Answering Two Objections Concerning my Essay on Genesis

Answering Two Objections Concerning my Essay on Genesis

 

The Objections:

You write, “The book of Genesis begins, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’,[5] but a more accurate rendering of the original Hebrew reads, ‘When in the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth’.[6]”

This is incorrect. Your “when” is not there in the Hebrew, but no matter. Of much more importance is your translation of “elohim” as gods. It that were the correct translation the verb “bara” would not be qal perfect 3rd person masculine singular, but plural. This is a basic error in your translation.                                                      ~Allan Cossey

 

To give my readers some context with regards to Allan’s objections, the reason I argued that the beginning of Genesis is best translated as ‘When in the beginning’ rather than ‘In the beginning’, is to demonstrate the linguistic parallel that exists between the creation myth(s) in Genesis and the creation myth of the earlier Mesopotamian Enuma Elish that begins, ‘When on high’. Allan also objected to my translation of the Hebrew plural noun Elohim.  Here is the paragraph from my essay:

  The book of Genesis begins, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’,[1] but a more accurate rendering of the original Hebrew reads, ‘When in the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth’. [omitted reference]  Here, in this very first sentence can be found not only a linguistic parallel between the first chapter of Genesis and the first sentence of the more ancient creation myth of the Babylonians contained within the Enuma Elish,[omitted reference] but also the first ideological distinction between these two ancient cosmogonies.  The title given to the Enuma Elish is also the opening words of this cosmogony – ‘When on high’/’When in the height’.[omitted reference] So we have ‘When on high’ versus ‘When in the beginning’- both opening the cosmogonies in a linguistically similar fashion but at the same time drawing an important ideological distinction between the two.

I am unsure whether Allan is a Christian attempting to surgically remove the book of Genesis from its cultural and anthropological (human) context, or whether he is simply objecting to my interpretations for the sake of perceived inaccuracy.  Regardless, here is my reply:

 

Dear Allan,

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to comment on this essay.  I’ll do my best to address both of your complaints.

 

  1. ‘When in the Beginning’ vs ‘In the Beginning’

 

In her lecture series on the Old Testament, Bible scholar Amy-Jill Levine says:

 Genesis 1:1 starts, “In the beginning”, or perhaps better translated, “When in the beginning” – that’s closer to what the Hebrew says. [1]

Further, Metzger’s NRSV Bible, which is arguably the best English translation of both the Hebrew Tanakh (Bible) and the Greek New Testament offers the alternative translation of Genesis 1:1:

When God began to create… [2]

This translation is supported by the Hebrew scholars who compiled the JPS Tanakh:

When God began to create… [3]

Further still, professor of religion Barry Bandstra remarks:

The second option [for translation] reads it as a temporal statement followed by the main assertion: “When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was untamed and shapeless… [4]

So, what is the linguistic justification for the addition of when at the beginning of Genesis 1:1?

The issue with which we are focused concerns the Hebrew feminine noun re’shiyth, or more precisely the conjugation of the prefix B’, (beth – ב) as in B’reshiyt(h), which most Hebrew Bible concordances translate as ‘In the beginning…’. The addition of the beth-particle can be translated as ‘in’, however the more accurate rendering of this linguistic conjugation is ‘when in’.  Why?

Well, as Bandstra indicated, the Hebrew interpretation of the beginning of Genesis reads it as a temporal statement, as in, When (once upon a time would be better, in my opinion) followed by the primary claim/clause, in the beginning Elohim created…blah, blah, blah… Elaborating on his statement, Bandstra states:

  This reading suggests that the writer was more interested in the condition of the world at the time God started creating it, rather than in positing an absolute beginning. [5]

What Bandstra means is that the b’reshiyt is the temporal clause upon which rests the principle clause, bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets. Thus, a correct rendering of the Hebrew in light of this temporal clause is ‘When in the beginning’.

 

  1. Elohim (God vs gods)

Regarding my translation of the Hebrew elohim, I think you’ll find that once again I have not erred. In my ‘Notes’ I wrote:

Although the Elohistic epithet Elohim (pl. ‘gods’) eventually came to connote a single god in pluralis Majestatis linguistic form, there is strong philological, historical, textual and archaeological evidence to suggest that the term was originally a pure plural term used to describe the pantheon of the early Israelite religion: Rev. A.H. Sayce, The Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1910, p. 84; David Penchansky, Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, p. 24; Marvin H. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Text, Leiden: L.J. Brill, 1955, pp. 19-21; Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1998, pp. 56-57; John R. Bartlett, Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, London: Routledge, 1997, p. 61.

