JS on Hebrew Gen. 1:1

Inasmuch as we’re about to start the OT curriculum year, I thought I’d take a shot at summarizing for you my article, “Joseph Smith’s Emendation of Hebrew Genesis 1:1.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30/4 (Winter 1997): 103-35, which you can read here. The original Dialogue article is rather long and fairly technical, so I’ll try to break it down for a blog post as much as I can.

The article begins by describing how I became interested in this subject. It sort of began when I was taking Biblical Hebrew at BYU with Keith Meservy in 1980. Keith read a letter that had been referred to him for a response from a pair of sister missionaries. The sisters encountered a man who taught Hebrew for a living, and decided to impress him by sharing Joseph’s treatment of the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 from the King Follett Discourse. The class collectively winced, as we could guess what was coming. Predictably, the man was not impressed, and the sisters were shocked to learn of problems with Joseph’s treatment of that text.

In the mid-90s I taught an institute class on Biblical Hebrew. Students in my class expressed an interest in that King Follett treatment, so I reviewed everything I could find on it all in one sitting, in particular the original conference reports rather than the Jonathan Grimshaw amalgamation reflected in History of the Church and Teachings of the Prophet JS. Based on that review, I thought that I could see at least to some extent what Joseph was doing, and how his take had been badly misrepresented in the traditional accounting of the Discourse.

Some of what Joseph does here is fairly clear. The first Hebrew word of Genesis 1:1 is bereshith, rendered “in the beginning” in the KJV. Joseph breaks that word up into three parts, as recounted in the Clayton report: “Be–in by through and everything else–rosh [indecipherable]–the head. sheit.” It is also clear that Joseph deletes the preposition Be and extracts the word rosh (“head”) from reshith. It is also fairly clear that the revised sentence was meant to read “The head one of the gods brought forth the gods….” Beyond those basic propositions, however, Joseph’s treatment of the Hebrew text is obscure.

There had been three previous attempts to make sense of this. First was what I called the traditional interpretation. In this view, the sheit was designated a grammatical termination and was deleted. The Hebrew verb bara was taken as the verb rendered “brought forth,” and the word elohim was changed from the subject to the object of the sentence. Therefore, the modified Hebrew was rosh bara elohim, which was supposed to mean something like “the head [of the gods] brought forth the gods.” There are, however, major problems with this understanding. First, bara cannot really mean to bring forth in the sense of a call to assembly. Second, Joseph later gives a lexical commentary on the verb bara, in which he specifically takes it as referring to organizing ex material. Third, the line “baurau signifies to bring forth” in the traditional King Follett presentations (such as HC) is completely missing from the original manuscript reports of the sermon. I suggest that the form of the conference report we are familiar with today derives from Thomas Bullock, which in turn was influenced by editing by John Taylor. I think the nuances of Joseph’s argument were lost, because he was commenting on the Hebrew text and his scribes had little exposure to that language. And of course, Joseph never had a chance to review the scribes’ work, since he would be killed before the publication of the conference minutes.

The second approach to this material is what I call the Ehat and Cook conjecture. Ehat and Cook went a long way towards correcting this situation by publishing the original manuscript reports, which led them to (correctly) reject the notion that bara was the verb rendered “brought forth.” But if the verb was not bara, what was it? They posit that the verb was understood to be the sheyth, which derived from the end of bereshith. I believe this suggestion is not correct, for several reasons. One is that the posited verb doesn’t actually mean “to bring” but rather “to put, place.” Another is a technical argument regarding how Joseph understood the letter yod (I argue that he saw it as the end of a masculine plural construct; I’m very proud of this observation, which no one had made before, but it’s too technical to try to describe here).

The third approach to this material I dubbed the Kabbalistic interpretation, and derives from Lance Owens, “Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection,” Dialogue 27 (Fall 1994): 117-94. The main point Owens makes is that the opening words of Genesis 1:1, bereshith bara elohim, where interpreted by certain Kabblaists to means something like “through the medium of the beginning, the Hidden Nothing emanated the Elohim.” It’s a clever suggestion, but I think he’s wrong, for reasons I describe in the article.

