A Layman's Commentary on the Book of Genesis
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. - Genesis 1:1 (ASV)
בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ - In Hebrew (WLC)
- In the beginning of what?
- What/Who is God?
- What does it mean to create?
- What is/are the Heaven(s)?
- Why is the term Heaven used as a plural in so many translations?
- What is the Earth?
- Do the order of the words have any significance?
|ראשית | re'shiyth (feminine noun)||אלהים | 'elohiym (masculine noun)||ברא | bara' (verb)||את | 'eth (particle)||שמים | shamayim (masculine noun)||את | 'eth (particle)||ארץ | 'erets (feminine noun)|
|beginning||God||create, shape, form||heaven||and?||land|
In the beginning of what?
I believe it is generally assumed that we are talking about the beginning of the universe. Now while I do agree with this assumption, I would like to point out that it is an ASSUMPTION at this point in our reading of the text. If our goal is to read things in "context" (and I believe it should be) then it is important for us to identify any assumptions we may be making so that others can follow our line of reasoning and keep us accountable. It is a human weakness that it is easier for us to make "obvious" conclusions based on what we read than it is to classify such statements as assumptions. Throughout this commentary, I will consecutively number as many of my assumptions as to the meaning of the text as I am aware of. Being not only a human, but a "layman" I am sure I will miss some of my own assumptions and encourage anyone who finds one to contact me so I can document them. Just keep in mind I am only trying to identify assumptions about the meaning of the text at this time and these are the only ones which I currently want to address.
A1) Genesis 1:1 "In the beginning" refers to the beginning of the universe.
Nearly all of the English Bible translations start off with "In the beginning." I am NOT a scholar in hebrew text (ancient or otherwise) so the following observations are to be taken "with a block of salt":
The words "in" and "the" do not seem to be in the original hebrew text.(at least, there are no Strong's numbers assigned to them) and the one assigned to the word "beginning" does not seem to indicate that "In the beginning" would be a "word for word" translation. The hebrew word does seem to have a variety of possible meanings (naturally all based on "context" of use.) One of the listed meanings is the word "first." If one of my goals is getting to a "word for word" translation (and it is) then would it alter the meaning of the text to replace "In the beginning" with "First?"
First God created the heavens and the earth.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Seems to mean the same thing to me, so at this point, I will keep the substitution and gladly accept any criticisms which readers may choose to send my way.
What/Who is God?
I realize this may seem odd, but at this point there is actually very little we can say about the nature of God. Limiting ourselves only to the context of the text, God (at present) can only be known as "a creator" (whatever that is) in general and "the creator" specifically of the heavens (whatever they are) and the earth (whatever that is.) Once again the Strong's number for this in hebrew has various meanings depending on context. All of the English translations use the singular God while the hebrew form of the word is a plural. There are times when this word is used as a plural in other passages and I believe this will help to further clarify the nature of God. At present, however, the context limits us to a knowledge of God only as the creator of the heavens and the earth.
What does it mean to create?
The primary listed meanings for the original hebrew word (according to Strong's) are: create, shape, form. Most of what I have heard about this creating was that it was done "ex-nihilo" or out of nothing. From a context standpoint all we can really say at this time is that the first recorded action of God was to create the heavens and the earth.
What is/are the Heaven(s)?
Nearly all of the english translations translate the hebrew word as a plural which I take to mean that whatever is meant by that hebrew word, more than one of them was created by God. Generally, we tend to use the word heavens as an inclusive term for the sky above our heads (clouds, "above" them the planets, and "above" them the stars, and "above" them the rest of the universe.) If this is also true for the original hebrew word, then I do note at this time that the heavens are a vastly larger collection of things than the second thing which the bible records as having been created namely the earth. I also would like to add that the hebrew word is derived from a primitive hebrew root word which does not appear in the Bible. The meaning of this "primitive root" according to Strongs' is "to be lofty". As with everything else, at this time I think we are forced by the text to be rather limited in what we can say about the nature of these created heavens until we progress further into the text.
Why is the term Heaven used as a plural in so many translations?
What is the Earth?
When compared to the vastness of the implied meaning of "heavens" the hebrew word for earth is incredibly small. I do not think this is an accident (not sure I even believe in "accidents".) As with many of our english words, the exact meaning of the hebrew word is very dependent on the context of it's use. I do think it is important to note that all of the translations treat this as a singular term in contrast to the plural for heavens. Once again, the hebrew word is derived from a primitive hebrew root word which does not appear in the Bible. This "primitive root" according to Strongs' is believed to mean "to be firm". As before we are forced by the text to be rather limited in what we can say about the nature of this created earth until we progress further into the text.
Does the order of the words have any significance?
First of all, nearly everything about hebrew is different than for english. Any observations of word order in an english translation are less important than those in the original language. I do not know if the order in which the terms heavens and earth appear can be used to indicate that God created the heavens first and then then earth or if such information cannot be gathered from the original hebrew text. If the word order is significant in hebrew, (which it may well be since all of the english translations I have read list these words in the same order) then I think this sets up a repeating pattern which can be very important as we move further into the text. The pattern which I would like to suggest begins with this first verse. It is a continuous refocusing of attention from a large thing to a smaller part of the original. The pattern in verse one begins with God, moves to the heavens, and then moves to the earth.
And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters - Genesis 1:2 (ASV)
וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהֹום וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּֽיִם׃ - In Hebrew (WLC)
- Does the word "and" do more than link verses 1 and 2?
- What does it mean that the earth was waste?
- What does it mean that the earth was void?
- What is darkness?
- What is the deep and why is it singular?
- What is the face of the deep?
- What does darkness being upon the face of the deep mean?
- What/Who is the Spirit of God?
- What are the waters and why are they plural?
- What is the face of the waters?
- What does it mean for the Spirit of God to be moving upon the face of the waters?
- Is the motion of the Spirit compared to the apparent lack of motion of the darkness significant?
Does the word "and" do more than link verses 1 and 2?
The reason I think this question is important is due to the number of things various people have attempted to place between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis. In all of the English translations it seems verse 1 could be a complete statement and the vast majority of such translations place a period at the end of the verse which would tend to strengthen that view. But here in verse 2 we begin with the conjunction "and" which most of the time means we are actually continuing a statment rather then starting a new one. Since at present I do not know the answer to this question, I think it is wise to describe some of the implications of both possibilities.
If verse 2 is actually the beginning of a new statement, then one could view verse 1 as a summary statement of the entire creation account. That would make verse 2 the beginning of a more detailed description of the creation process. Now I find this view appealing for reasons which may have little to do with what the Bible actually says. As I mentioned above in the questions about verse 1, I thinke there is a repeating pattern in the Bible of moveing from the larger to the smaller, a narrowing of our focus as we proceed into the story. Each time our focus narrows a corresponding increase in details is provided about the objects or events being described.
What does it mean that the earth was waste?
Many have struggled with this question as is evidenced by the number of conflicting views on the meaning of Gen 1:2 in general and this first phrase in particular. The translation I have used in the quote above (primarily due to copyright issues) uses the word "waste". This is a valid meaning of the original hebrew word according to Strong's concordance but most of the translations I have looked at seem to prefer the word "formless" or "without form".
What does it mean that the earth was void?
What is darkness?
What is the deep and why is it singular?
What is the face of the deep?
What does darkness being upon the face of the deep mean?
What/Who is the Spirit of God?
What are the waters and why are they plural?
What is the face of the waters?
What does it mean for the Spirit of God to be moving upon the face of the waters?
Is the motion of the Spirit compared to the apparent lack of motion of the darkness significant?