When we talk about a reconciliation between the first chapter of Genesis
and physical fact, we are talking about a reconciliation with the Hebrew,
not with any particular English translation. That is an important difference.
But in order for that difference to make sense, readers need to know a
few things about the Hebrew text and about the process of translation.
Strings of Consonants
The original Hebrew text was written long before paragraphs were invented. In fact, the original Hebrew text consisted of consonants without vowels. There were no breaks between verses and chapters. There were no paragraphs, and there were no commas or periods or question marks or exclamation marks.1
The use of punctuation to clarify the structure of written text was not settled in English until two thousand years later, after the invention of the printing press. The printing press made it possible for more people to read, so that’s when it made sense to have punctuation that organized the text for the eye. Up until that time, punctuation organized the text for the ear. Because the few who could read would read aloud to those who couldn’t, early punctuation was generally used to guide reading out loud, marking such things as inflections, pauses and breathing.
That said, it must be noted that a school of biblical scholarship views the Hebrew letter vav (often translated into English as “and,” “now” or “then”) as sometimes serving the same function as a capital letter in English to mark the beginning of a sentence.2 Notice, for example, how in Genesis 1:2-5 the King James Version follows this use of “and” as it groups words into sentences:And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
That is to say, we are not clueless when it comes to finding the inner structure of the Hebrew text, but the structure we’re so used to seeing in English--the chapters, paragraphs, sentences, verse numbers, commas, periods, quotation marks and all the rest--wasn’t in the original Hebrew.
Yes, even verse numbers. Bible verses weren’t consistently numbered until after the invention of the printing press. Even Martin Luther didn’t number the verses in his translation of the Bible.3 Verse numbers were added in the 1500s to provide a more precise way of finding things. Books, chapters and verse numbers were added to locate passages the same way that city, street and house numbers are used to locate a house.
Note that verse numbers were added to locate passages, not necessarily to find sentences. Although people often think that verse numbers label the sentences one after the other within a chapter, verse numbers don’t always correspond to what the translator identifies as sentences. For example, here is Genesis 1:1-5 with the verse numbers put into the King James text. Following it are the same verses from the New International Version and the Schocken Bible. Notice how even in this relatively simple text the translators differ in their punctuation and their grouping of words into sentences.
King James Version:
1In the beginning God created the health and the earth. 2And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
New International Version:
1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning--the first day.
Schocken Bible:1At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, 2when the earth was wild and waste,The point is that it is possible to restructure the way the words are laid out on the page without interfering with the Hebrew. As we’ve seen in these examples, translators add their organization to the text all the time.
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters--
3God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
4God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
5God called the light: Day! and the darkness he called: Night!
There was setting, there was dawning: one day.
One way of restructuring Genesis 1 is by redefining the chapter break. Just as there are differences between translations in how to structure the sentences, so there can be differences between translations in where the chapter breaks fall. Look at the end of the first chapter of Genesis and the first part of the second chapter, both according to the King James Version (the verse numbers are left in for reference):30And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.The King James Version puts the chapter break between “And the evening and the morning were the sixth day” and “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.” But this chapter break is somewhat controversial. A number of respected commentators believe it makes more sense to put the break after the completion of the seven days. The first chapter is carefully structured on the basis of days, building up to the seventh and last day. It makes sense to put all of the creation days into the first chapter.
31And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
2And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
3And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.
4These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,
5And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
But where exactly should the chapter break fall? Some scholars put the break right after Genesis 2:3. Others put the chapter break right after Genesis 2:4. But the scholarly division that we will use puts the break in the middle of what the King James Version calls verse 4.4 (Even the translators of the King James Version seemed a trifle hesitant about where the breaks should go; these translators didn’t insert a period from the start of verse 4 to the end of verse 5.) So it is not inconsistent with the original text to insert a chapter break after the words that summarize the days and before the words that introduce a more detailed look at the arrival of human beings.5
This last approach, using spacing to show the break between the two chapters and using again the language of the King James Version, would look like this:And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.The transition is a little smoother in the Jerusalem Bible, which puts the break where we do:
In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.Such were the origins of heaven and earth when they were created.The Schocken Bible tries to stay closer than usual to the original Hebrew, so the English may sound a little strange to us, but this version also puts the chapter break in the middle of verse 4:
At the time when Yahweh God made earth and heaven there was as yet no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant yet sprung up, for Yahweh God had not sent rain on the earth, nor was there any man to till the soil.These are the begettings of the heavens and the earth: their being created.