I then give my own take on the situation, which I label “A New Conjecture.” I suggest that the first part of Joseph’s treatment, about the head one of the gods bringing forth the gods, is based entirely on his emendation and expansion of the first Hebrew word, bereshith. When Joseph moves to the second part of his argument, he moves from the first to the second word, bara, which he interprets as referring to organizatin ex materia. The remainder of the words of Heb. Gen. 1:1 belong to this second part of his argument; the first part derives entirely from the first Hebrew word, bereshith.

One of the keys to my interpretation was a careful review of the Seixas grammar, which was the bssis for study at the Kirtland Hebrew School. When I reviewed that grammar, I put little slips of paper in it to mark pages where I could see some possible influence on Joseph, and when I was done my copy was filled with such slips of paper. It was obvious to me that the biggest influence on Joseph’s treatment was the Seixas grammar, not kabbalistic speculation. The division of bereshith into three component parts, for instance, derives from the grammar.

Based on my review of the Seixas grammar, I suggested that when Joseph emended the Hebrew text, the Hebrew word he understood as underlying the rendering “brought forth” would likely have been either the hiphil of bo or yatsa. See p. 131 of my article for a table summarizing the evidence for one of these verbs being what Joseph had in mind. I also suggested that the teth at the end of beroshith was not simply deleted, but was reused as part of the direct object marker eth.

P. 132 gives my reconstruction of what Joseph’s emendation of the Hebrew would have been.

If you don’t want to read the entire article, there is a 10-point summary of my argument in the conclusion at the final two pages at 134-35.

The 32/1 Spring 1999 issue contains a lengthy letter from me with some supplemental material to this article, focusing on some evidence regarding John Taylor’s take on the Hebrew here.

My separate article “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1.” BYU Studies 39/3 (2000): 107-24, was originally simply the second part of this article. It was way too long as a single article, so I published part one in Dialogue and part 2 in BYU Studies.


  1. An excellent summary of a complex topic. Thanks for your original work and this helpful distillation.

  2. Fascinating piece. This is an excellent way to begin the study of the Old Testament this year. I was studying this very topic myself and your Dialogue article is very helpful. I look forward to studying it in greater detail. I like the story about the sister missionaries at the beginning. I have seen Joseph Smith’s interpretation of Gensis 1:1 as more of a reflection of his own theology rather than a recovery of the text’s original meaning. Of course, I think this is still a very interesting look into Mormon theology and Joseph Smith’s understanding of God whether the interpretation is correct or not.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Todd, I don’t mean to argue that what Joseph came up with was in fact the original meaning of Hebrew Genesis 1:1. I simply argue that what he was doing with the Hebrew was more responsible than has historically been recognized. But in the end he was still using the Hebrew more as an artist than as a scholar, to borrow Louis Zucker’s imagery.

  4. That is a good point. I do think he has been underestimated even among members of the church. I like the final point in your Dialogue article – that we shouldn’t be surprised that he could construct a modest expansion of Hebrew text given his extensive and creative biblical expansions in English of the Joseph Smith Translation.

  5. In high school I presented the passage from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith to a Jewish girl I knew for comment. She said it was wrong, but I wasn’t confident that her knowledge of Hebrew was strong, so I let it go. Maybe they should put in a footnote that says, “Don’t try to impress your Jewish friends with this.”

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Ha, that would be an excellent footnote, Jared*!

  7. Kevin, Thanks for summarizing your article, which I also read. It gave me many new insights into this issue. I also think your suggestion that the teth at the end of beroshith as coming from the marker of the direct object to be plausible and intriguing.
    I think at the same time you were studying Hebrew at BYU, I was in the Hebrew program with David Freedman and Harris Lenowitz at the UofU. After graduating, however, I did not keep up with my studies, so my Hebrew is pretty rusty. I was happy to be able to follow your article however.

  8. Great stuff. Along with Jared*’s suggestion we could add a footnote to the facsimiles that says “Don’t try to impress your Egyptologist friends with these.”

  9. Thanks for this, Kevin. I have an article coming out next year that (very) tangentially touches this topic, and I leaned on your article for understanding, so it is still very useful.