The issue is somewhat complex as there are philological, historical, anthropological and theological issues that need to be examined for an accurate understanding of this epithet [Elohim] and its development.  Firstly, you need to understand that Judaism did not start out as a monotheistic religion, and it certainly wasn’t the first monotheistic religion, with the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton’s monotheistic religion of Aton predating Judaism’s transformation from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic one. Thus, Judaism is best described as a religion that began as a polytheistic religion, which moved through a henotheistic phase and eventually becoming monotheistic.  Traces of Judaism’s henotheism are still extant in the Tanakh.  Here is just one of the numerous examples:

  They provoked him to jealousy with strange elohim (gods), with abominations provoked they him to anger They sacrificed unto devils, not to Eloah; to Elohim (gods) whom they knew not, to new Elohim (gods) that came newly up, whom your fathers feared not.

Deuteronomy 32:6-17

 

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman also commented on this fact, saying:

There is good evidence that at different periods of history, Jews in fact, believed that there were multiple gods. You can find this even within the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew Bible. Within the Ten Commandments, “you shall have no other gods before me,” says the Ten Commandments. Well, you need to think about that for a second – no other gods before me – well that presupposes that there are other gods, it’s just that they’re not to be worshipped before the god of Israel. [6]

Further, numerous archaeological artefacts and inscriptions exist to demonstrate that Judaism was, in its earlier stages of development, a polytheistic religion.

In my second book on the Christian religion, I wrote:

Discoveries at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a site which lies between the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and the Mediterranean Sea, in the Sinai Peninsula, have shown that during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, the Israelites were most certainly polytheistic. Amongst the archaeological artefacts discovered at the site, was a broken storage jar, bearing an image of a male god with a female goddess at his side, accompanied by a musician in the background. This picture is attended by an ancient Hebrew inscription which reads; “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.”386 [John R. Bartlet. Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation. Routledge (1997). p. 61.] There were other monuments discovered which also describe Yahweh and his consort, Asherah, leaving almost no doubt that the birth of the modern Jewish religion as we know it today was originally polytheistic. [7] 

So now that I have established that Judaism was originally a polytheistic religion, which moved from polytheism to henotheism and eventually to monotheism, we have the proper context to analyse the plural epithet elohim, as in ‘When in the beginning the gods (elohim) created the heavens and the earth’.

As I have already conceded in the initial essay that ‘the Elohistic epithet Elohim (pl. ‘gods’) eventually came to connote a single god in pluralis Majestatis linguistic form’, I shall only be arguing that its etymology is rooted in polytheism.

Here I should bring to bear on the argument the learned opinion of renowned Oxford Assyriologist Archibald Henry Sayce, who commented:

Elohim is a plural noun, and its employment in the Old Testament as a singular has given rise to a large amount of learned discussion, and, it must also be added, of a learned want of common sense. Grammarians have been in the habit of evading the difficulty by describing it as a “pluralis majestatis,” “a plural of majesty,” or something similar, as if a term in common use which was grammatically a plural could ever have come to be treated as a singular, unless this singular had once been a plural….We may take it for granted, therefore, that if the Hebrew word Elohim had not once signified the plural “gods,” it would never have been given a plural form, and the best proof of this is the fact that in several passages of the Old Testament the word is still used in a plural sense. Indeed there are one or two passages, as for example Gen. 1:26, where the word, although referring to the God of Israel, is yet employed with a plural verb, much to the bewilderment of the Jewish rabbis and the Christian commentators who followed them. It is strange how preconceived theories will cause the best scholars to close their eyes to obvious facts. [8]

I am sorry I am unable to elaborate further, but time is not on my side at the moment. I hope this reply is sufficient enough to inspire you to seek further information regarding the complaints you made.

 

Thanks for your comment

 

Sincerely,

 

Michael A. Sherlock

 

Notes

  1. Amy-Jill Levine, The Old Testament, Lecture 1: In the Beginning, The Teaching Company, 2001.
  2. The Bible, Genesis 1:1, The NRSV, cited at: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1&version=NRSV, accessed on 6th 2016.
  3. The Tanakh, Genesis 1:1, JPS Version, cited at: http://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/ParashahArchives/jpstext/bereshit.shtml, accessed on 6th 2016.
  4. Barry L. Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 4th Ed., Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage, 2009, p. 38.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Bart D. Ehrman. From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 2: ‘Religious World of Early Christianity’, The Teaching Company, 2004.
  7. Michael Sherlock, I Am Christ, Book II: The Resurrection, Boston: Charles River Press, 2013, p. 289.
  8. A. H. Sayce. The “Higher Criticism” and the Verdict of the Monuments. E. & J.E Young and Co. (1894). p. 84.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Answering Two Objections Concerning my Essay on Genesis

  1. Hello Michael,
    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my reply. As I hopefully made clear about the “When in the beginning”, I’m not too fussed about whether there ought to be a “When” in there. Perhaps it would have been better to have omitted that part of my remark. Thanks for your reply though.

