Friday, August 3, 2012

When Genesis 1:13 and Culture Collide

We’ve reached day three! Our third closing refrain is in verse 13:

Genesis 1:13: “Day Three”

 וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר יֹ֥ום שְׁלִישִֽׁי׃

So there was evening, and there was morning. Day three.”

So it’s been three days so far in the creation account, but no sun or moon (yet). Interesting. How can there be light without the sun? It’s not until the next blog post (which will have to wait until Monday—I’m going on a retreat this weekend) that we’ll see the creation of these two “lamps” in the dome.

So far, here’s what’s been created:

1.      Day (a.k.a. “light”), separated from night (a.k.a. “darkness”)
2.      The skies (a.k.a. the “dome”)
3.      The earth (a.k.a. the “dry ground”)  
4.      Plants, trees, and various fruits and vegetation (all without the sun!)

Lend Me Your Thoughts

What are your thoughts on days one, two, and three so far?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When Genesis 1:12 and Culture Collide

Here is when Genesis 1:12 and culture really collide in an interesting way:

Genesis 1:12: “So the Land Brought Forth Greenery”

וַתֹּוצֵ֨א הָאָ֜רֶץ דֶּ֠שֶׁא עֵ֣שֶׂב מַזְרִ֤יעַ זֶ֙רַע֙ לְמִינֵ֔הוּ וְעֵ֧ץ עֹֽשֶׂה־פְּרִ֛י אֲשֶׁ֥ר זַרְעֹו־בֹ֖ו לְמִינֵ֑הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֹֽוב׃

“So the land brought forth greenery, a plant bearing seed after its kind and a tree bearing fruit with its seed in it after its kind. Then God saw that it was good.”

Creation obeys the word of God once again, and the land brings forth greenery, complete with seed-bearing plants and trees bearing fruit with their seed in them…

And each one is לְמִינֵהוּ (l’miynehu, “after its kind”). Here the operative word is מִין (min, “kind”). Many creationists who reject evolution will appeal to this term to say something like, “See? ‘After its kind.’ God created each creature ‘after its kind,’ suggesting that evolution from a single-celled organism could never have happened.”

In part 1 of this post, I’ll just present you with two interesting perspectives on this view:

Lend Me Your Thoughts
What are your responses to these articles? 

Monday, July 30, 2012

When Genesis 1:11 and Culture Collide

I took a short walk outside for my break at work, and I took a moment to appreciate the greenery in the outdoors before publishing this post for today during my lunch break.

And this is why:
Genesis 1:11: “Let the Land Sprout Forth Greenery”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים תַּֽדְשֵׁ֤א הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ דֶּ֔שֶׁא עֵ֚שֶׂב מַזְרִ֣יעַ זֶ֔רַע עֵ֣ץ פְּרִ֞י עֹ֤שֶׂה פְּרִי֙ לְמִינֹ֔ו אֲשֶׁ֥ר זַרְעֹו־בֹ֖ו עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃

“And God said, ‘Let the land sprout forth greenery: the plant bearing seed, and the fruit tree bearing fruit after its kind, with its seed in it, on the earth.’ And it was so.”

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest on the west side of the Cascades, and the greenery here is really something to behold. We have the same kind of weather our friends in the UK get to enjoy, so the scenery here is quite lush but in a very temperate climate. I live in what you might call a “temperate rainforest,” as a pastor at one of the churches I’ve attended in this area once said.

God created a beautiful world for us to enjoy. But sometimes I forget that I live in an area where it is easy to rejoice over the scenery God has given us. And when I say “easy,” I mean that the scenery is obviously beautiful, and we only need to take time to appreciate it. Yet in our busy lives, we often forget that it’s there, or we mistreat it by being careless with our waste or by neglecting to recycle. I suppose we can fail to appreciate the magnificent gardens God has placed in this world in a number of ways.

