trope than poetry to express such profound ideas such as “in the beginning” already having “creation” embedded in it and a sensory subtlety of invisible divine wind hovering across water to gently stir it, especially if light can be seen but not wind, which can only be felt but its effects seen? This is a glimpse into something ineffable.



[1]   Patrick Hunt. “Subtle Paronomasia in the Canticum Canticorum: Hidden Treasures of the Superlative Poet” in K.-D. Schunck and M. Augustin, eds. Goldene Äpfel in silbernen Schalen. Beiträge zur Erforschung des Alten Testaments und des Antiken Judentums 20. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 1992, 147-54.

[2]  Gary Rendsburg, “Word Play in Biblical Hebrew” in Scott Noegel, ed. Puns and Pundits: Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2000.

[3]  also identified as a Hebrew wordplay, cf. Everett Fox et al. Encyclopedia Judaica 3, 2007,  2nd ed., 572 & ff.

[4]  Patrick Hunt. “Sensory Images in Song of Songs 1:2-2:16” in M. Augustin and K.-D. Schunck, eds. “Dort ziehen Schiffe dahinBeiträge zur Erforschung des Alten Testaments und des Antiken Judentums 28. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 1996, 69-78, esp. 70-1.

[5]  F. Brown, S. R. Driver, C. A. Briggs. Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1951] 1994 repr., 924.

[6]   note Harry Orlinsky, “The Plain Meaning of RUACH in Gen. 1:2”, Jewish Quarterly Review  48.2 (1957) 174-82, esp. where he makes the case for interpreting this word as “wind”, esp. 177-9.

[7]  Its earlier Akkadian cognate is tâmtum where it is also associated with the chaos of Tiamat. While Tiamat is not so likely intended here, yet neither is it a negation of Tiamat according to D. F. Tsumura, The Earth and The Waters in Genesis 1 and 2:  A Linguistic Investigation. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989.