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The creation stories in the Bible

Interpretations of Genesis 1:1:
"In the beginning, God...."

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Genesis 1:1 in English translations of the Bible;

Most English versions of the Bible have translated this verse starting: "In the beginning, God created...."

For example:

bullet21st Century King James Version, King James Version, and Webster's Bible Translation: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

bulletAmerican Standard Version, Darby Bible, English Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, and New Living Translation: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

bulletBible in Basic English: "At the first God made the heaven and the earth."

bulletConcordant Version: "Created by the Elohim were the heavens and the earth."

bulletJewish Publication Society (3rd ed.) When God began to create heaven and Earth"

bulletAryeh Kaplan's "The Living Torah and the New Jerusalem Bible:" "In the beginning God created heaven and earth."

bulletThe Living Bible: "When God began creating the heavens and the earth..."

bulletNew American Bible: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth ..."

bulletNew Revised Standard Version: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth."

bulletNew World Translation: "In [the] beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

bulletWorld English Bible "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

Any new translation that deviates too much from this traditional rendering might well not meet the expectations of many Christians, and be rejected. So we can expect to see future translations to follow this wording, even though it may be not particularly accurate.

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Genesis 1:1: the word "heaven" or "heavens:"

The Masoretic text (MT) is the accepted version of the Tanakh -- the Jewish Scriptures. It is used as the source text for translations of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in both Protestant and Catholic Bibles. Genesis 1:1 is the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the Pentateuch, and thus of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible. One attempt at a literal translation is: "beginning filled God the heavens and the earth." 1

As noted above, almost all translations refer to the "heaven" or "heavens." However, the late noted expert Jewish interpreter of the Bible, Harry M. Orlinsky (1908 - 1992) commented that neither word is valid. He wrote:

"The common rendering 'heavens' has no authority. Hebrew shamayim is plural (or dual) in form (a singular form does not exist in biblical Hebrew). Actually, shamayim means nothing more than 'sky,' and this should perhaps have been the term employed here. ... It should be kept in mind that our notion of 'heaven(s),' with its theological associations, is foreign to our verse. 2

Most biblical experts, who are not conservative Protestants, believe that the ancient Hebrews adopted the cosmology of nearby Pagan cultures. Biblical references to the Earth, firmament, Heaven, Sheol, etc. in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) described a flat Earth with a metal dome called the firmament above the land. Sheol -- the location of the dead -- was underground. Heaven was on top of the firmament. Thus, if God created the Earth and sky, ancient Hebrews might have interpreted that as creating the entire universe.

Unfortunately, if Genesis 1:1 were translated into English correctly, many people would interpret it literally in terms of today's cosmology. God would be seen as having merely creating or forming the Earth and sky -- not the entire universe. This is incompatible with Christian and Jewish theology. Thus we are probably stuck with a mistranslation now and for the foreseeable future. This is not an auspicious beginning to a Bible translation!

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Genesis 1:1: the word "created:"

According to Wikipedia:

"The ambiguity of the Hebrew grammar in this verse gives rise to two alternative translations:

bulletThe first implying that God's first act of creation [out of nothing] was heaven and earth,

bulletThe second that 'heaven and earth' already existed in a 'formless and void' state, to which God brings form and order:" 3

The former is often referred to as "creation ex nihilo" -- the concept that God created the Earth and the rest of the universe out of nothing. This is the historical Christian interpretation of the first Genesis creation story and is grounded on St. Thomas Aquinas' "Summa Theologiae," 7 and on other early Christian writings.

The latter interpretation is called "creatio ex materia." God is seen as having formed the universe out of pre-existing material, perhaps by bringing order out of chaos. Augustine appears to have adopted this position. St. Thomas Aquinas commented that "Augustine uses the word creation in an equivocal sense, according as to be created signifies improvement in things; as when we say that a bishop is created." 7

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One understanding of "created:" God created the universe out of nothing:

The above Bible translations imply "creation ex nihilo." This is the historical Christian position.

