The Grammar of God
The Torah signals to us from the start that words have great power. A book that opens with an account of a world created through divine speech acts reveals its own interest in the creative possibilities of language. So we can expect this text to choose its words carefully, deliberately.
We might not, however, have expected the extent to which the Torah is willing to manipulate the other features and forms of language in order to communicate ideas. We might not, for example, have expected that it would make some of its first great theological statements by introducing incongruities and idiosyncrasies into its grammar.
Translation can obscure this. In Hebrew, the Torah’s opening phrase, often translated, “In the beginning God created…” requires just three words: “בראשית ברא אלקים - Bereishit (in the beginning) bara (created) Elohim (God).” But there is a grammatical problem between the second and third words.
To understand that problem, we should begin by considering another, bigger problem with the third word, translated as “God”: “אלקים - Elohim.” This word, with the suffix “ים - im,” seems to be plural—as if it meant not “God,” but, “gods.” “We know this,” Ibn Ezra points out, “because we later find the singular form of the word, ‘א-לוה - Eloah.’”1 Indeed, there are places in the Torah where the word elohim clearly describes a plural “gods” and has plural grammar.2 So how did that polytheistic-sounding plural sneak into the first verse of a book so central in establishing monotheism?
The classical commentators notice this and propose various solutions. Ibn Ezra explains that the plural form in Hebrew is used as an honorific (דרך כבוד).3 Hizkuni tells us that Elohim should be understood as a term of authority (לשון שלטון), something like: “the Powers that be.” Seforno sees the plural as indicative of the plurality of forms of existence that all emerge from God, who is the Ultimate Form of Existence (צורת כל הצורות).
But whatever interpretation of the word Elohim we choose, we must then contend with its relationship to that other word we highlighted earlier: “ברא - bara” (created), a verb which is, notably, in the singular. Here, in the first action described in the Torah, the subject and the predicate do not agree.
In Hebrew this discrepancy is glaring (אלקים ברא - Elohim bara vs. אלקים בראו - elohim bar’u). To the English reader it may not register, because of the way the past tense in English grammar works (“God created” vs. “gods created”). The best way to get a sense of the problem in English would be to switch our translation to the present tense, but retain the plural form for Elohim:
Read it aloud, and you can hear how it sounds like a grammatical error. It catches the ear.
The Torah means to do exactly that: to catch your ear. This grammatical “error” is no accident. No author or editor would miss that kind of discordance in the very first sentence of a sacred book.4 We can only conclude that the Torah has coupled the plural noun with the singular verb intentionally, in order to communicate something.
It seems to me that the most straightforward way to interpret the message is to follow the logic of the strange grammar, to mean something like: In this book, the apparently plural elohim (all the powers in the world? all eternal things? all the old gods?) actually act as and are identified as a singular force.
That is quite a bold theological statement to be making so early in this book, though it will eventually turn out to be one of the Torah’s central claims: God is One. How exactly to understand that proposition is a question for further investigation. The point here is that the first time this major claim is made, it is done in the form of an irregular grammatical construction.
Why would the Torah choose such an intricate and inconspicuous form of communication?
To gain a broader appreciation for the technique, let’s consider one more grammar-based message that the Torah seems to be sending us in this parashah, and that is once again delivered in the form of a name for God.
The other primary (and eventually even more primary) name used for God in the Torah is introduced in chapter 2:5
אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ בְּהִבָּרְאָם בְּיוֹם עֲשׂוֹת יְ-הֹ-וָ-ה אֱלֹקִים אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.
These are the stories of the heavens and the earth, when they were created, on the day that Adonai Elohim made the earth and the heavens.
There, in front of the word for God we have so far been considering, is the four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton. By tradition, that name is almost never pronounced out loud as it is written. That reluctance is borne out of a profound sense of reverence for the most sacred of God’s names. But practically, it also ends up focusing our attention on the way the word looks, rather than how it sounds. And this word, as our eye scans it, looks… familiar, but different from something we have already read in the Torah.
In fact, it looks similar to two words that recurred frequently throughout the first chapter of Genesis: “יהי - yehi” (let there be) and “ויהי - va-yehi” (and there was).6 They appear at the first moment of creation, the moment that God speaks something new into existence:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר.
God said, “Let there be (יהי) light”—and there was (ויהי) light.
The letters in those critical words share the same three letters that make up this new name of God. So it seems that this name for God is some kind of amalgam word, composed from different forms of the verb, “to be.” It also seems that this new name for God has something to do with the act of creation. The Ra’ya Meheimna7 section of the Zohar synthesizes these observations magnificently:
אוּף הָכִי יְהוָֹ"ה, מִנֵּיהּ תַּלְיָיא כָּל הֲוָיָין, וְאִיהוּ וְכָל הֲוָיָין דִּילֵיהּ, סָהֲדִין עַל מָארֵי עָלְמָא, דְּאִיהוּ הֲוָה קֹדֶם כָּל הֲוָיָין. וְאִיהוּ בְּתוֹךְ כָּל הֲוָיָה. וְאִיהוּ לְאַחַר כָּל הֲוָיָה. וְדָא רָזָא, דְּסָהֲדִין הַוָיָין עָלֵיהּ, הָיָה, הוְֹה, וְיִהְיֶה.
Upon the name י-ה-ו-ה all states of being depend, for all states of being come from It, and testify to the Master of the World, Who was before all other states of being, is in all being, and will be after all being. And this is the secret, that all states of being testify to God: Was (hayah), Is (hoveh), and Will Be (yihiyeh).
