In the Beginning…

1:1 As God began to order the cosmos,  
2     Earth was shrouded in confusion and chaos.  
     Darkness obscured the surface of the abyss,
     yet God's Spirit soared above the waters.
3    God spoke "Light be" and light was!
4     God saw that the light was beneficial, 
     God divided the light from the darkness.  
5     God named light "Day" and darkness "Night".
    Evening followed morning, the first day ended.
Genesis 1:1-5

If you are used to reading English translations based on the KJV (which is most) my translation of these verses from Genesis 1 is going to look very strange. I readily admit I am not very good reading Hebrew but I can, with help, pick my way through the original text.* The above is the product of years of reading, listening, and thinking about Genesis 1. I have read a number of times that to be a Christian one must believe these verses (true) and must believe they are literal scientific/historical information (false). I believe such claims are easily made when a person only ever read translations of Genesis 1 which are indebted to the KJV– which is most. The truth is many translations do not want to stray too far from the KJV for fear of garnering the attack, “They’re changing the Bible.” But I am not trying to sell my translation and so I fear no such comment, rather I am going to attempt to highlight what the text is trying to say.

It is impossible for me to read Genesis 1 and not see poetic imagery, the text is not proper poetry but the way the story is constructed highlights a rhythm and order that is part of the story. Genesis 1 is trying to tell us God is orderly and consistent and the language itself helps convey the message. This thoght was confirmed when I was listening to Bible Project Podcast (sorry I can’t remember which episode) and Tim Mackie pointed out that the first creation story, Genesis1:1-2:4, opens and closes with lines that compose 21 words. This might not sound important to you if you have not spent time reading Hebrew but these kinds of details give a glimpse into the purpose of the passage. The symmetry in word number not only sets the passage apart from the next story (the creation of the Garden) but also helps foreground the theme of bringing order from chaos.

With this in mind I set myself the goal of trying to recreate the number sequence in as much of the passage as possible. The first step was to create a very literal translation and then to see if I could retain the meaning and sense while written the lines in seven word segments. Time will tell if I am able to get through the whole passage, but so far as I read the passage in this format I find it helps me see the original style better than the wooden prose of many translations.

It would be the height of foolishness to think that a simple repetition of multiples of seven words at the beginning and end of a passage justify a conclusion that this story is meant to focus on order within creation. But when we look closely at the language of 1:2 the words traditionally translated “formless and void” [mine: confusion and chaos] are somewhat gibberish and meant to highlight the chaos of a storm tossed sea. The picture 1:2 creates is God looking down at a stormy sea and the chaos present and thinking about putting all of the pieces in the right order so they function efficiently. Further, everyone should quickly recognize the pattern that God identifies a void each day then fills the void, and the description of each day incorporates a series of repetitions. The biggest repetition of all is how God moves through Cosmic space from biggest to smallest (day 1- the whole of creation, day 2- the whole the globe, day 3, dry land) and then moves back to the top and moves down the ladder again filling the space created in the first three days. While this is a very orderly picture it does not align to anything we know about creation from a scientific or historical perspective. The text represents a picture of God pushing chaos to the margins in days 1-3 then filling the newly created space in days 4-6.

We as moderns do not conceptualize chaos as a physical entity which can be thrust to the side, rather we see chaos as simply a lack of pattern within events. This reality means it is far less natural for us to understand the creation story of Genesis 1 in terms of the Divine restriction of chaos. It is far more likely that Christians will be influenced by the doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo because of years of reading translations based on the KJV (which is based on the Latin Vulgate which opens, “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram”, which literally translated reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”). I do not deny that God create from nothing, that is God did not need material building blocks to form creation, but is that really what Genesis 1 is discussing?

The Hebrew text of Genesis opens with the word בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית (Be re’sit) this is actually two words which wooden definitions mean “in” and “beginning”, which at first glance seem like the KJV would have rendered the Hebrew very naturally, but there is a problem the Hebrew text lacks a definite article, there is no “the”. What this means in simple terms is the line reads “In a beginning” but that is neither good English nor what the Hebrew is conveying.* Genesis 1:1 is not talking of the cosmological beginning of the universe but the beginning of God’s activity within the story. While in a historical sense the universe began when God started creating it, the Hebrew author is not approaching the subject that way. What made me recognize this fact is Genesis 1 never talks about God creating water, the seas (or Abyss) are already present when God begins this process. If the text was referencing the beginning of time that would mean the waters were there when creation began and God did not create ex nihilo, but within the Biblical worldview such a concept is illogical, therefore the words must be pointing to something other than the beginning of time. The beginning in the text is the beginning of God’s work to “create” the cosmos, verse 1 is then an introduction to the story that unfolds in the rest of the passage, but not necessarily the historical start of time. The fact that the Hebrew is not talking of the beginning of time but the beginning of God’s work means we should translate the opening of Genesis not “In the beginning” but “When” or “As” “God began…”.

The reality that many English speaking readers approach Genesis 1 expecting a step-by-step description of God’s making the world from nothing predisposes them to see this in the text. But it also means we overlook truly problematic questions (like: “why is there no description of God creating water?”) and fail to see what the text is actually describing. We miss a very large component which is that God’s work is to bring order from chaos, useful space from uninhabitable and harmful existence. Recognizing this theme in the text of Genesis 1 has important ramifications for us as we live in this world. In Genesis 1:31 God’s commissions humanity to the task of “subduing” and “taking dominion”; read against the backdrop of creation being the story of God bringing order and well-being to the cosmos these tasks take on a specific dimension. If God’s work in creating is to bring order from chaos and provide space for life then our work in taking dominion is to continue that work. The tapestry of Genesis 1 climaxes as God hands off a degree of the authority over preserving order to humanity and then enters a state of rest.

Even here we must be careful not to confuse the word translated “rest” with relaxing, napping, or laziness. Rather the rest of Genesis is a state of peace brought on by the fact that the world is operating as it should. God’s rest comes not because God was “done” creating or needed to model a work rest balance for us, but because at that moment the cosmos was properly ordered, chaos was driven from view and creatures had filled their roles– everything was at peace. And with this Genesis 2:4 places a capstone on the story by enclosing the unit with 21 words bringing balance to the narrative.

*Since I am not a Hebrew scholar I will recommend the two works that were the most influential to my understanding of the technical grammar, John Walton The Lost World of Genesis One and Victor Hamilton Genesis 1-11 “New International Commentary on the Old Testament”.

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