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)”?

October 9, 2013 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , ,


  1. I think that one good reason to stick with “heavens” (and I prefer the plural form over the singular because it allows the reader to distinguish it from “heaven”) is that “heavens” encompasses a much larger space than “sky.” When I look up into the sky, I see only what is visible from my personal perspective, which is limited by the aspect of the particular portion of earth on which I stand. Heavens, on the other hand, seems to imply a more comprehensive picture of the entirety of the solar system in which the earth has been placed. This, of course, is just what comes to my mind and may be directly opposed to the heavens/earth dualism that you mention. I’m curious to know if others think this idea has any merit.

    On the other hand, I believe that much Christian eschatology (I am not qualified in any way to speak for Jewish eschatology) has been very poorly influenced by a misunderstanding of “heaven” perpetuated by a failure to recognize “heavens” as a present physical reality that stands inherently connected to the earth.

    Comment by Steve | October 9, 2013 | Reply

  2. In my view, the word ‘skies’ is probably the better translation because ‘skies’ and ‘earth’ are both concrete words. I do not favor the translation “heavens and earth” because the phrase contains an abstract word, heavens, and a concrete one, ‘earth’. Because I subscribe to the view that “hashamayim v’haaretz” is a merism, having the two words at the same level of concreteness is much more satisfying — if only for symmetry.

    A secondary argument favoring ‘skies’ is the use of raqia in v5. If we were hearing the verse as the ancient Hebrews heard it, I suspect we would have immediately understood the literal meaning of shamayim as simply a vast space bounded ultimately by a raqia — a word whose root meaning connotes flattening something as one might roll out a pie crust from a ball of dough. In other words, raqia would have been viewed as a far-off, distant surface bounding the skies and serving to separate the waters above from those below.

    Finally, supporting this view is the theory that Genesis 1:1-2 is probably a prologue in which is summarized the subsequent creation story (Gen 1:3-2:3). In this understanding, the first creative event occurs in Gen 1:3, not Gen 1:1 and hence the motivation to use a merism.



    Comment by mtp1032 | October 9, 2013 | Reply

    • In rereading this reply, I find that I only answered one of the two questions posed by JH. The second question, and the one that constituted the title of Joel’s post is “What did God Really Create in the Beginning?”

      So, what was the outcome of God’s first creative act?

      A close reading of the text offers the theory that God’s first creative act was to create light and that when this act occurred, it occurred in the presence of a pre-existing [formless and dark] primordial substrate. In other words, Genesis 1:1-2 does not posit creatio ex nihilo.



      Comment by mtp1032 | October 9, 2013 | Reply

    • Could you please explain further? It seems to me that YHWH’s first act of creation was the heavens and the earth. This earth had 3 features: 1) without form, 2) void, and 3) darkness covered its waters. The next phrase is a transition, “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Keep in mind one of the common ancient viewpoints on the sea: shapeless and dark, and therefore scary and the source of chaos and of monsters.

      The creation account in Genesis is a story of YHWH taking chaos and making it useful, which was a story that the Israelites needed to hear in both their exile, and in their travel from Egypt to the Promised Land, depending on when these stories were written down. YHWH methodically addresses and overcomes the darkness, the lack of shape, and the emptiness. And then He commissions all creatures to continue in this act of creation, which we would think of less as creation and more as creating order.

      That’s why I think YHWH’s first act of creation here in Genesis 1 is to create the heavens and the earth, and then to go about addressing their chaos and uselessness: sanctifying them if you will.

      Comment by jasonmfry | October 9, 2013 | Reply

      • Hi Jason,

        Here’s my [high-level] attempt at clarification. First, I translate Gen 1:1-2 as follows:

        (1) When Elohim first created the heavens/sky and the earth, (2) the earth had been formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. (3) So, God said, “Let there be light”. And there was light.

        This translation is based on translating “haytah” in the second verse as “had been” instead of the conventional “was”. It turns out that there is now pretty solid evidence suggesting that the verbal sequence in v1 through v2 forms a past perfect verbal clause (see footnote). In other words, verse 2 expresses the idea that when God began his creative activity (i.e., in the beginning), He did so in the presence of a pre-existing primordial substrate (the formless, empty, and dark stuff described in v2)

        In this I follow Nahun Sarna, Richard Elliott Friedman, and other scholars. Indeed, even some ancient commentators such as philo and a number of the [Christian] Church Fathers did not view Genesis as supporting ex nihilo creation. Rather, they argued that God created the substrate ex nihilo, and only later later created the rest of the universe. It is this second step that is described in Genesis 1:3-2:3.