At the time of YHWH, God’s making of earth and heaven, no bush of the field was yet on earth, no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for YHWH, God, had not made it rain upon earth, and there was no human/adam to till the soil/adama.
By this time the careful reader will have noticed that this is the second time we’ve looked at three different translations of the same Hebrew passage. The translations start with the same Hebrew words yet are very different. The reader might well wonder: If the translators are starting with the same text, why aren’t they using the same English words? This question leads to a discussion about the process of translation.
General Approaches to Translation
It is a common misunderstanding to think that Old Testament translation is simply a matter of replacing Hebrew words with English ones. The resulting text would be word for word the same as the Hebrew text, only now it would be in English. But translation is not that simple. As you will see, the mental exercise involved in translating is similar to the mental exercise involved in writing a commentary. In fact, it is not unreasonable to think of a translation as a kind of commentary.
The first problem facing translators is that it is seldom easy to be sure what another person is saying. For example, the next time you leave a meeting or a lecture, ask those around you what they thought the speakers said. There is generally a difference in views; sometimes the differences can be startling. And these striking differences are happening when the speakers and listeners are all speaking the same language, at the same time and in the same culture.
The basic problem of understanding is greatly compounded when a person is translating from one language to another, from one culture to another and from one era to another. To get an idea of how challenging this might be, let’s look at some methods of translation.
One approach to translation is the literal approach. In its strictest sense, a literal translation tries to translate one language into another language word for word.
The literal approach assumes that there is a corresponding word in the new language, but sometimes there isn’t.6 Important meanings might be lost if the recipient language had only “house” and didn’t have words for “shack,” “cottage,” “mansion” or “palace.” Or suppose that words in the recipient language had connotations that words in the original language did not have. Imagine the difficulty of translating “Holy Spirit” into a language in which all the words for “spirit” carry connotations of evil or malevolent beings.
But even between languages with a lot in common--French and English, say7--a literal approach does not always produce good results. The perfectly proper French expression la maison rouge becomes an improper “the house red” in English.
The literal approach works best for languages whose roots and structures are similar, but even with similar languages, a literal approach may not do a good job with translating idiomatic expressions. Take the expression common in the United States: “What’s up?” Translating that expression word for word into another language would not tell the foreign reader that the American speaker was saying, “What is happening with you?” or even, “Hello.” Another example might be the expression “Out of sight, out of mind.” Translated literally, it might be rendered in another language as “invisible lunatic.”
The usefulness of the translation goes downhill if the structures in the two languages are different. Preciseness and clarity in the original language may be lost if comparable forms are not found in the new language. For example, suppose a French person said, “These candies are for you.” Is the gift just for the loved one? Or does the gift include the people standing with the loved one? A reader of the English version can only guess. But a reader of the original French would know immediately, because the French speaker would have used either a singular “you” or a plural “you.”
Given challenges such as the “what’s up?” problem, a number of translators have concluded that it is better to translate passages into words that convey what the speaker meant instead of into words that translate what the speaker said. This is the thinking behind the school of translation called free translation or paraphrase translation. This approach tries to render the thought behind the original statement into words that the speaker might have used if he or she been speaking today in English, using current English expressions.
Because the words in a free translation can be so different from those used by the original speaker, however, there is greater risk to the reader if the translator didn’t really understand what the speaker was saying. There is also a greater risk that the words the reader sees are the message according to the translator, not the message according to the original speaker.
Sometimes called the dynamic equivalence school of translation, a third approach attempts to strike a balance between the literal approach and the paraphrase.
