Genesis 1:1 and God’s Great Ambiguity

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of my study of Genesis 1:1. When I first began studying Genesis 1:1 in the ancient Hebrew, I remember being amazed at how after 2 months I had yet to exhaust the remarkable wisdom and revelation contained in this one seemingly simple verse.


Genesis 1:1

The one-year older and one-year wiser me now realizes that, even after a year, I still cannot wrap my head around all God has packed into those seven little Hebrew words. If you are new to this blog, please review these posts for reference:

As wonderful and majestic as these revelations are, they barely scratch the surface. In addition to trying to show the word pictures painted in Genesis 1:1 by the ancient Hebrew pictographs, I have struggled for almost as long trying to come up with an accurate and appropriate English translation of Genesis 1:1. Quite frankly, I don’t think I can. I’m not sure anyone can. There are plenty of approximations, but none that I would endorse as being the translation.

After spending a year in this verse, I think I know why: Genesis 1:1 is ambiguous. I don’t mean to suggest that God meant for it to be ambiguous, or that He wants it ambiguous, or that He thinks it is ambiguous. But, Genesis 1:1 is not translatable into a single, simple rendering. The language of God (see The Language of God and God Speaks: The Origin of the Alphabet) is ambiguous because it is so meaningful and so complex that it cannot be rendered word-for-word or thought-for-thought and still mean all that it is supposed to mean.

I don’t think this sort of ambiguity is limited to Bible translation, scriptural interpretation is just as ambiguous. For example, I am familiar with four interpretations of why God favored Abel’s offering and not Cain’s (Genesis 4): 1) Abel’s offering involved a blood sacrifice, Cain’s did not, 2) Abel’s offering was of the first born of the flock, Cain’s was not of the first fruits, 3) Abel’s offering was made in faith, Cain’s was not, and 4) (the most recent and interesting interpretation I’ve heard was actually from our pastor, Eric von Atzigen of Emmanuel Fellowship Church) Abel’s offering was of the first born and not made in the course of time as Abel’s was.

Are any of these interpretations mutually exclusive? Don’t they all suggest scriptural principles? Can they all be correct? I’m not saying that all of these interpretations are necessarily right, but I find no scriptural reason why they couldn’t be. I think the same is (often) true of Bible translation. And I think it begins in the beginning.

Thus, a few suggestions for the many facets of Genesis 1:1:

1. The Runner Up: The translation of the Jewish Publication Society’s Hebrew-English Tanakh (I will presume the qualifications to produce such a translation). The Holman Christian Standard Bible contains a similar translation suggestion in a footnote as do other English translations. This is probably as accurate a translation as there is.

1 When God began to create heaven and earth-2 the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water-3 God said, “Let their be light”; and there was light.

2. The Narrative: My own personal idea of God as the great narrator, telling Moses the ultimate campfire story. I don’t pretend that it is a word-for-word translation, but I think it conveys what it needs to. It fits with the Toledoth (Hebrew for “generations,” translated “the generations of…”) structure of Genesis, and has that “Once upon a time” feel.

1 The beginning: God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and void and darkness was over the abyss. God breathed on the surface of the waters and they started to vibrate. 3 And God said to light “you will exist,” and light existed.

3. The Technical: A very literal but useful translation which gives insight into the expansion of the universe and other cosmological observations. I pieced this together from the mechanical translation at the Ancient Hebrew Research Center and others.

1 In the beginning, God fattened the sky and the land. 2 The land had only existed in chaos and was unformed, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and a wind from God was fluttering upon the face of the water. 3 And God said “light will exist,” and light existed.

4. The Ultra-Hebraic: A translation that is somewhat surprising, but I think as plausible as any, although you would never know it from any of the traditional translations (see The Letter Aleph at Hebrew for Christians). I very much appreciate the idea that, if God creates things by speaking them into existence, the first creation has to be language and an alphabet.

1 In the beginning, God created the aleph-tav, the sky and the land. 2 The earth was chaotic and formless, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God was fluttering upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let their be light,” and there was light.

