In his book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology John H. Walton, as quoted by James Spinti, offers an interesting interpretation of the very first word of the Hebrew Bible, bereshit, generally translated “In the beginning”. Walton links this with the word toledot, usually rendered “generations” but perhaps meaning more like “story”:
bĕrēʾšît is a strikingly appropriate term to introduce a sequence that will be carried on by the tôlĕdôt transitions. It marks the very first period, with the tôlĕdôt phrases introducing each of the successive periods. If this be the case, the book would now have 12 formally marked sections (a number that is much more logical than 11). If the bĕrēʾšît clause is a marker comparable to the tôlĕdôt clauses, it could easily be seen as functioning in an independent clause, just like the tôlĕdôt clauses. The conclusion then is that it is an independent clause that functions as a literary marker to introduce the seven-day account, just as the tôlĕdôt phrase is a literary marker that introduces the passage that follows.
In other words, the suggestion is that Genesis can be divided into twelve sections, a symbolically significant number. And if bereshit is “an independent clause that functions as a literary marker”, it is not a part of the sentence “God created the heavens and the earth” but more like a section heading.
If this is true, Genesis should be divided not into the fifty chapters in our regular Bibles but into twelve chapters of uneven length, with the following titles (regular English chapter and verse references in parentheses):
- In the beginning (1:1-2:3)
- The story of the heavens and the earth (2:4-4:26)
- The story of Adam (5:1-6:8)
- The story of Noah (6:9-9:29)
- The story of the sons of Noah (10:1-11:9)
- The story of Shem (11:10-26)
- The story of Terah (11:27-25:11)
- The story of Ishmael (25:12-18)
- The story of Isaac (25:19-35:29)
- The story of Esau (36:1-8)
- The story of Esau (36:9-37:1)
- The story of Jacob (37:2-50:26)
In each case, it should be noted, the story of an individual (male in every case) includes the stories of his family during his lifetime, while he was head of the clan. In many cases the story concludes with the man’s death. But it is unclear why there is no separate story of Abraham, starting after the account of his father’s death 11:32 – nor why there are two separate stories of Esau. Nevertheless this kind of analysis of the book should be helpful for readers.
The more profound implication of this analysis is that it offers a third interpretation of the first verse of the Bible, to put alongside “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NIV etc) and “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” (CEB etc). We could almost translate as follows:
God created the heavens and the earth.