Genesis 1.1 and the Importance of Comparing Translations

For quite some time I have known about the translation difficulties involved in the very first part of the very first verse of the Hebrew Bible; however, until I recently revisited the Hebrew I had forgotten just how complicated things are. Here are three potential translations:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, …(NRSV)

When God began to create heaven and earth… (JPS, R. Alter)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (NASB; ESV)

These three translations reflect at least different nuances for the first two, and there is a significant difference between the first two and the last one. I will group the first two together for the sake of brevity. The major difference between the first two translations and the third translation is that in the first two the verse is taken as a dependent clause, whereas in the last one it is taken as an independent clause.

One might wonder what difference this makes, but it makes a great deal of difference. The difference is whether Genesis 1.1 purports to go back to the beginning of all things (Independent clause version) or whether it only goes back to a time when God is forming the world out of an earth that is already existing “formless and void” (dependent clause version). This is not just significant for those who take Genesis 1.1 literally, which I do not. It is also significant for interpreters who want to understand ancient Israelite beliefs about Creation.

It would not be possible to solve this translation difficulty here because it seems that there is no consensus at this time. The NRSV actually gives a note for all three translation possibilities in the electronic version that I have. This example does, however, point out the importance of comparing translations when one is studying the Hebrew Bible, unless perhaps the reader has a good command of Hebrew. Comparing translations can clue one in to where there are difficulties in the Hebrew text and promote moderation when one is speaking about these texts.

1 Comment

  • Hi,

    You mention translation difficulty and comparing translations, but I don’t think you are actually addressing these issues here. In fact, you are comparing interpretations, not translations as such. Should you want to compare translations, than I would suggest to compare a Dutch or German version to an English version.

    All the English Bibles are more or less similar in their translations: they use similar words like create and begin(ning). Where they differ is in theology: how the translator(s) wanted to render the text is what determined the order in which they have put the words. Translators have pre-conceived notions about what the text means, and they translate (i.e. render) accordingly.

    You for instance, say that you do not take Genesis 1.1 literally. I, on the other hand, do. Now were we to be given the same Hebrew text, and the same English dictionary (determining the vocabulary we can use), we would nevertheless arrive at different renderings.

    It’s theology, not translation, which determines the differences in the English texts we read. When you propose that your website is to help ordinary people understand the Old Testament, I think it is important to be precise in your messages. After all, the same Bible makes it clear that its teachers carry a heavy responsibilty.

    You are right, of course, in stressing the importance of comparing English versions to the original Hebrew.