Updating the Translation
The second step to solving the riddles of duration and sequence is to
update the translation. We would like to suggest ten changes from the King
James Version to avoid being sidetracked by the associations we attach
to this version’s old English. All of these changes, except for the change
to “daylight,” are already in scholarly literature.
The Expanse That Separates the Waters
The first change has to do with the description of the sky. The King James Version of Genesis 1:6-7 uses the term firmament when it introduces the separation between the earth’s surface and the atmosphere:And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
The trouble is that modern readers read “firmament” and think “firm,” which brings up visions of a myth-based dome or a prehistoric view of the earth as something akin to a gigantic covered football stadium. Then they’re off doing analyses of ancient cultures’ cosmological views.1 Those studies are fine, but they’re beside the point. Worse, they leave people with the mistaken impression that Genesis 1 is nothing more than another ancient cultural myth.
But stripped of the myth-inspiring old-English translation, Genesis 1 is clear as a factual account. The simple, factual concept being dealt with in this verse is the separation of the earth’s surface from the atmosphere, a separation that creates the sky. So the New International Version’s use of “expanse” in Genesis 1:6-7 is much more helpful:Finally, it should be pointed out that the separation of a planet’s surface from its atmosphere is not something to be taken for granted. While our knowledge of the other planets continues to grow, at least three planets appear to have no real separation between the planet’s surface and its atmosphere: Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune.And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. And God called the expanse “sky.”
“Gave” Instead of “Set”
The second change is related to the first. The King James Version of Genesis 1:17,is too likely to conjure up visions of God imbedding white decorator lights in the hard dome of heaven; in other words, to sound too mythlike to modern readers. But the original Hebrew that is translated as “set” is Nathan, or “give.” So “gave” is not only a less misleading translation but also is more in tune with the original language:And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth
And God gave them in the expanse of the heaven, to shine upon the earth.2
Call the Sky “Sky”
The third change is also related and very straightforward. That change is to call the sky, “sky.”
The King James Version uses the term heaven in Genesis 1:8:which even now is often used to mean “sky,” as in “to study the heavens.” But for a number of people the term heaven conjures up such vivid images of white robes, halos and harps that it distracts them from the intended meaning here, “sky.” So again we follow the New International Version:And God called the firmament Heaven
And God called the expanse “sky.”
Call the Land “Land”
This same approach--to call things by their contemporary common names--is also behind the fourth change, “earth” to “land.”
The word earth has been teamed with the word planet so often in popular contemporary writings, as in Planet Earth, that it’s all but impossible for modern readers to see “earth” in this context without thinking in terms of the third planet from the sun in a solar system in a corner of the galaxy. (In other contexts “earth” still carries the meaning of “dirt” or “ground,” particularly among people who enjoy gardening.)
So when the King James Version of Genesis 1:10 says:modern readers tend to think of the creation of the planet per se. But what Genesis is talking about here is the separation of wet and dry into seas and land. Again, the New International Version is preferable:And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was goodThere is an exception to this proposed language change, though. Where “earth” is used as part of the phrase “heaven and earth” or “heavens and earth,” we are not changing it, nor are we changing “heavens.” That is because we understand this phrase to have a more general meaning than “sky and land.” We believe it means “everything above and everything below” or “everything there is.” Hence the title verse for Genesis 1 remains:And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.”3
IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH
The Type of Light
The fifth change is to change the word light to “daylight.” This change does not come from other Bible translations, so it will take a bit more explaining.
Genesis 1:3 (KJV)has been taken to mean the creation of light per se.4 But that has confused people because it fosters the impression that the Genesis account goes back to the big bang. If the account did go back that far, then there are certain problems in the layout of the text. That is, Genesis 1:2 (KJV) sets a stage that already contains matter:And God said, Let there be light: and there was lightPositing the preexistence of matter, especially stuff as common and familiar as water, could pose a problem to some philosophers because it is currently thought that matter and light came into existence at approximately the same time.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.
The problem goes away when one appreciates the role that Genesis 1:2 is playing. It focuses our attention here, in the corner of the universe that humankind inhabits. The account describes the creation of our world as we know it, from the point of view of the earth’s surface, where the vast majority of human observers have been. It is not setting the stage at a distance and a time that would have been unintelligible to most of humankind.
