Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Genesis 1:1--"In the beginning God created...": Is that right?

Many Christians have memorized, often unwittingly, the very first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It has been ingrained in the collective mind of Christianity for centuries and has, in recent times, come to represent the firm belief that God created everything in the universe out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). I am not here to challenge that belief. What I am here to challenge is the current typical English translation of the Hebrew for Genesis 1:1-3.

I could list out various translation choices for Genesis 1:1 in some of the more popular English translations, but that would be pointless. Almost any translation you can think of (NIV, ESV, ASV, NASB, NLT, KJV, NKJV, etc.) translates it as: “In the beginning God created the heaven(s) and the earth.” The only mainstream translation to offer a variant of any significance is Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), which reads: “In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth.”

Now one (or two) of two things might strike you upon reading the YLT translation: one, the translation doesn’t seem that ultimately different. Two, how did the translators get to that translation? I shall answer the second question first, as a way of getting around to answering the first question.

Here’s how one gets that translation: the initial word in the Hebrew text is the word breshit, pronounced “bray-sheet,” followed by bara, then elohim. Traditionally, these three words, translated in order, would be: “in the beginning, he created, God…” (with the subject following the verb as is standard in Hebrew). But the word of interest here is the first word, breshit. This word as we see it here is a compound word, a combining of a noun and a preposition. The simple preposition b, meaning “in” is combined with the noun reshit—“beginning” to create the ultimate form. But you may notice something even now. The word is missing the definite article, the simple word “the;” if it had the definite article, the form of the word would be bareshit (pronounced “baa-ray-sheet”), but that is not what we have here, so the translation of breshit at this point would simply be “in a beginning.” But we know that this is not “a” beginning but “the” beginning—not just some beginning, but the original beginning of all things. So how do we get the definite article? Can we imply it? In a sense we can.

In Hebrew it is common to have two or more nouns in something called a “construct chain.” These two words imply a certain level of possession, so that we translate it with the word “of.” So if two nouns were side-by-side in Hebrew, such as the noun melek (king) and the noun yisrael (Israel) then the translation of melek yisrael would be “king of Israel.” Another rule in Hebrew is that if two nouns are in a construct chain, they do not have to contain the definite article in order to actually be definite. In other words, melek yisrael can be translated as “king of Israel,” “the king of Israel,” “king of the Israel,” or “the king of the Israel.” In context we can rule out the second two as nonsensical, but it isn’t certain which of the first two it is.

Now while this construction most often occurs with two nouns, it can occasionally happen where the last noun in the construct chain, the one that everything else modifies, is actually a verb and not a noun. This is the case here in Genesis 1:1—the noun breshit is in construct with the verb bara. So the combination of the words would be “in the beginning of he created.” Well, that makes no sense at all. However, one way to understand the verb at hand is to understand it simply in terms of the thing done and the person doing it, i.e., a creative act upon the part of God. So try this translation: “In the beginning of a creative act upon the part of God.” Well, that’s still not very good English, so here’s the translation of my Hebrew professor, a world-acclaimed Hebrew language scholar: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth,” or even “When God began to create the heavens and the earth.”

So why does this difference matter? Well, what it means is that verses 1 and 2 are setting the stage for the first real action in the story which we only find at the beginning of verse 3. So if a translation were appropriately taking into account this feature of the Hebrew it would look like this:

“1. In the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the earth, 2. the earth was formless and void, and the Spirit of God was circling over the water. 3. And God said: “let there be light,” and there was light.”

In this structure, verses 1 and 2 are like the words on-screen at the beginning of Star Wars movies which simply set the scene and then segue into the first action of the storyline, which we find in Genesis 1:3.

If we hold the original translation then it seems like the first action of God in creation is found in verse 1: “…God created the heavens and the earth.” But in reality, that’s not what the text says; rather, the text says that the first act of God in creation, and really the first thing regarding the universe, is in verse 3: “God said: ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” So the first creative act of God is that God created light.

Now you might wonder what the implications of that are. Well I’ll tell you. I don’t know. I really don’t know what the implications of that are, though I’m sure scholars have postulated any number of things. But although I can’t make any statements about what the value is of knowing that ‘God created light’ is the first act in the Bible, at least now I have brought out that particular point and perhaps further thought and discussion will bring out some of its practical value or allow you to see things in a new light.