In the Beginning – Translating Genesis 1:1-3

Michelangelo's Creation

Michelangelo's Creation, strictly this comes later, but it is a beautiful piece of art!

In the previous post I alluded to the beginning of Genesis, and how it is translated.

The form we’re most used to reading is something like this:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 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 God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

– Gen 1:1-3 (NIV)

This is an okay (maybe B- grade) translation, but we could do better. Here’s another attempt:

When the gods began to create the heavens and the earth: the earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the breath of the gods was poised over the waters. The gods said “let there be light” and there was light.

In this translation (maybe an A- quality? 🙂 )I’ve emphasized a few things.

  • Firstly ‘God’ is plural in Hebrew. It is not, however, preceded by the definite article, so my ‘the gods’ is really no better than just ‘God’ for the translation. A lot of Christian (and Jewish) apologetics has been spent on justifying this plural form, with explanations from the ‘royal we’ to the trinity. Still the fact is that it is plural.
  • Secondly the ‘in the beginning’ form isn’t perfect. It doesn’t signify a particular instant at which the story starts, and there is no good reason to suppose that it only sets the scene for the ‘create’ verb to be the primary verb. No, in Hebrew the two words are connected: physically and conceptually. My translation is better here.
  • Thirdly I’ve removed the obviously Christian ‘Spirit of God’ (even capitalized, notice!) and replaced it by the meaning of the word: breath. This, I think, makes far more sense of the contrast between the breath being poised over the water, and then the exhalation: “let there be light”.
  • Finally I’ve restructured the phrase so it makes sense. The KJV-derived translation is jumpy. The first sentence talks about the creation, then we jump back before the creation, then forward to the moment of creation. My translation is better – it shows that the discussion of the pre-creation situation is part of the narrative. It also emphasizes, as does the original text, that this act of creation wasn’t the start of everything. There were at least four  recognizable things in the cosmos: earth (albeit formless), the deep, the waters and some space above the waters and the deep (without which the contrastive ‘over’ wouldn’t make sense).

My favourite published translation of this is by the Jewish Publication Society, which says:

When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

– Gen 1:1-3 (JPS)

I’ll give that an B+. One particular gripe I have is that it has decided that there is only one heaven now. Heaven is plural, and from other OT passages we know this isn’t just a coincidence: there was a cosmology with multiple heavens.

To go for the full A grade, I think I’d start with my translation and turn ‘God’ into the name: ‘Elohim’. Because I think it is difficult to use any combination of the word ‘god’ to give the real sense of its meaning, and sometimes it is just better to transliterate words that would otherwise be confusing.

By the time Genesis was codified and edited into its current form, the original sense of ‘elohim’ as ‘gods’ had been subsumed into it being a reference to the one true god of the Jews, the same god as Yahweh. So using it as a name is probably best. That way you can read it with the original ambiguity: between the name of an individual, and the name of a group (c.f. “when Medicins Sans Frontiers began to work in Sierra Leone…”).

When Elohim began to create the heavens and the earth: the earth was formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep; and Elohim’s breath was poised over the waters. Elohim said “let there be light” and there was light.

It strikes me that this translation is less fundamentalist-friendly than the version we’re more used to. But I can’t really put my finger on why that might be. Maybe it is just that it isn’t the form that the inerrancists normally quote. Does it strike you the same way?



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13 responses to “In the Beginning – Translating Genesis 1:1-3

  1. Are there some translations where, with controversial words like that, they just write something like:

    “When God [Elohim] began to create the heavens and the earth…”

  2. Ian

    Not for something like Elohim, I don’t think (not that I’ve seen anyway). But many translations do that for the odd word that is ambiguous. Elohim appears so many times that the translation decision would be in the translators’ preface if at all. Elohim is so universally translated ‘God’ that it wouldn’t draw a comment. It isn’t really controversial. The ‘names of God’ type translations still use ‘God’ for Elohim, they only change the word normally translated LORD (all caps).

    One of the problems with translations at all, I think, is that they make these kind of decisions on the basis of the whole bible.

    So I think there is absolutely no question that Elohim is ‘God’ a large majority of the bible. By the time of the exile, when the main text began to be written, the word had its singular, monotheistic meaning. The suspicion is that Gen 1:1 is based on earlier stories and texts, possibly dating from the time of Canaanite polytheism or henotheism. In which case it would be nice to give a sense of that process and the ambiguity it disguises. Hence my approach.

    But those kinds of evolutions are hard to depict when you treat the OT as a single monolithic text. It is hard enough keeping Christian theology out of the OT (as per the ‘Spirit of God’, capital-S) let alone picking apart the strata of OT thought.

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  5. Prometheus

    The verb is singular. Whenever the verb is singular, the word Elohim refers to the God of Israel (or at every least one god).

  6. Ian

    Yes, as I said “By the time Genesis was codified and edited into its current form, the original sense of ‘elohim’ as ‘gods’ had been subsumed into it being a reference to the one true god of the Jews, the same god as Yahweh.”

    But your comment is in the present tense, so it suggests you’re not actually engaging with the historical continuum, of which a singular Elohim is the last stage.

  7. Prometheus

    Yes, but if “gods” is a legitimate translation at all, then you need to look at the verb as it stands in the text. There is no evidence that the verb was ever plural. The fact that translations of Elohim as θεός and deus in Greek and Latin respectively gained currency, suggests that the name was understood as generically equivalent to God and not a proper name, though this is somewhat mitigated by the use of κύριος and dominus for YHWH for rather different reasons.