To give you a sense of how these different schools of translation might treat the same text, here are three translations of Genesis 1:31:
Literal approach (New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures [NWT]):After that God saw everything he had made and, look! [it was] very good. And there came to be evening and there came to be morning, a sixth day.Paraphrase approach (New Living Translation [NLT]):Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was excellent in every way. This all happened on the sixth day.Dynamic equivalence (Jerusalem Bible [JB]):God saw all that he had made, and indeed it was very good. Evening came and morning came: the sixth day.
As you look over these examples, you will see how vulnerable readers are to the choices that translators make. In fact, this vulnerability can be seen in the writings of as serious a Christian thinker as Augustine. The Old Latin translation he was using had chosen to render a verse (Ecclus 18:1) as “He who lives forever created all things together” using the Latin word simul for “together.” Those who recognize the root for “simultaneously” will immediately see why Augustine took this verse to mean that God created everything all at the same time. Because of that misunderstanding, Augustine in The Literal Meaning of Genesis put significant effort into trying to reconcile the six days of creation with the notion of a simultaneous creation.8 However, a better translation of that later verse would have been “He who lives for ever created all the universe” (JB). Augustine spent considerable effort trying to reconcile a conflict that did not exist.
There are a couple of useful points to draw from this. First, it is better to read several translations than to confine oneself to only one. Second, if we have problems with the creation account in Genesis, the problem may lie not with the biblical text but in our translation of it.
Translation of Verbs
Perhaps the most challenging translation problem for our understanding of Genesis 1 is the translation of its Hebrew verbs. Our English translations, for the most part, use past tense verbs:And God said, let there be light: and there was light. (Gen 1:3 KJV)It sounds very much like everything happened all at once and was over with all at once.
But there is reason to believe the Hebrew verbs may not have been saying that. A number of scholars have argued that ancient Hebrew verbs did not have past, present and future tenses, as English verbs do. Instead, Hebrew verbs signaled either that the action was complete (called the perfect tense) or that the action was incomplete (the imperfect tense).9 For example, the perfect tense would be used for “I punched him in the nose.” (The action was completed.) The imperfect tense would be used for actions that continued over time (e.g., “The grass grew during the summer”) or actions that repeated periodically (e.g., “We meet every Monday morning”). It is the context that tells the reader whether the action is continuous or periodic. The reader also deduces whether the action, complete or incomplete, was past, present or future from the context, not the verb tense.
Figuring out when an action happened from its context may sound odd at first, but it is not that foreign to us. Consider the following English dialogue:Roger (grandly and with flourish): “Tomorrow I go to avenge your honor!”The present “I go” is used in the first sentence, but it speaks of an action to take place in the future. The future “I will go” is used in the last sentence to signal an action so close to taking place as to be practically present. We know clearly when these actions are taking place, but we know it from the context, not from the verb tense.
Anne (anguished): “But, Roger, my honor is in tatters now!”
Roger: “All right, I will go to avenge your honor now!”
How does this affect our understanding of Genesis 1? Let’s look again at the King James Version of Genesis 1:3:And God said, let there be light: and there was light.Now look at the same verse from another translation that tries to capture the imperfect sense of the Hebrew verbs:10Afterward God proceeded to say, “Let there be light”; and gradually light came into existence.The Hebrew verbs aren’t saying that everything happened all at once; instead they are consistent with actions that happened over time.11
This may be Augustine’s simul problem all over again. English-speaking Christians have tried to reconcile their impression that the Bible speaks of sudden, massive miracles with physical evidence that speaks of gradual formation, when there may be no conflict. Like Augustine, we may merely have been working from an incomplete translation. As we will argue later, the Hebrew text uses verbs that are compatible with a creation continued over time.
Hebrew verb translation affects not only our perception of duration but also our understanding of creation’s sequence. Let’s take, for example, the sequence puzzle in Genesis 1. Genesis 1:11-12 speaks of the creation of plants. Then Genesis 1:14-18 speaks of the creation of the sun, moon and stars. Does the Bible mean to say that plants were created before the sun, the moon and the stars?
