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?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Starting Tomorrow: When Genesis and Culture Collide

I've decided recently to start blogging every day. Time often gets away from me, and I have a lot on my plate currently (I'm in grad school, so I think that's enough said), so I'll be careful as to how much time I spend on these per day.

Recently I decided to pick a book of the Bible and work through a verse or so a day, offering my own take on each chunk of text (and asking for your perspective on each text as well).

I'll conclude each post with 2 or 3 questions to provoke a discussion, just to get the input of readers.

I think this would be a fun way to engage the biblical text together. I'll include the original languages, but don't feel like you have to know the languages too in order to contribute.

I think every voice is valuable, and I want to hear what you think about any given text we talk about.

Tomorrow, we start with Genesis 1:1. In the meantime, think about how this text collides with culture then and today, in light of the title of this blog.