    As for “the historical continuum” it seems that if you are translating a particular stage of the text (i.e. the one that is attested!), that one should translate it with that stage’s understanding of the term rather than trying to revert to some theoretical pre-text understanding. It is interesting to wonder how Elohim (plural form) came to be used as a singular, but that history may not be in the writer’s mind (since the etymology of words can only be known well if one has literature attesting to earlier uses).

    Your heavens argument may be apropos, though I wonder whether you would argue something similar for “waters” which has a plural from.

  8. Ian

    There is no evidence that the verb was ever plural.

    I disagree. You’re right, clearly, in the text-critical sense, but I think there are reasons to think that this passage comes from a pre-exilic, pre-monotheistic source.

    I should be clearer about what I’m trying to say, I think. You’re rightly calling me out on it, but I think perhaps I should be clear why I both agree with you and why I’m happy with what I said.

    It comes down to figuring when a text came to be. Are we translating the post-exilic codification of the Jewish book of Genesis, here? Or are we translating a passage of ANE cosmology that would later come to be incorporated into the Jewish text? Who is the writer: the first person to compile a recognizable Genesis, the first person to compile a recognizable Elohist source*, the first person to write down the story of the creation of the elohim, or the first person to retell an ANE creation-by-separation account using the gods of the region?

    As you get down that list it gets a) harder, b) much more speculative, and c) more interesting, imho. In the same way I don’t like reading the Hebrew bible through the lens of the NT, I am inclined to want to avoid reading this passage through the lens of Torah.

    If we are primarily interested in translating the Jewish (or Christian) book of genesis, then hellenistic greek translations are a key resource, as is textual criticism on our Hebrew sources (Latin is anachronistic unless we want the Christian version). And then I agree with you wholeheartedly ‘god’ is the best translation.

    * I use ‘Elohist source’ here loosely, I’m aware of the problems with the label.

  9. Ian

    Your heavens argument may be apropos, though I wonder whether you would argue something similar for “waters” which has a plural from.

    Yes. I have no cheap theological point to make about either, so I’m inclined to be rather laid back about their grammatical number!

    I say that seriously, btw. It is obvious, I think, that the root of my concern with the translation of Elohim is theological: by engaging in this dance, I’m drawing attention to the fact that parts of Jewish scripture predates recognizable Jewish theology, let alone Christian theology. Which in turn serves my overall program to undermine common naive theologies of the bible.

    I’m under no doubt that my argument that I want to recapture something of the source is post-hoc!

  10. Prometheus

    Thank you for your clarification.

    I would agree that looking behind the text is interesting, but I would also say that any speculation is full of its own problems. In addition, one must not lose sight of the fact that somehow in this ANE culture something atypical happened: monotheism. I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this in itself is fascinating and that the text as it stands is in contrast to ANE culture (and pagan culture in general even after the time – including Greek and Roman).

    I don’t think that Latin is entirely inappropriate (i.e. Christian), since Jerome looked back to the Hebrew and he was conversant with the Jews of his day. He reflected something that would have fit comfortably into the Judaism of his day.

    All that said, thank you for your thoughtful blog.

  11. Ian

    Thanks Prometheus. I agree with the point about the development of monotheism.

    I think the most common barrier to understanding the oddness of the development, is the ubiquity of monotheism now. It is very easy to read the OT in ways that betray the story it tells. So even passages that explicitly reference a divine council, say, are skipped over or translated out of existence.

    Capturing the trajectory from the polytheism of, say, Psalm 82, to the henotheism of Exodus 20, to the clear monotheism of Deutero-Isaiah is exciting. It doesn’t diminish the world-transforming nature of the Jewish innovation at all. in fact, imho, it highlights it.

    And armed with that, then launching into the NT and seeing the gradual understanding of the early Christians that, hey this man Jesus *is God*. Makes that story more vivid to me. In a way that reading the divinity of Jesus from John’s gospel back into Mark loses, I think.

    Thanks for pushing me on this. These things deserve to be challenged and disagreed on, I think.

  12. Prometheus

    I think this post just reveals how complex the issues are.
    As for “reading John back into Mark,” the difficulty is to say that Mark didn’t see divinity in Jesus. I know he is not explicit, but Mark 4:41 suggests that he did see Jesus as divine (even if the disciples didn’t get it at the time, though they may have had an inkling that something was going on) – see Psalm 65:7; Psalm 89:9; Psalm 93:3-4; Psalm 107:29.
    That said, I think it very important to see what Mark had to say separately from what John had to say before doing theology.

    In addition, it is interesting to note the order in which the biblical books are thought to have been written. The divinity of Jesus is assumed in Romans 1, which is written (57 AD?) about the same time as Mark (late 50s early 60s? or even as late as 70? If the latter, then one would wonder why Mark, writing later, is not aware of the Pauline development). And the Christology of Romans 1 is eerily similar to that of Matthew 1, regarding divinity-humanity of Christ.

  13. Ian


    The divinity of Jesus is assumed in Romans 1, which is written (57 AD?)

    The aramaic hymn in Phil 2 is generally accepted as being pre-Paul, possibly the oldest fragment of the NT, and in it Jesus is “in the very form of God”. So yes, more complex than a strict chronology of Man becoming God. Larry Hurtado is excellent on this, I think, and nicely dispatches many of the overly simple ideas, regardless of whether you accept his ‘Binitarian’ idea at the end.

    I don’t really buy your interpretation of Mark 4:41, but there’s probably a very big rabbit hole of conversation we can go down there that would distract from the fact that I agree with the point you were making with it.

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