Remember that with Hebrew verbs, the when of the verb--past, present or future--is figured out from its context. This verbal flexibility gives the translator a choice of several English verb tenses without contradicting the Hebrew text. The King James translators chose a completed, past tense to render this portion of Genesis 1:16, even inserting a past “he made” that wasn’t in the Hebrew:And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.However, it is also possible to translate this verse as follows:God had made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars also.12That is, God had made the sun and the moon prior to the creation of plants, but the creation of the sun and the moon is being talked about in this verse, where it makes logical sense.
There is a logical structure to the explanation in Genesis 1, a structure that we will pursue in chapter six when we talk about creation days. But in this discussion, it is enough to say that most English texts, with their “one and done” past tense verbs, create an impression of sudden, massive miracles that may not be an accurate reflection of the original Hebrew text.
Nouns and the Meaning of “Day”
While we’re reflecting on the meaning of Hebrew verbs, it is worth pointing out that there may be more flexibility built into some Hebrew nouns too. One can be a little too insistent on precise English meanings of words from another tongue.
Consider, for example, Acts 10:39 (NAB), in which Peter speaks about Jesus’ death:We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and [in] Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
Those familiar with American Westerns might think it sounds like Jesus was suspended from a tree limb by a hangman’s noose. But we don’t have arguments about whether the Scriptures are conflicting: Was Jesus hanged or was he crucified? Did his death come on a tree or on a cross? We know that crucifixion on a cross is what Peter is talking about when he says “hanged on a tree.”
This is not an analogy, and this is not poetry; this is a broader understanding of the words being used. The terms hanged and tree, even though they also have more specific meanings, are broad enough to include nails and a wooden cross.
Similarly, about one hundred years ago in the United States, the word butter meant a kind of consistency; it did not mean “the bread spread you get from a cow.” In fact, the term “cow butter” was used to identify the dairy product and to distinguish the dairy product from other kinds of butters like peach butter and apple butter (you can still find fruit butters in grocery stores). To read a text from only a generation or two ago and assume that everywhere it says “butter” it means “cow butter” is to misunderstand how broad the meaning of the term butter could be.
Now consider the word day. You will hear arguments that “day” means a twenty-four-hour day and that to interpret the word any other way is to shove aside the plain meaning of Scripture in order to pursue ephemeral trails of perverse fancy.
And yet Genesis 1 uses “day” (yom) to mean at least four different things in these verses alone. It is not necessary to poke about in other books of the Bible to find different meanings and then try to read them back into Genesis; there are several different meanings within Genesis 1. And in at least two places, two meanings of “day” are used in the same verse. (In the examples given below, the King James translation is used; verse numbers are included for ready reference.)
In Genesis 1, “day” is used to signify
1. A twelve-hour day, that is, only the period of daylight.5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.2. Potentially the twenty-four-hour day that many people insist on.13 These are the verses that speak of “And the evening and the morning were the x day.”
14a And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night:
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also.
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
3. A period of time. This use is demonstrated in phrases like “in Queen Victoria’s day.” In Genesis, we read,2:4b in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,
4. A recurring type of day, like the solstices, equinoxes and times of religious observance like Passover and Easter.14b and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
To explain this last instance a bit further, astronomy was used to locate people chronologically, to let people know where they were during the course of a year. The Hebrew can be translated as follows (JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh [JPS]):16 God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times--the days and the years”
See also the “Genesis Made New” translation:14They shall be for set times, for days and yearsThe “set times” are established times such as planting time, harvest time and religious holidays.
Notice, too, that Genesis 1:14 shows up twice in the list of different meanings for “day.” This is one of the two verses that uses “day” in two senses. The first “day” is used in the sense of a twelve-hour day; the second “day” is used in the set-times sense. The whole verse in the King James translation reads:And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and yearsThe second verse that uses “day” in two senses is Genesis 1:5. The first “day” is a twelve-hour day; the second “day” is arguably a twenty-four-hour day. The whole verse in the King James translation isAnd God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.Finally, let us suggest another use of “day”: the concept of a marker day, signaled for us in the seventh day.2:2 And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.For a long time, readers of Scripture have noticed that this day is special. It doesn’t connect to the same recitation about “evening and morning,” as do the other numbered days. Some biblical interpreters have even argued that this “day” isn’t over yet. But we don’t need to go that far. Suffice it to say that this seventh day has less to tell us about a twenty-four-hour period and more to tell us about
2:3 And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.