Supportive of this option is 2 Maccabees 7:27-29. This is a book in the Apocrypha, a group of books that is included in Roman Catholic translations of the Bible, and was in the version of the Bible that the early Christians used -- the Septuagint. They are rejected by most Protestant denominations as not being a valid part of the biblical canon. The Jerusalem Bible translates this passage as:

"My son, have pity on me; ... I implore you, my child, observe heaven and earth, consider all that is in them, and acknowledge that God made them out of what did not exist, and that mankind comes into being in the same way. ..." 4

Unfortunately, the passage is ambiguous. It specifically says that God created the universe out of nothing. However, it also says that humans came into existence in the same way. Since Genesis states that God created Adam by molding him out of dirt, 2 Maccabees might imply that, God also formed the universe out of preexistent material.

The Qur'an -- the holy book of Islam -- appears to support "creation ex nihilo" according to some English interpretations of the original Arabic text:

bulletSurah 21:56: "He said, 'Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He Who created them (from nothing): and I am a witness to this (Truth)'."

bulletSurah 35:1: "Praise be to Allah, Who created (out of nothing) the heavens and the earth ..." 4

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A second understanding of "created:"  God created the universe out pre-existing material:

There are many verses in the Bible that refer to God "making" the heavens or the Earth. Example are Psalms 33:6, Proverbs 8:23, John 1:3, Romans 4:17, and 1 Corinthians 1:28. These passages could be interpreted as either ""creation ex nihilo" or "creatio ex materia."

Two other Bible translations of Genesis 1:1 -- ones which emphasize the literal meaning of the Hebrew text -- might imply that the latter is possible:

bulletThe Amplified Version: "In the beginning God (prepared, formed, fashioned, and) created the heavens and the earth."

bulletYoung's Literal Translation: "In the beginning of God's preparing the heavens and the earth ..."

This concept is supported by one passage in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). It states that God formed the universe out of invisible material that already existed:

bulletHebrews 11:3: "... we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." (King James Version)

This verse is less obscure in the Living Bible paraphrased translation: "... we know that the world and the stars -- in fact all things - were made at God's command and that they were all made from things that can't be seen."

The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary supports this concept. Commenting on the first verses of Genesis 1, they wrote:

"Creation begins when God imposes order on primeval, nonpersonal chaos by calling light into existence. ... It seems to picture a chaotic storm churning over the primordial dark and mysterious abyss of infinite and formless waters. Out from this, God summons order, thus creating the universe. ... Nothing is said of the origin of the chaos or of God's activity prior to creation." 5

Joseph Smith was the founder of the original Mormon church which has since evolved into the LDS Restorationist movement of about a hundred Mormon faith groups including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He supported "creatio ex materia." He wrote about Genesis 1:1:

"... the word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize--the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos--chaotic matter ..." 8

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Genesis 1:1: the word "God:"

The Masoretic Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 refers to "Elohim" -- a word representing multiple Gods. The single form in Hebrew is: "Eloah." Some would suggest that an accurate literal translation would be: "beginning filled the Gods the heavens and the earth."

The apparent reference to plural deities is reinforced by the use of "us" and "we" in Genesis 1:26 and in other verses of Genesis. 6

Many attempts have been used to harmonize these references to multiple Gods with the concept of monotheism:

bullet Some Christians suggest that referring to God in the plural is a reference to the Trinity: one deity composed of three persons -- God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

bulletSome religious historians note that Genesis 1:1, and the rest of the first creation story, was adapted from an earlier Pagan creation myth from Babylon. The ancient Hebrews who incorporated it into Genesis may have left the original reference to polytheism intact.
bulletTo the ancient Hebrews, the majesty and awesomeness of God was so great that he was referred to in the plural. "Elohim" then becomes similar to the "royal we."

bulletElohim refers to more than Yahweh; the term refers to God, and other heavenly entities "... down in rank through the angelic hierarchy." 6

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Related essays:

Reference:

  1. "Genesis 1:1," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. "Notes on the New JPS Translation of the Torah," Jewish Publication Society, at: http://voiceofiyov.blogspot.com/
  3. "Creation according to Genesis," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. "Ex nihilo," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  5. Charles M Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's one-volume commentary on the Bible," Abington Press, (1991), Page 3.
  6. James Patrick Holding, "How Many "E"s in Elohim? Does the Plural Form of God's Name Indicate Polytheism?," Tekton Apologetic Ministry, at: http://www.tektonics.org/
  7. St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," Question 45, Article 1, New Advent, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  8. Joseph Smith, "Journal of Discourses," F.D. Richards, Vol. 6 (1844), Pages 4-6. Online at: http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/

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Copyright © 2008 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2008-MAY-31
Latest update: 2010-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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