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Examining Translations of Genesis 1:1 in relation to Genesis 1:1–3 (Part Four)

In the previous post, I began an evaluation of the strength of two leading alternative translations over against the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 as an absolute beginning, “In-the-beginning God created the-heavens [or heaven] and-the-earth. Our evaluation proceeds on the basis of four-interrelated lines of inquiry. The initial inquiry related to grammar. In the present post I’ll look at style.   

Stylistically, when commentators or translation committees interpret the initial word of Genesis (berē’šît) as a circumstantial phrase (when … began), they subordinate all of Gen. 1:1 to either 1:2 (ibn Ezra’s view) or 1:3 (Rashi’s interpretation). When Gen. 1:1 is subordinated to 1:2 (NRSV, NAB 1991, and GNT)God’s creating is subordinated to the formlessness and darkness of 1:2. It is doubtful that this was the intention of Gen. 1:1, for the content of Gen. 1:2 provides needed and supplementary background information for 1:3. So 1:2 is more plausibly dependent on either 1:1 or is parenthetical between 1:1 and 1:3. Proponents favoring 1:3 (commentators like Speiser [see the previous post] and the translation committees of the JPS TANAKH, NAB 2010, and CEB) interpret v. 2 as parenthetical. While this is more plausible than subordinating 1:1 to 1:2, it is still awkward and results in a lengthy and complicated sentence and serves to subordinate the content of 1:1 to 1:3It is again doubtful that this was the intention of 1:1, for the subsequent uses of the verb “created” (bārā’) in Genesis 1God is credited with creating things not previously extant (1:21 [aquatic, ornithological, and land creatures] and 1:27 [human beings]) 

In subordinating Gen. 1:1 to 1:3 (more common among commentators than subordinating 1:1 to 1:2), however, adherents commonly point to 2:4 and 5:1 in support. Nahum M. Sarnas commentary on Genesis in The JPS Torah Commentary series is an example. In adopting a view similar to Rashi’s interpretation (subordinating Gen. 1:1 to 1:3), Sarna observes, Support for understanding the text in this way comes from 2:4 and 5:1, both of which refer to Creation and begin with ‘When”” (Genesis, [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], 5). The germaneness of these passages, however, requires a closer look.  

In Gen. 2:4 we read, “This is the account of [תוֹלְד֧וֹת] the heavens and the earth when they were created [בְּהִבָּֽרְאָ֑םbehibbāre’ām], in the day [בְּי֗וֹםbeyôm] that the LORD God made [עֲשׂ֛וֹתat] earth and heaven” (NASB 95). The NASB 95 and many other English translations (e.g., NKJV, HCSB, ISV, NIV, LEB) render Gen. 2:4 as two parts of one statement, both of which relate to what follows. Some versions, however, interpret the first part of this verse (2:4a) as belonging to what precedes (1:1 [or 1:2]–2:3) as a colophon (i.e., a concluding subscript) and the second portion (2:4b) as an introduction to what follows (2:5 and following). Several versions adopt this interpretation (e.g., RSV, NRSV, GNT, CEB). The NRSV is an example. The NRSV treats all of Gen. 1:1–2:3 under a subheading entitled, “Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath.” {See https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=gen+2&version=NRSV.Gen. 2:4a is treated as a colophon: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” {The GNT is even more explicit, attaching 2:4a to 2:3, “4 And that is how the universe was created.”} A second NRSV heading, “Another Account of the Creation,” serves as the heading of Gen. 2:4b and following: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—… 6 … — 7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground …” {See https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1&version=NRSV.However, the key term used in 2:4a (תּוֹלֵדוֹתtôlēdôt) and rendered as “the account of [תוֹלְד֧וֹתtôlet, the construct of tôlēdôt]” typically relates to what follows, not what precedes. Duane A. Garrett, moreover, has persuasively argued that this term in all likelihood functions as a source title for the material connected with it. In other words, it is the author’s way of indicating the ancient sources he used in the writing various portions of Genesis (see Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch, [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991]). {Given the significance of this term in Genesis, we’ll need to return to it in a future post.  

Taking all of Gen. 2:4 together as a summary heading for what follows, which is much more likely than the alternative, actually undercuts the claim that Gen. 2:4 is parallel to 1:1. For it is the conspicuous style of Genesis to use nominal clauses (i.e., clauses that begin with a noun or pronoun) for summary statements of previous narrative details at the beginning of new sections. By contrast, Genesis uses verbal clauses (i.e., clauses that begin with a verb) as summary for previous narrative details at the end of a section (we’ll look at this latter phenomenon in a later post). {On both of these points, see esp. John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], 82 n. 2.} Both Gen. 2:4 and 5:1 correspond to this stylistic pattern. In this regard, Gen. 5:1 is similar to 2:4“This is the book of the generations of [סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖תsēfer tôlet] Adam. In the day [בְּי֗וֹםbeyôm] when God created [בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙berō’ elōhîm] man, He made him in the likeness of God” (NASB 95)Both passages summarize previous narrative details of the narrative at the beginning of a new section. Hence, neither corresponds to what we find in Gen. 1:1, which commences the book and begins neither with a nominal clause nor with a verbal clause, but rather with a prepositional phrase. 

In the present post I looked at a second commonly-advanced reason for favoring the two alternatives to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 (“In-the-beginning God created the-heavens [or heaven] and-the-earth). It is a stylistic argument that maintains that Gen. 2:4 and 5:1 plausibly suggest that berē’šît of Gen. 1:1 should be rendered as a subordinate statement (“when … began”). However, this second argument is also far from persuasive. In the future postings I’ll examine two additional areas of inquiry: theology and historical precedence in translation. 

James P. Sweeney, Ph.D.
J. Russell Bucher Professor of New Testament
Director of the Master of Divinity Program 

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