Other people are not so lucky to live in such a naturally gorgeous and green area. For instance, some people live parts of the world with minimal vegetation. Scripture acknowledges that this ugly reality can fall on people (Genesis 47:19). We yearn for lush fields, watery lands filled with beauty. Even the drier places, though, like the Grand Canyon, are certainly beautiful as well. But there is something striking about plant life. It's plant life.

So here's my main observation about this passage. This is the first creation of life in this story. The first creation of any kind of life.

God demonstrates that he is interesting in bringing life in the very first pages of Scripture. In fact, the text sparkles with beautiful description here: Not only does the text say that the land produces דֶּשֶׁא (deshe’, “greenery”)—a general term encompassing various types of green plants—it goes on to spell out what this דֶּשֶׁא comprises: עֵשֶׂב (esev, “lush vegetation,” used in other contexts, such as in Genesis 1:30 and 3:18, to refer to food for people or animals) that bears seeds and the עֵץ (‘etz, “tree”) that bears fruit.

Notably, this mention of the creation of fruit-bearing trees—specifically, the occurrence of two key terms, עֵץ (‘etz, “tree”) and פְּרִי (peri, “fruit”)—also foreshadows something that is yet to take place in Genesis 2 and 3. Stay tuned. We’re a long way off from that yet, but keep it in mind for now.

For now, stay tuned tomorrow, when we’ll analyze a key word appealed to by creationists when they reject evolutionary science on the basis of the Genesis 1 text: לְמִינוֺ (lemiynō, “after its kind”).

To be continued…

Friday, July 27, 2012

When Genesis 1:10 and Culture Collide

Now the “dry ground” gets named:

Genesis 1:10: “Naming the Dry Ground”

וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לַיַּבָּשָׁה֙ אֶ֔רֶץ וּלְמִקְוֵ֥ה הַמַּ֖יִם קָרָ֣א יַמִּ֑ים וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֹֽוב׃

“And God named the dry ground ‘land,’ and the collection of the waters he named ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good.”

An observation linking this post to yesterday’s post: Just as he named the dome שָׁמַיִם (shamayim, “sky” or “heavens”), he named the dry ground אֶרֶץ (eretz, “land” or “earth”). First he names the heavens, and then he names the earth (in the same order as those same Hebrew words appear in Genesis 1:1)!

Cool, huh? Also, the seas were a scary place in the ancient world, but God not only made the seas—he named them and saw them as “good.”

Lend Me Your Thoughts

Have you noticed any other vocabulary that recurs in Genesis 1? Any common refrains?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

When Genesis 1:9 and Culture Collide

Genesis 1:9: Let the Waters Under the Skies Be Collected to One Place

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֗ים יִקָּו֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם מִתַּ֤חַת הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֶל־מָקֹ֣ום אֶחָ֔ד וְתֵרָאֶ֖ה הַיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃

“Then God said, ‘Let the waters under the skies be collected to one place, and let the dry ground be visible.’ And it was so.”

Brief explanatory introductory note: You might have noticed that last time I translated שָׁמָיִם (shamayim) as “sky,” but in Genesis 1:1 and here, I translated it as “skies.” The translation “skies” (or “heavens”) is because of the –ayim (dual) ending of this word. I translated the occurrence of this word in Genesis 1:8 as “sky” because it was occurring in a context in which a singular object was being named: the “dome.” I thought it would be strange to say in English, “And he named the dome ‘skies.’” But that would have been the most literal translation.

I think it’s interesting that here we first encounter the term יַבָּשָׁה (yabashah, “dry ground”). It shows up only 15 times in the entire Old Testament (and only twice in Genesis). We come across it again tomorrow, so keep this in mind. There is a reason this word is being used. (Hint: Just as the word “dome” was used only to be later defined as “sky,” so the word “dry ground” is being used to be later defined in verse 10 as ________. Don’t cheat. Look back at Genesis 1:1 and see if you can notice a pattern.)

At this point in the creation account, we’ve finally come across the point at which God has created the part of the world on which all of life—including humanity—is eventually going to dwell.

