May 4, 2007

On this site I hope to discuss, over time, the biblical view of the cosmos and human origins, and how it differs drastically both from the scientific facts and from various views held by fundamentalistic Creationists today.  The chief text for such a discussion is the book of Genesis.

The problems of Genesis begin with the very first words. There are two ways of translating them, depending on how one adds vowels to the Hebrew consonantal letters.

Traditional: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness on the face of the deep....

Non-traditional (Rashi): When God began to create the heavens and earth--the earth being formless and empty and darkness upon the face of the deep,....

The difference might at first glance seem unimportant, but it actually presents two very different views of creation. The traditional account favors creation "ex nihilo," "out of nothing." God began with nothing and created everything.

The second and non-traditional translation, which has the advantage that it is supported by Hebrew grammatical usage, favors creation "from something." When God began the creation of the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and empty, and there was an abyss of waters.

If we continue the two translational approaches, traditional and non-traditional, we encounter even more problems:

Traditional: ...and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Non-traditional: ...and a mighty wind was moving over the face of the waters.

There are, of course, slight variations in translation of the non-traditional form in various Bibles printed today. Some read "a mighty wind," for example, while others say "a wind from God" or something similar.

The point is that the beginning of Genesis has been translated in various ways, and just which translation should be correct depends on the context in which one views it.  It is not clear as it stands.   If one takes the scholarly approach, linguistics and textual and cultural context will take precedence, favoring the non-traditional. If one is a strict "Bible believer," one will favor the "traditional" in spite of the grammatical and contextual problems it presents, because to deny it would mean accepting that God did not create the universe from nothing. And strict Bible believers are very suspicious of changes in translation of Genesis in general, because they view the biblical creation story as a bastion against geological and biological evolution, which they view as deadly to their doctrinal systems.

Another point against the non-traditional translation in the view of traditionalists is that it puts the Genesis tale of Creation in the same category as the old Babylonian Creation Epic called Enuma Elish, so named from its first words, which mean "When on high...."When on high the Heavens had not been named,

Firm ground below had not been called by name,

Nothing but 'Primordial Apsu' the Begetter, [Fresh Water]

and 'Mummu Tiamat', She Who Bore them All, [Salt Water]

—their waters commingling as a single body—


That in its essentials is remarkably like the beginning of Genesis in its non-traditional translation. Both begin with God creating not "in the beginning" but "when" or "at the time of." In both there is initially nothing but the primal waters, in the case of Genesis the "Deep" (Hebrew tehom) in the Enuma fresh water personified under the name "Apsu" and salt water personified under the name "Mummu Tiamat, " both mingled. Scholars have noted the similarity of Tiamat and Tehom, because Hebrew and Babylonian were related Semitic languages, and if we remove the -at ending of the name Tiam-at that indicates a female, we have Tehom and Tiam, very close to one another, and likely the same in origin.

Further supporting the "non-traditional" reading of Genesis is the fact that the "traditional" reading presents two creations of the heavens:

Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....

Genesis 1:6-8:  And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters...And God called the firmament heaven...."

The "non-traditional" reading of Genesis 1:1 eliminates this bizarre problem, and is therefore to be preferred as the correct reading.

An additional difficulty is that the name used in both translations for God is in Hebrew Elohim. As has long been noted, this is a very odd word, because it is a plural form meaning literally "gods" rather than "God, " and it is frequently used in its plural and literal "gods" sense. Yet it came to be interpreted, in certain cases -- such as here -- as meaning a single god, and that is how it is generally translated. Some think it reflects an earlier form of the Hebrew story in which creation was the work of more than one god (think of the Genesis words, "Let US make man in OUR image"), and that later monotheists, in their revisionism, kept the plural term of the earlier story but theologically reduced its meaning to refer to one god.