    Of more importance is your translation of “elohim” in Genesis 1:1 as “gods” (plural). Whether your statement about the Hebrews being originally polytheistic is correct or not, though important to the understanding of their religion, it is not relevant to the actual translation here. If this Genesis 1:1 text could mean “(the) gods created” then you would need to amend/emend the Hebrew verb. As it stands the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 cannot be accurately translated as “the gods created”. If there were a previous text which had spoken of gods (plural) the Hebrew would be different. At the very minimum, when the Hebrew for Genesis 1 came to its final form (whether there was a previous form or not), it now means “God created”. If it meant “gods created” there would be a plural form of the verb.
    To sum up, I am not *here* arguing against your statements about previous polytheism and/or henotheism, but against your use of the word “translate”. If there once was a belief in gods (plural) creating the heavens and the earth, it is not in Genesis 1.

    Totally separately, you and others may find the take on the parallels and differences between the Genesis text and that of other creation accounts from the Ancient Near East by Dr. Ernest Lucas interesting. He argues that the Genesis text is a “theological polemic”. He has some talks and papers available from the Faraday Institute, including https://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/resources/Faraday%20Papers/Faraday%20Paper%2011%20Lucas_EN.pdf and, more generally, https://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/Multimedia.php. I’m not asking for a reply from you on his position, but rather just pointing to some resources pointing to different emphases to yours for anyone who may be following your blog.

  2. OMG, this is ridiculous. I am not a Christian, but I was. I got out of it by studying the Christian bible and then studying the Jewish bible as interpreted by Jews, not Christians. IF you want to understand Hebrew, you go to a Jew, not a Christian! Additionally, if you want to claim polytheism when Genesis was written, then you go to jars found from the time Genesis was written, NOT centuries later and then say, “There, I’ve proven polytheism in Judaism!” That is NOT scholarship! That is just cramming your opinion down someone’s throat and hoping you fill up enough that they can’t object! It is clear from reading the bible that the Jews often went back and forth between monotheism and polytheism. According to their lore, it brought much punishment down upon them. 7th century BCE is NOT when Moses was writing Genesis!

    The issue with your interpretation of Elohim being plural is that the pronouns, adjectives and verbs surrounding the use of Elohim are most always singular. “I” will do this. They are rarely “we” will do this and only under certain circumstances as I will mention later. Later, in verse 26, Elohim says, “let us make man in our image.” Because he is talking to someone. But in verse 27 it says, “And Elohim made man in HIS image.” Singular. You will find it that way throughout the old testament. If there are ever plural gods doing something, they are always foreign, not YWH. Additionally, there are MANY nouns in the Hebrew language that end in “im” and are singular. Chayyim for one. Lechayyim – To Life! I don’t believe in any of it, but one thing that really irritated me in my studies is the REALLY POOR scholarship of Christians. They are not to be trusted on any level for the interpretation of this ancient book. If you want to understand the interpretation of the Hebrew word Elohim, go and talk to a Hebrew linguist. I got my information from one of the interpreters of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Find someone like that to help you, NOT a reverend!

  3. Hiya sharlee05, I agree with your comments about the grammar. It is to Michael’s credit that he is leaving his blog post in place even though his main point is fundamentally wrong and has been criticised.
    May I make a point about your statements about Christian scholarship? I agree in part, but I would point out that Christian scholarship and the resulting Christians translations are in agreement with what you have said about the Hebrew grammar here. That doesn’t mean that all Christian scholarship is great. Far from it, but there are plenty of good Christian scholars, including many who fit the bill of “Hebrew linguist” to whom you are pointing people.
    On a more general level, do remember that when you are distinguishing between Jewish understanding of Genesis and other OT texts and Christian understanding of those texts, the “Jewish understanding” you refer to is “understanding of Jewish scholars who do not accept Jesus as the Jewish messiah” and “understanding of Jewish scholars who do accept Jesus as the Jewish messiah and gentile scholars who accept Jesus as the Jewish messiah”. Paul, the apostle, for example was a Jewish Pharisee who accepted Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. It is now a person’s race and/or religion which we should look at in helping us to understand a text, but their knowledge of the text, its context and so on. For me, as a Christian, it will sometimes mean me accepting the view of an atheist or a Jew rather than that of a Christian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s