Lend Me Your Thoughts

What do you make of the language of the waters being “collected to one place”?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

When Genesis 1:8 and Culture Collide

Now the “dome” gets named:

Genesis 1:8: “Naming the Dome”

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֱלֹהִ֛ים לָֽרָקִ֖יעַ שָׁמָ֑יִם וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר יֹ֥ום שֵׁנִֽי׃

“And God named the dome ‘sky.’ So there was evening, and there was morning. Day two.”

The dome receives the name “sky” in this verse. The word translated “sky” (שָׁמָיִם, shamayim) is also translated “heavens”—as in the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1 (“God created the heavens [שָׁמָיִם] and the earth”). This is only the second time that the word שָׁמָיִם has occurred in the Genesis 1 text. So far, Genesis 1:1 is the only other place we’ve seen it.

I still remember conceiving of the sky as a “dome” myself when I looked up at night in my backyard as a small child—and this was even when I was well aware that the earth is spherical.

Obviously, because the earth is spherical, we now know why the sky appears to be dome. But the ancients only observed what little God had revealed to them. Perhaps there was some ancient people who realized that the earth was actually spherical, but that isn’t the point of this passage anyway.

This is a poetic account of God creating and naming all that exists, culminating in his creation of us (verses 26–30) to enjoy and care for what he has created.

That this account is poetry should already be evident by now, especially with the refrain “and there was evening, and there was morning,” which we’ve also seen in verse 5.

So to recap:

Day one: God creates light and separates the light form the darkness, calling the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

Day two: God creates a dome separating the waters above from the waters below, calling it “sky.”
Stay tuned for more!

Lend Me Your Thoughts

Do you think this is a poetic account or a scientific account? If you think it’s a scientific account, please point out why you think so. If you agree that it’s a poetic account, please point out any areas you might think I missed.

Do you think it matters whether we see this account as poetic or scientific? If so, why? 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

When Genesis 1:7 and Culture Collide

Do you remember the post I made about the “separation between the waters”? See below for more!

Genesis 1:7: “Between the Waters That Are Below the Dome and the Waters That Are Above the Dome”

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֮ אֶת־הָרָקִיעַ֒ וַיַּבְדֵּ֗ל בֵּ֤ין הַמַּ֙יִם֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ מִתַּ֣חַת לָרָקִ֔יעַ וּבֵ֣ין הַמַּ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֖ר מֵעַ֣ל לָרָקִ֑יעַ וַֽיְהִי־כֵֽן׃

“When God made the dome, he made a separation between the waters that are below the dome and between the waters that are above the dome. And it was so.”

This verse represents what happened after God and spoke this dome into existence.  We briefly touched on the waters below the dome and the waters above the dome last time, but I thought I’d spell it out a little more in today’s post.

Check out this helpful chart to see this more visually. Notice the “windows” in the dome separating the waters above from everything below. The “waters above” are released through these windows (or openings) during the flood narrative as rain, and the fountains of the great deep burst forth (see Genesis 6:11).

Lend Me Your Thoughts

What do you make of this “ancient Hebrew cosmology” stuff? I’m interested in hearing what you have to say. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Genesis 1:6 and Culture Collide

This is where we get a taste of the cosmology of the ancient world, which was certainly not the same as our own:

 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים יְהִ֥י רָקִ֖יעַ בְּתֹ֣וךְ הַמָּ֑יִם וִיהִ֣י מַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין מַ֖יִם לָמָֽיִם׃

“Now God said, ‘Let a dome be in the midst of the waters, and may it separate the waters from the waters.’”

We’re not yet told what this “dome” is (we discover that in verse 8, much the same way we discover that the “light” turned out to be “day” in verse 5 yesterday).

The word רָקִיעַ (raqiya) is often translated “expanse” (e.g., see the NASB and ESV). According to the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), it’s more like a “beaten metal plate, or bow…the firm vault of heaven.”

