Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Few Translational Notes on Genesis 1:1-2:3

What follows is an early draft of my notes on the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1-2:3. I've put this together as a guide for anyone interested in mastering the vocabulary and grammar of this passage.

If you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary of this text, I recommend that you look up each word in the Gesenius-Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (called BDB in the notes below). This will help to acquaint you not only with the Hebrew, but will also expose you to some of the delights of our standard one-volume Hebrew-English lexicon.

Genesis Chapter 1

Verse 1: One oddity here is that bereshit, the very first word of the Bible, is in construct and is followed by bara, an affix (a.k.a. perfect) verb form. This combination, though found in a few other texts (namely, Lev. 14:46; Isa. 29:1; and Hos. 1:1), is quite rare. Options for translation include, "In the beginning when . . . " and "When God began to create . . . " For more on bereshit, see BDB, 912. (Hereafter, all references to BDB appear in parentheses and give only the page number). In his commentary, Claus Westermann (p. 98) notes that there are two perennial observations made about bara: (1) The subject of this verb is always the Lord, never humans or another deity (2) The verb is never used with an adjective or an accusative of the material with which God creates. That is to say, bara seems to begin with nothing, and always results in a completed product.

Verse 2: Here we encounter a high percentage of rare vocabulary: tohu ("chaotic" 1062), bohu ("emptiness" 96), tehom ("abyss" or "deep" 1062) and rachaf ("to hover" 934). For the translation of tohu vavohu, Sarna suggests "unformed and void." Options for translating ruach include: "spirit" "wind" and "breath" (924-26). The choice here might depend on whether you think that ruach is in contrast, or is more parallel to, choshech . However one translates al pene hamayim, it should match the translation of al pene tehom, a nice parallel.

Verse 3: Note that yehi is a jussive form.

Verse 5: Here we find the first instance of what becomes a familiar refrain: "And there was evening and there was morning." Erev carries the idea of darkening, which makes "sunset" or, perhaps better, "evening" a good choice.

Verse 6: A rahqeeyah is defined as "an extended surface" (956) and apparently was used to speak, for example, of metal that had been hammered flat. The translation "firmament" is hardly helpful inasmuch as most people don’t know what a firmament is. (Nahum Sarna, in his JPS commentary, notes that rahqeeyah could possibly refer to a layer of congealed ice, which, he says, may be the idea in Ezek. 1:22, and which was certainly the understanding of Josephus in the first century A.D., the reference for which Sarna does not provide). However one translates yom echad , "a first day" or "day one," it should be noted that the definite article, ha is not coupled with yom until 1:31 (in connection with "the sixth day"), and then 2:2 ("on the seventh day").

Verse 7: Here we encounter for the first time the verb asah, which is used again in 1:16 and 25. Sarna says that we shouldn't make too much of the difference between bara and asah, as though the Lord suddenly needs material with which to work. Nonetheless, Sarna, like most translators, reflects the distinction between bara and asah with "create" and "make" respectively (pp. 5-8; so, too,Westermann, p. 76).

Verse 9: Yeeqahvu is a 3rd person verb. It is not patently a jussive, but a good argument can be made that it is; namely, jussives occur quite frequently (vss. 3, 6, and 14) in this highly repetitive text.

Verse 10: A meekvay is a "collection" (876). Concerning yamim, because there is dagesh in the mem, we know that this is "seas" and not "days." That is, the little fishy (the dagesh) is in the sea. See!

Verse 11: deshe is a generic term that can include all sorts of plants and fruit trees (Sarna, p. 9). For this reason, "vegetation" is likely the best translation. Asev is a noun meaning "herb" (793). Mazeriah is the hiphil participle of zara (281, esp. 282) which BDB translates "produce seed." Meen is defined as "kind" or "species," the latter of which sounds anachronistic here. However, Westermann says that meen denotes "precisely the same as that of the word used today in the natural sciences, namely species or genus" (p. 126).

Verse 14: A maor is a "light, light-bearer, luminary" (22). "Lights" is a good translation for the plural here, although "light-bearers" acknowledges that light has already been created (v. 3), and here, for the first time, light has a habitat.

