God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On the Word breishit

Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent article about Genesis has brought the debate about the word breishit to the fore again.

Some people don’t like the traditional understanding — “In the beginning” — because the Hebrew word is, literally, “in a beginning” or “in the beginning of.” (Simon Holloway recently provided a little more detail.)

Accordingly, some translations (such as the JPS) prefer, “When God began to create,” reading the Hebrew literally as “in the beginning of God’s creating.” Other commentators use this grammatical tidbit to argue against creation ex nihilo in Genesis.

But I think the reasoning is flawed.

We frequently see what we might call determiner mismatches in translation. That is, it’s common to find that one language requires a determiner (“the,” say) where another disallows it. For example, American English requires “the” in the phrase, “his illness put him in the hospital” while the British equivalent is “…in hospital.” Similarly, many dialects of Portuguese require a determiner before proper names (e.g., “the Paulo” instead of just “Paulo”).

In Genesis 5:2 we read that Enoch walked with ha-elohim, literally, “the God,” but every English translation I know renders the Hebrew simply as “God.”

In Deuteronomy 11:12, we find the phrase meireishit hashanah v’ad acharit shana, literally, “from the beginning of the year to an end of a year,” yet, again, the meaning is clear and translators seem content to correctly render the phrase as “the end….”

It seems to me that using English rules of grammar to understand the lack of a determiner in breshit is no different than using American rules of grammar to (mis)understand the British phrase “in hospital.”

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October 18, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , ,

19 Comments »

  1. Good example! When we Brits hear Americanisms like “his illness put him in the hospital” we want to ask “which hospital?” If the Hebrew word had been definite we would be asking “which beginning?” Of course neither is the question being answered in the text. Perhaps the Hebrew would be better translated something like “Initially” or “To start with”.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | October 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’m not sure your ha-elohim example is so airtight. I did a brief study through the various definite and indefinite uses of elohim in Genesis and I’m not sure they’re exactly equivalent.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | October 19, 2009 | Reply

    • I expect elohim and ha-elohim to be different (though, to be honest, I’ve yet to see a convincing explanation of exactly how). My point was that they do not differ in the way that “God” and “the God” do in English, just as b’reishit and bareishit do not differ in the way that “in beginning” and “in the beginning” do in English.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 19, 2009 | Reply

  3. On the elohim and ha-elohim difference, the real difference, sometimes ignored in studies, is between the definite and indefinite forms. Thus for example elohe Israel and elohenu are definite and so should be classed with ha-elohim. On this analysis the indefinite elohim is comparatively rare, and becomes the marked case which needs to be explained.

    So does Genesis 1:1 have to become “In a beginning a god created …”? I hope not!

    Comment by Peter Kirk | October 19, 2009 | Reply

  4. On the elohim and ha-elohim difference, the real difference, sometimes ignored in studies, is between the definite and indefinite forms. Thus for example elohe Israel and elohenu are definite and so should be classed with ha-elohim. On this analysis the indefinite elohim is comparatively rare, and becomes the marked case which needs to be explained.

    Fair enough. But elohim appears hundreds of times, and until I see a convincing explanation of the difference, I’ll reserve judgement.

    Comment by Joel H. | October 19, 2009 | Reply

  5. Joel,

    I appreciate your point about determiner mismatches. This is a problem that plagues students of ancient greek. They want to fit the greek article usage into the English (or their native language) framework and it doesn’t fit. This generates a lot pointless discussion like the post this morning on b-greek about EN ARCH in John 1:1 which is in fact a allusion to LXX rendering of breishit in Gen 1:1.

    Comment by c. stirling bartholomew | October 20, 2009 | Reply

  6. Forgive me if I’ve missed something, but how would you suggest one translate the phrase then?

    Comment by Luke W. | October 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Breishit is “in the beginning.” I think the real key to the opening phrase is the preposed position of the word, which gives it an emphasis that most translations do not reflect.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 27, 2009 | Reply

  7. Several commentators appeal to Gen 1:1 as a summary statement of the first section of the book. They thus assert that it is not a statement of creation ex nihilo. This seems possible. In other words, although other books of the Bible affirm creation ex nihilo (e.g., Heb 1), does Genesis? If Gen 1:1 is a summary statement, on parallel with the toledot clauses throughout the book, then the actual affirmations of creation which begin in Gen 1:2 are working with matter that is already in existence. In this view, Genesis is silent concerning the creation of matter.

