Monday, July 24, 2006

In the Beginning...


The word above, pronounced in English as "bresheet" is the first word in Genesis. It is also the name of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. We spent one day in Hebew last week talking about the first few verses in Genesis. It was extremely interesting, and one of those days when you feel blessed to be in divinity school.

Let's start with the King James translation of Genesis, just to remind us what that translation of the text says. (I am using the King James for a reason which will become clear at the end of the text.)

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Contrary to our tradition, the word above is accurately translated as either "In beginning" or "In a beginning." The definite article "the" is not hidden the above word. If it was, it would be prounounced in English as "brasheet." So, what does it mean then? The verb that follows it is "bara" which means "he created". Intrestingly, in the Biblical text, only God can "bara", but we will get back to that in just a minute. If one analyzes the grammar and syntax, it would appear that the first word is in what is known as a construct relationship (kind of like possessive) to "he created." However, it is very unusual for a word to be in a construct relationship with a verb. But, let's assume for the moment that the two words are in constuct, what would that mean? In English we would translate the construct as "he created's beginning." As a result, the Jewish Publication Society translates this text as "When God began creating the heavens and the earth...". I get back to some of what that might mean in just a minute, but lets go to the next word in Genesis 1:1.

The next word in Genesis 1:1 is Elohim, one of the names for God used in the Old Testament. So, what can we learn from the way God is referred to for the first time in the Bible? The interesting thing about the word Elohim is that the "im" ending makes it a plural? But notice the verb that Elohim refers to is singular. If you notice above, I translated bara as "he created" (Hebrew words have gender and number characteristics to them.) not "they created." If you are a Christian, the explanation is simple. "Elohim" refers to the trinity, one God in three. That would allow plural subject to take a plural verb. I need to ask the professor how the Jewish tradition explains this, and I will post that here when I find out.

So, lets get back to the "in beginning" question. Notice how the whole form of of Genesis 1:1-2 if we change it. Again, here's the KJV original:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

But what happens if we change that to this:

When God began creating the heavens and the earth, (and) the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

See how that changes the verse? If you translate it that way, earth already existed at the beginning of creation, as did darkness and "the deep." But questions also arise with the original translation as well. The words "without form and void" in Hebrew are "tohu vavohu" and "vavohu" never appears without "tohu." Think of the English phrase "the whole kit and kaboodle." We never just talk about a "kaboodle." From other texts, we can determine that the best meaning for the phrase "tohu vavohu" is "total chaos." So, if you use the original translation, did God created the chaos? Did God create the darkness? Is darkness something in itself, or simply the absence of light? I don't have the answers, just the questions.

Some of you may have heard of the Gap theory. This theory proposes that there is a significant time gap between verses 1 and two, and translates verse two as "the earth became void." That is also an entirely accurate translation. That's how some very conservative theologists explain the existance of fossils, earlier forms of man, etc. To them, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, including dinosaurs, etc. Then the Earth was destroyed, and became tohu vavohu. So all those fossils come from an earlier creation.

Continuing with that same verse, the word for "deep" is also interesting. The word in Hebrew is "tehom." This could be translated as something like the primordial ocean. But that is not the significant part. The original auction would probably have known about other creation stories in which an ancient sea dragon named "Tiamat" (appears to be related to the word "tehom") was defeated during the creation of the world. So, in contrast to those stories, the Genesis story can be seen as creation without opposition in contrast to the other stories of the time.

We're still not done with verse 2 yet! We have to deal with the phrase "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" or in Hebrew "veruach Elohim merachefet al-peney hamayim" (the "ch's" are h's at the back of the throat, not an English ch sound.) The Hebrew word "ruach" (the "ve" is just "and") can mean wind, breath, spirit, etc. It just doesn't mean spirit. The best way to think about it is that to ancient Jews, one's breath was one's life force, one's spirit, one's soul. Interestingly, the word Elohim can also be used as an adjective. Think of it as "awesome" or as I like to think about it, the adjective of all adjectives. So, it would be entirely accurate to translate "veruach Elohim" as either "a spirit of God" (the "the" is not there again) or as "a mighty wind." Thanks to our knowledge of the Ugaritic language (a semetic language related to Hebrew) we know that the word "moved" would be more accurately tranlated as sweeping or swooping like a bird.

Verse 3 is actually shorter in Hebrew than it is in English. In Hebrew it reads:

Vayomer Elohim yehi-or vayehi-or.

Literally translated that would be: "And he said God let be light and it was light" or "And God said, let light be and light was." Not much to say about that.

Verse 4: And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Notice the darkness is never said to be good. And what did a mixture of light and darkness look like? But seriously, the separation and the creation of order out of chaos (tohu vavohu) is a major theme of Genesis 1, and much of Genesis in general. Consider the following phrases from other verses in Genesis 1:

7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome.

