Translating Genesis?

Its not just a matter of translation. Perhaps what may need to be done is have a bible with a built in commentary to introduce the books of the bible and what type of works they may be. However I forsee problems because many may not agree with whatever introduction is provided.

Those kind of Bibles exist in English. For example:

The most one-for-one translation of the Bible into English is Young’s literal translation, m published in 1862, available with many other Bible versions at .
Young tried to preserve verb tenses and other grammatical structures, but the resulting English almost requires translation.

Genesis 1:
1 In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth –
2 the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness [is] on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters,
3 and God saith, Let light be;' and light is. 4 And God seeth the light that [it is] good, and God separateth between the light and the darkness, 5 and God calleth to the light Day,’ and to the darkness He hath called `Night;’ and there is an evening, and there is a morning – day one.


You are right that it needs a translation into English! But it is interesting how the tenses appear to imply a lot is already there before day 1 (if you are reading this as literal history). It appears to say that in the beginning, God was in the process of preparing to make the heavens and the earth, and before that, the earth was there, but empty. There was lots of darkness and there was the Spirit and there were waters… then day 1 starts! I am pretty sure that YECers would not be happy with this.

My Hebrew is too rusty to know whether this is an accurate rendition of the Hebrew tenses and aspects that appear here. I am aware that there are major differences in views as to what happens between v1 and v2.

I suspect that the only version that makes sense of the tenses used here is to say v1 is a title, and v2 starts with setting the scene: The earth is already in existence in this scene together with darkness and waters. Day 1 occurs based on that backdrop. It would not be effective to use this translation to argue for a non-literal interpretation of Gen 1, but it is interesting that the translator already seems to have the view of v1 as a title and v2 as scene setting - as if we are watching a play.

Yes, there is disagreement on the translation of the first 2 verses of Genesis, and there is no sense of creation ex nihilo. A watery chaotic world already exists, and God imposes order on it. We first get the idea of creation ex nihilo in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical book of II Maccabees. Denis Lamoureux has a good discussion of this in his book.

I think verse 1 could be understood as ex nihilo, But the point is that that is not in focus because the earth is seen as a kind of stage on which things happen. In this play, they aren’t concerned about the construction of the theatre! The play is all about creating order and creating relationship! And about the Creator being more powerful than everything else including sea monsters and stars and planets. So these verses are not a threat to the Biologos kind of theology. But for Young Earthers, v1 and 2 should be very worrying: Why is the earth there already? What does darkness mean if there is no light? Where are the waters as there is no land yet? And in later verses, how come God seems to be dividing up space, waters and land rather than creating it?.. Not to mention a ‘day’ without the sun etc.


Genesis is not as arbitrary, nor as easily “retranslated” as many might think. The rabbis had an approach to scripture called “midrash” that took into account (a) scripture is inspired, and (b) interpreters are not. This cuts across everything the Western tradition has done since 100AD, when it latched onto the Greek translation of the OT as the “true version”. This continued with the Byzantine bible (all in Greek), and the Western Vulgate (all in Latin). When the Reformation arrived with the Gutenberg Press, it is no surprise that Luther translated the Bible into German. We have now inherited a 2000 year tradition of reading Genesis in translation and asking "what does this mean?"
The point of midrash, however, is that the “meaning” is not the inspired thing–the words are. A text can have many “meanings” and still be the same, unaltered, original text. In fact, Stanley Fish argues in his many books on literary criticism that a book has as many meanings as there are readers of it. The rabbis would have disagreed, and said that even with interpretation, there are rules you must follow. These rules, or “middot” were famously summarized by Rabbi Hillel as the “Seven Middot” (check out the online Jewish encyclopedia). Just like modern seminaries, the number kept expanding over the years, and by the Medieval period there were many Jewish gnostics, writing things like the Zohar, a mystic interpretation of scripture. This gave “midrash” a bad name among Protestants, and a reluctance to admit that St Paul used midrash in Galations, Jesus used midrash in defeating the Saduccees, and the writer of the Hebrews is the longest midrash in the NT.
Instead, evangelical seminaries called the approach “2nd Temple Exegesis” and warned us young students not to engage in it. Which was just as well, since none of us had been trained in the middot of Rabbi Hillel.
Nevertheless, when it came to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the lack of training in Hebrew was deeply apparent. The early church, all the way up to the present, has leaned heavily on the Greek Septuagint (LXX) for meaning. Even when the LXX is clearly wrong, and clearly biased by Hellenistic science. In fact, I argue that Hellenistic science was in many ways no different than Modernist science, so the very same theological problems exist in its Genesis translation as exist today.
The struggles with Genesis translations observed in this blog are not struggles with conservative Christians today, but struggles with liberal Greeks two millennia ago. There really is only one answer, and it is the same answer given by devout Muslims, devout Hindus, devout Jews today – go back to the original language.

If you want to read more. I have a book coming out in the Fall, “The Long Ascent: Genesis 1-11 in Science and Myth”.

I guarantee you it will be unconventional.

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Interesting viewpoint! I agree that anyone seriously trying to translate Scripture needs to go back to the original language. But I don’t think it would be constructive to force everyone to learn those languages to understand Scripture - it would mean a large percentage of the world had no access, and a lot of those who began to learn the original languages would not master them to a level where their understanding is greater than reading a good translation. God is capable of speaking his message in any of the 7000 odd languages in the world. I think it would be a backwards step to claim we all have to learn the ones he used first! That would make things rather unfair - and I don’t think God is like that.

I do appreciate all the historical background you give though. And the church is rather good at throwing away the baby with the bathwater. So it is good to be reminded of things that we may have overlooked because of our history.

