"A" or "The" - what's the big deal? When it
comes to the first word in the Hebrew Bible a whole bunch of people
think it's a very big deal. Friendships have been destroyed, law
suits filed, and it has even become a political "hot potato"
in some states.
Below is the first word of the Book of Genesis -
When translators work with biblical words they have three basic
options - (1) translate the word;
(2) transliterate the word; or (3) ignore
the word. When a translator "translates"
a word, he or she determines which English
word or words best correspond to the Hebrew meaning of the Hebrew word.
The translator brings the "meaning"
from Hebrew into English.
When a translator "transliterates"
a word, he or she determines
which English letter is the appropriate substitute for each Hebrew
letter (consonant or vowel sign) of the word. The
translator brings the "sound"
from Hebrew into English. The transliteration
of the above Hebrew word is -
We need to learn a little about how Hebrew words are constructed in
order to understand exactly what is taking place. First, let's
take a look at the first letter.
You may have noticed that the first letter of the Hebrew word appears
to be on the wrong end of the word. Hebrew
is read from right to left, so the first letter is on the
far right. It is transliterated
into English by the letter "B."
The next letter is found under
the first letter. This may seem a little strange at first,
especially since we are used to reading our letters in a straight
horizontal line. In this case our next letter (called a vowel sign)
looks like a colon ( : )
and it is found under the first
letter. It is transliterated
into English by the letter "E."
When we write the transliteration of the first two letters we have -
Building a Hebrew
Hebrew words are very much like railroad trains - they
may have one or more prefixes attached to a root word which in turn may
have one or more suffixes also attached to it.
Below is a table that shows how this word is constructed.
Now that you know a few of the basics of how Hebrew works you will be
able to better understand why there is a question about "A" or
"THE." Do you see the two Hebrew letters we
transliterated as "BE" - they
are the prefix. Probably every English translation
you have translates them as "in
The Definite Article
The "B" is translated
as "in," and the "E"
is translated as "the."
It is the translation of the "E"
that creates the problem. When we consult our Hebrew grammar
book* and look up the section called "The
Article," we find the following information.
There is no word for the indefinite
article in Hebrew; `a'
or `an' is not expressed. .
. The context implies that the word is indefinite.
The definite article
`the' . . . is attached
to the word (as a prefix).
In this case the definite article
would appear as a transliterated "A"
instead of the "E," so the
word would begin with "BA."
Since the word begins with the "BE"
we now know that it is indefinite and therefore should be correctly
translated as "in a
beginning," instead of "in
Does it make any difference if the opening verse of your Bible reads
"In a beginning God
created the heavens and the earth."
(1) How does this translation affect the meaning of the
(2) Does it cause any theological problems?
(3) Does it solve any theological conflicts?
e-mail your comments to us if you would like to share them.
Our next discussion will be about the meaning of the "B."
There may be another translation
choice or two or three other than "in."
Be sure to email anyone that you think might be interested in this
study. If you haven't been receiving Biblical
Insights and would like to receive them just sign our Guestbook
Thank you for visiting
our site! Sign
up to receive BHC News & Updates by e-mail. Tell
a friend about BHC & FOLLOW BHC ONLINE --
here. Copyright 1999-2015 Biblical Heritage Center,
* Information on this website comes from a wide variety of
sources and the inclusion of any source is not to be
understood as an endorsement of the position, person, or group.
All comments or statements are those of the source and have been included for
educational and research resources. Jim Myers, Webmaster