25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

All of these verses are examples of the creation of order out of chaos. This brings up some very interesting points. In this order, God created categories, which you can see in verse 25 above, and above these help create order. Think of the categories this way.

Animals
Humans
Elohim

As long as these categories are maintained, everything is good. God said that himself. However, when these categories start to get mixed up there is a problem. The first example is with Adam and Eve and the trees in the garden. One could certainly make an argument that at the beginning of the story, two things separated humans from Elohim: the knowledge of good and evil and eternal life. Consider Genesis 3:22 in this light:

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’

So, it would appear that the only thing left separating man from Elohim is eternal life, so man had to be removed from the garden. But this did not stop the mixing of man and Elohim. Consider Genesis 6:


1 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

This passage is shortly before the story of the flood (many scholars belive that is what the 120 years in this passage means, the flood occured 120 years after this happened.) Again, we have the disruption of the order God put in place in Genesis 1. We have man mixing with Elohim (sons of God = Elohim) and the result is flood. So, now put yourself in the Jewish mindset. You are taught about this order God established, and that problems happen whenever this order is disturbed. If you believed this, how would that affect your view of the story of Jesus? Jews would see the birth of Jesus as an inappropriate mixture of Elohim and human again, and they would completely disagree with the idea that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. That idea is against the order they see in Genesis chapter 1. Interesting, huh?

Finally, verse 5:

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

The only thing I really have to say about this verse is this. The last sentence is literally translated, "Evening was, morning was, day one." I would argue that there could be a significant difference between "the first day" and "day one." Day one of what? Day one of all of creation? Day one of this creation? Then again, they could be exactly the same thing.

So, what do I want you to get out of this? A few things:

1. Hebrew can be a somewhat imprecise language. There are very often several translations for a passage that are all equally correct

2. For any of you who think that the King James translation is the most accurate translation, it isn't. It is not a bad translation, the translators did an excellent job with the resources they had. But modern scholars have many more texts and a much better knowledge of other Semetic languages that allow them to translate the texts more accurately than those in the early 17th century could.

3. It is important to understand that the Hebrew text is an oral tradition not a written one. The text as we have it was meant to be chanted. The oldests texts we have, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, do not have vowels. That is because the text was only to be used as a reminder, Rabbis would have the text memorized. The vowels were eventually added in an effort to preserve the correct pronounciation of the text, which no doubt had changed significantly since it was originally recorded.

There is a whole lot more I could write about the first creation story in Genesis 1, and the second story that starts in 2:4b. But, this post is large enough. I will however, leave you with the NRSV translation of the Genesis passage. The phrases in parenthesis are translation notes provided by the NRSV:

1 In the beginning when God created (Or when God began to create or In the beginning God created) the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God (Or while the spirit of God or while a mighty wind) swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

You can see why so many scholars like the NRSV. In many cases it gives other possible translations. You can read the NRSV online by clicking here.

4 comments:

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Elohim is often plural in the Hebrew Bible (but always with singular verbs), Gil. Scholars call it a "plurality of majesty," like when the Queen of England refers to herself as "we" or "us."
So, while the construction doesn't rule out the Trinity, it certainly doesn't necessarily imply it or make Jews wonder about the monotheism of Gen. 1:1!

Great lesson, though!

Gil Gulick said...

Thanks, I knew that the Jewish tradition would have an answer for it. I simply did not know what it was. I knew that Muslims had a similar concept of "plurality of majesty", so I should have guessed.

Eric said...

Is there anything in the original Hebrew creation account that does confirm the Trinity? I'm familiar with Deuteronomy 6:4, which states, "the Lord your God, the Lord is one," a clear monotheistic reference. But is there anything to reinforce the New Testament teaching of John 1:1, "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God."

The reason I ask is because I am witnessing to a friend who is a Jehovah's Witness, and the New World translation from the Watchtower Society renders John 1:1 differently, reinforcing their belief that Jesus is a separate being from God, created by God.

I would certainly appreciate anything you could share.

Tim said...

I hate to break this to people, especially well meaning people, but to find the Trinity in the OT takes a little bit of eisigesis...if you know what I mean. They just wouldn't have that concept.

Now, about the JW and John 1:1. The reason they interpret it differently is because they made up a way to translate the greek. I have no reason why they do that, but it makes it easier for them to have the bible say what they want it to. There isn't an article in John 1:1, if I remember correctly, but technically, there doesn't have to be to prove that God is "the" God, and not just "a" God. That very construct (that the JWs want to make) is foriegn to both Classical and Koine Greek. It also means that you might want to take another track when you speak to your JW friend. When they make up their own translation rules, it's hard to have an intelligent conversation. Also remember, cults aren't really big on original thinking.

Tim