I agree that Greek thought has affected translation quite a bit. But modern translators don’t start from the Septuagint - and for anything as critical as Genesis 1, I would expect them to review at least 10 versions as well as the original (or as close as we can get), and to check on all of the best commentaries! And I would expect them to look at Jewish thinking as well as other viewpoints.

I am not sure that I agree about the words being inspired rather than the meaning - but I don’t think I want to get into a long discussion about inspiration! I will say this much: I am certain that God can reuse Scripture and give it new meaning (but we should be careful not to try to do the same!) Also, most of us on this site would probably believe that God gave authors a certain amount of freedom to express things in their way - so the words they used were to some extent their choice, and based on what they understood. But God safeguarded the meaning so that his message got through. I am so glad that the safeguarding of the message is something that God takes care of!

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It is clear that Shakespeare was the first to come up with the vapor canopy:

…this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Hamlet - Shakespeare



2/3rds of the Hebrew verbs in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4 are participles or imperfects. These normally indicate actions and commands that continue or continue in unbroken continuity. Yet when it comes to this text, most transalations follow the Latin traditions of ex nihilo one time commands and instant actions. The text never says he stopped commanding light. It never says he stopped commanding the lights in the heavens to become spreading things (Hebrew noun raqiya).

We confirm the literal text with the visible history of the universe. There are probably several trillion galaxies. The most distant galaxies are morphologically different from modern, local galaxies. At many ranges, we observe how streams of star globs emerge from point like cores, often growing into local growth spirals. The orbits and the atomic clocks both accelerate together as billions of galaxies continue to become spreading things, exactly as in the Hebrew text.

Moses did not even have any words for time in his aspectual language. He had no verb tenses to refer to time. He could not measure time or run out of It. Philosophers did not invent this undetectable continuum until 1000 years after his death. in his languages. Ancient people tuned their lives to nature’s changes, not time. They also accepted that change is deleterious, that the first people lived for geological ages in few days. Moses lists the changes we observe. He never mentions time at all, only evenings and mornings, which in the ancient worldview kept on speeding up throughout history.

Change and science are opposite worldview. Only the literal creation account is confirmed in the visible history of the galaxies.


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I think you mean, Shakespeare is the first one to suggest the sky is not a firmament… but an expanse of vapors…

I appreciate what you had to say about an aspect based language and imperfects. I speak a language that does this (it is very distantly related to Hebrew!) It takes a lot of getting used to. Even if the story happened a while back, it is told as if it is happening now. Perfects are used for events that are completed within the story framework.

I didn’t quite follow your last two sentences, but I get that we need to step out of our scientific worldview to really understand the world view at the time of Moses. (And the choice of words that they had available to them.)

This is still nonsense, same as the last time you tried to tell us. Please spare us all the sequel. Just a reminder that repeating the same ideas over and over again no matter what the subject, is spam, and will be deleted. We do not need any more information on “change and time are opposite worldviews.”


Amen and amen. And more amens. Amen.


Thanks Christy, that is the bit I didn’t get. I didn’t see the previous post.

I agree with godsriddle that predominantly aspect systems are different from predominantly time based systems - but normally in an aspect system, there is still a way to refer to previous time and future time relative to the main events of the narration (even if it is with words like “yesterday”). So the world can’t be neatly divided into two!

I don’t agree with what I think godsriddle is saying, that if an imperfective aspect is used in the original that a similar aspect must be used in the translation. Each grammar has to work within its own rules. But of course extra care needs to be taken to note if something is being lost in translation.

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We let Victor go on and on about his idiosyncratic worldview on this thread: Change and Time in Genesis

He’s proved to be quite impervious to dialogue.

It’s not really in the interest of BioLogos to give any more of a platform than we already have to his ideas.


Thanks for explaining. And thanks for jumping in as that isn’t really the direction I was hoping the translating Genesis thread would go! I’m pleased with a lot of the responses though.

Victor’s conclusions from the tenses of verbs is a very indirect way to infer much of anything. As every Greek prof will tell you, there isn’t really a whole lot of theology hiding in the aorist verb tense. Hebrew, if anything, is a bit worse than Greek. For one thing, we have shelves full of Greek literature, but in Hebrew we have only the OT. Everything becomes a special case.
But where Victor missed the boat was on the nouns. The nouns are a lot more interesting, for a scientist anyway, than the verbs. Verbs are hard to calibrate, nouns leave artifacts. And the nouns of Genesis are truly astonishing. Finding the meaning of all the nouns in Genesis 1-11 would be a life well-spent.

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Who taught you such a thing? I doubt that you would last 15 minutes with any Rabbi who is fluent in Hebrew.

Even if it were true, it would change virtually nothing.

These aspects of translation have been discussed in many commentaries, and often additional “meaning” is invoked in the process. I have pasted a few comments to illustrate:

1:1. In the beginning. Most of the controversy concerning 1:1 centers around the translation and grammatical import of the first two words in the Hebrew text. The first word (Heb berē˒shīt) is rendered as the above translation. If berē˒shīt is in the absolute state and bara˒ (created) is a finite verb, then the translation is as it has been traditionally rendered, an independent clause: In the beginning God created. This translation is the basis for the view of creatio ex nihilo. If, on the other hand, berē˒shīt is to be understood as being in the construct state, it would be translated as a dependent temporal clause, implying the existence of matter related in verse 2: When God began to create, or In the beginning when God created. Rashi, a well-known Jewish scholar (ca. a.d. 1105), was one of the first to propose the dependent clause translation. There are basically two main differences in interpretation among those who take this stance
KJV Bible commentary. 1997, c1994. Thomas Nelson: Nashville

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