When we look up at the sky from our vantage point here on earth, it does look bow-shaped, almost like a dome encasing us in the earth’s atmosphere. The ancients had no idea that we were on a ball-shaped planet, no matter what popular Christian apologetics might tell you. (If you’re thinking of Isaiah 40:22, you might want to look up
חוּג [khūg], the word for “circle” in that passage. It doesn’t mean “sphere.” Check out the entry for this in HALOT. Also, consider what the point of Isaiah 40 as a whole may be trying to make.)
This dome was considered to separate waters that were conceived to be above it (rain would be released through small “hatches” or “floodgates” throughout this dome) and the seas would be below it (which is why it speaks of waters being separated from each other).

God used language that people in the ancient world understood. It was not important that he describe the earth in scientific terms—the main point is to communicate the message that he did in fact create this earth for us to inhabit. And if that requires “dome” language (which the ancients did understand), then so be it.

Lend Me Your Thoughts

What do you make of the word רָקִיעַ? If you see anything I missed, please let me know. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

When Genesis 1:5 and Culture Collide

Now moving on to Genesis 1:5! After the separation of light from dark, we get a fuller explanation of what this separation entails:

 וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לָאֹור֙ יֹ֔ום וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר יֹ֥ום אֶחָֽד׃

“And God named the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he named ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning: Day one.”

This is the first time the word יוֹם (yōm“day”) appears in this passage. Note the poetic feel to this passage. Not only is this word paralleled by לָיְלָה (laylah“night”), but the second half of the verse refers to evening and morning.

Lend Me Your Thoughts

What do you make of the fact that this is the first reference to יוֹם in this account? What is this account doing with the word יוֹם?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

When Genesis 1:4 and Culture Collide (Part Three)

Okay, this is counting as the real Genesis 1:4 post:

Why the Separation of the Light from the Darkness? 

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ׃

“Now God saw the light, that it was good. And God separated between the light and between the darkness.”

Why is God separating between the light and the darkness here?

According to John H. Walton in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, this view of separation was common in the ancient world. The Egyptians associated all existence with some kind of differentiation having taken place. See John H. Walton, “Genesis,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, ed. John H. Walton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 16.

Bruce Waltke offers an interesting perspective on the literary theme of separation in Scripture more broadly in his commentary on Genesis: “Just as God commands the light and dark as well as the land and sea to separate, God calls Israel to separate from the pagan nations. Separation is a fundamental concept both to creation and to Israel’s existence.” See Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 69.

More on this tomorrow! Stay tuned!

Lend Me Your Thoughts

What do you make of the fact that the theme of separation was understood elsewhere in the ancient Near East? Does this mean the Bible is any less inspired, or is that an oversimplification?

Friday, July 13, 2012

When Genesis 1:4 and Culture Collide (Part Two)

Sorry! Don't mean to leave you hanging! This is "part 2," but I don't have time to flesh out a full discussion for you. So suffice to say that you should check out the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary if you want to get a jump on what I'm going to say in part 3!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

When Genesis 1:4 and Culture Collide (Part One)

Today we’re onto Genesis 1:4! Here we go!

Genesis 1:4: “Dividing Between the Light and Darkness”

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ׃

“Then God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided between the light and between the darkness.”

In this particular passage, I find two things curious:

·         It is here that we are first told that God saw that what he had created was “good” (טוֹב, tōv). This becomes a constant refrain throughout Genesis 1. God speaks something into existence (which John 1, mentioned in yesterday’s post, also picks up with oJ lovgoV) and sees that it is good.

·         There is some “separating” going on here. What do you think the nature of this separating is?

SStay tuned for part 2 tomorrow...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

When Genesis 1:3 and Culture Collide (Finally)

Okay, it appears that in order for me to keep up with my blog posts, I have to be free and clear of any grad school homework. I've decided to return to blogging, having just completed a big exegetical paper on Deuteronomy 27 for a class.

So in my last post, by "You will have to wait until tomorrow," I actually meant, "You will have to wait 5 months from now."

