Some Translation Questions from the Creation Account

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.

God and Someone Else

God, the Cosmic King

The Divine Council part one

The Divine Council part two

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About Andrew Battista

Andrew Battista is Librarian for Geospatial Information Systems at New York University
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2 Responses to Some Translation Questions from the Creation Account

  1. Ashley Lee says:

    On the image of Divine Council challenging monotheism:

    I’m in a HIS 330 class outside of this course which is taught on the development of Christian thought. We currently are studying how the founding fathers of Christianity struggled with this very idea, but not from the story of creation. Obviously the Christian thought began with New Testament Scripture, since before Jesus they would have been Jewish – and that’s precisely my point.

    Jewish was a strictly monotheistic religion, there was no room for the in between. Christianity struggled with what exactly to call Jesus, is he God, under God but above man, or is he an anointed man? And as Christianity started to believe in Jesus as divine, this posed major problems with the Hebrew culture (It was undoubtedly a more Greek way to think about religion).

    Jews of the Old Testament did however have a few challenges to monotheism. Proverbs talks about ‘Wisdom,’ or ‘Sophia’ in the original language, who was created by God and was present in creation and helped God in creating the earth and heaven.

    My point is that the Old Testament is clearly a monotheistic text, you see that numerous times where God himself says ‘You shall have no other god’s before me,’ ‘I the Lord am a jealous God, no man shall be before me,’ and etc. I think that if such a strict monotheistic religion based on the Old Testament has not been overturned by the accounts of creation challenging monotheism, it must have been explained what the ‘us’ is. My guess is it’s ‘Sophia’ which doesn’t contradict the idea of one God, since wisdom, is the wisdom of God, not a whole separate deity. But that’s just a guess.

    However, this is all based on assumptions, and the fact that I’m not aware (and don’t see how it would be possible with the Jewish religion) of the Old Testament continuing to speak of another deity that would suggest polytheism.

    Since we have started talking about the different Authors of the Old Testament, I’m interested to see how that affects the idea of monotheism.

    I do think that if you were to read only the creation account, however, you may draw that conclusion for a while.

  2. The question of how this influences or affects our ideas of monotheism is a great one as well. The plural pronoun here would seem to suggest the presence of more than one God, but as Heard and other people before him point out, the most likely explanation here is that this is a reference to some “divine council.”

    But we should and will talk more about monotheism and what it means as we move along in the class.

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