The Stories of Yahweh Elohim and Humanity … In the Beginning (1)


In anticipation of (hopefully) being part of a Hebrew reading group and/or teaching an online class on Genesis 1–11, I am reviewing my own translation and adding addition notes. It is all a bit technical at times, so I’m only posting this series in quite small bits. However, do not fear, but press on and dig a little deeper. This first post is my translation of Genesis 1:1-5 with notes. Please read the translation AND the notes in order to better appreciate these verses which are quite familiar to so many.  

I think, in the spirit of transparency, a few introductory comments are needed. First, I approach Genesis 1–11 as myth. For me, and so many others, this is not an historical account of what actually happened to be read and understood literally. There is theological truth here regarding what the Israelite creators of this text understood the nature and working of their God to be. They borrowed from much older polytheistic myths to create their own, unique, monotheistic myth. The Israelite myth in so many ways, portrays their understanding of the Divine One and humanity, which stands in stark contrast with how the nations around them understood who their gods were and why they created humans.

I think Genesis 1–11 is beautifully and ingeniously written. I value so much how it portrays the Israelite understanding of who God is, why God created humans and how deity and humanity relate to one another. However, at the same time, I keep in mind that there is within these chapters diverse perspectives presented. Like the rest of the Hebrew Bible, these chapters are multi-vocal and thus polyphonic in nature. When we try to reconcile these varied voices into one unified voice, I am convinced we do injustice to the very nature of the text.

Note: I have included, in the first footnote, a bibliography in which those interested in taking a deeper dive into these amazing chapters will find much benefit.[1]

Genesis 1:1–5

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃When

[1] Elohim[2] began to create the skies and the land.[3]

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

[2] And the earth[4] was empty and void[5] and darkness [was] on the face of the abyss and the breath of Elohim[6] was hovering on the face of the waters.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י אֹ֑ור וַֽיְהִי־אֹֽור׃

[3] And Elohim said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאֹ֖ור כִּי־טֹ֑וב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָאֹ֖ור וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃

[4] And Elohim saw the light, that it was good. And Elohim divided between the light and the darkness.

   וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לָאוֹר֙ יֹ֔ום וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר יֹ֥ום אֶחָֽד׃ פ

[5] And Elohim called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And it was evening and it was morning day one.[7]

[1] Bibliography: (1) Edwin M. Good. Genesis 1–11: Tales of the Earliest World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); (2) Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996); (3) Peter Enns & Jared Byas. Genesis for Normal People (The Bible for Normal People, 2019); (4) Paul Copan & Douglas Jacoby, Origins: The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1–11 (New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2019); (5) James D. Tabor, The Book of Genesis (Genesis 2000 Press, 2020).

[2] I choose not to translate אֱלֹהִים (Elohim) as “God” but to transliterate it as Elohim, for two reasons. First, I think we so easily read the word “God” and honestly give it little more thought. I hope by reading “Elohim” readers of my translation will pause and give some thought to what these verses say about who the authors of Genesis believe “Elohim” to be. Second, it is a reminder, I hope, that Genesis is an ancient, pre-scientific, text, written before humanity had much knowledge of the actual cosmos.

[3] “The traditional phrase, “In the beginning,” runs afoul of the way the first word, berēshît, arranges its vowels. To translate “in the beginning,” the word ought to be barēshît. As it stands, the word is closer to “in beginning of,” which needs an object. That object should be “Elohîm’s creating,” which necessitates modifying the finite verb form bara’, “created,” in a past tense, into an infinitive, berō’. These very minor changes are only to the vowel signs, introduced into the biblical text in the Middle Ages. I have no scruples against changing them, unlike the problem of changing the consonants.” (Good, 117)

[4] The word ha’arets can be translated as either “earth” or “land” depending on context. Since the planet earth existed when Elohim began creating but the land did not, in v. 1, I’ve translated it “land” and in v. 2 I’ve translated it “earth.”

[5] The phrase tohu vavohu is variously translated. E.g., Alter’s “welter and waste“ is an attempt to reproduce something of the Hebrew word play but is quite meaningless to most English readers. Friedman’s “shapeless and formless” is much more descriptive as is Good’s “shapeless and empty.” The bottom line is v. 2 tells us that “When Elohim began to create the skies and the land,” other physical matter was in existence. Elohim’s efforts were not creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing).

[6] The word ruach can be translated as “wind, breath, spirit.” Most Christian translations interpret rather than just translate by inserting “the Spirit of God was hovering…”. The reality is, there is no evidence of a trinitarian doctrine in the Hebrew Bible, thus in this context, the better translation is either “wind” or “breath” (as per Good and Alter) or at the very outside “spirit” (as per Friedman).

[7] Good (117) notes, “‘Day one’ is a somewhat odd expression, but to say “first day” would have required a different expression. The other days all have the ordinal form of the number. And notice that the day began with evening, as the Jewish understanding of the day still does.” Alter (11) notes that cardinal, not ordinal numbers are usually used in Hebrew and are accompanied by the definite article, which is lacking in all but “the sixth day.”

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