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?

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