Not buying it? Good. That's how a good exegete operates. The word tomorrow in English NEVER means 5 months from now (it may mean "the future" generically in some sense, but not specifically "5 months from now"). What actually happened was that I really did mean to update things "tomorrow" (as in "the 24-hour day immediately following today"), but time got away from me, and grad school ate my life again. (Don't apply this to what I think about the Hebrew term יוֹם [yōm, the word for "day"]. In fact, I think  "Is this a literal 24 hours or not?" is actually the wrong question to ask of this text. If you comment, I'll spell out more what I mean by that.)

So now that I'm in a break from grad school, I can resume my posts. To hold myself accountable, I am going to post EVERY day, starting this morning (and continuing each consecutive morning thereafter). If I don't publish a post one day, I want someone to comment and say, "Anybody there?" (And I am serious about that.) I'm determined to nip this in the bud.

So this means you'll have to put up with all my sometimes nauseatingly lame jokes (well, you don't have to, but if you want to subject yourself to reading this blog, then you do indeed have to). Have I scared you away yet? (If so, I'm sorry. Please don't close your Internet browser. I'm done with this tangential rant now.)

So back to Genesis. Here's where we've been:

  1. We started with Genesis 1:1. We analyzed the grammar a bit, and we pondered what the most important theological thrust of this statement might be. 
  2. We moved on to Genesis 1:2 (looking at it in two separate posts), and we noticed some fascinating features of this text, notably the words that I translated as "formlessness" and "emptiness."

And now we're on to Genesis 1:3, which brings me to why I mentioned last time (if you can remember that far back--see the previous blog post, the one one before my "oops, something came up so you'll have to wait until tomorrow" excuse post) that I had "highlighted the term חֹשֶׁךְ ('darkness') for [a] reason." I said in that previous post that I would tell you in my next post (which happens to be TODAY's post!) what that reason is. So...

(Drum roll, please.)

Below is the reason! *Insert obnoxious, so-loud-it-hurts-your-eardrums fanfare here.*

The very next verse has the Hebrew word אוֹר ('ōr), meaning "light"! So "darkness" (חֹשֶׁךְ) in verse 2 is being contrasted with "light" (אוֹר)! See below:

Genesis 1:3: "Let Light Come About!"

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י אֹ֑ור וַֽיְהִי־אֹֽור׃

"And God said, 'Let light come about!' So light came about." 

It's here that you can see the contrast. In verse 2, we were told that חֹשֶׁךְ (khōshekh) was upon the surface of the watery depths in the beginning. But in verse 3, God initiates his first creative act, which is to make אוֹר ("light")!

This all the more poignant when we compare this text with John 1. The first chapter of John picks up this Genesis 1 language---not only with 
ἐν ἀρχῇ (en archē, "in [the] beginning," echoing בְּרֵאשִׁית) in verse 1, but also with the frequent use of the word φῶς (phōs, "light"), which John links to Jesus. :-)

It's interesting that the first thing God creates is light---illumination, turning off the darkness. And the first thing  the Gospel of John does is refer to Jesus using this language. When Jesus came, he was (and is) a light to shine forth into a world of darkness.

Lend Me Your Thoughts

  1. Did you ever notice the fact that verse 2 mentions "darkness" and therefore sets you up for verse 3, which mentions God creating "light" to deal with that darkness? Do you notice anything else here?
  2. Read Genesis 1 and John 1 side by side. Do you see anything else that I missed?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wait Until Tomorrow for Genesis 1:3

Because some things came up today (and I lost my blog post file), you will have to wait until tomorrow for the Genesis 1:3 post. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 24, 2012

When Genesis 1:2 and Culture Collide (Part Two)

So yesterday I briefly mentioned that I had a bit more to say about Genesis 1:2. Today I have access to my computer (which supports Hebrew vowel points), so this time you’ll get to see the text according to the tradition which the Masoretes (a Jewish community living almost a thousand or so years after Jesus) preserved for us.

For those who don’t know Hebrew but are nevertheless curious: The Masoretes came up with the vowel-pointing system you see reproduced below. Yesterday, I showed you this text as it would have originally appeared—that is, written only with consonants (with the vowels “understood” between them). (In contemporary written Hebrew in modern-day Israel, the text would not have the vowel points either.) To get an idea of what I’m talking about, see if you can read the following English sentence, only with all its vowels removed (that is, supply the vowels as you read it aloud): “Sh kckd th bckt.” Even though the vowels are not there, you probably correctly read this aloud as “She kicked the bucket.” That’s similar to what it’s like to read the consonantal text of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance.  

