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Part III: Between the Lines: An Analysis of Genesis 1:1-2 Chapter 2
Analysis of Genesis 1:2 "And the earth was without form and void. . . ."
EVERY SINGLE word of qualification in this sentence is used in connection with judgment. Let us start at the beginning and analyze the whole sentence word by word. Conjunction -- Verb -- Subject -- Object
The normal order for a Hebrew sentence is:
Because of the comparative simplicity of the verb system, only two tenses are indicated in Hebrew, present and past. It is as though the Hebrews simplified their thoughts by considering a thing as either being done or already completed. All suppositions regarding the future, where man is concerned, are void; it is pointless for a man to say with any certainty that he will be doing something on some future occasion, for he does not know what a day may bring forth. The "future" tense is not represented by a designed form. pg 1 of 20
But with God's activity, if He has said "It shall be done," so certain is the future that it can without hesitation be written as completed already. Hebrew, therefore, uses the perfect tense for God's proposed future actions; the term prophetic perfect has been given to this mode of expression.
But there were sometimes necessary refinements -- such as the pluperfect. In this case, the lack of a distinct tense form was overcome by a change in the order of words. For the most part it appears that the established order of words was departed from under only two circumstances, exclusive of poetic license: the first, when a new subject was introduced, and special emphasis upon this fact was required; and the second, when the pluperfect was to be understood. This matter receives considerable attention in textbooks of grammar and syntax. A. B. Davidson, in his Hebrew Syntax, deals with this question in some detail and shows how the word order may be used
to indicate the English pluperfect. (4) He states that this use is most common in dependent (relative or conjunctive) clauses. And having pointed this out, he adds, "It is of great consequence to observe it in translation." He specifically states that when the dependent clause is introduced by and (waw, in Hebrew), the subject usually precedes the verb in such clauses. Illustrations of this will be found in Genesis 20:4: "But Abimelech had not approached. . . ." Other examples are in Genesis 31:19,34; 1 Samuel 9:15; 25:21; 28:3 (twice); 2 Samuel 18:18; etc.
As with English, so in Hebrew, there was a poetic license which permitted departure from the correct word order for no other reason than re-arrangement for euphony. However, this applies chiefly to the poetry of the Psalms and other Writings; since the Massoretic text of Genesis 1 is not written as poetry, it does not apply to the verse under consideration.
Now, the order of the Hebrew in the second verse is irregular. This was evidently intended to draw attention to one of the above special circumstances. Either the order was changed (1) to put the tense into a pluperfect, or (2) to lay emphasis upon a new subject, or (3) by poetic license. The third alternative cannot apply here.
The second alternative is not likely either, because the introduction of a new subject in such circumstances generally implies the recurrence of the original verb and the word create does not recur in this instance. We have such antitheses as "Moses said this, but the Lord has said that." The verb continues the thought, but the subject is pointedly changed. In this verse it is obviously not an effort to set the subject earth in contradistinction with the former subject God. It must therefore be intended to signify the use of the pluperfect. To apply this rule here means a change in the wording of verse 2 which we shall propose shortly.
However, we can actually go further than this. The conjunctions and and but are not distinguished in Hebrew, and there are good reasons for thinking that but would be a better translation of the first word than and. In fact in Genesis 20:4, already referred to, the waw is logically and correctly rendered but.
This conjunction actually has upward of seventy meanings. It is a particle which discharges in the Hebrew the functions of all the conjunctions, both conjunctive and disjunctive, its sense being determinable in each particular case only by the relation of the context and the practice and genius of the language.
When we look to the most ancient Hebrews themselves, who
4. Davidson, A. B., Hebrew Syntax, Clark, Edinburgh, 3rd edition, pp.58-59, note C. pg.2 of 20
were well exercised in and conversant with the peculiarities of their native tongue, we find that in this particular instance they all interpreted it by the disjunctive particle but, and none of them by the copulative and. Thus it was rendered by the first interpreters of the text, the Jews of Alexandria, nearly three hundred years before the Christian era:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; but . . . earth. . .
In the same sense it was understood by the learned Jew, Josephus, who thus paraphrased the passage:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; but, the latter not coming into view. . . .
In the same manner we find it in the Chaldee paraphrase, the Targum of Onkelos, which in the Latin is rendered thus: "In principio creavit Deus coelum et terram; terra autem erat. . . ." -- i.e., "the earth, however, was. . ."
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The old Latin Version renders the conjunction in the same manner: Terra autem, etc. . . Likewise does the Vulgate, translated by Jerome from the Hebrew original with the aid of the other translations of his time.
We thus learn how it was understood in this particular instance, by those who knew how to connect it. And it is evident that the interpretation was justified by application of the rule of the language as understood by the ancient Jewish scholars. The truth is, of course, that the Hebrew language did not possess, and therefore could not command, the diversity of particles which the Greek and the Latin both enjoy. It was therefore constrained always to repeat the same particle (waw), the proper sense of which was impressed in the mind of the reader by the tendency of the argument.