        As for sanctifying the heavens and the earth, the text says otherwise. The only sanctifying God does in the first creation story is a specific moment in time — later to be called the Sabbath. He blesses a lot of stuff, but He only sanctifies that moment in time when He stopped His creative activity.

        I hope this helped clarify my earlier statement.


        Footnote: There are a number of grammatical rules for finding past perfect verbs, but I use this one:

        For a verb to be rendered as an English past perfect it must meet the following requirements:

        1. The preceeding verbal clause must contain a verb in perfect tense.
        2. The subject of the verb in question must be prefixed with a waw, and …
        3. The subject in the second clause must precede the verb.

        None of these rules are without controversy, but this one seems to be holding up quite well.

        Comment by mtp1032 | October 9, 2013

      • (After writing this I realized I’m assuming you don’t believe that YHWH created all things. That’s probably erroneous. If you believe YHWH created all things seen and unseen, if that is in fact what happened, then what would be the point for the author of Genesis to have intended haytah to be the past perfect? What is there to gain from that translation? See below for the rest of my part of our discussion.)

        We can discuss at length which translation should be used, based solely on the grammar, and get nowhere. Or, at best, show something in slight favor of haytah being the past perfect, or the past. However, I see more merit in translating it in the past tense because it makes sense of Jewish thought and the rest of the text in ways I don’t believe that the past perfect tense does. Here’s what I mean.

        The Jews understood YHWH to be the creator God of all the cosmos (2 Chronicles 2:12, Jeremiah 31:35, Isaiah 44:24, Ecclesiastes 11:5, etc). I don’t think that’s much in dispute. I’m no Hebrew scholar. In fact, I know almost no Hebrew at all. But if the author of Genesis intended for haytah to be a past perfect tense, then that changes the emphasis of the story, and gives less credence to YHWH being the creator God of all things. If there’s something already there when He starts, well where did it come from?

        THE REST OF THE TEXT (Genesis 1-11)
        The emphasis of the story is not that YHWH created everything ex nihilo (though that is there and it is quite important, as I’ll explain later), but that YHWH’s creating acts are ones of order and system. YHWH has always chosen a person, or a people, to be fruitful and multiply. And not just like rabbits, but to multiply His Image, including His Kingdom/influence, throughout the whole of creation. If the Genesis story is about YHWH creating everything ex nihilo, if that’s what it’s primarily *about*, then the command to be fruitful and multiply would primarily be about reproducing through sex. But YHWH does not seem interested in that. What He does seem interested in is the stewardship He has given to humanity, as His Image bearers, to rule and order His good creation in a good manner. This stewardship of His Image is tied together with the first sin.

        The first sin is primarily about humanity’s decision that the person around which all of creation ought to orbit is not YHWH, but “me.” Thus, the spread of “my” image, of “my kingdom and influence, to recreate the world in “my” image and reconcile creation to “myself” under “my” terms. From this we get Cain killing Able, Nimrod hunting and killing people, Lamech’s threat to outdo YHWH’s justice for killing another man, and ultimately Babel, where instead of spreading YHWH’s image, humanity decides to make a name for *itself* in *one* place. This is all contrary to the intent of the creation story in Genesis 1:1, and without that story being primarily about YHWH creating order, after creating everything ex nihilo (and not finding stuff already there, or something/someone else creating it, or it being tangential point), then the thread of the story snaps, and the pieces I see lying on the ground are hardly a story at all.

        My issue with translating haytah as the past perfect is that I believe it weakens the overall story, that YHWH, the good creator God of all things seen and unseen, desires for humanity to be fruitful and multiply His Image in and through creation. If haytah is translated as past perfect, it weakens the ex nihilo argument, which is the necessary foundation of the story to build up to YHWH’s real concern of spreading His Image, and of humanity’s failure to do so, and ultimately of YHWH’s image, the glory of YHWH Himself, visiting His people and, among many other wonderful things, spreading His Image personally by means of His Spirit, Who He gives to His children, who are given the charge, yet again, to be fruitful and multiply by baptizing disciples in the name (aka authority, and therefore influence, kingdom, image) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

        This seems less central to our discussion, but here’s what I meant by God sanctifying all of creation. Defining my terms: sanctify means to make holy, and holy means set apart for a purpose. This is precisely what is happening: God is setting the waters apart, the light apart, the animals apart, for a purpose. He sets them apart literally, from their counterpart, and he sets them apart functionally, from the chaos. The same thing happens with the Levites and Priests, with Moses and Aaron, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc.

