I am taking a Introduction to the Old Testament and the professor stated that the first phrase in Genesis, “In the beginning,” has been mistransated and the better phrase is “When God began creating the heavens and the earth.” She states that the former gives the impression to the readers that this was the first thing to happen in time and the latter implies (more accuractly to her) that God did not create things ex nihilo. The question I am asking is, if the first words of Genesis is a mistranslation, then why do we still translated that way in the Bible. P.S. I am taking this course because I am Training to become a teacher in the Church.
The Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 is (transliterated) beresit bara elohim et hassamayim, which literally translates as in the beginning (beresit) created (bara) God (elohim) the heavens (et hassamayim)…. I am not an expert in the Hebrew and am not willing to contradict what your Old Testament professor taught you. I assume that she is more of an expert in Hebrew grammar than I am. However, a literal reading of the Hebrew words seems to support the traditional translation. I looked up the key word, which is beresit. The most common translations of the word are beginning, first and firstfruit. Again, this seems to support the traditional translation. Perhaps what we could say is that, although the best literal translation of the first words in Genesis are “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” perhaps a reasonable paraphrase, reflecting the intent of the author is what your professor said “when God began creating… What I can say for sure is that there is no Hebrew word for “when” in the text, so this must be a paraphrase.
To me the two possible translations are a distinction without a difference and the professor is reading her theology into the text. Whether we say that God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning or that he began creating the heavens and the earth in the beginning is not a major disticntion of meaning. Either way, the entire physical creation had a beginning. If we include the heavens and the earth as having been created when God began or in the beginning, the end meaning is the same. Before this happened, the physical universe we live in did not exist. After it was created it did exist. In either case, the universe was not made out of pre-existing stuff. Hebrews 11:3 supports this interpretation, when it says that we know that “what is seen was not made out of what is visible.”
My conclusion is that the best literal translation of the Hebrew is the traditional one, but that your professor’s paraphrase may be a legitimate way of expressing the idea of the Genesis author. Either way, even if your professor’s paraphrase is justified, her interpretation is not correct. There is not the slightest indication, either in Genesis 1:1 or in Hebrews 11:3 that the Christain scripture supports anything other than creation ex nihilo.