There is an interesting illustration of
this in Acts 7:4-5, where Stephen in his address to the Jews, drawing
his material closely from the Old Testament Scriptures, adhered to the
idiom of the original Hebrew, rendering his conjunctions uniformly throughout
by the Greek equivalent of waw, namely
(kai). This, when it was quite unnecessary to do so, since the
Greek could readily have supplied him with variants which to any other
than a Hebrew might have seemed absolutely necessary. Thus he says, "And
from thence when his father was dead. He removed him into this land wherein
dwell; yet He gave him no inheritance in it, not so much as to set his foot on; although He promised that He would give it to him for a possession." In all these cases the Greek uses kai, because the original Hebrew used waw, which clearly shows how wide a variety of meanings this little word was required to convey as the context demanded. As the English required these different words, so the Greek would have used these different words, but for the fact that the writer was a man who thought in Hebrew or Aramaic but was writing in Greek.
Curiously enough, some of the early Church Fathers not only were careful to translate this as but instead of and, but they even built up weird and wonderful theses on the strength of it! This is not to say, of course, that they were right. It only goes to show that there are good reasons for believing that the alternative translation is more exact, a fact recognized from the earliest times. Tertullian argues some abstruse points on the grounds that this should so be translated. (5) He uses the same basis for an argument on baptism. (6) Clement also makes use of this alternative. (7).
Here again we are not arguing that any of this is conclusive. All we can safely say is that there is not only no objection to it (as Hebrew scholars are well aware), but there is some justification for preferring it. We may reasonably take it therefore as disjunctive rather than conjunctive.
Now, in the first half of the sentence, the verb to be is expressed in the Hebrew, but in the second half of the sentence it is omitted, a small fact which may have considerable significance. This is revealed in the Authorized Version by the use of ordinary type for the first was, but italics for the second. In Hebrew it is not usual to include any form of the verb to be, unless it is to signify a new situation. For example, "The man is black" would merely be written "The man black." But if the sentence reads, "The man became black," then the verb would be inserted. Thus it is omitted in the second half of this verse which says "darkness [was] upon the face of the deep." So also in the phrase, "God saw the light that it [was] good." The brackets here indicate (like the italics in the Authorized Version) that the verb does not appear in the original, because the meaning is fully covered by the English word was, and there is no implication of "becoming" intended. The light did not become good
5. Tertullian, "Against Herrnogenes," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Scribners, New York, Vol. III, chap. 26, p.492. pg.4 of 20
6. Ibid., chap. 3, p.670.
7. Clement, "Recognitions," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Scribners, New York, 1917, Vol. III, Book VI, chap.7. p.154.
�� it was good. That is all
the Author wished to say. It is evident therefore that the insertion of
the verbal form hayah ()
is quite deliberate and should be translated became rather than
We must note that in addition to this, however,
the presence of the inverted order of words indicates that what would
normally be translated became must actually be rendered in the
pluperfect tense, i.e., had become. It is sometimes argued that
hayah means "become" only when followed by the Hebrew
letter lamedh ()
placed before the next word. This is not actually so. Quite often the
lamedh follows the verb, but very frequently it does not. The absence
of lamedh before the qualifying word does not always seem to determine
the exact meaning of the verb to be. Any number of examples can
be given where this verb has the significance of "becoming"
without the lamedh following. Genesis 19:26 is a good illustration
because it is a familiar verse: "Lot's wife looked back from behind
him, and she became a pillar of salt." In 2 Kings 17:3: "Against
him came up Shalmaneser King of Assyria, and Hoshea became his servant,
and gave him presents." In Judges 11:39f., the sense is obviously
"and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went
yearly to lament the daughter of Jepthah."
There is really no need to give references to prove something so commonly known. Yet if illustrations are desirable, the first chapter of Genesis furnishes plenty of them. Thus in verse 3 the actual Hebrew should be translated: "And God said, 'Let there become light: and it became light.'" To indicate this, the verb to be is twice written in the text as shown by the use of solid type for "be" and "was." But it did not "become" good in verse 4, so was appears in italics, since no Hebrew verb is used in the original. In verse 5, the introduction of light led to a new thing, a time period which "became" the first day. Similarly throughout the chapter, this principle is clearly and consistently applied. In verse 12: "The seed [was] in itself" -- not became in itself; and in verse 29: "The Lord said, I have given you . . . all that [is] upon the face of the earth"; consequently the verb to be is not represented in the original Hebrew in either case, a fact noted in the Authorized Version by the use of italics for the word is.
The Old Testament is full of examples. On every page they can be found as long as the Authorized Version is used; this is one of the
8. The author's Without Form and Void (published
by Doorway Papers, Brockville, Ontario, 1970) examines this matter in
some considerable depth and demonstrates that this verb ()
almost always (if not without exception) carries the sense of becoming
and is probably never used copulatively at all.
pg.5 of 20
advantages this version has over the Revised Standard Version. A glance at Judges 6 and 7 will illustrate this beautifully, for here the verb to be is written in italics where it simply means "was" or "is," etc., because it has been omitted in the Hebrew original. This will be noted in Judges 6:10 (am), 13 (be), 15 (is and am), 22 (was), 24 (is), 25 (is), 30 (was), 31 (is and be); 7:1 (is), 2 (are and are), 3 (is), 12 (were), 13 (was), 14 (is). These all appear in italics. But contrast 6:27, where "was" is not in italics and therefore a really new situation has come about, i.e., "and so it came to be that" or "it came to pass that because he feared. . . ."
It is a remarkable fact that we have in Jeremiah 4:23 what appears to be an exact parallel to Genesis 1:2; but there is this significant difference which is clear enough to anyone who will read the Authorized Version text with care. In Jeremiah 4:23 the verb "was" is in italics. The sense is therefore simply, "I beheld the earth and lo, it was without form and void." The statement in Genesis 1:2 is significantly different.
