A number of years ago, I heard a noted New Testament scholar relate a story about teaching a Sunday school class. As would be expected, he was using an English translation. At one point, one of the students in the class asked, “What does it say in the Greek?” The teacher’s response was, “The same thing it says in the English.” His point was not that there is no difference between Greek and English; only that in that passage the English gave an accurate and adequate presentation of the Greek.
It is the same in the Old Testament with Hebrew. Often, the Hebrew text says just what it does in English. That is not to say that there are not differences between Hebrew and English. There are, and frequently those differences pose difficulties for the translator. But in many places that is not the case. That is the reason that if you take a number of the more literal English translations (such as the KJV, NASB, NKJV, and ESV) and compare them verse-by-verse you will often see very little difference among them.
Why Are the Original Languages Important in Studying Genesis?
To qualify my opening statement, there are many differences between Hebrew and English, and those differences can make it difficult to convey some of the subtleties of Hebrew in an English version. These differences are of various kinds. Some of them have to do with vocabulary. Two examples here might suffice.
One is the Hebrew word hesed. It can be translated “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “mercy,” “faithfulness,” and some other words as well. According to Strong’s Concordance, the KJV translates it into about 12 different words or phrases. The point is that the range of meaning for hesed is wider than that of any of the English words used to translate it.
A second example is the word shalom. It is usually translated “peace” in English versions, but again, the range of meaning of the Hebrew word is much wider. It can mean health, well-being, and satisfaction, as well as simply absence of conflict (at least seven different English words are used to translate it in the KJV).
Grammar and Syntax
Other differences have to do with grammar and syntax. Grammar, as I use it here, has to do with the form and function of words, whereas syntax has to do with the structure of sentences. As an example for the differences in grammar, the English verb system is time-based. That is, English has past, present, and future tenses (and variations on each of those), and the primary consideration is when the action took place. Hebrew verbs, on the other hand, have an aspect-based system. That is, the verb form can vary depending on whether the action is viewed as a whole, or viewed as incomplete or repeated. Thus, a particular verb in Hebrew may be translated past tense, present tense, or even future, depending on the context. The one consistency among the three would be that in each case the aspect from which the action is viewed is of primary importance. Hebrew verbs do have tense, but it is simply indicated by the context rather than by the form of the word. English tense is indicated (usually) by the form of the word. We know that “see” is present tense, while “saw” is past tense.
Another example would be in the use of the definite article (the). Hebrew will sometimes use the article in places where English would not, and vice versa. So, for example, in Genesis 28:10 the English says, “So he came to a certain place.” In Hebrew, it says, “and he came to the place.” In English, the use of “the” in such a context implies that the place had already been introduced, whereas that is not the case in Hebrew. In Hebrew, the definite article is regularly used to refer to something that has not been previously introduced but is definite in the mind of the narrator. This explains the English rendering “a certain place” in Genesis 28:10.
As for syntax, the normal word order in English is subject-verb-object: John (subject) saw (verb) the ball (object). In Hebrew, the normal word order, at least in narrative, is verb-subject-object. If that word order is changed, it is a clue to the reader that something other than straightforward narrative is taking place, or that some explanatory comment is being inserted into the narrative.
These differences between Hebrew and English vocabulary, grammar, and syntax mean that there are always some subtleties that are lost in translation. We find this in the Greek New Testament as well. As an example here, in John 2:4, Jesus says to Mary, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me?” For most English readers, that may sound as if Jesus is being rude to His mother. But in fact, He is simply being formal. Understanding this is largely a matter of vocabulary, knowing the various nuances that the noun “woman” may have in a particular context. For these reasons, in any detailed study of the Bible, it is important to have recourse to the original languages.
Problems That Arise in Today’s Debates Due to Lack of Hebrew Knowledge
Today, there are many study helps and lexicons that can aid a layman and professional scholar. I suppose in some sense that the real problems here are not so much due to a lack of knowledge of Hebrew, though that may often be the case with laymen, nor with scientists who are knowledgeable in their own field but ignorant in the biblical languages.
Rather, the most serious problems are with those who know Hebrew, many of them fluent in it, yet because Genesis 1–2 is special (especially in today’s debate over millions of years and evolution), all the ordinary rules of Hebrew vocabulary, grammar, and syntax seem to be thrown out the window! Essentially, it seems that outside ideas are influencing people to reinterpret Genesis 1–2 instead of reading it in a straightforward fashion in the normal sense of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Let’s define some non-traditional, modern views of Genesis:
- Day-Age: Days of Genesis are long periods of time to accommodate the secular concepts of long ages.
