Table of Contents
Part VI: A Translation of Genesis
1:1 to 2:4
Genesis Chapter One
Setting the Stage:
In the beginning God created the heavens
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.
An interpretative rendering:
ORIGINALLY GOD BROUGHT INTO
BEING AND SET IN PERFECT ORDER
THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH.
BUT THE EARTH HAD BECOME
A RUIN AND A DESOLATION:
AND A PALL OF DARKNESS HUNG OVER THE SCENE OF DISASTER:
AND THE SPIRIT OF GOD MOVED MIGHTLY OVER THE FACE OF THE WATERS.
choice of this word in place of the phrase "In the beginning"
was very carefully made. Almost every commentary of an exegetical kind
on the Book of Genesis has struggled to find an appropriate phrase whereby
to represent what is wrapped up in this original Hebrew compound word
1 of 11
The trouble is that this
noun, reshith, does not have a complete meaning in itself,
but always needs some modifying word which must be supplied in
English as the context seems to require. For example, in Job
42:12 it is written, "So the Lord blessed the latter end
of Job more than his beginning." I do not think that by
"the latter end" is meant the last few moments of his
life, but rather the last few years. By contrast with "his
beginning," these latter years were blessed indeed, provided
that the word "beginning" (reshith) is not taken
to mean literally
his first birthday, but
rather the whole period prior to the catastrophes which overwhelmed
him. In other words, the word "beginning" denotes a
state rather than a moment in time.
In Proverbs 8:22, wisdom is said
to have been the Lord's possession in the beginning. Since the
Lord had no beginning in the temporal sense, it must be clear
that this is not a reference merely to a point in time. In Ecclesiastes
7:8, patience is advocated for those who wait upon the Lord so
that the "end" is better than the "beginning,"
i.e., the state of things improved with time. The idea of a moment
or point in time is not involved, but rather a later stage as
opposed to an earlier one. Israel once enjoyed a measure of prosperity
under the Judges prior to the monarchy. In Isaiah 1:26, God makes
a promise to a faithful remnant that such a period of prosperity,
still without a monarchy, would in time be restored to them.
Once more the idea is not that of a point in time, but a period
characterized by a condition or state of affairs.
There are a few cases in the Old
Testament in which a true beginning is intended, this intention
being clearly reinforced by a corresponding quotation in the
New Testament. One of these is in Psalm 102:25, a passage quoted
in Hebrew 1:10 in such a way as to make it pretty clear that
we are dealing here with the foundations of things. In Psalm
102:25, the Hebrew word reshith is not used. This seems
good evidence that this reshith is not strictly the word
for "beginning". For this reason and for grammatical
reasons (see Part III, "Betweem the Lines, An Analysis of
Genesis 1:1-2" in Time and Eternity, vol.7, The
Doorway Papers Series), it is necessary to translate it by
some such phrase as "In the former state" or -- for
simplicity and to use but one word -- we might render it "Originally."
For this word implies "beginning," but it also implies
something which the Hebrew writer, I think, intended by his use
of the word reshith, namely, a condition different from
that which he describes subsequently. He is contrasting the first
and therefore original condition with a second and changed condition
in verse 2.
GOD: As is well known to
every Bible student, the original Hebrew word, Elohim,
takes a plural form followed by a singular verb. It has been
customary for biblical conservatives to interpret this as evidence
of a very early revelation of the fact that there is more than
one person in the Godhead, yet acting as a single agent. With
almost equal unanimity, liberal theologians have declared this
to be an unfounded assumption; their explanation is that this
is an example of the use of a plural form to designate majesty.
As though to reinforce the
dignity of their office,
absolute monarchs would refer to themselves
as "we" rather than "I." It is a little bit,
though not quite, analogous to the editorial "we".
This pronouncement, once it had been sponsored by one with sufficient
authority in theological circles, was unanimously approved and
accepted and reiterated by critics thenceforth right up to the
present. It is always said in support of this interpretation
that oriental monarchs customarily referred to themselves in
How this has passed undisputed
for so long is difficult to understand. Neither in Scripture
itself nor in the cuneiform literature of antiquity is it found
to be the case.
