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.”


October 18, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Review: Professor Ellen van Wolde on bara in Genesis

Professor Ellen van Wolde’s recent paper on Genesis has captured significant attention for claiming that the Hebrew bara ought to be translated as “divided.” That is:

Met andere woorden, onze conclusie is dat het woord bara niet ‘scheppen’, maar ‘scheiden’ betekent.

I’ve already pointed out why I don’t think she can be correct, but I did so with the caveat that I hadn’t read her work. A reader pointed me to a PDF of her paper, so now, having read it, I’m able to offer this brief review. (I think I’ve got it right. It’s not so easy for me to read Dutch.)

The Evidence

Van Wolde’s evidence that bara means “separate,” not “create,” is this:

1. Creation in Genesis comes about only in one of two ways: Jussive speech (as in, “let there be light”), or with the verb asah. She writes:

Telkens wanneer iets nieuws wordt gemaakt in Genesis 1, staat dat aangegeven op een van de volgende twee manieren. 1. “God zei” gevolgd door een directe rede met een werkwoord in de aanvoegende wijs of iussivus […] 2. Zeven keren gebruikt de verteller het werkwoord asa “maken” om het scheppen van God van iets nieuws te beschrijven: God maakte het uitspansel….

2. In Genesis 1:1, the verb bara applies to two direct objects, both of which are definite, and therefore known. (“Het werkwoord drukt een type handeling uit die God uitvoert met betrekking tot twee directe lijdende voorwerpen, de hemel en de aarde….”)

3. We learn from verses 6-7 and 9-10 that the creation story is, at least in part, about transformation of the uniform water into four regions: water above the sky, water in the sky, water below the sky, and dry land. (“De handeling zelf transformeert deze uniforme watermassa in ten minste vier ruimtelijke domeinen: water boven het hemelgewelf, water onder het hemelgewelf, terwijl het water onder het hemelgewelf verder wordt verdeeld in droog land en zeeen.”)

4. Other ANE texts refer to creation stories that feature separation at the beginning.

5. In Genesis 1:21 we find the verb bara for the taninim, which are not mentioned in the previous verse or in the following verse, so the verb bara in Genesis 1:21 refers to separating the taninim from the other animals.

6. In verses 26-27 we first find asah used in reference to the plural “us” and “gods,” then, in verse 27, bara only refers to “him” (God). Further, asah in verse 26 matches up with d’mut and tzelem, “image and likeness” (beeld and gelijkenis), while bara in 27 only has tzelem. Van Wolde uses these facts to posit that verse 27 refers to (a) separating man from the plural god-man construct; and (b) then separating man from woman.

7. Van Wolde points to the word toldot in Genesis 2:4, using its etymology to suggest that it complements bara. Genesis 2:4 for her is about “begetting” and “separating.” (“Aldus blijkt dat vers 2,4a het hele verhaal evalueert en afsluit: het maken of tot stand brengen (‘schepping’) wordt weergegeven door het begrip verwekken of voortbrengen (toledot) en het scheiden wordt weergegeven door het woord bara.”)

8. Van Wolde points to other words (asah and kana) that mean “create.”

9. Van Wolde suggests that the present participle of bara is never used to mean “creator.” (“Een vierde toetssteen voor de hypothese is het opvallende feit dat in de Hebreeuwse bijbel het abstracte woord schepper nooit wordt uitgedrukt door het tegenwoordig deelwoord van bara.”)

10. Isaiah 45:7 reads, “[God] yotzers light and borehs darkness, osehs peace and borehs evil.” Van Wolde points out the theological problem with a text that ascribes the creation of darkness and evil to God, and further suggests that, in part because the words come in pairs, the verb here, too, means “separate.”

My Evaluation

I still don’t think Professor Van Wolde is correct.

Van Wolde’s “evidence” in (1) above is essentially her conclusion. If one assumes that God’s acts of creation are only described in terms of speech acts or with the verb asah, of course it follows that bara doesn’t refer to acts of creation. But (1) is what she’s trying to show, and by assuming it at the beginning she starts off weakly.

I think (2) and (3) are vague, and compatible with too many hypotheses to be helpful.

I think (4) may be interesting, but probably not directly relevant.

Points (5) and (6) also appear vague to me.

Point (7) seems to rely too closely on the etymology of toldot.

Point (8) seems irrelevant, because the same logic could show that asah doesn’t mean “create,” because kanah does.

I may have misunderstood the Dutch that I summarized as point (9), because it doesn’t seem to be accurate. Isaiah 40:28, for example, reads, “Adonai is the boreh of the ends of the earth.”

Finally, (10) is the same sort of reasoning as (2), the theology notwithstanding.