Only a student of Hebrew is in a position to verify these references in the original. By the time he is able to do this, he will have had the opportunity to discover constant occasions when the verb to be is used to give the sense of "becoming" and so is inserted (unlike the copula), and without the addition of lamedh.
As Martin Anstey, no mean Hebrew scholar, pointed out some years ago, (9)
The Hebrew verb
(Hayah, i.e., "to be") here translated "was,"
signifies not only "to be" but also "to become,"
"to take place," "to come to pass." When a Hebrew
writer makes a simple affirmation, or merely predicates the existence
of anything, the verb
is never expressed. Where it is expressed it must always be translated
by our verb "to become," never by the verb "to be,"
if we desire to convey the exact shade of the meaning of the original.
. . .
The Hebrew of Gen. 1:2 requires the rendering of Hayah by the word "became," instead of the word "was" or better still "had become," the separation of the Waw from the verb being the Hebrew method of indicating the pluperfect tense.
To the reader who is not convinced of the plenary inspiration of Scripture, this may sound like too much emphasis on words. Yet any English sentence may change its entire meaning not only by an inversion of words, but even by a change of emphasis! "Yes" may mean "no," an affirmative becomes a question or even a negative. It is a fundamental requisite in the interpretation of Hebrew that we
9. Anstey, Martin, The Romance of Bible Chronology, Marshall, London, 1913, p.62. pg.6 of 20
master at least the rudiments of its inflectional qualities and peculiarities. It is most important in the case of a language simple in its structure that we be able to interpret correctly the subtle distinctions of meaning which are thus introduced by artificial means. I. A. McCaul, lecturer in Hebrew at King's College, London, stated in a paper presented before the Victoria Institute, dealing specifically with this question: "In my own mind there is no doubt whatever that this is the meaning of the Hebrew words." (10) Iverach Munro, also in a paper before the Victoria Institute, wrote: (11)
Contrary to the usual opinion, the Hebrew narrative actually appears to go out of its way to make room for this doctrine (i.e., of a break in the history at this point), which, developed in the Old Testament, culminates in the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles in the New.
In the second verse the usual Hebrew construction
to express continuous development would have been, as Hebraists are
aware, the imperfect with Waw Conversive, i.e.,
(wat-tehi ha-a-rets) which would be correctly translated "and
the earth was," etc. The fact, however, is that the narrative goes
out of the usual to say
(weha-a-rets ha-yethah), the Waw being separated from its verb,
the usual way of expressing in Hebrew the pluperfect. When we turn to
the third chapter of Genesis, verse 3, we find the same peculiarity
in the narrative. The "Serpent" used as the embodiment of
the power of evil is spoken of thus:
(Wehan-naghash ha-yah). "Now the Serpent had become,"
etc., not "was" as in our translation.
We now have this: IN A FORMER STATE GOD PERFECTED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH; BUT THE EARTH HAD BECOME. . . "Without form and void. . . ."
We come therefore to a
consideration of the words, "without form and void" (
-- tohu wa-bohu). From the outset we can say unequivocally
that both words, whether occurring together or singly, are used throughout
Scripture in connection with something under God's judgment. Tohu
is used of something which has been laid waste (Isaiah 24:10; 34:11; Jeremiah
4:23) or has become desert (Deuteronomy 32:10) or of anything which is
the object of false "worship" and therefore displeasing to God,
as in Isaiah 41:29, etc. With the Hebrew preposition
(lamedh) it becomes an adverb, (Isaiah 49:4) and means "wastefully"
or "in vain." In Isaiah 45:18 it is possibly an adverbial accusative
of the noun, although the form is identical with the noun itself. We shall
have occasion subsequently to examine this particular passage more carefully.
Gesenius and Tregelles in
10. McCaul, I. A., in Transactions of the Victorian Institute, vol.70, 1938, p.116. pg.7 of 20
11. Munro, Iverach, in Transactions of the Victorian Institute, vol.46, 1914, p.151-52.
their respective lexicons both define the meaning of the noun as "waste-ness; specifically that which is wasted or laid waste."
It is sometimes coupled with the word,
(bohu), as in Jeremiah 4:23; Isaiah 34:11; and of course as here
in Genesis 1:2. In fact these are the only three occurrences of this word
in Scripture. In Jeremiah 4:23 the desolation which the two words together
are used to portray is the result of a direct judgment of God upon the
land and upon its inhabitants. When Jeremiah saw this vision, judgment
had already been executed, and the land was in a state of desolation.
In Isaiah 34:11 the same may be said, for the scene is one of God's "day
of vengeance" (verse 8). In this case it is Idumea which is under
consideration. The confusion is to be complete, the judgment final. Such
is the evident meaning of the only other passages in which the expression
found in Genesis 1:2 occurs elsewhere in Scripture.
Some further possible light on the meaning of these words may be found in the pagan mythologies now known from the cuneiform inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria. The word bohu, in slightly variant forms, was associated with destruction, and thence directly with the Destroyer. Wallis Budge, one of the earlier great cuneiform scholars, speaking of the Assyrian traditions in this connection, explains how the god Tiamat is said to have dwelt in the sea and to have been a kindred demon of Bahu, the personification of disorder. (12) This word is evidently to be equated with the bohu of Genesis 1:2. In fact he subsequently points out that the word tahu (the tohu of Genesis 1:2) is found also as a goddess of destruction.
