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?