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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Genesis 1:1

by  Robert C. Redden, M.A.

Q.

I have heard it said that Genesis 1:1 allows lengthy time periods to be inserted into the biblical text, thus accommodating an ancient Earth. Is this true?

A.

The first verse of the Bible is so dear to every believer that it can be recited from memory by almost all. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This simple rendition of the Hebrew tells us about the beginning of all things by the creative act of Almighty God. But what appears so simple on the surface often hides a complexity of difficulties underneath. Such is no exception in the case of Genesis 1:1. A comparison of several translations, or alternate translations in the margins of some Bibles, will reveal a disagreement hotly debated in scholarly circles.

One particular translation is mentioned simply because of the serious doctrinal error promoted by it. Ferrar Fenton’s, The Holy Bible in Modern English, radically departs from the standard translations. Notice the rendering of Genesis 1:1 in that version: “By periods God created that which produced the Solar Systems; then that which produced the Earth.” We are not left wilthout explanation for his novel translation. He writes in a footnote: “Literally, ‘By headships.’ It is curious that all translations of the Septuagint have rendered this word B’RESHITH, into the singular, although it is plural in the Hebrew. So I rendered it accurately.” So says Fenton!

Actually, this is a glaring mistake. A Hebrew concordance lists five occurrences where “in the beginning” appears in the Old Testament: Genesis 1:1; Jeremiah 26:1; 27:1; 28:1; 49:34. When these are read in any standard translation, nothing but the singular is intended. The Hebrew expression has a prefixed preposition that does not alter the number of the word. It occurs without the preposition in Genesis 10:10, and is translated in the singular “the beginning.” Although occurring with a different preposition in Isaiah (46:10), the use is decisive. God, says the prophet, declares the end from “the beginning.” Certainly the prophet teaches only one beginning, but Fenton’s grammatical analysis would assume otherwise. Add to this passage, Psalms 111:10—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The singular meaning is obvious.

It must be the ending of the Hebrew word that suggested to Fenton the number [i.e., the plurality] of the word. I know of no other possibility. A comparison of words with similar endings with singular meanings might be helpful.
 

Beginning—resh-ith, Genesis 1:1; 10:10
Greatness—marb-ith, 1 Chronicles 12:29
Captivity—sheb-ith, 2 Chronicles 28:11
Spear—hen-ith, 1 Samuel 20:33
Terror—hit-ith, Ezekiel 32:23 

These words are classified as feminine singular nouns according to Davidson’s Analytical Hebrew Lexicon. According to Samuel Green, feminine nouns ending in “ith” form their plurals by the ending “yyuth” (1901, p. 48). An example of the plural is found in Exodus 1:16 where the Hebrew is translated “the Hebrew women.” According to Even-Shoshan’s Hebrew concordance, no plural form for “beginning” occurs in the Old Testament. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) translators obviously knew the Hebrew better than Mr. Fenton! Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek would allow, much less demand, Fenton’s [mis]translation.

Another erroneous rendition in verse one is the statement that God created “that which produced the Solar Systems; then that which produced the Earth.” According to this view, “the heavens and the earth” were made out of pre-existing materials. This suggests that the verse has nothing to say about the actual beginning of all things!

In response, one must note that the Hebrew bara and its English equivalent “create” are transitive verbs. They both, therefore, require direct objects to complete their meaning. The Hebrew, along with the standard translations, give two direct objects—“the heavens and the earth.” Since the direct objects modify the verb “create,” and the act of creation took place at the beginning, then no pre-existing materials were present when the creation took place. While the word “create” in Hebrew does not necessarily prove “creation-out-of-nothing,” it certainly does not exclude the idea either.

Actually, according to Bernhardt, the use of “created” with the phrase “in the beginning” clearly teaches a creation without pre-existing materials. “As a special theological term, BARA is used to express the incomparability of the creative work of God in contrast to all the secondary products and likenesses made from already existing material by man.” He continues: “This verb does not denote an act that somehow can be described, but simply states that, unconditionally, without further intervention, through God’s command something comes into being that had not existed before. ‘He commanded and they were created’ (Psalms 148:5)” (n.d., 2:246-247). It should be no surprise, therefore, to discover that God is always the subject of this verb. God, Who exists eternally, brings into existence the things that previously had no existence!

Various translations, however, suggest that Genesis 1:1 has nothing to say about the original creation. Notice the rendering given by The Bible—An American Translation(the Old Testament companion to Goodspeed): “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a desolate waste, with darkness covering the abyss and a tempestuous wind raging over the surface of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light!’ ” Peacock is accurate when he explains the meaning of this rendering: “...verses 1 and 2 describe the chaotic situation that existed before God acted in creation. If this interpretation is accepted, one would translate When God began to create the universe, as in the TEV [Today’s English Version] note” (Peacock, 1982, p. 4).

The obvious assumption of these translators is that Genesis 1:1 is a relative clause and states only the condition of things when God said, “Let there be light.” Such a rendition rules out the idea of an original creation—creatio ex nihilo. Scholars are in disagreement as to whether or not the grammatical evidence demanded an abandonment of the traditional wording (cf. KJV, ASV, RSV, NIV, NASB, JB). Add to this the fact that all of the ancient versions, without exception, render the verse in the usual manner.

What often is overlooked by many today is the simplicity of the creation account. The sentences are very short. By changing the translation into dependent clauses, the sentence structure is affected, and thus, the effect intended by Moses. Notice the difference between the two renderings:

Standard Translation

In the beginning God created the heavens and 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.And God said, Let there be light; And there was light.

Alternate Translation

When God began creating the heavens and the earth, when 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, then God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

A reading of the literal translation (such as the ASV) of the remaining chapter will convince one that such a complicated sentence structure is totally out of place in the first few verses of the chapter. Unfortunately, the popular style of subordination in English composition may mask not only the real emphasis of the original, but also may promote a false view of its teaching!

The Septuagint was made by translators who believed that the Hebrew taught the beginning of all things. They translated the verse in an absolute sense, independent of the following verses. Aalders summed up the issue rather well: “In making our decision on this issue, let it be stated without any equivocation that the words ‘in the beginning’ must be taken in their absolute sense. First of all, this is the most natural and obvious interpretation. Furthermore, this is the rendition that is found in every ancient translation without any exception. Finally, although the alternative interpretation is linguistically possible, it does not reflect common Hebrew usage” (Genesis, 1:51).

Genesis 1:1 is a profound revelation of God’s creative work. Before that beginning, matter did not exist. In the beginning, God created (not refashioned, per the Gap Theory) things having no previous existence. One wonders if the dissatisfaction with the standard translation of this verse arose from a corresponding disagreement with the doctrine taught by it, or was this a mere coincidence? Yes, one wonders!

REFERENCES

Green, Samuel G. (1901), A Handbook To Old Testament Hebrew (New York: Revell).

Bernhardt (no date), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 2:246-247.

Peacock, Heber F. (1982), A Translator’s Guide to Selections from the First Five Books of the Old Testament (New York: United Bible Societies).




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