So the kind of light Genesis 1:3 talks about is not the creation of light per se but the arrival of daylight at the earth’s surface. Just as we substituted the word sky when Genesis talks about the sky and substituted the word land when Genesis talks about the land, we now substitute the word daylight when Genesis talks about daylight:There is even textual evidence for this--that is what God calls it (Gen 1:5 KJV).And God said, Let there be daylight: and there was daylight.To put all the verses (Gen 1:3-5) together:And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.Notice that God isn’t calling all of light “Day,” only the light that alternates with the darkness of night. This is something the original hearers would have recognized. The ancients knew other forms of light, including wood/charcoal fires, oil lamps, moonlight and starlight. A few verses later, the Genesis account specifically refers to the sun, the moon and the stars as “lights.” So the action in Genesis 1:3-5 is not the creation and naming of all light per se but the arrival of daylight at the earth’s surface and the creation of alternating periods of light and dark.And God said, Let there be daylight: and there was daylight. And God saw the daylight, that it was good: and God divided the daylight from the darkness. And God called the daylight Day, and the darkness he called Night.
The arrival of daylight and the creation of days may sound too ordinary to modern readers used to thinking of Genesis 1:3 as announcing something as profound as the creation of light. But that is because days happen with such regularity that we take them for granted without realizing what a special gift they are. When the sun’s rays first hit the forming earth, there may not have been any “day” or “night.” Remember that as the moon goes around the earth, the moon’s rotation on its axis lines up exactly with its orbital motion so that the same side of the moon is always facing the earth. What if that happened to us? What if the same side of the earth always faced the sun? One side of the earth would be excruciatingly hot and the other side would be excruciatingly cold; life as we know it could not exist.
Or what if the earth’s rotation were slow enough that the alternating days and nights took too long for the necessary moderation in surface temperature? One day on Mercury takes fifty-nine of our days, and one day on Venus is almost twice Mercury’s. Conversely, the days on Jupiter and Saturn take only about ten hours apiece. And while Uranus’s day is approximately seventeen hours long, it is tipped so far over that once the sun rises at Uranus’s north pole, it stays there for forty-two of our years!
So when one considers that the right amount of day and night is necessary to create a livable earth--and that this combination is so rare even in our solar system--the creation of alternating periods of light and dark is profound and miraculous indeed.
The Way Day 1 Is Numbered
This brings us to the sixth change, which predates the King James Version. When William Tyndale made the first English translation of the Hebrew Old Testament in 1530,5 he translated part of Genesis 1:5 as “So of the evening and morning was made the first day.” This thought is continued in an 1888 translation6 “and evening proceeded to be [future] and morning proceeded to be [future] Day one.” And so we go from the King James Version:to:And the evening and the morning were the first day.Going from “the first day” to “day one” might sound like we are trifling with semantics, but there is a big difference. Most readers of this verse assume that the first day starts with the first moment in time. For many people at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that would mean the first twenty-four hours after the big bang.7And the evening and the morning were day one.
“Day one,” by contrast, means “we’re starting the count now.” The Genesis account doesn’t speak to the big bang or to anything like that; the concepts wouldn’t have made sense to the bulk of humankind over the millennia. The Genesis account speaks to creation from the point of view of the earth’s surface. But the account has to start somewhere in the flow of time, and the announcement in Genesis 1:5 is that we are starting the count here with day one.
This would be similar to a car trip that takes you past telephone pole after telephone pole for miles and miles and miles. At some point, you decide it suits your purpose to keep track of the telephone poles. You can’t go back to the beginning of the line; you’re too far down. So you pick a pole, call it Pole One and keep track from there.
Or, to give a more time-oriented example, we now number our years relative to year one, even though it is clear that there were plenty of years before it. Time is measured relative to year one A.D. or, in more recent parlance, year one C.E. (for common era).
There are several grounds of support for this view that the first day is day one. The Tyndale translation is encouraging because Tyndale’s view of this verse--“So of the evening and morning was made the first day” (emphasis added)--sounds so much like “So we start counting time here.”
Second, we are told that the original Hebrew literally says “one” rather than “first.”8
Third--and this gets a little metaphysical--time is said to begin when anything happens. That is, if there is no movement, if there are no events, then there is no time. But several things happen before Genesis 1:5 announces day one. God’s Spirit hovers in Genesis 1:2. God said, “Let there be light” in Genesis 1:3. God separated the light from the darkness in Genesis 1:4. God named the light and the darkness in Genesis 1:5. With all these events happening, it is clear that time has already started before the announcement of day one. A bunch of those telephone poles have gone by, and, when daylight is now separated from darkness such that there can be said to be a day (remember, “days” are not a meaningful way to measure time in limitless space), then here is where we’re starting the count.