This name, then, made up of the past, present, and future tenses of being, suggests to us not only that God is “the Eternal One,”8 who exists always—in the past, present, and future—but also that all that comes into being emerges from some aspect of God’s being.
The Zohar is known primarily as the central text of Jewish mysticism, but is also a masterpiece of Torah commentary, filled with incredibly nuanced readings of language. The meaning of the four-letter name is not revealed here as an esoteric secret, but drawn out through the recognition of a creative mash-up of grammatical forms in the text, each of which can be seen, as if literally overlapping, in God’s name (היה/הוה/יהיה ← י-ה-ו-ה). In this case, then, the grammar game is primarily visual, meant to catch your eye instead of your ear.
But what becomes clear across these examples is the Torah’s interest in communicating in this elliptical but suggestive way, using language not just as a direct conveyor of semantic meaning, but as a system of symbols and structures whose forms can be manipulated in order to send out all kinds of coded messages.9 The Torah, in other words, not only speaks to us directly, but also hints, winks, and signals to us, alerting us to multiple layers of meaning embedded in the text available to the close and careful reader.10
This aspect of the Torah’s literary craft has theological implications as well. If we can discover attributes of God’s being by studying the very structure of the language the Torah uses for God, then linguistic analysis becomes a tool of revelation. The divine encounter can take place through our contemplation of the words of Torah themselves.
That theology is given particularly romantic articulation by the Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov,11 in its interpretation of a vivid image from the Song of Songs:
"משגיח מן החלונות מציץ מן החרכים" (שיר השירים ב:יט). מה שיש בזה רמז לדיבורי תורה ותפלה, שהאותיות נקראים היכלות, והקדוש ברוך הוא כביכול מצמצם את עצמו לשרות עם האדם על ידי אותיות התורה והתפלה.
“[My Beloved] is gazing through the windows, peering through the cracks” (Song of Songs 2:19)—There is a hint in this verse about words of Torah and prayer. For the letters are called chambers, and the Holy Blessed One has contracted Itself into the letters of Torah and prayer, in order to dwell here amongst human beings.
God is the Beloved One, peering out through the cracks between the letters. God has contracted into the words of the Torah, in order to come into contact with us through language. ּThere is something playful about this image, almost flirtatious. God is hiding in the Torah, but wants to be found.
The language of the Torah, then, will reflect that playfulness. No wonder the Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov says he sees a “hint” (רמז) in this verse. Hints are exactly what he is telling us to look out for. The Torah he is encouraging us to read is “תורת הרמז - torat ha-remez,” a Torah full of hints from the Beloved, trying to catch our attention, to draw us closer. We turn to look, and there in the Torah’s very first phrase, hidden in a crack in the grammar, we discover the Holy One gazing back out at us.
PS: If you liked this D'var Torah, let's keep the conversation going. I'm excited to teach a free online parashah class every Thursday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern. This class is a partnership with IKAR
1 See Ibn Ezra on Genesis 1:1. This form appears 50 times in Tanakh, by far most frequently in the Book of Job, where it is used 37 times. It is probably most familiar to us from its appearance in the Hallel, taken from Psalm 114: מלפני אדון חולי ארץ מלפני א-לוה יעקב. It does appear twice in the Torah, both times in Parshat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:15, 17). In the second usage, it is actually juxtaposed with the plural form, but there it is an actual plural, meaning, “gods”: “יזבחו לשדים לא אלה אלהים לא ידעום - they sacrificed to demons, not god, and to gods they did not know.” This makes the more common usage of אלקים here (and throughout Tanakh) even more surprising.
4 There are, after all, other Hebrew nouns that always take the plural form. We even have one later in this first verse: “השמים - ha-shamayim” (the heavens). But these nouns, significantly, always take a plural verb—as Moshe makes clear in his famous poem: האזינו השמים.
5 It should be noted that this verse is also a more natural beginning for a second “chapter” than Genesis 2:1, which is still in the grand conclusion to the creation story, the seventh day. And in fact, in the traditional scribal tradition, it is verse 2:4 that begins the longest continuous פרשיה (continuous block of verses) we have seen so far, after seven much shorter blocks so far, one for each day of creation.
6 I emphasize these two because they begin creation in v. 3, and do so with a rhythmic quality that continues to beat throughout the chapter, especially in the phrase that ends each of the first six days: ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר. But there are other words in the chapter made up of these three letters, all forms of the verb, “to be”: ויהי is especially prominent, with 19 instances; יהי has 4 (you might miss the 3rd one, in verse 6, because it is preceded by a conjunctive vav); there are two instances of והיו, in vv. 14-15; and one of יהיה in v. 29 - for a total of 26 in the Days of Creation narrative.
9 One might bring this understanding to bear on the old talmudic tale (in Menahot 29b) of God tying crowns on the letters of the Torah, to be interpreted only by the alert eyes of R. Akiva. Forms of grammar were just the sorts of “crowns” R. Akiva was known to interpret.
10 Given the Zohar’s sensitivity to these layers of meaning, it should come as no surprise that it is R. Moshe de Leon—the first compiler and publisher of the Zohar—who is credited with first articulating the PaRDeS scheme of four levels of interpretation: Pshat (the simple, “stripped down” meaning), Remez (“hinted” meaning), Derash (expanded, “sought after” meaning), and Sod (“secret” meaning). See שו"ת לר' משה די ליאון בענייני ,קבלה as quoted by Isaiah Tishby, Studies in Kabbalah and its Branches, Vol. 1, p. 64