Biblical Beginnings 2: Reading a Familiar Text Carefully

The opening words of any speech, article, or book are crucial for grabbing the hearer’s or reader’s attention and interest and/or setting the stage for the speaker’s or author’s message. A classic example is found in the first words of A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Now, that intro gets my attention and piques my curiosity, big time! I want to read more—and I’m no English Literature expert or even student.

The first book of the Torah, and thus the Tanakh (and of all Christian versions of the Old Testament) begins where most of us would want it to do so…with the beginning. According to the author of Genesis what was it like “in the beginning”? Who was present and what existed in the beginning?

Many Christians would immediately respond that the triune Godhead (i.e., the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) was present in the beginning and that nothing else existed until God said the first, “Let there be…”. Yet, biblical studies and biblical Hebrew scholars most often disagree. They would say that such an interpretation is anachronistic.[1] That is, Christians tend to read back into books of the Tanakh, doctrines that were developed many centuries later than when the books were authored—at a time when there was no thought of a triune Godhead. However, Christians point to specific words and phrases in Genesis 1 that hint to these later “revealed truths.”

  • 1:1 reads (at least in most Christian translations), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Obviously, the heavens and the earth did not exist in the beginning.
  • 1:2 reads (at least in most Christian translations), “…and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” There’s no mention of Jesus, but given that the Holy Spirit is there, and the Son of God was not revealed until later (cf. John 1:1–18), it’s not too much of stretch to include the Son here.
  • 1:26 (and later 3:22) has God using the plural pronoun “us” to refer to himself. Obviously, God is talking to himself. And we know that God didn’t create humans in the image of the angels. And since there is only one God, then the plurality of persons within the Godhead must be the truth.

I would like to look at each of these one at a time and provide some alternate perspectives and interpretations that are consistent historically, linguistically and contextually, and thus cannot be easily disregarded.

Genesis 1:1, in the NRSV, sticks with the traditional Christian translation, but includes this footnote, “Or ‘When God began to create heaven and earth”. The Jewish Publications Society (JPS) translation of the Tanakh (1999) chose to go with, “When God began to create heaven and earth…” and to reserve the traditional translation to a footnote. Robert Alter, who spent 25 years translating the Hebrew Bible into English, rendered Gen 1:1, “When God began to create heaven and earth…” but makes no note of why he did so. Edwin M. Good’s last published book was a translation and discussion of Genesis 1–11. He begins his translation, “When Elohim (i.e., God) began to create the sky and the earth…” and offers a somewhat technical explanation related to the fact that the vowel points were added to the text one thousand years after Genesis with written. Good states, “These very minor changes are only to the vowel signs, introduced into the biblical text in the Middle Ages, [thus] I have no scruples against changing them…”.[2] Many other individual, and reputable, scholars have chosen, for linguistic reasons, to dispense with the traditional translation (e.g., Peter Enns, Everett Fox, Richard Elliott Friedman, etc.).

“So what?” you ask, understandably. Here’s Good’s translation of verses 1 and 2: “When Elohîm began to create the sky and the earth, the earth was shapeless and empty and darkness across the abyss, and Elohîm’s wind swept across the waters.” Do you see it? God did not create the skies and the land out of nothing, but rather he took what was chaos and he brought about order. When God began to create, earth was without shape, empty and engulfed in darkness, as God’s breath hovered over the waters. God created but he created order out of chaos that was already there.

Second, in v. 2 there is a decision to be made about how God’s ruach should be translated. Again, most Christian translations choose “Spirit” – note the capital “S” in the NRSV. This is, without a doubt, a Christian  interpretive translation. However, while ruach can be translated spirit, it is much more likely in this context to mean “wind” or even “breath.” The noun ruach is from the verb (also) ruach, which means “to blow” or “to breathe.” God’s spirit was there when God began to create but it was God’s breath or wind that was hovering over the waters. This is a very physical context about earthly things like skies, earth, water, darkness, etc.

Third, to whom was God speaking to when he said, “Let us make humanity in our likeness according to our image”?

  1. Was it to other members of the triune Godhead?
  2. Was it to other created celestial beings (i.e., angels)?
  3. Was it to other “lesser” gods who made up Yahweh’s divine council (as referenced in several other passages in the Tanakh)?
  4. Or was this the first ever use of the “royal ‘we’” (as much later, Queen Victoria is quoted as saying “We are not amused.”)?

Since the rest of the books of the Tanakh know nothing of a triune Godhead, I rule option (1) out. Since God did not make humanity in the image of the angels (as attested in other passages), then I rule option (2) out. I rule option (4) out because there is not a single use of the “royal ‘we’” anywhere in Hebrew scripture or Second Temple literature. That leaves only option (3)! “But that can’t be correct,” you say, “because the Hebrew Bible is a completely monotheistic book from beginning to end.” That’s certainly what I used to think. But detailed close readings of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings reveal otherwise. This will need to be the subject of different series of articles–maybe titled, Israel’s Journey from Polytheism to Monotheism–but let me end this post with the following quotation from Edwin M. Good,

“Strict monotheism, the concept that only one god exists, and all others are mere fiction, is difficult if not impossible to find in the Hebrew Bible. Israel was often bidden to have dealings with Yahweh alone, but I know no statement that must be interpreted to mean that no god but Yahweh exists. In fact, one of the problems the prophets in the Hebrew Bible had was that other gods than Yahweh were all too present and powerful. I have to say here that I have very slowly come to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible is not really a monotheistic book. When it became the first volume of a two-volume Christian work and took on the name and structure of the Old Testament, perhaps at that time it was automatically read as if it were a monotheistic book. By then Judaism had become monotheistic by a process that I cannot now trace, and Christianity, as its offspring, followed suit. But when I read the Hebrew Bible strictly as it stands, I do not find monotheism a necessary tenet in it.”[3]

[1] An anachronism is when we take modern meanings or understandings and we read them back into an ancient text, when given the historical and literary context, that meaning could not apply. For example, when someone equates biblical baptism with “sprinkling” that is an anachronism, because the ancient Greek word, baptisma, means “an act of dipping or immersion.” Another example is when we read the Hebrew word, satan–which means only accuser or adversary–in the OT, as the proper “name” of the supernatural opponent of Jesus/God as depicted in the NT.

[2] Edwin M. God, Genesis 1-11: Tales of the Earliest World. (Standford: Stanford University Pressm Kindle Edition), 8.

[3] Ibid, 44.