The collaboration of these two evil beings,
Bahu and Tiamat, brings us to a consideration of the final word of verse
2, translated deep (
tehom). We are told that the earth had not only become a desolation
and a ruin, but "darkness was upon the face of the deep." Of
course, darkness (except insofar as "night" is intended) is
always associated with that which God has turned away from in judgment.
The word is found, for example, in Psalm 36:6: "Thy righteousness
is like the great mountains; Thy judgments are a great deep." One
might suppose that it has the same significance here also, although some
feel that the darkness was due to material causes only and merely signified
a state of incompleteness. Yet this is not the normal word used simply
to signify the absence of light, as in the nighttime.
The word tehom ()
is evidently derived from a root hamah (),
which means "to roar," and then "to confuse" or "to
create confusion." Almost all Assyriologists equate the word Tiamat
12. Budge, Wallis, Babylonian Life and Times, Bye-paths to Bible Knowledge, Religious Tract Society, London. 1897, p.140. pg.8 of 20
the earlier word Apsu of the Sumerian traditions) with this Hebrew noun tehom. No one who respects the Word of God as such will suppose for a moment that the inspired writer borrowed such a term with its familiar pagan connotations in mythology. It is almost certain that this first chapter of Genesis far antedates the much later cuneiform texts in which these cognate words are found. It is quite as likely that the simple statement of Genesis 1:2, having been written long before, became common property in the ancient world. Those who in early times educated their students in the traditional lore of their day seem to have had a strong liking for animation. We are only now discovering how successfully abstruse subjects can be taught by the animation of the elements, particularly to a less sophisticated audience.
pg.9 of 20
Thus, if we suppose that the second verse records an actual event of serious, perhaps catastrophic proportions which resulted from the rebellion of a supernatural being, it is not difficult to see how the beginnings of a titanic struggle could have stirred the imagination of early writers to set the story forth in new forms, giving personalities to the forces involved and climaxing the drama with the ultimate triumph of Light. There is every reason to believe that this is the clue to much in ancient cosmogonies.
There cannot be any doubt that tehom means either a place of judgment or a place under judgment. The most cursory glance at its occurrences in the Old Testament and its equivalent in the New certainly lends weight to this assumption. "The deep" was always associated with the place to which must finally be banished from the presence of the Lord those who were not worthy to enter heaven.
The Septuagint, like the New Testament,
(Abussos), in place of tehom, and undoubtedly the Abyss
of Revelation 9:11, etc., is the same concept. The word is, in fact, manifestly
a borrowed term, derived from the Apsu of the Sumerians. At the same time
the authors of the Septuagint translated bohu by the Greek equivalent
(akataskeuastos) which means actually the very opposite of the
Hebrew word bara, since it signifies something rough, unpolished,
unfinished. Even if we did not know by revelation that God's work is perfect,
we might still hesitate to think of anything coming from His hand in a
state of such confusion and disorder. We have only to consider the beauty
of the lily, or for that matter of any single part of His creation, to
see how perfect and fitting is His work. God does not labour to perfect
or seek (by experiment) for modes of expression that are suitable. He
proceeds directly, for there is no imperfection in His wisdom. The Greek
in 1 Corinthians 14:33 is remarkable in that it clearly adopts a vocabulary in contradistinction to the Greek text of Genesis 1:2, with which Paul, of course, was perfectly familiar. Such a chaotic state could hardly be as God made it, and we are not surprised therefore to find that the Hebrew indicates rather that it became so. pg.10 of 20
Now, Isaiah says specifically that God did
not create the earth in a state of tohu ().
Whether we interpret the tohu of this passage to mean simply "a
desolation" or to mean "in vain" (treating it as an adverbial
accusative) is of little importance. There is actually nothing in the
Hebrew to reveal whether it is to be taken as a noun or an adverb. In
any case the adverb carries the same sense as the noun, only in a different
form: it still signifies potential failure. We are explicitly told in
Genesis 1:1 of the creation of the earth, and Genesis 1:2 appears to qualify
it as a tohu; yet Isaiah 45:18 says equally explicitly that God
did not so create it. And one must therefore assume that Genesis 1:2 is
not intended to elaborate Genesis 1:1, but is strictly descriptive of
a subsequent condition. In fact, the Revised Standard Version has for
this verse (Isaiah 45:18), "He did not create it a chaos." It
should be noted also that an official Roman Catholic edition in French,
translated by Crampon, renders this statement, "Qui n'en a pas
fait un chaos," i.e., "who did not make of it a chaos."
Isaiah 45:18 is very carefully worded, like all Scripture. It will bear careful examination accordingly.
"Thus saith the Lord, that created the heavens. . . ." Here
we appear to have the original creative act of Genesis 1:1. "God
Himself that fashioned (
yatsar) the earth, and appointed it (
'asah). " He "established it" (L16/17.12
kun, i.e., "set it in order," since it had become a confusion),
but "He created it not a confusion. He formed it (,
it to be inhabited. I am the Lord, and there is none else."
Now yatzar really means to give shape to something shapeless, just as God took the dust of the ground and "fashioned" the Man (Genesis 2:7, Hebrew). It seems to imply the same kind of action here; but perhaps it is even more nearly like the action of the potter of whom Jeremiah wrote elsewhere, for this potter was fashioning a vessel, and it was marred in his hands so that he had to remodel it again (Jeremiah 18). In this incident the word potter is a translation of the present active participle of the verb yatzar.