In Joseph's time the pharaoh of
Egypt -- who could probably be considered a pretty good example
of an absolute monarch -- consistently refers to himself in the
singular, as in Genesis 41:15. This is rather significant in
view of the fact that the Higher Critics (and others) have been
fond of saying that Moses was influenced by contemporary usage
to put God's title in a plural form after the manner of other
Throughout their subsequent history
the Israelites repeatedly suffered at the hands of the absolute
monarchs of the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Not one of these,
as far as I have been able to verify for myself, ever referred
to his own person in the plural. In the Prism of Sennacherib
(column 1, line 11, and many times thenceforth) he refers to
himself in the singular. Sargon, properly referred to as "the
Great" -- who interestingly enough had the experience of
being set adrift on his native waterway in a reed basket very
much as Moses had been -- consistently refers to himself in the
first person singular. Shalmaneser III, to whom the Israelites
paid tribute, likewise used only singular pronouns. So did Tiglath-Pileser
III, to whom the Israelites paid tribute and under whose hand
they suffered deportations. The same may be said of the king
of Moab, the originator of the now-famous Moabite Stone. One
may conclude, therefore, that the plural form Elohim,
followed by a singular verb, is not a borrowed idea but a significant
aspect of God's self-revelation.
BROUGHT INTO BEING AND SET IN PERFECT ORDER: This
elaborate phrase is an attempt to convey the rather complex meaning of
the Hebrew verb bara (), here appearing
in the third person singular and rendered in the Authorized Version, "created".
Although the subject is plural in form, the verb is singular, a circumstance
very reasonably taken to mean that the three persons in the one Godhead
acted in perfect harmony. There seem to have arisen some rather widespread
misconceptions as to the meaning
of the word. It is often
said that the word is used only of God's activities, and it is
only slightly less frequently said to signify "creation
out of nothing". Both of these are erroneous. In the first
place, the word is used of human activity on a number of occasions
in Scripture, as can be readily verified by any English reader
who will refer in Young's Analytical Concordance to the
Hebrew Index Lexicon, page 7.
Essentially the word appears
to mean "to cut" or "carve" (hence even "to
cut down," i.e., "to kill"): then, "to put
the finishing touches to" or "to polish". And
so it came to carry the meaning of creation with a polish, i.e.,
creation in a finished state -- and more than this, with adornment.
The Greek word kosmos, translated into English as "world"
and meaning rather the created order of things than the more
common idea of the inhabited earth (which is a quite different
Greek word), really implies adornment with particular emphasis
upon order. From this arose the idea of adornment, hence the
English word cosmetics.
In Hebrews 1:2 we are told that
God framed the worlds by Jesus Christ, a statement which
implies all that has been said above. One fact needs to be added:
the Hebrew word bara, when it applies to the activity
of God, is used only in what is called the "light"
form. Where man's creative activity is concerned, it is used
in the "intensive". It is as though creation was easy
for God, but difficult for man. This thought is reflected by
the juxtaposition of three passages in the Psalms: the first
says that creation is the work of his Fingers (8:3); the second,
punishment is the work of his Hand (39:10); and the third that
salvation is the work of his whole Arm (77:15), thereby signifying
that creation was simple, punishment a little more difficult,
and salvation the most difficult of all to achieve.
In the second place, the word does
not, either by use or in its root meaning, imply creation out
of nothing. Cosmologically, it should be pointed out in any case
that the universe was not created out of nothing, but rather
out of things which "do not appear" (Hebrews 11:3),
i.e., immaterial forces. Moreover, man himself was not created
out of nothing, but out of the dust of the ground.
This may be a good place to mention also
that the word 'asah () translated variously
in Scripture (but in Genesis 1:1 as "made") should not be assumed,
as it often is, to be a synonym. Whereas in the beginning God created
the heavens and the earth, in six days He re-appointed them. For the word
made really means "appointed," as judges are appointed,
refuge cities are appointed, and even some of the evils of city life (cf.
Amos 3:6). Such categories of persons or things, already in existence,
have sometimes received by God's
appointment a new significance.
We shall have more to say about this later, for "creating"
is not at all the same as "making".
THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH: By
these two words we are undoubtedly to understand the universe
as a whole and not just the earth with its immediate "heavenly"
envelope, since this envelope is subsequently referred to more
specifically as the "firmament". It should also be
noted that it does not say that the creation of the heavens and
the earth were the work of the first day. The first day is actually
occupied with a much more restricted aspect of God's handiwork.
