On Wednesday’s class, we spent some time talking about the translation of the Bible’s first sentence. One of the first and most important scholars to take up the debate of translating Gen. 1:1 was E.A. Speiser. In his Anchor Bible commentary on Genesis, Speiser translates the first words of the OT as “When God set about to create heaven and earth…” His comments on that translation try to explain his choice:
“The first word of Genesis, and hence the first word in the Hebrew Bible as a unit, is vocalized as bere’sit. Grammatically, this is evidently in the construct state, that is, the first of two connected forms which jointly yield a possessive compound. Thus the sense of this particular initial term is, or should be, ‘At the beginning of..’ or ‘When…’ and not ‘In/At the beginning’; [which is in English a prepositional phrase] the absolute form with adverbial connotation would be bare’sit. As the text is now vocalized, therefore, the Hebrew Bible starts out with a dependent clause.”
But what does all of the mean, or what’s at stake? Speiser points out, as we did in class, that there’s more than a grammatical argument happening here. It could make a difference in the way we understand the act of creation itself. As Speiser goes on to say, “If the first sentence [were to state] that ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth,’ what ensued was chaos (vs. 2) which needed immediate attention. In other words, the Creator would be charged with an inadequate initial performance.”
To be sure, other people have argued with Speiser’s translation. The point is, this is a moment where translation could affect meaning and theological commentary. So what are we supposed to think about this? If God were to have created heaven and earth in a more definitive way, ex nihilo (out of nothing), would this be considered as an inadequate performance? What is gained by reading this phrase as a dependent clause? Note: Speiser’s book is in our library if anyone wants to check it out. I encourage everyone to begin gaining familiarity with the Anchor Bible commentary series.
Yet another discussion to have regards the strange moment when God begins to speak in the first-person plural at Gen. 1:26. Chris Heard, a professor at Pepperdine University, has a great podcast series on the Old Testament, and his first several episodes (4-5 minutes each) tackle this issue. As it turns out, the metaphor of a divine council may in fact lie behind these images, yet it may be more than a metaphorical device. Could it be that these images challenge the idea of monotheism? You can listen to the episodes here or download them on iTunes U.