The context of Isaiah 45:18 is worth noticing also. In the previous verses the prophet is arguing that although for the time being Israel is in a state of confusion � because of their own failure
to serve the Lord with a true witness and because of the impending Assyrian conquest -- yet God would still finally bring the nation back to health and fruitfulness. Perhaps he is pointing out that it is not the first time such a state of judgment and confusion has preceded a time of great enlightenment and deliverance. He remarks therefore on how the condition of the earth had at one time been ruinous, because it was under great judgment for reasons not stated; yet he affirms the Lord's original intention that it should be habitable, a thing of beauty and life and vitality. The same Lord who is the Lord would yet restore Israel as He restored a ruined earth.
In Isaiah 45:19, the phrase in vain occurs once more, the original Hebrew being again the same as in verse 18. Manifestly the appropriate translation here would be, "I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye Me to no purpose." If this alternative were to be applied to Genesis 1:2, the need for some break in the context is even more imperative, for surely God did not create the heavens and the earth to no purpose! Yet unless the hiatus is introduced between Genesis 1:1 and 2, this is exactly what is implied.
Paul Isaac Hershon, in his Rabbinical Commentary on Genesis, at Genesis 1:2,3 gave the text as follows: (13)
And the earth was desolate and void. The earth will be desolate, for the Shechinah will depart (from the earth) at the destruction of the temple, and hence it is said: And the spirit of God hovered upon the face of the water; which intimates to us, that even although we be in exile (when, with the destruction of the temple, the Shechinah will depart), yet the Torah shall not depart from us; and therefore it is added: And God said, Let there be light. This shows us that after the captivity God will enlighten us, and send us the Messiah, respecting Whom it is said: Arise, shine, for thy light is come.
Now, this method of interpretation seems strange to us today. But what is important here is that it could in no wise be justified unless the Jewish interpreters were taking this scene in Genesis to be one of desolation due to judgment. If they understood it to be the beginning of a promise of glory, it could certainly not be taken as a picture of the earth when God turns away from it in anger at the destruction of His temple.
Moreover, it seems rather clear that Paul himself was influenced by this kind of tradition, even in fact by the very wording. When he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4:6) he said, "For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness hath shined into our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in
13. Hershon, Paul Isaac, A Rabbinical Commentary on Genesis, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1885, p.2. pg.11 of 20
the face of Christ Jesus." In this passage it is surely to be understood that Paul is saying by analogy, As God called for light to begin a re-creation of a ruined earth, so He calls for light to shine into our hearts to bring about the re-creation of a new man. IN A FORMER STATE GOD PERFECTED THE HEAVENS AND EARTH;
This Rabbinical Commentary therefore supports the Targum of Onkelos, which translated the words without form by the Aramaic for the phrase was destroyed, using a passive participle.
It is almost certain that we are here dealing with a catastrophic judgment brought upon an originally perfect creation, which had left the marks of confusion, lifelessness, and darkness revealed in Genesis 1:2.
It is with this in mind, perhaps, or certainly on the strength of the Hebrew text as it stands, that John Skinner in commenting on this passage remarks, "The safest exegesis would be to take Genesis 1:2 to indicate not a state of primeval chaos, but a darkened and devastated earth from which life and order had fled." (14)
So we may now set forth these two verses thus:
BUT THE EARTH HAD BECOME A DEVASTATED RUIN.
If there really is a discontinuity here between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, not only does it give much room for further inquiry as to why the judgment was brought upon an originally perfect earth, but it also throws additional light on the work of the six days, as we shall see. We should also expect to find some reference to this catastrophe in the New Testament.
Anyone at all familiar with this whole problem is well aware of the evidence in the New Testament which is revealed in a peculiarly recurrent phrase, "the foundation of the world."
It has been pointed out many times that
this is an interpretation rather than a translation of the original Greek,
(katabole) does not actually appear to mean "foundation,"
but "casting down." One of the best-informed Christian scholars
of the early church was careful to point this out, and his reference is
important, since to him Greek was his mother tongue. Origen indicates
the proper meaning of this word for his readers by equating it with dejicere
in the Latin, which he argues must mean "to throw down." (15)
It is perfectly true that in subsequent usage it came to mean "the
foundations," since they were laid down first. But in New Testament
14. Skinner, John, ref. 2, p.17. pg.12 of 20
15. Origen, "De Principis," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Scribners, New York, 1917, vol. IV, Book 3, chap. 5, p.4.
Greek it does not appear to have this significance. Every occurrence (with the possible exception of John 17:24) will be found to be directly in connection with God's plan of redemption; since the catastrophe seems really to have been the first evidence of God's anger toward a previous world that was now spoiled by sin, it marks a "first point" in His plan of redemption, a redemption that may have a very wide basis, as Romans 8:22 possibly signifies.
On the other hand, whenever there is absolutely
no question of judgment, and whenever we are clearly in view of the original
creation (as seen in Genesis 1:1), the correct Greek word for foundation
themelios) is always used. So we have in Hebrews 1:10, "Thou,
Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundations of the earth: and the
heavens are the works of Thy hands." This is clearly indicative of
the proper word to be used to express the true "foundation"
of the world.