The first verse evidently is a grand opening statement of revelation,
standing in a sense by itself -- a circumstance borne out by
the fact that not a few ancient manuscripts actually indicate
a break in the text at this point. Fuller reference to this will
be made in discussing verse 2.
BUT: The Hebrew conjunction, waw
(), is not quite like the English conjunction "and". In
the first place, it does not necessarily imply the continuation of a series
of events: for example, it sometimes is used to open a book of the Bible
with nothing previously connecting with it (cf. Leviticus 1:1; Judges
1:1; Ezekiel 1:1). It is also used disjunctively rather than conjunctively,
so that it is quite properly translated "but". We have so translated
it above because, like the authors of the Septuagint who used the Greek
de instead of kai, we believe that this verse stands intentionally
in contrast with verse 1. Many of the Church Fathers so interpreted it.
Jerome in his Vulgate translation has terra autem, i.e., ".
. .the earth, however, . . ."; in verse 1 he uses et for the
HAD BECOME: This translation, which is perfectly proper,
is a point of major contention between certain groups of scholars.
To explain why this is so is extremely difficult without become
involved in some very complicated matters of grammar and syntax
in the Hebrew language. But some attempt must be made to inform
the reader what the contention is all about.
The King James Version has simply
the verb "was". The implication is that the chaos described
in verse 2 represents the state of the earth as it was first
created. The alternative rendering implies otherwise. The creation
was perfect, but some circumstance intervened between verses
1 and 2 to reduce a Cosmos to a Chaos. The earth was not created
like this, but it had become so. Which picture is the correct one? Since almost all English
versions translate the
original Hebrew verb hayah in this instance as "was",
it would seem that by common consent this is its proper meaning.
But is this the case?
The normal rule in Hebrew, when
the simple copulative form of the verb "to be" is required
in a sentence, is to leave the verb unexpressed. Thus in the
sentence "The man is good," the verb would be omitted
and a literal rendering of the Hebrew would be "The man
good", rather like an American Indian's "Me good man".
If, however, the Hebrew author wishes to express something more
than this, such as "The man is becoming good", thereby
denoting a change in the situation, then he would introduce the
Hebrew verb hayah in its appropriate form. The difference
is real. The presence or absence of the verb was in the
original Hebrew has a significance that must not be ignored.
The translators of the King James
Version, recognizing this difference and being fully aware that
the English reader has difficulty with a sentence like "the
man good", naturally supplied the missing verb and made
it read "the man is good". However, to show what they
had done, they adopted a policy of setting such supplied words
in italics. The reader unacquainted with Hebrew is thus able
to detect when the verb has been supplied in the original and
when it has not; or to put the matter another way, when the Hebrew
author intended to signify that a change had taken, or was taking,
or would take place, and when he simply viewed the situation
as unchanged or unchanging. If the verb is expressed in the original,
thus denoting a change in the situation, the King James Version
translators used standard type: if the verb is not expressed
in the original, thus denoting no change in the situation, the
King James Version has supplied it in italics.
In Genesis 1:2 the first "was"
is printed in ordinary type, the second "was" in italics.
Similarly in verse 3, the first "was" is in ordinary
type, but in verse 4 it is in italics. We are by this to understand
that the Hebrew original supplies the appropriate form of the
verb in the first instances, but omits the verb in the second.
This signifies that a change had occurred with respect to the
earth in verse 2 and a change occurred in respect to the coming
of light. What was a perfect earth became a ruin; what was dark
This is not the place to enter into a complicated
defense of this observation. In point of fact the evidence in its favour
is to my mind almost overwhelming, and it has been recognized for centuries
by the Jews themselves. Some of the evidence has been set forth by the
author in this series (as noted in Part
III in vol.6 of
The Doorway Papers Series) and in a rather more extended work
which, though it requires some dedication to read because of
the unfamiliarity of the subject, is by no means beyond the capability
of any intelligent layman to understand. It is titled Without
Form and Void.
But we have rendered the verb in
this instance not merely by the perfect ("became"),
but by the pluperfect ("had become"). The normal order
for the Hebrew sentence is conjunction, verb, subject object.
In certain circumstances, however, the subject may precede the
verb. There are two main occasions for this change of order.
