Genesis 1:1 and God's Great Ambiguity

Genesis 1:1, Hebrew.

Genesis 1:1, Hebrew.

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 two months I had yet to exhaust the remarkable wisdom and revelation contained in this one seemingly simple verse.

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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