The coolest thing about being able to translate from the Hebrew (or Greek) is being able to pick up on some of the nuances that translations just can’t give you. Over the last couple days I’ve worked to translate Genesis 1:1-13. This might seem like an easy passage, and to some extent it is. When you get to those repeated, simple phrases (“and it was evening and it was morning,” “and it was so,” etc.), they’re definitely easy to translate (and provide a nice break from tearing out your hair over the other stuff.
Before I begin, I want to point out that I am still very much a student. I could be wrong. I’m tossing out my ideas here to hopefully inspire discussion – or at least make you think a little. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. One thing I do know is that God honors our search for the truth, though we may wander along dead ends from time to time.
So that said, here are some things I’ve learned from the first 13 verses of Genesis.
1) Despite most translations saying “In the beginning,” Genesis 1:1 is more literally translated “In a beginning, God created.” Some (including my professor, Dr. Lawson Stone) have suggested that this could be turned into a temporal phrase, “When God began to create.” Either way, I wonder why translations added a “the” which wasn’t there. Maybe I’ll learn that in class tomorrow.
2) When God creates the light and separates it from the darkness, there is a strong sense of naming in Genesis 1:5. In many translations of the English, it comes across somewhat weaker than in Hebrew. Compare “And God called the light ‘day'” with “And God called to the light, ‘Day.” Ditto with “Night” and with “Sky” (Genesis 1:8) and with “Land/Earth” and “Seas” (Genesis 1:10). I could be wrong, but I get the feeling God didn’t just casually call them something; he was giving them their names. God also named Adam (and Adam was given the high privilege of naming the animals). I don’t think this in any way implies that creation (day, night, sky, earth and sea – or animals) is equally important to God as humanity, which is created in His image. But that doesn’t mean the earth is unimportant either. He created it and it was good. It’s important not to forget that – and that we are called to be stewards of this world.
3) Based on which verb forms the Hebrew uses, different nuances can be understood. A really fun one appears in Genesis 1:11. I won’t go into all the gory details of conjugating the verb, but in the Hebrew there is the understanding that God did not cause the green plants (grass, etc.) to grow. He commanded the earth to do it. A very literal translation might be, “Let the earth cause itself to be green [or to sprout]…” I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that the earth was created to bring forth life. Do we really think that God causes every flower to bloom and every seed to fall and every plant to grow? Dr. Lawson Stone said something very interesting last semester: “Who is the better “programmer”? The one who can create something or the one who can create a world that can create or rewrite itself?” God created a world that can create. Not that the world is sentient or divine – I’m certainly not advocating pantheism – but I believe that looking at the world around us, and seeing the amazing things that the world produces and creates, shows us how wise and amazing the Creator is.