The first is when the writer wishes to underscore the fact that
the subject of the verb which follows is in contrast to the subject
of the previous verb. In thought this is found in the New Testament,
where we frequently find after man has done one thing, the text
continues "but God. . . ." The second occasion is to
indicate the pluperfect of the verb. Translators into English
do not always follow this rule, but the text is invariably more
meaningful when the rule is observed. Thus in Genesis 10:9 it
is said that Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord. But
in the original this should be, "Nimrod had become a mighty
hunter before the Lord." Analogously, in Genesis 3:1 the
original has, "Now the serpent had become more subtle. .
. " This rule regarding the inversion of word order to express
the pluperfect is not limited to the use of the verb "to
be". Deuteronomy 10:16 should be "had journeyed";
Isaiah 1:9 should be "had left"; Jeremiah 12:21 should
read "had planted"; Jeremiah 4:25, "had fled".
In I Samuel 28:3 the tense is correctly observed, "Israel
had lamented. . . Saul had put away. . . "
The word order in Genesis 1:2 and
the inclusion of the verb "to be" in the original not
merely allow for, but positively require, the rendering "had
[pluperfect] become". It is quite often stated that the
English "become" or "became" is only an appropriate
rendering when the object of the verb is accompanied by a lamedh
in Hebrew. This is simply not true, as any number of examples
will show. For instance, in Genesis 19:26 Lot's wife "became
a pillar of salt". The meaning here is absolutely clear,
and the lamedh is not used. The following examples will
perhaps suffice to demonstrate this.
Genesis 3:20: And Eve became the mother of all living.
Genesis 4:20: Abel became a keeper . . . and Cain became
a tiller . . .
Genesis 4:21: Jubal became the father of musicians.
Judges 11:39: It became a custom in Israel. . . .
Jeremiah 7:11: Is this house . . . become a den of robbers?
2 Kings 17:3: And Hosea became
Isaiah 7:24: All the land shall become briars and thorns.
Isaiah 17:1: Damascus shall become a ruinous heap.
Jeremiah 26:18: And Jerusalem shall become heaps. . . .
Jonah 3:3: Now Nineveh had become an exceeding great city.
A RUIN AND A DESOLATION: So much has been written
about the Hebrew words tohu and bohu, and so generally
is their meaning agreed upon, that little need be said except
to sum up the conclusions of Hebrew scholars by pointing out
that the words are used to describe, not an incoherent mass waiting
to be brought to order, but rather something that has fallen
In Isaiah 45:18 we are told that
God did not create the earth "in vain". Here we have
the word tohu again. But it seems likely that it is used
here, not as a noun, but as an adverb. A similar use of the same
word tohu appears in Isaiah 45:19 in the phrase "seek
ye Me in vain", where the usage is clearly adverbial and
the meaning is obviously as rendered in the King James Version
and not as the Revised Standard Version has it.
Some commentators argue that Isaiah 45:18 proves that Genesis
1:2 cannot mean that God created the earth a ruin (tohu
) and that it therefore must have become a tohu subsequently.
I am sure the conclusion regarding the earth's history is correct,
but I am not sure it can be proved unequivocally by an appeal
to Isaiah 45:18 in view of the use of tohu as an adverb
in the very next verse (45:19).
It is reasonably certain, however,
that the Jewish commentators themselves understood the words
tohu and bohu in Genesis 1:2 to be an emphasized
description of chaos resulting from judgment. Their own literature
establishes that this view is a very ancient one.
Whatever is the exact meaning of
these words, this much seems fairly certain: they signify a condition
of judgment. Such a condition is pictured for us in Jeremiah
4:23, but with this very significant difference in the original
Hebrew, namely, that as Jeremiah looked at the land it was --
at that moment -- desolate. The Hebrew original does not employ
any form of the verb "to be", since Jeremiah's vision
was riveted upon the present moment and not intended to deal
with past events leading up to it. The word tohu is also
found used in connection with the desolation of a city ("a
city of desolation" as in Isaiah 24:10). In Isaiah 34:11
both tohu and bohu are used together in the sentence,
"and He shall stretch out upon it a line of confusion [tohu]
and the plummet of desolation [bohu]". According
to Genesius, the root is probably to be found in the Aramaic
"to be confounded", or "desolate".
THE EARTH: It will be noticed that
the heavens are not included in this statement, and the idea
that this passage refers to a nebular condition of the solar
system seems completely without foundation.