5. The Traditional: The translation with which we are most familiar, with slight variations (a combination taken from the NASB and NIV). Although not necessarily the most accurate, it is the most common, and probably as accurate as any.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

I do not believe that any of these translations are mutually exclusive, nor do I believe that any suggest anything that is scripturally false. I do believe that all of these are supportable from the text and that all suggest a slightly different aspect of God – all of which I love.

I write this to suggest that ambiguity in the Bible might not be ambiguity at all, but our inability to put the Word of God into simple English, or Spanish or Esperanto. If this is the case, shouldn’t we be less dogmatic about our own determinations about which translation is the most accurate. I think I prefer the idea that God’s Word is so rich and meaningful that it cannot be put into…well, words.

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  1. #1 by makarios on September 8, 2008 - 5:36 pm


  2. #2 by petermlopez on September 9, 2008 - 9:15 am

    Hmmm, indeed.

  3. #3 by livingjourney on September 9, 2008 - 7:13 pm

    Another GREAT post, how’s that book coming along???? ;)

  4. #4 by petermlopez on September 10, 2008 - 9:42 am

    Thanks, I appreciate that. It’s coming along…slowly but surely. Any word from your publishing buddies???

  5. #5 by ElShaddai Edwards on September 10, 2008 - 12:37 pm

    Peter, great post! I’ve got some catching up to do with your previous posts on this topic – looking forward to it! I love “The Narrative” translation, with “The Runner Up” as my, *ahem*, runner up.

  6. #6 by Bob MacDonald on September 10, 2008 - 1:06 pm

    Delightful – thanks for this. Have you noted this discussion?
    And if you haven’t seen this diagram -you might get some enjoyment from it too.

  7. #7 by petermlopez on September 10, 2008 - 1:29 pm

    Thanks, I’m quite fond of “The Narrative” as well. It’s my personal favorite. I thought I might catch some heck for that one, but I’m glad you liked it.

  8. #8 by petermlopez on September 10, 2008 - 1:44 pm

    Bob, that diagram is incredible. I’m printing it off right now to study it. Thanks for the link. I haven’t read that discussion, but at a glance it looks fascinating. I appreciate the links. Thanks.

  9. #9 by Bob MacDonald on September 10, 2008 - 2:43 pm

    Peter – I am glad you like the diagram. I have greatly enjoyed reading your creative posts listed above. I will link this one from the Sunday School blog also (no one’s reading that blog yet – so not much traffic).

  10. #10 by petermlopez on September 10, 2008 - 2:49 pm

    Thanks, Bob. I’m glad you enjoyed them. I added the link to your blog a few minutes ago, thanks.

  11. #11 by livingjourney on September 10, 2008 - 4:42 pm

    And God said to light “you will exist,” and light existed.

    Just a question… did this light exist before it was spoken into existence?

  12. #12 by petermlopez on September 10, 2008 - 4:49 pm

    I think God spoke it into existence, but that’s just a personal opinion. It’s really not all that different from saying, “Let there be light.” But, it’s God speaking to those things that are not, as if though were. Perhaps, “Light, exist” would have been better?

  13. #13 by livingjourney on September 10, 2008 - 5:40 pm

    The narrative is good but confuses the light issue, IMHO.

    Where did you get that narrative from if you don’t mind me asking?

  14. #14 by petermlopez on September 11, 2008 - 11:08 am

    The narrative is how I imagine God telling the Genesis account to Moses. If I say I made it up, then it sounds like I pulled it out of thin air, which I don’t feel that I did. I just think the Hebrew is so rich and deep, so I tried to remove all preconceptions that I had in my mind (to the extent possible) and I imagined how God might tell this story to Moses (the whole “Once upon a time…” thing).

  15. #15 by ElShaddai Edwards on September 11, 2008 - 11:14 am

    I imagined how God might tell this story to Moses (the whole “Once upon a time…” thing)

    If you have a copy of the NEB, check out Genesis 11 (story of Babel). For those without, it begins “Once upon a time all the world spoke…”

  16. #16 by petermlopez on September 11, 2008 - 11:18 am

    Wow! No I don’t have a copy of the NEB, but I now want to get one. Thanks for the info, is that the only “Once upon a time…” reference? What is the Hebrew word translated as “Once upon a time,” if you know? I’ll look it up when I get home, but I don’t have a Hebrew version handy at the moment.

