God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What did God Really Create in the Beginning?

What did God create in the beginning?

The usual answer is as obvious as it is wrong: “heaven and earth.”

The problem is that the Hebrew for the first word here means “sky,” not “heaven.” In English, the birds, clouds, rain, etc. are all in the sky, not in heaven. Heaven, by contrast, is, depending on one’s theology, either where good people go when they die or where all people go when they die.

A translation variation, “heavens,” is a little better, but only to the extent that that Biblish word has entered the mainstream. People don’t talk about “cloudy heavens” when it’s overcast. They talk about a cloudy sky.

We see the Hebrew word, shamayim, ten times in the first chapter of Genesis.

The final four times the word is where birds are, which is obviously the “sky” in English, not “heaven” or “heavens.”

Four times the word appears in connection with the Hebrew raki’a, which is usually translated into English as “firmament” — though, again, that’s a word whose use is almost entirely confined to translations of Genesis; the NRSV’s “dome” isn’t a bad alternative. The raki’a is the ancient conception of the sky, which is why the Hebrew raki’a is God’s name for the shamayim, in one place, just like “day” is God’s name for “light.”

In one case, the shamayim is the place under which the water of the ocean is gathered — again, “sky” in English.

And that leaves Genesis 1:1, where God creates the shamayim. (If you’re counting along, it seems like we now have eleven instances, not ten, but only because one of them appears in two lists — in connection with raki’a and in connection with birds.)

Elsewhere in the Bible (Deut. 11:17, e.g.), a lack of rain results when the shamayim gets stopped up. The shamayim is where the stars are (Gen. 26:4). And so forth. All of these are “sky” in English.

So it seems to me that Genesis 1:1 should talk about the “the sky and the land” or “the sky and the earth.”

The only possible reason I can think of not to go with this clear translation is that the Hebrew pair shamayim and eretz is used metaphorically (as a merism) to represent all of creation. (This is presumably why the ISV goes with “universe” here. But in turning the pair “sky/earth” into the one word “universe,” the ISV destroys the dualism that underlies the creation story.)

So what do you think? Is there any reason to keep the common translation “heaven(s)”?

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October 9, 2013 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , | 12 Comments