    Comment by sethmehorn | November 1, 2009 | Reply

    • I (and most other people) agree that no clear evidence demonstrates that Genesis 1:1 describes creation ex nihilo, but, equally, no clear evidence that I know precludes the possibility. And my point here and in related posts is that the language in Genesis 1 is consistent with both interpretations.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 2, 2009 | Reply

  8. If no clear evidence suggests that Gen 1:1 is describing creation ex nihilo on the lexical-semantic level, then shouldn’t we move to the logical level and ask if creation ex nihilo would have been on the radar for ancient Israelite culture? As you say, I see no reason to affirm or deny creation ex nihilo based upon Genesis 1. But if we get wrapped up in that question/problem, isn’t there a good chance that we are missing what the text is actually trying to do?

    Comment by sethmehorn | November 2, 2009 | Reply

  9. Alternatively, sethmehorn, if we are talking about translation, then shouldn’t we leave aside cultural and theological speculation and simply translate the text as we have it, “In the beginning God created…”? The only real reason I can see for anyone departing from this kind of translation is an attempt to bring their theological and history of religions presuppositions to the text. But, since in English “create” does not always mean “create ex nihilo“, this traditional rendering leaves the issues just as open as the original Hebrew did.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | November 2, 2009 | Reply

  10. Hmmm…I do not think that asking a question about the coherency of an idea to the original audience implies importing my own presuppositions. In fact, I would suggest precisely the opposite. To be sure, I’m concerned with cultural issues (at least with this discussion) and think that they absolutely have an impact in how we think about meaning (and consequently translation).

    With regard to “bara,” I agree that “create” is sufficiently ambiguous as an English term. However, I do wonder if the average reader of an English Bible version understands that. Don’t you?

    Perhaps all we have identified in this exchange is that you and I operate with different theories of translation.

    Comment by sethmehorn | November 2, 2009 | Reply

  11. Sethmehorn: As Peter points out, we’re lucky in this case. We have an English word (“create”) that is ambiguous in the same way that the Hebrew one (bara) is, so I don’t see the value in choosing another translation. For that matter, neither bara nor “create” specifies how long the process took, or, say, whether it involved — I don’t know — a flash of light or a loud noise. But I don’t think “created in an instant with a flash of light and a loud noise” would be the right translation even if that’s what (the text says) happened.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 2, 2009 | Reply

    • I agree, and I am not commending another translation of bara. Rather, I’m simply pointing out that our culture–perhaps, because of modern issues and a systematic approach–might tend to infer (read out) more from “create” then the Hebrew would allow in Gen 1. This is where good teaching and preaching must pick up the ball, so to speak.

      Comment by sethmehorn | November 2, 2009 | Reply

  12. Seth (will that do as an abbreviation), I certainly don’t want to imply that you shouldn’t ask questions. My point was simply that the questions you are asking go beyond what is necessary for translation, at least into English (they might be necessary for a language which doesn’t have a general word for “create” or “make”), into theological speculation. I’m not sure what theory of translation you operate with, but it certainly doesn’t allow theological speculation in the text.

    Do you really think the average Bible reader understands “create” to mean something like “create in an instant with a flash of light and a loud noise”? If so, perhaps another word is needed – how about “make”?

    Comment by Peter Kirk | November 2, 2009 | Reply

    • Good points. And to this I would add that this applies to certain words in the New Testament, where translators have gone “beyond what is necessary for translation … into theological speculation,” because they seem to think the average Bible reader can’t understand very basic language metaphors.

      Comment by Jason A. Staples | November 2, 2009 | Reply

  13. [...] second issue came up recently in a comment by Peter Kirk, who correctly points out that expanding on bara in Genesis 1:1 to specify details of creation that [...]

    Pingback by Translating and Improving the Bible « God Didn't Say That | November 3, 2009 | Reply

  14. [...] have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and [...]

    Pingback by On Genesis 1:1 « God Didn't Say That | July 19, 2010 | Reply


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