But the text below does have “vowel points,” markings invented by the Masoretes in order to aid with reading the traditionally implied vowels between the consonants.

Anyway, enough of that—here’s the text of Genesis 1:2 again (this time with vowel points)!

Genesis 1:2: “Darkness on the Surface of the Watery Depths”

וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ  וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם׃

“Now the land was a wasteland and emptiness, and darkness was upon the surface of the watery depths, and the breath of God was fluttering over the surface of the waters.”

This time, I’ve color-coded different words: חֹשֶׁךְ (khōshekh), which means “darkness,” and תְהוֹם (te-hōm), which most translations render simply as “deep.” I’ve translated the term תְהוֹם as “watery depths” because I wanted to get across the fuller meaning of the word. When we think of “deep,” a watery deep doesn’t immediately come to mind.

The word תְהוֹם refers to subterranean waters. Later on in Genesis, we read that the great flood begins when not only the openings in the sky part (and let water out from above), but also when the fountains of the great תְהוֹם open up as well (and let water out from below—see Genesis 7:11). So the ancient Hebrews believed that water comes from below the earth (from the “watery depths”) as well as from above.

I highlighted חֹשֶׁךְ (“darkness”) for another reason. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow’s post to find out why…

Lend Me Your Insights

1.      What are your reactions to the information about תְהוֹם?

2.      Is there anything else about this passage you’re curious about (or want to tell me about)? Let me know!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

When Genesis 1:2 and Culture Collide (Part One)

As per yesterday’s post, below is the Hebrew text and translation, color-coded for your enjoyment! (I’m going without vowel points today because I’m using a different computer tonight, and certain Hebrew fonts are not available to me right now. But that’s how the original text looked anyway, so consider this a treat!)

והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך על פני תהום ורוח אלהים מרחפת על פני המים

“Now the land was a shapelessness and emptiness, and darkness was on the surface of the watery depths, and the breath of God was fluttering over the surface of the waters.”

Those of you who know Greek might recall that πνευμα (pneuma), which means “spirit,” can also mean “breath” or “wind.” Similarly, the Hebrew term רוח (ruakh) can mean “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind.” Most translations stick with “spirit” here, but I find that “breath” suggests the concrete presence of God better.

It also highlights the contrast between the “shapelessness and emptiness” and the order that God is about to effect simply by speaking things into being. תהו (tohu), meaning “wasteland” or “formlessness,” and בהו (bohu), meaning “emptiness,” aside from the obvious fact that they rhyme, together highlight the lack of substance and order in the primeval universe before God gives things shape and fills things up.

There are more things to say about this verse, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Lend Me Your Insights

  1. Looking at this passage in the context of the rest of Genesis 1, do you think we can get away with describing God’s creation as ex nihilo (a fancy Latin theological term meaning “from nothing”)? If so, why? If not, why not?

  1. Is there anything in this passage that makes you feel uncomfortable? If so, why? If you don’t feel uncomfortable by anything this passage, note some things about it that you may not have noticed before.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When Genesis and Culture Collide (Genesis 1:1)

Introduction to the New “When Genesis and Culture Collide” Series

As I promised yesterday, here is my post on Genesis 1:1, the famous opening verse of the Bible.

For those of you who may know a bit of Hebrew, I will include the original Hebrew text in each post, as well as my own attempted translation of the verse. My renderings will be hyper-literal (and a tad unconventional) on purpose, as I think it’s important that we do our best to approach this text as freshly as we can. (Also, I’ll color-code the Hebrew text with my translation so that you can see which words go together.)

Following each translation, I will include my own brief reflections on each verse.