In the following verses the word themelios or a derivative will be found to occur, and in every single case the meaning is beyond question a true foundation:
Acts 16:26 Romans 15:20
Luke 14:29 1 Corinthians 3:10-12
Revelation 21:14-19 Hebrews 6:1
Luke 6:48-49 Ephesians 2:20
1 Timothy 6:19 Hebrews 1 1:10
2 Timothy 2:19
Surely, if there is a word
unambiguously employed in Greek for the concept of a "foundation,"
it would have been consistently used in the recurrent phrase "the
foundation of the world," if this phrase was intended to signify
the original act of creation. On the contrary, we find a word chosen which
primarily has quite another meaning and is used on a number of occasions
in a context which seems to be most meaningful if it is understood in
the light of our interpretation of Genesis 1:2. It might of course be
argued that katabole was used because the word had come to be associated
with the word kosmos by a kind of unwritten law established by
literary usage. But this is not so. It happens that on a number of occasions
the word kosmos is accompanied by the English word beginning.
For example, in Matthew 24:21 we have in the Greek the following:
�� apo arkes kosmou �� "from the beginning of the kosmos."
pg.13 of 20
Mark 10:6 and Mark 13:19, and also 2 Peter
3:4 contain another expression:
�� apo de arkes ktiseos -- "from the beginning of Creation."
In Mark 10:6 the words are "From the beginning of the creation God made them male and female"; in Mark 13:19, "For in those days shall be affliction such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be"; and in 2 Peter 3:4, "When is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation."
In each of these passages, the obvious intent of the writer is to refer back to the foundation of the world; but in no case does he employ the word katabole.
We find in Hebrews 1:10 an entirely different word used in connection with the original heavens and earth of Genesis 1:1; but the word katabole is frequently used on occasions where it could not possibly mean anything else than a "throwing down." So, for example, the saints are spoken of as "persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed"! (2 Corinthians 4:9). So also in Revelation 12:10 the text reads, "The accuser of our brethren is cast down." And in Hebrews 11:11 Sarah is given strength for the "casting out" of her seed, i.e., for the delivering of her child when she was past age. Moreover, in Hebrews 6:1 both words, or derivatives of them, occur in the same sentence. This passage must surely be translated "not again casting out [i.e., throwing away] the foundation of repentance. . . ." In his exhaustive commentary on the New Testament, Olshausen at this point dealt at some length with this and concluded: (16)
We are therefore reduced to the necessity of taking Kataballesthai (the verb form) in the signification which is the original one and the most common, namely, "to throw down," "demolish," "destroy": which the word has in all the Greek classical writers and which it cannot surprise us to find in our author who writes elegant Greek.
Olshausen then adds a number of illuminating remarks regarding such usages to support his contention, and comments, "The apostle would assuredly not have dissuaded men from 'laying again' the foundation of repentance, in the case of its having been destroyed."
Note the careful use of words here in the
passage: not again "casting away" (
kataballomenoi) the "foundation" (
-- themelion) of repentance. This sentence is most
significant in that the two words under consideration appear in juxtaposition,
so placed as to convey a careful distinction between the concepts involved.
Some texts of the New Testament use here a form of the word ballo ()
meaning simply "to throw." But other
16. Olshausen, Hermann, Biblical Commentary on the New Testament, translated by A. C. Kendrick Sheldon. New York. 1861, vol. VI, p. 431. pg.14 of 20
variant texts have the more specific
form katablethe (
thus showing clearly what is the real meaning of this verb form as
the New Testament writers employed it, since the more specific form means
not merely to "throw," but to "throw down."
In his Introduction, and in a note on the
early stages of Sophism -- a phase in the development of Greek philosophy
which led to a very general skepticism and indeed to Pilate's query "What
is Truth?" -- Forman has this passage: (17)
"Protagoras was a despairing skeptic, yet quite content withal, and
on the assumed basis, quite hopeful of furthering humanity's progress
by teaching rhetoric and what he called 'knock-down arguments'."
In this sentence the same root word is employed (
-- kataballontes logoi). It is therefore evident that classical
Greek attached the same general meaning to the word.
Since kosmos in Greek is a word which
implies order or arrangement and thence came to mean "ornament"
also, it is not surprising that such a catastrophe should have been given
an accepted and peculiarly appropriate phraseology, "The disruption
of the ordered world" (
-- katabole tou kosmou ).
Moreover, if the days of Genesis were to be taken as long, long periods of time, perhaps millions of years, it would mean that the fall of man is separated from the actual "foundation of the world" by a very long period -- a period in fact in the light of which the total span of subsequent human history seems to be of little importance in point of time. To fix the time of the original creation as a significant "landmark" in God's redemptive plan as applied to man is therefore rather strange. But if we are here face to face with a judgment of the earth, introduced as a result of sin on the part of Satan and some of the angels, the effects of which were still clearly in evidence only six days before Adam was created, it is much more logical to consider this as a significant point in time from which to date the details of redemption. For the fall of Satan led to the fall of man also. But, of course, this brings us to another controversy -- whether the days of Genesis are true days or long periods of time.
