Stuff, Vessel, Witness

It took me about five lessons to realise Hebrew language studies were not for me. The lecturer finally asked a question I could answer. It had to do with the first seven words of Genesis:

bereshit bara Elokim et hashamaim v’et haarets

He asked what the fourth word signified.

At last! Something I actually knew. I stuck up my hand.

The two-letter combination alef-tav in Genesis 1:1 is invariably untranslated. It occurs often throughout Scripture without any remark but nevertheless it has a profound meaning. The word is comprised of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, alef, and the last, tav. It’s the equivalent to the Greek combination of alpha and omega.

However, in Hebrew it’s more than ‘the first and the last’: alef-tav encompasses all 20 letters between these two and every combination of letter. In other words: every word that has ever existed or could possibly exist.

Because alef–tav occurs before hashamaim v’et haarets, the heavens and the earth, in  bereshit bara Elokim et hashamaim v’et haarets, it is considered to exist before any created thing. Therefore words and letters are the very stuff of creation. They also describe the method of creation, they are the vessel of creation, they are witnesses to creation.

Not to mention the fact that scribes used these two letters when they were copying scrolls to attest to the veracity of their copying. Alef-tav were their witnesses—two, of course—to the truth.

Fortunately the lecturer did not choose me. He choose someone in the front row who answered: ‘It’s an untranslatable particle used to mark the definite object of the verb.’

‘Excellent!’ said the lecturer, nodding with approval.

Huh? I shook my head, unsure I’d heard right. What?! But as the lecturer went on to discuss and elucidate this point of grammar, I realised I’d made a huge mistake.

I had wanted to learn Hebrew so I would have some insight into Jewish thinking. Prior to enrolling I’d bought David Patterson’s Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought and found the ideas in it so alien, I struggled to glean much from it. It was arduous going. But I did understand what it said about alef-tav as the stuff, the vessel and the witness to creation. Patterson, as a Jewish scholar, didn’t go on to make the connection between alef-tav and the Word made flesh but I didn’t expect him to do so.

But I did somehow expect more from a theological course in Biblical Hebrew than the reduction of alef-tav to a grammatical nicety.

I think I lasted one lesson after that.

Recently, I decided to give David Patterson another go. Surely nothing could be as tough as the first book – with its many untranslated Hebrew words. What enticed me was the possibility that he would be talking more about naming in a work so temptingly titled: Wrestling with the Angel: Towards a Jewish Understanding of the Nazi Assault on the Name.

I’m so glad I did.

Patterson revisits alef-tav. And he makes a point I have seen nowhere else.

There is a very simple and incredibly provocative translation of the word in Genesis 1:1. It’s used elsewhere in Scripture with a very straightforward meaning.

This is how Patterson suggests bereshit bara Elokim et could be translated:

In the beginning G_d created…








  1. Well, that would make perfect sense when you consider what it says in Ephesians 1:4. I know there is a difference between created and chosen (but then I don’t know any Hebrew)

    But I also remember in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo asking, “Why was I chosen?’ Gandalf replies, ‘Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom at any rate. But you have been chosen and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’ I think Gandalf’s response was only partly correct because we have the Holy Spirit as our helper and we do not need to rely on our own strength.

    • I agree, Lyn. We don’t need to rely on our own strength. However 1 Corinthians 9 says that we are God’s co-workers. So there is the sense we do need to use such strength and heart and wits as we have, though not rely on them.

  2. Thanks Anne
    If one jot and one tittle is important according to Jesus then surely it is reasonable to assume that no words used in Scripture are without significance. It is easier to be like the lecturer and accept the easy explanation than to research as to why such a word is there in the first place. I never did Hebrew and am just push-passable in Greek. However when I call Jesus my Alpha and Omega I know He is also everything in between to me. As we read ‘When Christ who is our life appears we shall be like Him 1 John 3:2.

    • Hi Ray –

      Patterson did make the point that alef-tav in this instance is the feminine form of ‘you’ and thus qualified his remarks somewhat by going on to say it probably meant the ‘stuff of you’.

      I was reminded of a remark of CS Lewis, which I will probably paraphrase very badly: that, compared to God, all of creation is feminine.

      I’ve never really wrapped my head around what Lewis meant, but I’m starting to get the vague idea.

  3. Moshe Mayim

    Elohim (Mighty Ones) in Genesis 1:1 is followed with the un-translated Aleph – Taf, then in Zechariah 12:10 after the word Me, we have aleph taf again. The Me is YHWH speaking if you read this verse in context. So they pierced YHWH when they crucified His Only Begotten Son Yahushua, The Word made flesh. In several chapters in Isaiah, YHWH declares himself The First and The Last, 41:4,44:6,& 48:12 and finally in the book of Revelation we have chapter 1:11, 2:8, 21:6, & 22:13. Shema (Hear) Yisrael, YHWH is Elohim, YHWH is echad (One) The Father and Son share the title Aleph Taf.

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