1. Religious observance. It is on this day that the sabbath observance is based:Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex 20:8-10 NIV Study Bible)
2. Days used to celebrate or mark things that did not occur inside them. In the United States, Labor Day celebrates the work that people do, even though most people do not work on Labor Day. In a similar way, the seventh day celebrates the work of creation.
Clearly, then, Genesis 1 uses the Hebrew yom to mean several different things. To insist that the word means only “a twenty-four-hour period” is to miss some of the richness and meaning of the original text.
Understanding the viewpoint of a text makes all the difference in the world when a reader tries to understand the meaning of a text. For example, a description of an elephant from the front is going to sound inaccurate to someone looking at the elephant from behind. Or describing cars as “little black dots” will sound laughably wrong to someone standing beside a fancy red sports car, but it sounds accurate from the point of view of a transcontinental airplane passenger in midflight. Just so, it is important to appreciate the viewpoint that is used in Genesis 1.
Consider also the vast range of viewpoints that people have brought to the text. In the earliest times, the only viewpoint people would have known was a ground’s-eye view. Then, as early theories of astronomy took shape, people could think about the world from the viewpoint of someone looking down on the solar system with its orbiting spheres. As scientific observation pushed back the boundaries of the known universe in time and space, the cultural viewpoint of creation would be that of limitless space, with the earth orbiting a mediocre star in a mediocre galaxy in one little corner of a vastness populated with countless stars, galaxies, nebulae and black holes. Quite a difference from the ground’s-eye view!
And that is possibly why Genesis 1 may sound odd or inaccurate to modern readers. Modern readers are accustomed to creation accounts written from the viewpoint of outer space; Genesis 1 is told from the viewpoint of the earth’s surface.
How do we know that Genesis 1 is told from the viewpoint of the earth’s surface? First, consider the original audience. They were listening to Scripture long before modern theories of Western astronomy were developed. There would have been no reason for God to explain his creation in terms of outer space and black holes and other things that the audience could not possibly comprehend. The point of Genesis 1 is that God created everything. Therefore God would have explained creation in the context of what his listeners would have considered everything--the earth and the sky.
Note too that this is a viewpoint even modern readers can understand, once they realize the perspective being taken. It is a viewpoint that everyone down through the ages could relate to.
Now let’s consider the evidence from the text that it is being told from a ground’s-eye view.
1. Our mind’s eye is taken to the earth’s surface several times in Genesis 1:2 (NIV Study Bible): “Now the earth was,” “darkness was over the surface of the deep” and “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
2. The only place where a separation between “day” and “night” makes sense is the earth’s surface. Likewise, the only place where an evening followed by a morning would make one day is at the earth’s surface. This does not happen in outer space.
3. The only place that the sky would look like an “expanse” (NIV Study Bible, JPS), a “firmament” (KJV, RSV), a “vault”15 or a “dome” (Schocken Bible) would be from the earth’s surface.
4. The only place where the sun and the moon would look like a “greater light” and a “lesser light” would be at the earth’s surface.
5. The only place where the moon would appear to be a greater light than the stars would be at the earth’s surface.
Since the account is being told from a ground’s-eye view, Genesis 1 does not start with anything like trying to describe the big bang. There would be no reason to; such an explanation would have been nonsensical to almost all generations of humankind except for those who have been alive since the mid-1900s or so.
Given this ground-level viewpoint, then, it is reasonable to consider Genesis 1:1 (KJV) as a kind of summary title, introducing the account to follow:In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth16
while Genesis 1:2 (KJV) sets the stage by orienting the reader to the viewpoint of the text, the earth’s surface:And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.This verse seems to be going out of its way to say “now’s when we’re starting the account, and right here.” Three times it refers to “here”: the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. This verse is not setting the stage for its account at some distant point in limitless, empty space.