NOW the Earth Was Without Form
Continuing this theme, then, we change the King James Version’s “And the earth was without form and void” to “Now the earth was without form and void” because this change helps to emphasize the here-and-now, stage-setting nature of Genesis 1:2.
This change is not arbitrary or far-fetched. The New International Version uses “now”:Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters
and even the King James translators used “now” instead of “and” for this same Hebrew word in Genesis 3:1:Now the serpent was more subtile than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.
Adjust the Verb Tense
The eighth change has to do with adjusting the English verb tense used in the discussion of the sun, moon and stars.
The earlier discussion about daylight tends to sharpen the sequence question. How can Genesis be talking about daylight in Genesis 1:3 if the sun isn’t created until Genesis 1:16?
But the impression that the sun was not created until Genesis 1:16 is a translation problem with verb tense. Remember (see chap. 2) that Hebrew verbs are either perfect or imperfect; that is, they describe either completed actions or actions that are incomplete. The when--past, present or future--is deduced from the context. Even the ancients would have understood the sun as being the source of daylight.
Second, the Hebrew verb here is a form of “make” instead of “create.” That is, the sun, moon and stars were not created in Genesis 1:16.
Putting these clues together, then, it is reasonable to translate the verb as pluperfect (that is, an action that was completed in the past):In the second part of the verse (“he had made the stars also”) we are adjusting the tense of a verb that doesn’t exist in the Hebrew. The Hebrew of this part of the verse reads “and the stars” (JPS, Schocken Bible). So we will pick up on the translation that is a little closer to the original and therefore adjust the tense of only one verb:And God had made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he had made the stars also.Note that we are not changing the Hebrew verb, only the English translation of it. The King James translators did this seven times in Genesis 1. (These examples are underlined, because the King James Version uses italics for words not found in the original Hebrew.)And 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.
1. Genesis 1:29: And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed: to you it shall be for meat.
2. Genesis 1:30: And 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.
3. Genesis 1:31: And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
4. Genesis 2:1: Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
5. Genesis 2:2a: And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made;
6. Genesis 2:2b: and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
7. Genesis 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.
These past tenses are not in the Hebrew; the context determines whether the action is past, present or future. Look, for example, at the New International Version translation of Genesis 1:29-30, which describes the provision of food:Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground--everything that has the breath of life in it--I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Notice the “I give” instead of the King James Version’s “I have given” in Genesis 1:29-30. The Hebrew verbs aren’t in the pluperfect, because the Hebrew didn’t have a pluperfect. But the pluperfect was a reasonable choice for an English translation because that’s what the translators felt the context suggested. Notice that the New International Version uses the pluperfect in Genesis 1:31:That is to say, the pluperfect is a valid way of translating the Hebrew when the context suggests it. And the context suggests it in the discussion of the sun, moon and stars.God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
“It Came to Be So”
This discussion of timing leads to the ninth change, updating “it was so” to “it came to be so.”
As we discussed (chaps. 2, 4), the Hebrew verbs communicate a sense of happening over time, which our English verbs do not. But rather than get into extensive changes with the English verbs--even the short passages recited in chapter four sound rather awkward--we can capture the flavor if we change “it was so” to “it came to be so.”
“Fill” Instead of “Replenish”
The tenth change is another situation of going from an old word form to a current word. The King James Version uses the word replenish in Genesis 1:28:And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it
Unfortunately the King James choice of “replenish” has sounded to a number of people like “refill,” and consequently this word choice has triggered some unhelpful speculation.
The original Hebrew was “fill,” not “refill.” But this hardly bears arguing, because almost any modern translation--Jewish Publication Society, the New International Version, the New American Bible, or the Revised Standard Version--uses “fill” in this verse.
Both Types of Changes: Organization and Language
Here, then, is Genesis 1 restated with the structural changes discussed in chapter four combined with the language changes laid out in this chapter.
IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH
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 daylight:
and there was daylight.And God saw the daylight, that it was good:
and God divided the daylight from the darkness.
And God called the daylight Day,
and the darkness he called Night.
And the evening and the morning were day one.
And God said,
Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters,
and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And it came to be so.And God made the expanse,
and divided the waters which were under the expanse
from the waters which were above the expanse.
And God called the expanse Sky.
And God saw that it was good.
And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said,
Let the waters under the sky be gathered together unto one place,
and let the dry land appear:
and it came to be so.And God said,And God called the dry land Land;
and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas:
and God saw that it was good.