Because there is some significance in which name is used in the text for God, I will repeat here the non-traditional translation with the name in transliterated Hebrew. Why I do that will later become clear. I will also put some of the other important terms in the phrase back into their Hebrew form so that you may get a better picture of the nature of the text and of the problems raised by it:

Non-traditional: When God began to create the shamayim and the arets--the arets being formless and empty and darkness upon the face of the tehom and the ruach elohim moving upon the face of the mayim...

shamayim = heavens

arets = earth

tehom = the Deep (waters)

ruach = spirit, wind

elohim = divine (lit. of the gods), from /of God, mighty

mayim = waters

With those definitions in mind, we can continue.

And Elohim said, let light [or] be! And light [or] was. And Elohim saw the light [or] as good. And Elohim separated the light [ha-or] from the darkness [ha-hoshekh]. And Elohim called light [or] day [yom] and darkness he called night [laelah].

Light is here not only created before any heavenly body or any light-producing object, but it is also seen as something that can be separated from darkness. This separation of light from darkness is what produces day and night. Note that day and night here are completely unrelated to the existence or presence of the sun or any other light source, and to the motion of the earth in relation to the sun or any other light source (in biblical thought, the earth is fixed and does not move nor rotate).

And evening was and morning was, Day [yom] One.

The major questions anyone hoping to consider this account factual truth must face so far are:

1. Was biblical creation from nothing or from something already existing?

2. How can there be day and night in the absence of a sun to light the earth, and no mention of the rotation of the earth on its axis in relation to the sun, which is what causes day and night?

3. The next problem exists largely because of the various theories held by different fundamentalists concerning the length of the days of creation. There is no indication in the text that "day" (yom) means anything other than a normal, 24-hour day. But some fundamentalists would like the day of Genesis to be much longer than that, to fit this or that Creationist theory. So some interpret the days as periods of 1,000 years each, and some consider them periods of even longer units of time, perhaps thousands of years. Nonetheless, as we have seen, there is nothing in the text that would indicate the days of the Creation story were anything but normal, 24-hour days. Otherwise we would be faced with days and nights of extraordinary length, and that would create further problems.

And Elohim said, "Let there be a raqia' between the waters [ha-mayim] and let it separate waters [mayim] from waters [mayim]. So Elohim made the raqia' and separated the waters [ha-mayim] under the raqia' from the waters [ha-mayim] above the raqia. And it was so. And Elohim called the raqia' sky [shamayim].

I have deliberately left the term raqia' untranslated here, because it is another very severe problem fundamentalists must face. To understand why it is a problem requires discussion of the term as it is used in Hebrew and in translation.

The Hebrew verb raqa means to hammer, beat out or spread something by means of beating or hammering. A raqia' then is something that has been spread out in that manner. It is used in the Old Testament to refer to plates or sheets of metal that have been hammered out, as a coppersmith hammers out an ingot of copper or brass into a plate or bowl, increasing its width by blows.

We see the verbal usage in Job 37:18:

"Can you like him spread out the skies, hard as a cast [in the "metal" sense] mirror?"

This tells us first, that the skies (shehaqim) are spread out like a hammered sheet of metal, and second, that they are as hard as a mirror cast of molten metal. In ancient times mirrors were not of glass, but of polished, cast metal.

Shachaq, the singular of which shehaqim is the plural, is a versatile term meaning variously translated, depending on context, to mean "sky," "clouds," or "dust." In this case it obviously means "skies" a synonym for the raqia'. Its root relates to beating something, which in the case of the "dust" translation is obviously carried to its end -- something beaten to powder.

That the correct understanding here is a synonym for raqia' (firmament), may be seen in the Septuagint Greek translation, which represents it by stereoseis or stereotheis, both related to stereoma, the firmament, that which is made firm and solid. Job is thus in keeping with the Genesis understanding of the sky as something stretched out as a plate or bowl of metal is stretched out by hammering, and is hard and solid as a mirror made of cast metal.

It is not surprising that in Akkadian, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, a rakiah (raqia') is a copper, beaten dome. Thus the sky of Genesis was considered to be a hard dome, spread out much as beaten metal is spread out. That does not of course mean it was understood to be precisely metal, necessarily, but that it was a hard substance that could be spread out as beaten metal was spread out by hammering -- the dome of the sky.

Posted at 07:09 am by hokku
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