Thus Genesis 1 picks up the account at what we might consider the middle: after the creation of the universe as we know it but with the creation of our immediate world as the original hearers would have known it.
Chapter 2: Background Concepts
1“Biblical Literature and Its Critical Interpretation,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1994), 14:908. See also R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969), 256.
2 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1993), 41-42.
3 S. L. Greenslade, ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 434.
4 The first half of Genesis 2:4 is commonly called Genesis 2:4a while the second half is, logically, called Genesis 2:4b.
5 Another variation is to break Genesis 2:4 into 2:4a and 2:4b but still put both halves in Genesis 2. Genesis 2:4a is used as the title of the chapter, while Genesis 2:4b is merged into Genesis 2:5. See J. Wash Watts, A Distinctive Translation of Genesis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1963), 135-36; see also 20. This approach stems from the observation that the nine other times that the phrase “these are the generations of” is used in Genesis, it is used as a title to the section that follows: “These are the generations of Noah” (Gen 6:9), “These are the generations of Isaac” (Gen 25:19), and “These are the generations of Jacob” (Gen 37:2).
6 For amusing examples, see Howard Rheingold, They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases (Louisville, Ky.: Sarabande Books, 2000).
7 French and English are thought to derive from IndoEuropean, both languages have been significantly influenced by Latin, and English has incorporated a number of words with French roots.
8 See Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghart and Thomas Comerford Lawler, eds., Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 41, St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, S.J. (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 141-50. A similar problem happened in Genesis 1:16 with the Old Latin translation Augustine was using of the Greek Septuagint. The Old Latin version used a word that could mean either “begin” or “rule” (“the greater light to begin the day and the smaller light to begin the night”). The Hebrew makes it clear it should be “rule.” This second translation problem was not, however, as much of a serious theological struggle as the first example. Ibid, 235.
9 S. R. Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew and Some Other Syntactical Questions (1892; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), particularly 1-12. See also Page H. Kelley, Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), 83, 85-86, 129-30.
10 Watts, A Distinctive Translation of Genesis, 17.
11 Some interpreters will object,
explaining that the vav consecutive (also known as the vav conversive)
changes the subsequent imperfect verbs into perfect verbs. That is, if
a narrative starts with a perfect verb and the subsequent clauses are joined
with “and” (vav), then the imperfect verbs become perfect verbs (see Kelley,
Biblical Hebrew, 145). But that grammatical point would bear more on an
argument about whether the acts of creation are completed or are still
continuing. We accept that the acts of creation are now completed; we’re
arguing that they weren’t completed instantaneously.
Other interpreters would object that the narrative does not begin with a perfect verb. Instead of “In the beginning God created” (RSV), some respected translations start “When God began to create” (JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh) or “At the beginning of God’s creating” (Shocken Bible). And so, technically speaking, the vav conversive may not apply.
But we don’t get into any of this because it is too technical for the simple point we’re trying to make: the Hebrew verbs do not require an instantaneous fulfillment of the creation commands.
12 We get to this revised translation by substituting “had made” for “made” and by deleting the “he made” that wasn’t in the Hebrew.
13 These verses lend themselves to the insistence on the twenty-four-hour day, although there have been a number of different interpretations of the numbered creation days. There are, for example, the creation days as fiat days--the days that God gave the command, with the fulfillment coming later (suggested in 1902 by Frederick Hugh Capron); the opening days, when the work started but not when it was completed (suggested in 1793 by Alexander Geddes); or completion days or essential-completion days, when the work of creation was essentially completed (suggested in 1875 by Charles B. Warring).
14 Mary Phil Korsak, At the Start: Genesis Made New (New York: Doubleday, 1993).
15 Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 1996).
16 This verse also contains a wonderfully
subtle confirmation of the message in the Hebrew. In the Hebrew, the text
could also be understood as “In the beginning, God--created were the heavens
and the earth.” That is, God is uncreated, always existing. The heavens
and the earth were not always existing--a conclusion supported by current
astronomical theory--but were created.
The Riddle of Genesis, Chapter 2