  17. #17 by ElShaddai Edwards on September 11, 2008 - 3:44 pm

    If you’re into weird variant possibilities with the OT texts, the NEB is a “must have” addition to your translation library. I’d have to look up the Hebrew tonight when I have more time…

  18. #18 by petermlopez on September 11, 2008 - 4:05 pm

    Thanks, I’ll look it up when I get home. Okay, the NEB it is then. Yet another translation to add to my ever-growing to-do list. Amazon/eBay, here I come.

  19. #19 by ElShaddai Edwards on September 11, 2008 - 9:20 pm

    FYI, I’ve reproduced the whole Babel story from the NEB in my latest post.

  20. #20 by tc robinson on September 12, 2008 - 11:55 am

    Peter M, I know I’m late on this one, but good stuff. One whole year. That takes a lot of commitment and all.

    But Genesis is good stuff.

  21. #21 by petermlopez on September 12, 2008 - 1:34 pm

    ElShaddai, thanks. I will spend some time with it this weekend, today’s been kind of hectic. I’ll get back to you.

  22. #22 by petermlopez on September 12, 2008 - 1:36 pm

    tc – you’re never too late, my brother. Well, to be perfectly honest, if I had know it was going to take that long, I probably would have given up on it early on. But, God is good, He knew how to string me along with little tidbits here and there to keep me going…and I’m not through, by any means…

    Good stuff, indeed.

  23. #23 by hiscrivener on September 14, 2008 - 7:50 am

    The only argument I personally wish you could breakdown with those one-year wiser, stronger, faster wiles of yours is the possibility of the Pre-Adamite world presumed in this majestic verse.

    Since you fancy this historic and sanctified, review the argument between Apollonius and Theophilus of Antioch. Genius debate from both of sides of this perfunctory aisle.

    P.S. – Narrative rocks. “The ultimate campfire story”? Those are words that paint pictures. Keep that stuff coming, big man!


  24. #24 by petermlopez on September 14, 2008 - 7:12 pm

    Thanks, hiscrivener. I happen to think it is more than a mere possibility, and to some extent I have addressed it here:

    In that post, I stopped short of making the argument that when God said, “Let us make man in our image…” He was referring to the already existing human kind. I personally think this is the case, but I have no real scriptural authority for it, yet. It’s funny that you mention this though because the very same morning I had this aha moment while meditating on scripture and told my wife, that morning at church during worship, out of the blue our pastor grabs the microphone and starts reading that verse. It was one of those truly interesting morning. She looked at me like, “What’s going on here?”

  25. #25 by bloonsterific on July 10, 2009 - 7:03 am

    Just wanted to tell you all know how much I appreciate your postings guys.
    Found you though google!

  26. #27 by David on January 14, 2011 - 2:35 pm

    I wonder sometimes if we have totally missed the point on the idea of the translations. God being sovereign can and will do as He pleases. From my very limited understanding,most of the major early translations into different languages say essentially the same thing. In our wisdom we have attempted to dig around and try to find out what God’s thinking was behind the inspired scripture. Isn’t it just possible that because of His sovereignty, that we have in the “Authorized KJV” exactly what God wants us to know? We are not all, neither can be, Hebrew and Greek language scholars. Perhaps, just perhaps, the simple English reading is just what God intended. Something to think about isn’t it?

  27. #28 by Rabbi Bruce Kadden on October 1, 2012 - 12:16 am

    I think you are correct in seeing ambiguity not just in Genesis 1:1, but throughout scripture. And, after many years of study, I have concluded that scripture is purposely ambiguous. What more would we have to learn from it if its meaning were obvious? Why would we need to continue to read and study the text? Its ambiguity challenges us to wrestle with the text, discover new meanings, so that it continues to inspire.

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