There are only a few ways of determining the laws of syntax and grammar in any language. One means is by the traditions revealed in rudimentary grammatical notes from earliest times. This method yields very small results, although it has yielded some in the study of cuneiform texts; it is characteristic of the Jewish people to have
17. Forman, L. L., Plato Selections, Macmillan, London, 1900, p.39 pg.15 of 20
preserved all kinds of miscellaneous data regarding their own Scriptures, some of which help toward determining the laws of language. pg.16 of 20
Another method, most commonly in use, is to examine the literature and establish laws on the basis of actual use, making due allowance for poetic license and for exceptions. Hebrew is a particularly beautiful language, and although very difficult to master at first, it is most satisfying to study. Its laws regarding the use of numerals may appear to us as strange, but they are nevertheless well established. So far no rules have been sufficiently agreed upon with respect to the use of the word day (the Hebrew word yom, as used throughout the Creation account) by which its exact meaning may be determined in individual cases. At least no rules have yet appeared in textbooks of grammar or syntax. Sometimes it means a period of twenty-four hours, and sometimes an indefinite period.
However, it is evident that there is a possibility of establishing its particular meanings by a consideration of the qualifying words. If we exclude the usage in Genesis 1 from the argument, it is found as an invariable rule that in all other cases whenever the word day is used and whenever it is accompanied by a numeral, it refers to an actual day. Any concordance will quickly reveal that this is so. There is in fact only one type of exception, which is not really an exception but rather an indirect confirmation of the "rule" it appears to break, namely, that on one or two occasions a specified number of days are said to mean a specified number of years. But the very fact that these occasions are very carefully followed by an explanatory note is sufficient to consider them as deliberate departures from common usage rather than as grounds for latitude in interpreting the word as a general rule. And if it were intended in these cases to make it even more explicit, the word day is enlarged upon somewhat by using the more elaborate phrase "evening and morning." Thus Daniel 8:14 reads, "And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." The Hebrew here has "unto 2,300 evenings and mornings." The Revised Version has perhaps wisely followed this literally.
The object of this peculiar emphasis seems to arise out of the circumstances. Daniel was greatly troubled on account of the great trials which were to come upon the Chosen People and their city, and his cry goes up, with the cries of other saints, "How long?" Then this answer is given in very precise terms. It is not of indefinite duration, but 2,300 exact days, a period elsewhere revealed as being exactly 3 1/2 years (half a week of years), and another period of 2 years 10 months and 20 days. We need not attempt any interpretations of
prophecy here, but it should be
pointed out that the phrase "evening-morning" came to be a familiar
one. The Hebrew thought was subsequently translated into Greek and is
found in 2 Corinthians 11:25 (
-- nuchthemeron), where Paul says, "A night and a
day I have been in the deep." This compound form does not appear
to have been used in classical Greek at all. It must therefore be truly
a Hebrew thought expressed in Greek by a coined word, and its use in this
instance may have been because Paul was writing this passage with the
Hebrew people particularly in mind.
It can never be argued dogmatically, even if the matter of the usage of this word should find its way into some textbook of Hebrew grammar. The "laws" in such textbooks, after all, represent little more than an agreement of the experts, a consensus of opinion based on known occurrences. Yet the weight of literary evidence seems to be in favour of actual days, even if such a conclusion presents problems for the student of natural science.
The fact is that the Hebrew language just
does not have any other way of expressing the exact idea of a true day!
How else could it have been written? But the idea of a long period of
time could have been very easily written in a number of clear and unambiguous
ways. The use of the word 'olam ()
would have been logical, for example; on many occasions 'olam
is used of great ages in the past of indeterminate duration. It seems
a clear departure from the obvious sense of the original to interpret
these days as anything but true days. A phrase such as "the day of
the Lord" or "the day of salvation" is unambiguous, and
it is hard to see how a day of "an evening and a morning" is
any more difficult to interpret. A child would have no hesitation in understanding
the primary significance of each. There is no warrant from other passages
for denying the obvious meaning.
This view is not by any means held exclusively by evangelicals or conservatives of the older school. As will be seen in the appendix which deals with this point, a letter to a select group of Hebrew scholars who are heads of their respective departments in nine major universities reveals a basic unanimity on this point. They consider that from a strictly linguistic or grammatical point of view, the Author intended a period of a common day.
Some years ago, Dr. Herbert Ryle, a churchman not to be confused with his father, the Evangelical Bishop Ryle, but a man of higher critical persuasion and no mean scholar, wrote as follows on this point: (18)
18. Ryle, Herbert, The Early Narratives of Genesis, Macmillan, London, 1904, pp.2-26. pg.17 of 20
If, then, it was still to be supposed that Gen. 1 definitely instructed us in science, some other interpretation of "the days" than the old literal one had to be found. The very discoveries of physical science suggested a solution. If "the days" were understood not as literal days but as infinite ages, or as vast periods in the development of the earth's formation, then it seemed as if the threatened contradiction of Scripture and Science might be averted, and as if the words of Genesis might receive unexpected confirmation from the testimony of Science.
Accordingly, the metaphorical interpretation of "the days" found very general favour. Scholars and men of science have sought to show how, with allowance for the exigencies of poetic language, the statements of the opening chapter of Genesis may be brought into comparatively close agreement with even the most recent results of scientific inquiry.
But just as, in the earlier phase of interpretation, it was found that, by starting from a literal interpretation, a collision with scientific facts could not be avoided, so now, in the later phase, it is an objection that, starting from the facts of science, it has been necessary to have recourse to a forced or, at any rate, a non-literal interpretation. In a passage of striking simplicity of language, it is impossible not to feel an uncomfortable suspicion that it cannot be right to attach a non-literal explanation to just that one single word, the literal meaning of which happens to be a stumbling block in the way of the desired method of exegesis. And surely the doubt whether this non-literal explanation of "the days" can be correct, will be intensified in the mind of any one who also considers that the proposed explanation could never have suggested itself to the ancient Israelite, and would never today have been mooted, but for the discoveries of modern science.