A PALL OF DARKNESS: The
darkness spoken of here is not exactly the absence of light which
is later termed night, for we do not have in the Hebrew original
in this instance the word for "night" but a word frequently
chosen when the darkness has something unnatural about it --
such as that darkness which fell upon the land of Egypt in judgment
It might be argued that the word
for "night" had not yet been introduced and therefore
obviously could not have been used in verse 2. But the word heaven
and the word earth are both used in the first three verses,
and yet they are not defined till later. Evidently it
is not to avoid a hitherto undefined term that the word for night
was not employed. It was because the darkness was something more
than merely the absence of daylight.
Quite frequently, this word is given a spiritual
meaning, as for example, in Psalm 18:28 or Isaiah 9:2. It is quite true
that the word is later identified with night-time (Genesis 1:5); but thereafter
the night-time "darkness" is not referred to by the Hebrew word
hoshech (), but rather by the word layilah () which strictly means "night-time"
as opposed to "daytime". The original word hoshech continues
to mean something quite different. For this reason, we have tried to convey
the idea of something other than merely night-time by introducing the
word pall, which I think very nearly recovers the original meaning.
HUNG OVER: We have supplied
these words. Nothing exists in the Hebrew corresponding to them.
In the Authorized Version the word was is correctly printed
in italics since there is no form of the verb "to be"
representing it in the Hebrew text. The meaning is, in fact,
simply that this pall of darkness existed, but it seemed appropriate,
since this was a scene of desolation, to use the term "hung
over" rather than merely "existed" or "was".
THIS SCENE OF DISASTER: The Hebrew word tehom
translated as "the deep" in the Authorized Version
is difficult to render exactly: it does not mean "the deep"
as synonymous with "the sea", but like many
of the terms in this
second verse, it is associated implicitly
or explicitly elsewhere in Scripture with the idea of judgment.
Thus although it is rendered sometimes as "waters"
(cf. Deuteronomy 8:7), in Genesis 7:11 it is translated "the
great waters," i.e., of Noah's Flood which, of course, came
in judgment. In Psalm 36:6 it is rendered "a great deep"
and is clearly associated with the judgment of God. In Job 28:14
(and on a number of other occasions) it is evidently distinguished
from the sea, being rendered, in contradistinction, "the
depth". In Syriac the cognate word means "a flood",
a phenomenon which is normally considered as undesirable.
Thus, although the idea of water
is involved and therefore the rendering "the deep"
is in one sense quite justified, it does not convey the exact
idea intended by the original, unless one associates with this
water an element of judgment. The Septuagint substitutes the
Greek word abussos (our word "abyss") for some
thirty occurrences of the word tehom in the Old Testament,
a term we meet again in Revelation (9:11; 11:7; 17:8; and 20:1,3)
in circumstances which clearly indicate an undesirable condition.
Associated with the Abyss is Satan, the Great Serpent or Dragon.
This association is a very ancient one.
It was common in Babylonian times
to personify the forces of nature. This may have been because
they held these forces to be personal, but it may also have been
for teaching purposes because the account was thereby rendered
much more vivid and animated, easier to understand and recall.
In the Babylonian account of the constitution of order out of
chaos, the God of Order battles with an enormous foe, the Goddess
of Chaos. Armed with his weapons, the orderly Marduk advances
against his enemy, seizes the Goddess of Chaos in a huge net
and transfixes her with his scimitar. The carcass of this monster
he splits into two halves, one of which becomes Heaven and the
other the Abyss of water upon which the earth was supposed to
rest. Thus the Goddess is subdued and order is restored; and
her name was Tiamat -- probably related originally to the Hebrew
word tehom, translated "the deep" in the Authorized
Version. Although this tradition is mythological, it lends support
to the idea that the Deep was not merely the unrestrained waters
of the ocean (later to have their bounds set for them), but something
Wallis Budge has pointed out that in
one Babylonian tablet Tiamat is called "the Great Serpent,"
a fact which strengthens the contention that the Hebrew word
tehom implies something far worse than merely water on
the rampage. It is apparently related in some way to the activities
of Satan, a place or a condition which even the
(although they are part of Satan's kingdom) would like to avoid
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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We have rendered this a "scene of disaster" because
such is what it really appears to have been.