        Comment by jasonmfry | October 10, 2013

  3. My takes is that Gen assumes the so-called 3 tier universe of heavens, earth/land and the underworld. And that the heavers are further differentiated by the sky, then the raqia dome on which the stars are hung, and beyond that, God’s dwelling. This is a different conception of the universe that science has, for example, so trying to mesh them together results in a mish-mash.

    Comment by Don Johnson | October 9, 2013 | Reply

  4. The issue that the translator categorically. ough, is how to translate shamayim in other places where clearly “skies” would be unacceptable. One example would be in Dan 4 where the phrase “God of heaven” is found. Should the translator there also use “skies”? “God of the skies” would actually be a misleading translation as it would suggest a God who ruled over the skies but not over the earth, exactly the opposite meaning of what is actually intended.

    Should shamayim be treated as categorically different when used alongside eretz than when used without it?

    Comment by Steve Driediger | October 9, 2013 | Reply

    • Should shamayim be treated as categorically different when used alongside eretz than when used without it?

      A very good question, and one that applies not just here but more generally to any foreign word that doesn’t match up perfectly with an English one. (This is the biggest difficulty in correctly translating the Greek sarx.)

      In this case, I’m not convinced that “God of the sky” is any worse than “God of heaven.” There is no heaven as we conceive of it in the OT, and I think that “God of heaven” wrongly suggests our modern notion of heaven. But whatever we do with Daniel and similar cases, I think “heaven and earth” misconveys the point of Genesis.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 9, 2013 | Reply

  5. My opinion may not be worth two cents but, anyway:

    I agree with the first post by Steve. Sky is somewhat limited in the scope of its implications. I don’t know much about Hebrew thought on what is meant (or implied) exactly by the words translated as “heaven” and “firmament,” but from my reading of Genesis 1, I take “heaven” to mean the visible sky and “firmament” to mean the atmosphere; that which separates the earth from the visible sky that extends beyond.

    I see your point, Dr. Hoffman, in wanting to be clearer with what the Hebrew means as to differentiate between the misunderstood Christian concept of heaven as a place where dead people go. But I think the proper meaning of “heaven(s)” is closer to the meaning and implications of the Hebrew, shamayim, more so than is sky (notwithstanding cases where sky is more appropriate because of its limited scope).

    So for poetic reasons and the deeper implications of the word, I think heavens should stay. For the reader who interprets the passage wrongly, I say just leave a footnote. (I feel footnotes are really underutilized in Bible translations.)

    Comment by George M | October 9, 2013 | Reply

  6. In answer to the first question, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. I take that to mean everything, seen and unseen, as Joel say, “the Hebrew pair shamayim and eretz is used metaphorically (as a merism) to represent all of creation.” If “all of creation” doesn’t mean everything, then are we suggesting that the Hebrew allows for YHWH to have created only the earth, and the heavens around that earth? If so, who or what created everything else? The phrase may be analogous, in English, to referring to a house as a “roof,” in the phrase, “a roof over their head,” when in reality the part stands for the whole.

    The second question, should we keep the translation as “the heaven(s) and the earth”? I say yes, because nothing else would capture it poetically and completely. Leave it up to the reader to understand the words in this case, not the words to understand the reader. I think “heavens” means more than just a disembodied place in the sky to most Christians.

    I have a question of my own. I heard somewhere that the Hebrew idea of heavens included 3 things: the sky that we see, outer space beyond that, and the spiritual realm. Is that correct? If so, then wouldn’t all of that be included in the phrase “the heavens and the earth?”

    Comment by jasonmfry | October 9, 2013 | Reply

  7. Great post! I addressed this in a post on a forum here: http://forum.bible-discussion.com/showthread.php?28742-Global-Warming&p=741593#post741593

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 4, 2014 | Reply

  8. I’ve been trained to translate “im” as the equivalent to our English “s” which does make heavens a plural or heaven in plurality. We see in II Corinthians 12:2 that Paul says he was caught up to the 3rd heaven. The first heaven is understood as the sky or firmament we see. The 2nd heaven would be the invisible and mobile spiritual realm/heaven- We wrestle not against flesh and blood … but in heavenly places- Ephesians 6:12 and then the 3rd Heaven would be where God resides or His realm. I hope this helps

    Comment by Angela Bolin | January 13, 2021 | Reply

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