So in the end, Van Wolde’s argument boils down to two arguments: (A) the verb bara is sometimes applied to pairs; and (B) other verbs mean “create.” And her article doesn’t address the numerous other uses of bara where it seems that only “create” is possible.

So I’m not convinced.

October 15, 2009 Posted by | article review, translation practice | , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Professor Ellen van Wolde and bara in Genesis

The Dutch Trouw has an article about Professor Ellen van Wolde’s notion that:

Zo stuitte ze op de openingsverzen van het bijbelboek waarop ze ooit promoveerde. Preciezer: Op het werkwoord bara. Dat betekent volgens iedereen ‘scheppen’, maar voor Van Wolde voldeed die vertaling niet meer. “Het klópte gewoon niet.” Bij het werkwoord was God het onderwerp (God schiep…), gevolgd door ‘steeds twee of meer lijdende voorwerpen’. Waarom schiep God niet één ding of dier, maar steeds meerdere? Omdat, stelde Van Wolde vast, God niet schiep, maar scheidde. De aarde van de hemel, het land van de zee, de zeemonsters van de vogels en het gekrioel op de grond. [Emphasis added.]

That is, according to Van Wolde, bara means “separated,” not “created.” Her evidence is that the verb applies to more than one thing at a time: “heaven” and “earth,” for example, which she takes as “separated heaven from earth.”

I don’t see it.

There’s enormous evidence from elsewhere that bara means “create,” not “separate.” And even though Genesis starts out by things that are created in pairs or groups, we don’t have to look far to see counterexamples: The first part of Genesis 1:27 (“God barad adam“), Genesis 5:1 (similar), Isaiah 43:1 (“…Adonai, who barad you…”), Malachi 2:10 (“[we are all the same because] one God barad us”), Amos 4:13 ([the one who “forms the mountains and baras the wind”), Ezekiel 21:35 (“in the place where you were barad … I will judge you”), etc. Even her own example from Genesis 1:21 (“sea monsters,” and “birds”) seems barely to fit her thesis.

And for that matter, there is a verb “separate” (hivdil) in the creation story.

I wouldn’t want my own work judged from a newspaper account of it, but in this case we all have the lexical data. It’s true that bara sometimes applies to more than one thing. But even without the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I think it would be an unwarranted leap to therefore assume that the verb means “separate.”

[UPDATE: For more, see here, here, and here.]

[UPDATE 2: I’ve put together a short review of Dr. Van Wolde’s paper.]

October 9, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 12 Comments

Q&A: Definiteness and Numbers in Genesis

Bob MacDonald asks on the About page:

Tomorrow I teach my five minute Hebrew lesson to children[…]

This year I was thinking of learning numbers — starting with one and using the ordinal numbers of Genesis 1-2:4 as a beginning. No wonder I have not learned numbers yet — I have been reviewing Lambdin and there are so many variations in the form of 1 to 7 in Hebrew. I noticed that only on day 6 and 7 is the definite article used with the number and it is never used with the word “day.” I notice also that Hebrew is much more careful (as is Greek) with the concept of definiteness. English speakers tend to use definite also as generic and often without much thought.

Should translators into English of Genesis 1-2:4 be more careful with the idea of definite? And why is the definite not attached to the word day in the 6th and 7th day. Does the number act as adjective here or as something slightly different?


This is really more than one question, but because the “tomorrow” is now “today” I’ll try to give a bit of information quickly this morning.

First, you are right that most of the days of creation in Genesis are called “a second day,” “a third day,” etc., while the sixth day is closer to “the sixth day. It’s not exactly “the sixth day,” though. The Hebrew is yom hashishi, literally, “day the sixth,” would under normal circumstances would mean “day of the sixth [something].” But it would only mean “the sixth day” if either (a) the grammar is unusual; (b) the grammar is wrong; or (c) shishi (“sixth”) is a noun. (Most people think (a) or (b).)

Though I’m not sure I agree with you that “Hebrew is much more careful (as is Greek) with the concept of definiteness,” I do agree that the definite determiner in Hebrew doesn’t always match up to the English one. So in general there’s no reason necessarily to mimic the word ha- in English.

However — whether by mistake or part of the grammar that we don’t understand — Genesis has “the” only on day six, so in this case, I would preserve it in translation and translate “day one” (note: not “a first day”) and “the sixth day.” For the intervening days, I see a valid choice between “day two” etc. and “a second day” etc.

(By the way, I’ve written a few Jerusalem Post columns about the numbers. They’re here: “As Easy as One, Two, Three,” “First Things First,” and most recently, “Count On It.” I also have a column on the determiner: “Side by Side.”)

October 4, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 2 Comments