Gen 1:1. Kermess

Peter Kirk Peter_Kirk at
Wed Aug 30 19:27:16 EDT 2000

Ian, there is nothing much new here for me to reply to. In another posting I
have outlined three possible interpretations of Gen 1:1-2. One of these must
be "ex nihilo", one cannot be, and the third (making verse 1 a title) leaves
the issue open. I do believe in "ex nihilo" creation (as taught in the New
Testament), but I am trying to keep my personal beliefs out of a discussion
of the text.

See a few more comments below.

Peter Kirk

----- Original Message -----
From: "Ian Hutchesson" <mc2499 at>
To: "Biblical Hebrew" <b-hebrew at>
Sent: Wednesday, August 30, 2000 6:08 PM
Subject: Re: Gen 1:1. Kermess

> At 11.19 30/08/00 +0100, Peter Kirk wrote:
> >The main thing which your translation lacks is that it is not
> >over-literal. In particular, you changed "created" to "creating"
> Working from the earliest texts, it doesn't say "created" though, does it.
> This is only your translation assumption.

PK: Here you seem to be raising a textual issue. The unpointed text is
ambiguous, it could be a QATAL form, an infinitive, or various other parts
of the verb. But I note that the LXX and (I think) Vulgate translators
understood the Hebrew (and so translated) along the lines of "In the
beginning God created...". It is only in the modern period (which would just
include Rashi), after the pointed Masoretic text was in general use, that
anyone has suggested that this text means anything else. So you cannot
attribute alternative interpretations to use of unpointed or otherwise
variant texts.
> >have
> >dropped the "and" at the start of verse 2.
> Do you translate every w- you find in the OT/HB?

PK: I don't translate it on a word for word basis (note that I was talking
about a ridiculously over-literal translation). But I do take every w- into
account when deciding on the exegesis of difficult passages. If there is an
unexpected w-, or absence of w-, I don't ignore it.
> >I and many (all?) others would dispute that the sky and the land were
> >before God's creative activity.
> I haven't seen you ever deal with the structure of the text, Peter. Each
> day starts with a divine fiat. Besides your commitment to creatio ex
> nihilo, what makes you think that the author didn't see the raw material
> creation as a chaotic sea? Remember that the Babylonian creation requires
> the separation of the watery chaos (tiamat) -- so watery chaos was there
> before the creation, noting the mention at this stage of the deep (tehom,
> the cognate of tiamat).
> Just as in the Babylonian story the divine wind swept over the waters. It
> was through this wind that the great god, Marduk, defeated the sea and
> began his creation. One can only expect the Genesis account to follows the
> cultural artifacts available in its era, so it's not strange that there
> were things around before the creation.

PK: There are clear parallels between Genesis 1 and the Babylonian myths.
There are also clear differences, in some cases probably deliberate
contrasts being made by the author of Genesis. You simply cannot argue that
because one culture's creation myth was not "ex nihilo" another culture's
could not be.
> >In fact the first verse quite clearly states
> >that God created them
> Although there is no dispute that the text says that God created them,
> is not the problem. The problem is: what do the terms actually refer to
> how does the first verse relate to the rest of the passage. God creates
> rqy` in v7, then calls it $mym. Is this $mym the $mym of v1? Did God
> recreate the heavens? He created the earth by divine fiat in v9 and called
> in `rc. Did God recreate the earth?

PK: I did not deal with these questions before, and I do not intend to now.
> Liz chose to translate it "At the beginning of God's creating skies and
> land". Something of the likes of "At the beginning of" seems to be the
> accepted understanding of br'$yt (the version I'm looking at at this
> moment, NRSV, has "in the beginning when" and omits the "and"). Why do you
> take it as a simple temporal adverb (given all the preceding debate on the
> word)?

PK: Because I have been through all the preceding debate and come to the
conclusions which I have outlined. For more detail, I suggest you spend some
time browsing the archives.

PK: As for the NRSV rendering, it is bad English and bad translation. I take
it that they intended two separate adverbial phrases of time, in which case
they should have been separated by a comma; but the Hebrew does not say
this, for if the one word BERE'SHIYT is a complete adverbial phrase of time
it must modify the rest of verse 1 and not verse 2. Or is the intention of
the NRSV translators to give the meaning "In the beginning of the period
during which God created..."? Their expression could be taken as a very
clumsy way of saying this. This is close to Liz's preference, one of the
exegetical options which I considered and rejected. I note that NRSV offers
two alternative renderings in a footnote.
> The first verse is often thought of as a type of introduction to the
> creation. At the beginning of the book we get a description of God
> the heavens and the earth, and, after the introductory verses, that's what
> you get.

PK: That is one interpretation. I think it's quite a good one, much better
than the NRSV or Liz's one.
> >(though one might argue about when or the grammatical
> >relationships with what follows, or about tohu webohu perhaps being raw
> >material). So what you are putting forward as undisputed fact is in fact
> >directly contradicted by the text on every interpretation which I have
> >seen.
> What Liz said, ie "that the land and sea were already there prior to the
> beginning of God's creative activity", has in fact been disputed (by you
> amongst others), but her ideas here tend to coincide with what is
> in the text and what we know of ancient thought (rather than what moderns
> project onto it).

PK: It is only moderns who are trying to project on to Hebrew thought some
detailed reflection of Babylonian etc. thought.
> The literalist is faced with the dirtiness of the rude, crude text; the
> inerrantist creates a complex and monumental, unverifiable subtext to
> replace it.
PK: I accept neither of these labels. I want to understand what the author
meant, but I understand that s/he was writing a literary work, not a
scientific one, and as a literary work it is likely to be full of figures of
speech and symbolic language.
> Ian

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