Genesis 1:1: “In the Beginning”

 בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הׇאׇרֶץ׃ 
In the beginning, God created the skies and the land.This famous opening to the biblical story is hard to translate freshly, mostly because it’s so well-known (the NIV, NASB, ESV, and many other translations all stick with it).

I’ve gone with the traditional translation of בְּרֵאשִׁית (be-re’-shit)—“in the beginning,” suggesting that this is a self-contained sentence and that God was present “at the beginning,” presumably the beginning of time. But this is not the only way to translate this phrase. Note, for instance, the translation offered by the New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPSV): “When God began to create the heaven and earth…”

Commenting on the NJPSV’s translation, the late Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna makes this observation:

This rendering of the Hebrew looks to verse 3 for the completion of the sentence. It takes verse 2 to be parenthetical, describing the state of things at the time when God first spoke. Support for understanding the text in this way comes from 2:4 and 5:1, both of which refer to Creation and begin with “When.” The Mesopotamian creation epic known as Enuma Elish also commences the same way. In fact, enuma means “when.” Apparently, this was a conventional opening style for cosmological narratives. As to the peculiar syntax of the Hebrew sentence—a noun in the construct state (be-re’shit) with a finite verb (bara’)—analogies may be found in Leviticus 14:46, Isaiah 26:1, and Hosea 1:2.

But Sarna goes on to point out the arguments in favor of the traditional rendering: “Be-re’shit does not have to be in the construct state and…the analogies of 2:4 and 5:1, as well as of Enuma Elish, are inexact. In each instance, the word translated “when” is literally “in the day,” which is not the case in this verse.”
See Nahum Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary Project (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Socitey, 1989), p. 5.

Also, the traditional “heavens” still captures well what underlies the Hebrew word שׇׁמַיִם (shamayim) in this context. But שׇׁמַיִם literally means “skies”—that is, what the ancient peoples would have perceived to be included in the vast space they saw above them.

Our English word heavens also means “skies,” but because “heavens” sounds like “heaven,” and because our culture often pictures heaven as an ethereal place of harps and clouds located in some kind of otherworldly dimension, “skies” more clearly highlights for us the actual meaning of the word.

Also, most translations render הׇאׇרֶץ (ha’aretz) as “the earth,” and this is a good translation, but when we think of “earth,” we picture a large spherical orb that spins on its axis and has seven continents. But that’s not what the Hebrew text literally says. The word אֶרֶץ (’eretz) means “land” in most contexts.

But essentially, the phrase “the skies and the land” (or, if you like, “the heavens and the earth”) is meant to evoke the idea that God made all that there is. This statement, then, is the summary statement of what follows. The rest of this poetic narrative, which lasts until Genesis 2:3 (and then a new narrative starts with 2:4), describes in beautiful language God’s creation of the cosmos, breaking up the events into seven days (with God resting on the seventh day).

But I think the most fascinating element of all of this is the use of the verb בָּרָא (bara’), “created,” an important theological term. In the Old Testament, the verb is used only with God as the subject, suggesting that this is an act that only God can do. Only God can bring something into existence that did not exist before. We can shape and mold things, but the Creator only needs to speak, and it is there.

See also Sarna, p. 5 (cited earlier). For a layman-friendly, easy-to-understand (but also very scholarly) commentary on Genesis, check out John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). This commentary comes in two parts, so make sure to check out Part One for what he has to say about this passage.

When Genesis 1:1 and Culture Collide: What Do You Think?

1.   This passage often sparks debates about science and faith, especially in light of evolution. Creationist organizations such as Answers in Genesis contend that the assertion of Genesis 1:1 (and what follows) cannot be believed if one also believes that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection actually took place. But others, such as Francis Collins, who has headed up the Human Genome Project and has founded the organization Biologos, thinks otherwise. What are your thoughts on this? Can one be faithful to the teachings of the Bible and believe that evolution happened?

2.     In Inspiration and Incarnation, biblical scholar Peter Enns asks this question: “How does the study of Scripture in the contemporary world affect how we flesh out descriptions such as ‘word of God’ or ‘inspired’?” See Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 17. How would you answer his question?