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

In the previous post, I looked at a second commonly-advanced reason for favoring the two alternative translations to the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1 (“In-the-beginning God created the-heavens [or heaven] and-the-earth”). It was a stylistic argument that maintains that Gen. 2:4 and 5:1 indicate that berē’šît of Gen. 1:1 should be rendered as a subordinate statement (“when … began”). We found the stylistic basis of this argument unpersuasive. In the present post, I’ll examine a third area of inquiry: theology. 

Owing to comparative studies, some commentators draw on other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) creation accounts as a basis for maintaining that Gen. 1:1 is subordinate to what follows. Comparative scholars point to texts like the Enuma elish, which subordinates the opening statement to what follows. This is at heart a theological argument—more specifically, a comparative religions argument. Nahum M. Sarna epitomizes this argument in his JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Torah Commentary on Genesis. He asserts, “The Mesopotamian creation epic known as Enuma Elish also commences the same way [sc. as 2:4 and 5:1 by beginning with ‘when’]. In fact, enuma means ‘when.’ Apparently, this was a conventional opening style for cosmological narratives” (Genesis[Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], 5). 

The Enuma elish (Akkadian for “when on high”) does indeed open with a series of subordinate statements. However, a close look indicates that it bears little in common with the opening of Genesis: “When on high the heaven had not been named, Firm ground below had not been called by name, Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter, (And) Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all, Their waters commingling as a single body; No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared, When no gods whatever had been brought into being, Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined—Then it was that the gods were formed within them. Lahmu and Lahamu were brought forth, by name they were called” (James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with Supplement [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969], 60–61) 

The perspective that the opening of the book of Genesis parallels the Enuma elish may consciously or unconsciously reflect vestiges of what is known in the history of biblical scholarship as pan-Babylonianism. It is so named because comparative study of nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship commonly explained any perceived parallels between ANE accounts and the Bible as instances of literary borrowing by authors of the biblical textsThe perceived parallels between the openings of the Enuma elish and Genesis are a case in point. The Enuma elish itself was discovered in 1849 at Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894). It was found among the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipalwho reigned over the Neo-Assyrian Empire from 668-627 B.C. The ruins are presently encircled by the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Since the time of its discovery (actually recovery), it has been the subject of ongoing study. A spate of books early on heralded Babylonian influence on the Bible, and direction of influence was always seen to flow in one direction: namely, the biblical authors were alleged to have been dependent on Babylonian sources and not vice versa. An early English translation of the Enuma Elish was that of L. W. King, Enuma Elish: The Epic of Creation (London, 1902), a work still in circulation. Many scholars today are more sober in their assessment of literary borrowing, but vestiges of this kind of ‘parallelomania’ (to borrow the late Samuel Sandmel’s term) remain. John H. Walton, for one, takes issues with the methodology underlying the revised translation of treading Gen. 1:1 as subordinate to what follows, for it “seems to be motivated in modern interpretation primarily by the similar syntax of a single Babylonian cosmological text, a text that is in itself idiosyncratic in the ancient world at many levels” (Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011], 124). 

One of the things that Christian theology has held prominently from earliest times is a doctrine of “creation out of nothing” (Lat. creatio ex nihilo)Adherents to this doctrine maintain that God created the universe out of nothing pre-existent. The doctrine was traditionally seen to be rooted in Gen. 1:1 and implied elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exod. 20:8–11; Isa. 45:18), post-biblical Judaism (2 Macc. 7:28), and the New Testament (Heb. 11:3; John 1:1, 3). It stands in contrast to the pagan notion of the eternality of matter, which is a supposition of cosmic dualism (a view of reality that holds that there are two equal and independent eternal principles at work in the universe, one good and the other evil). The theological implications of making Gen. 1:1 subordinate to what follows calls creatio ex nihilo into question. Gerhard von Rad (1901–1971), a prominent 20th century German interpreter, astutely observed this. It was precisely this theological issue that prompted his adoption of the traditional view that Gen. 1:1 is an absolute beginning. He wrote concerning Gen. 1:1, “Syntactically perhaps both translations are possible [i.e., Gen. 1:1 as an independent statement or a subordinate statement], but not theologically. One must not deprive the declaration in v. 1 of the character of a theological principle. If one considers vs. 1–2 or 1–3 as the syntactical unit, then the word about chaos would stand logically and temporally before the word about creation” (Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, rev. ed., [Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1972], 48). {We’ll need to return in a later post to the question of whether Gen. 1:2 indicates or implies chaos, as von Rad presumed.}  

In the present post I examined a third 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 theological argument based on comparative religion study. It suggests that berē’šît of Gen. 1:1 should be rendered as a subordinate statement (“when … began”) because the Enuma elish begins with a dependent clause. However, this argument puts too much weight on a text that bears no theological affinities with Gen. 1:1. In the next post I’ll examine a final area of inquiry, one that tips the balance decisively toward the traditional rendering of Gen. 1:1—namely, historical precedence in translation. 

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