Verse 16: Memshala is a feminine noun meaning ""rule, dominion, realm" (606). In this verse, the sun and the moon are given their respective times of rule or dominion. Sarna observes that the stars, the kokavim (456), are given no particular role. This, he says, "constitutes a tacit repudiation of astrology" and refers the reader to Jer. 10:2 (p. 10).

Verse 17: Here natan, which often means "give," connotes the placement of the luminaries. And God "placed" or "put" or "set" them (678-81, esp. 680-81, sec. 2).

Verse 18: This verse continues the thought of the previous one. Ve-leemshol is a qal infinitive construct of mashal = "rule, have dominion, reign" (605)

Verse 20: Sharatz, here in the qal prefix (a.k.a., imperfect), means "swarm, teem" (1056). The volume of terms leading up to the atnach makes for difficult translating. Sarna has it: "God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures’ " (p. 20). The King James Version manages to reflect all of the Hebrew terms, though awkwardly: "And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life’." Yeoafaf is a polel prefix (imperfect) of oaf which means "to fly" (733).

Verse 21: According to BDB (1072), the taneen is a "serpent, dragon, sea-monster" which, in mythological texts, denotes personified chaos. Ramas means "to move or glide about" (942-43). The same root occurs as a noun, remes, in verses 24, 25, and 26.

Verse 22: Parah means to "bear fruit, be fruitful" (826).

Verse 26: The plural of asah has generated endless discussion. Westermann, who refers to several grammarians, seems to favor the idea that this is a "plural of deliberation" (p. 145; compare Gen. 11:7). Tselem means "image" (873) and demut is "likeness" (198). Of course, the big interpretive question here is: Do these two words stand in apposition to one another, functioning as virtual synonyms? Or do they denote different senses in which humanity is comparable to God? (From the standpoint of syntax and the discreet sense of the text, I understand the two phrases as synonymous. On the other hand, the ways in which Christian theologians have exploited the fact that there are two phrases are interesting and instructive). Radah means to "rule" or "have dominion" (921-22). A dagah is a "fish" (185).

Verse 27: Zachor denotes "male" and, according to BDB (271), is related to the verb from the same root inasmuch as "remember" or "call to remembrance" or "call upon" = worship. The connection is apparently based on the idea that it is the male, as opposed to the female, who is "competent to worship." Nekavah, a relatively rare word, denotes "female" (666).

Verse 28: Cavash means "to subdue" (461).

Verse 30: Yereq is "green" (438). Achal means "to eat." Thus, achlah is is the denominative "food" (38).

Verse 31: As noted above, here we have the first instance of the definite article with yom. Sarna mentions that the exceptional use of the article "points to the special character" of the sixth and seventh days (p. 14); they are the days on which humanity and the Sabbath are made. Whatever the significance, the use or non-use of ha should be reflected in translation. As commentators frequently point out, this is the first time that tov is followed by meod. According to BDB, meod is actually a noun which means "muchness, force, abundance" (547), but often functions like the adverbs "very" and "exceedingly."

Chapter 2, verse 1: The first word is a pual prefix (imperfect) 3rd masculine plural of the root calah (478): "and they were completed." Tsvaham = tsevah + hem, and means something like "their array" (so Sarna, p. 14). KJV has "the host of them." Sarna adds this note: "Hebrew tsava’, in the sense used here, is strictly speaking applicable only to ‘heaven’; but, by the figure of speech known as zeugma, it is extended to apply to the ‘earth’ as well" (p, 15). Sarna’s endnote refers the reader to Nehemiah 9:6.

Some Sources:

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. 4th rev. ed. Edited by Karl Elliger and Wilhelm Rudolph. Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblestiftung, 1990.

Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. The New Hebrew and English Lexicon. Reprinted. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1979.

Sarna, Nahum. Genesis. JPS Torah Commentary Series. Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.


eirenetheou said...

Thank you for this useful guide to the language of the first account of "creation."

Close study of the early chapters of Genesis is important for an understanding of the New Testament and especially the letters of Paul.

God's Peace to you.


Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, d. Always good to hear from you. Yesterday, as a student and I worked through some of Genesis 1 using these notes, I was glad to have them. At the same time I was aware that they could be fuller and better.