"A" or "The"?

"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 -

Translate or Transliterate

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 -


Building Hebrew Words

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 - "BE."

Building a Hebrew Train

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.

Suffix Root Word Prefix

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."

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 the beginning."  

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 verse?  

(2) Does it cause any theological problems?  

(3) Does it solve any theological conflicts?  

CLICK HERE to 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

* A Practical Grammar For Classical Hebrew by J. Weingreen.
(Click on book title for more info or to order.)


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