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Originally published in Creation 14, no 3 (June 1992): 36-37.
Many years ago a biblical scholar named Scofield produced a Bible in the King James Version with notes for evangelical Christians. In his notes he attempted to reconcile beliefs in a long-age theory of the history of the world with the account in Genesis.
He was not the first, but he was probably the most influential of those scholars who tried to reconcile evolution and creation.
Scofield annotates Genesis 1:2 to the effect that the word translated was in that verse can also mean became. (Even the NIV writes ‘or possibly became’ in a footnote.)
Now if we read ‘and the earth became without form and void,’ it does suggest that something evil happened, something against what we know as the perfect character of God and His works, and this paves the way for a theory about pre-Adamic beings in a world spoilt by Satan, before the Fall of man recorded in Genesis 3.
What are the facts about the Hebrew word hayethah? First, it normally means ‘was,’ not ‘became.’ A typical example is Genesis 29:17 which says Rachel was (hayethah) beautiful and well favoured. This word hayethah is the one used about the earth in Genesis 1:2, and there is no difference in the construction of ‘Rachel was beautiful and well favoured,’ and ‘the earth was without form, and void.’ There is therefore no need to suggest that it has the rare meaning ‘became’ on the grounds of context.
If we look at the account of creation as a whole, we find a progression, or development.But is there something about the actual words translated ‘without form, and void’ which would force us to choose the rarer reading? Scofield seemed to think so, probably because he took the Hebrew words tohu wa bohu to mean ‘chaotic.’ Today, this word is very negative, but of course the Hebrew doesn’t say it was, or became, chaotic. It merely points to a condition of shapelessness, or unformedness.
If we look at the account of creation as a whole, we find a progression, or development. This is not an ‘evolution’ in the sense used by Darwinians. God does things in a logical order, and just as He made the plants (that is, the wild plants) before making the animals, and light before life, so it’s quite reasonable that He’d make a rough ‘plasticine’ sort of model for the earth before rounding it off and setting things in motion.
So the best translation of tohu wa bohu is something like ‘undeveloped and uninhabited,’ with the expectation that the planet would eventually become developed and inhabited. There is no necessary suggestion of perfection becoming imperfection in the words of Genesis 1:2.
The most probable explanation of Scofield’s position and that of similar scholars is that he took as proven the idea that the time of Genesis 1 had to allow for millions of years suggested by the evolutionists. But some scholars like Scofield really did believe in a miracle-working God who could bring things into being in six days.
How to reconcile the two? Well, the long ages of the geologists and biologists must have occurred before the six days. Therefore, to do as little violence to the text as possible, they tried to see how Scripture could support what most scientists believe and then hit upon the alternative translation of hayethah.
To further support their case, they suggested that Isaiah 45:18 means that God didn’t create the world tohu wa bohu, but formed it to be inhabited. But the implication in Isaiah is not contrary to a straight-forward reading of Genesis 1:2. The prophet is saying that God’s intention was not to have an undeveloped, uninhabited earth, but one in which people would live, and so Israel could expect a prosperous end. The phrase ‘to be inhabited’ speaks of intention.
In Semitic languages, and indeed in many others, there is no need to use words for ‘is’ and ‘are.’ However, in the past tense it’s necessary to indicate the past by the use of a word equivalent to ‘was.’ Thus we have: ‘This now bone-of my-bone’ but ‘Rachel was fair-faced and-well favoured,’ which are literal translations of Hebrew. Notice that ‘is’ is missing from the first phrase, but ‘was’ is included in the second.
Now this word ‘was’ is a long word in Hebrew, as we have seen (hayethah). But its length should not lead us to think that it has to have a complicated translation, using a longer word ‘became.’ It just happens to be the only word for ‘was’ in Hebrew, and this word sometimes has to do duty for ‘became.’
One more point, which may be a little difficult to follow, concerns the kind of adjectives we find in languages such as Hebrew. I’ll try to be as simple as possible.
Most languages in the world, including Hebrew but unlike English, use verbs where English uses adjectives. Even English can do without adjectives if it tries:
|for||to become old||we can use||to age|
|to become red||to redden|
|to become long||to lengthen|
|to become worse||to deteriorate|
|to become empty||to empty|
In Hebrew it’s much more natural to use the right-hand system and make a verb out of a noun or adjective to give the idea that some change occurs in something. So if Genesis 1:2 had used hayethah to mean ‘became’ the feeling of the language would have been violated, and it would have sounded artificial. For me, this is the most convincing argument against using hayethah to mean ‘became.’ If you look in Young’s concordance you’ll find that the KJV rarely translates Hebrew ‘become.’ The use of the word ‘become’ as a separate word is a characteristic of present-day English, and wasn’t common 300 years ago.
I am also aware that some use the argument that ‘become’ as a translation of Hebrew hayah represents a construction with a preposition ‘to’ (94 times) or ‘as’ (11 times) or ‘in’ (twice), when exegeting the KJV. It can also be stated that hayah is translated ‘was’ some 3,800 or more times in that version.
However, the argument is not 100 per cent secure. In Exodus 23:29, ‘lest the land become desolate’ has a construction parallel with Genesis 1:2, without a preposition. There are in all 41 cases of hayah without preposition translated ‘become.’ The most we can say that many of these refer to persons becoming servants, enemies, etc., and are not quite parallel to Genesis 1:2. For this reason I would not press the grammar too far here, though on balance Genesis 1:2 is unlikely to include the meaning ‘became.’
So for all these reasons I don’t find it at all easy to accept that God’s perfect creation in Genesis 1:1 got spoilt and had to be remade.