Let the land bring forth grass, and the herb yielding seed,
and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind,
whose seed is in itself, upon the land:
and it came to be so.And the land brought forth grass,
and herb yielding seed after his kind,
and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind:
and God saw that it was good.
And the evening and the morning were the third day.
And God said,
Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to divide the day from the night;
and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
And let them be for lights in the expanse of the sky to give light upon the land:
and it came to be so.And God said,And 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.
And God gave them in the expanse of the sky
to shine upon the land,
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.
And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life,
and fowl that may fly above the land in the open expanse of sky.
And it came to be so.And God said,And God created great whales,
and every living creature that moveth,
which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind,
and every winged fowl after his kind:
and God saw that it was good.
And God blessed them, saying,
Be fruitful, and multiply,
and fill the waters in the seas,
and let the fowl multiply in the land.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
Let the land bring forth the living creature after his kind,
cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the land after his kind:
and it came to be so.And God made the beast of the land after his kind,
and cattle after their kind,
and every thing that creepeth upon the land after his kind:
and God saw that it was good.
And God said,
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the land, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the land.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.It is clear, then, that Genesis 1 resonates fully in the spiritual realm and in the physical realm. Organized by the acts of creation, the text explains how the world came to be as we know it in a way that is accurate as to God’s role and consistent with the facts of the physical world as we know them. In simple yet majestic and powerful prose it communicates on both these levels in a way that resonates across the many worldviews that humankind has held down through the ages and in a way that resonates across the many languages it has been translated into.9 It does not compress the physical world’s response to God’s commands into mere hours but instead demonstrates that God’s instructions were fully carried out and continue to be obeyed even now.And God blessed them,Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.
and God said unto them,
Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the land, and subdue it:
and have dominion over the fish of the sea,
and over the fowl of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the land.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed,
which is upon the face of all the land,
and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed;
to you it shall be for food.
And to every beast of the land,
and to every fowl of the air,
and to every thing that creepeth upon the land, wherein there is life,
I have given every green herb for food:
and it came to be so.
And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold,
it was very good.
And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
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.
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 of the earth when they were created.
Organized by the acts of creation, the text is clear. But what about the days? We discuss the days in the next chapter.
Chapter 5: Updating the Translation
1 Bruce Vawter, C.M., A Path Through Genesis (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1956), 40-41.
2 The careful reader will have noticed that we changed “give light” to “shine” in this verse (see, for example, JPS). That is because the Hebrew verb used here is not “give” but a completely different verb (see John R. Kohlenberger III, The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1987], 2).
3 Let’s consider the divine instructions
for the water to be gathered in “one place.” There are several ways to
look at this. One view is to associate this action with the period during
earth’s history when it is thought that all of the land was part of one
big continent, Pangea, which would mean that all of the water was part
of one big ocean. A related view would be to look at a world map or globe
of the continents and observe that all of the oceans are linked and are
therefore one. But our preferred view is that this verse is an explanation
of concept, not of number. That is, what God is saying is, roughly, “Let
the water and the ground be separated instead of being mixed together in
a kind of swampy mess.” Evidence for this can be found in the King James
acknowledgment that the word land is not in the original Hebrew:
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas. (Gen 1:9-10)
In other words, what is happening here is a concept: just as God separated light from dark and then separated sky from surface, God is separating “wet” from “dry.” The “dry” stuff he then goes on to call “land.”
4 See, for example, Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, N.J.: KTAV, 1990).
5 To readers who are thinking, “What about John Wycliffe?” Wycliffe’s was the first English Bible (c. 1380), but it was a translation of the Latin Vulgate, not of the Hebrew.
6 Benjamin Wills Newton, The Altered Translation of Genesis (London: 1888).
7 The authors are not opining on whether there was a big bang or whether there wasn’t. We are only making reference to a concept that would be the frame of reference for most modern readers.
8 Everett Fox, The Schocken Bible, vol. 1, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken, 1995), 13. See also JPS Hebrew-Jewish Tanakh (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 1, n. c. See also Mary Phil Korsak, At the Start: Genesis Made New (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 1.
9 This ability to communicate powerfully
and directly across cultures, across languages and down through thousands
of years is enough to inspire reverential awe. Anyone who has wrestled
with the much simpler task of writing a paragraph that communicates clearly
without crossing any boundaries?a simple paragraph that communicates to
contemporaries in place, culture and time?is in a position to appreciate
what an overwhelming writing achievement Genesis 1 represents.
The Riddle of Genesis, Chapter 5