Yet if it is true that in Genesis 1:3ff. we have a picture of how God renewed the face of the earth by sending forth His Spirit (Psalm 104:30) after a judgment in which He had hidden His face (Psalm 104:29) so that animal life had perished by reason of a major catastrophe, what follows may very reasonably be understood as six days of re-creation. pg.18 of 20
It is not our purpose to examine the work of these days. But we may observe here the peculiar way in which the work of the "first" day is not spoken of as the work of the first day; it is merely said to be "one day." The implication of the Hebrew is that "there came a day when" God called His creative light to work again upon the earth's surface, after many days in which the earth had remained a ruin. It was not the first day strictly speaking, since the earth had seen many before in a previous creation. It was "one day" which arrived in God's good time. Naturally as a point of departure we may reasonably pass on to a "second" and "third" day, and so on. The word used without the article is also significant, as though to signify not the first day but merely as we have said, "one day." This was not the beginning of time. The second, third, fourth, and fifth days are then qualified by the use of ordinal numbers to indicate their relationship to the work of the first day. The sixth and seventh are once more
signally marked off by the use of the definite article as though the writer would draw attention to the climax of creation and the pause which followed. pg.19 of 20
Now, this is not because the Hebrew normally
uses one without the definite article by rule, for it does not.
Any number of passages reveal this (cf. for example, the Hebrew in Genesis
2:11; 4:19). And while the word one in Hebrew may occasionally
be used instead of the word for "first" (i.e., echod
instead of the word rishon �� )
this occurs only when the definite article is added, making it by way
of distinction "the one . . . the other," and so forth. In this
passage there must be a specific reason for the construction as it is,
and by understanding it as we have suggested, a distinct idea is revealed.
"There came a day when. . ." This is not merely a "question
of words"; it is a matter of the actual intent of the original.
Those who suggest that the days were geological ages argue that the term "evening and morning" really defines the beginning and the conclusion of these ages. Apart from the fact, however, that these ages do not actually exist except in textbooks where they are adopted for mnemonic reasons, there are perfectly good Hebrew words for beginning and end, were these what the Author really had in mind.
It is never quite fair to make appeals for special meanings, unless the language has no other way of conveying the idea. If we adopted this governing principle on all occasions (and not one of us does), it might save a lot of argument. However, it often happens, as Neander pointed out long ago, that a man sees some point of interpretation as a fundamental issue, and dare not yield for fear that the whole body of Christian truth will be endangered. Such a spirit of adherence to an idea is often due to anxiety for the welfare of the whole truth rather than for a single aspect of it. And while such concern is commendable in itself, it is a great pity that as members of the blameless family of God, we cannot learn to disagree agreeably when the issue is not vital, instead of impugning the intelligence (even the honesty sometimes) of our opponents. It is unwise to close one's mind to an alternative which is not vital, while other more vital issues are left without sufficient definition. Not infrequently, dogmatism is exactly in inverse proportion to scholarship -- perhaps it inevitably is.
It is hardly fair to argue that we must assume God would want us to take the plain sense of Scripture and that by all this preamble we are departing from it. It is hardly fair for two reasons. The first is the assumption that the English text as we read it is the plain sense of Scripture. The second is that we have to decide whether we mean the
plain sense of verse 2 or the plain sense of the word day! We can hardly argue for both, as they stand, unless we hold the universe to be not much more than six thousand years old. The very people who argue most strongly for the "plain sense" of verse 2 have a tendency to "interpret" the "days" of the rest of the chapter as geological ages even though it seems obvious that the writer had real days in mind IN A FORMER STATE GOD PERFECTED THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH.
The fact is that in many cases the plain sense of the Hebrew can only be determined by a Hebrew scholar. Even then he may be led or misled by what he thinks the text ought to say. Nevertheless, no one acquainted with Hebrew and able to read it with some fluency keeping track of its subtle forms of syntax, will question the allowability of what we have thus far suggested with respect to the text itself. It may take a long time to arrive at a true translation of a passage, even knowing the laws of the language and its vocabulary. Many passages have taken years to translate so that the real meaning is clear; some are not yet truly "translated." We are not labouring to interpret these two verses to suit a thesis. It required very careful study to notice the exact pointing, the choice of words, the order and significance of inclusions and omissions. This is Hebrew, and it must be studied as Hebrew.
I can well remember spending eleven hours trying to translate the very first line of the Prism of Sennacherib from the cuneiform original. It was only a few words long, and I finally ended up with this sentence: "May the god Sin multiply brothers." Actually it was the name Sennacherib! True, the name has this meaning approximately, but the mere possession of a dictionary and a grammar were not enough. We had failed to notice a little sign which indicated that what followed was a name!
Since then I have learned by many other experiences in the study of a number of oriental languages that, unlike our own literature, the very simplicity of them in certain respects often tended to make exact statement depend upon small "artificial" means. These means make all the difference in the world! Unless we take proper account of such apparent inconsequentialities, we cannot safely say we have translated even the simplest passage of the original Hebrew.
And therefore, with no claim to infallibility and certainly in no spirit of unbending dogmatism, we submit that a more exact translation of these verses would be something like this:
BUT THE EARTH HAD BECOME A RUIN AND A DESOLATION,
AND THE DARKNESS OF JUDGMENT WAS UPON THE FACE OF IT.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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