- Framework Hypothesis: Days 1–3 parallel days 4–6 in many aspects, so this sets up a literary style so Genesis 1 is denoting importance, not history, and long ages can therefore be incorporated into Genesis 1.
- Gap Theory: Separate Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 and put a large gap of time between these verses to accommodate long ages.
- Theistic Evolution: Essentially reinterpret Genesis 1–11 as myth with some truth value and replace it with an evolutionary worldview, picking up the biblical narrative with Abraham.
Matters Having to Do with Vocabulary
We might as well begin here with the common “problem” of the definition of “day” (yom in Hebrew). According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon (dictionary), yom has six basic uses in the Old Testament. The first is day as opposed to night as in Genesis 1:4, where the light period is called “day,” and the dark period is called “night.” The second is day as a division of time, so for example, “three days journey” as in Genesis 30:36 or Exodus 3:18. Under this sense, day is defined by evening and morning, where the dictionary cites Genesis 1–2.
Third is the particular phrase “the day of the Lord.” Fourth is the use of the plural “days” to refer to the life of someone (Genesis 6:3; Deuteronomy 22:19). Fifth is the use of the plural to indicate an indefinite period (Genesis 27:44, 29:10). Finally, there is the use of “day” (again, primarily in the plural) to indicate “time.” So, for example, in Proverbs 25:13, “the day of harvest” refers to harvest time, not to a single day. See also Genesis 30:14 or Joshua 3:15. Other Hebrew dictionaries, including the most recent, set out essentially the same range of meanings for the word yom.
It is clear from the discussion in the dictionary that yom in reference to the days of creation discussed in Genesis 1–2 refers to ordinary days. However, many scholars are unwilling to take it in that sense because of the “special” character of these chapters as viewed by modern scholars and their response to things like “millions of years.”
In part, this contributed to the development of the day-age view of Genesis 1 (as well as other long-age views). It gave the developers of the view a way of reading Genesis 1 that allowed them to hold to the old age of the earth that was being put forth by secular geologists at that time.
It is important to note, however, that the definition of day in Genesis 1 as an ordinary day is not limited to the standard dictionaries. It is also the case with many of the classic commentaries on Genesis such as John Gill, John Calvin, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, H.C. Leopold, and others. This is also true of some modern commentators. For instance, Gordon Wenham, commenting on Genesis 1:5, says,
There can be little doubt that here “day” has its basic sense of a 24-hour period. The mention of morning and evening, the enumeration of the days, and the divine rest on the seventh show that a week of divine activity is being described here.1
Claus Westermann doesn’t even discuss the possible range of meaning of yom. He says,
What is essential for P [sadly, Westermann presumes that this part of Genesis has come from the so-called “Priestly source” from the outdated and refuted Documentary Hypothesis] is only the chronological disposition of the works of creation. The alternation between night and day is not conceived as a period of 24 hours, as a unity with a precise beginning; the 24 hours comprise two parts. The constantly recurring sentence which concludes the work of each day plots the regular rhythm of the passage of time, and gives P’s account of creation the character of an event in linear time which links it with history.2
In short, the interpretation of yom in Genesis 1 as anything other than an ordinary day appears to be special pleading on the part of interpreters in an attempt to avoid the clear implication of the passage that what we have here is an ordinary week at the very beginning of time.
Another term that comes in for frequent discussion is the word “firmament.” In Hebrew, the word is raqiya’. It is derived from a verb that means “to hammer out” or “to flatten.” It is usually used in reference to metal that has been flattened out by hammering or beating. As a result, most scholars take the view that the raqia’ is a solid expanse. Westermann says, “In earlier times the heavens were almost always regarded as solid.”3 However, it may also be the case that what is in view is the idea of something being stretched out. Psalm 104:2 refers to God as the one “who stretch[es] out the heavens like a curtain.” A different verb is used here than in Genesis 1:6, but the idea is the same. In verse 8, the firmament is called “heavens.” Thus, while it may be the case that ancient societies saw the heavens as something solid, it does not appear that that view is necessarily being taught in Genesis 1:6. Many translations today use the word “expanse” to denote this.
One other element having to do with vocabulary should also be discussed here. That is the use of a figure of speech called a “hendiadys.” The word comes from Greek and literally means one-through-two. It is the use of two related terms to identify one idea. Some examples in English are: law and order, assault and battery, and kith and kin.
In the Bible, there are numerous examples. In Leviticus 24:47, the phrase “stranger and sojourner” means “resident alien.” In Lamentations 2:9, the phrase “destroyed and broken” means “totally ruined.” In Genesis 1, there is one important example of hendiadys. In verse two, the phrase “without form and void” does not indicate two separate things, but one thing. Wenham translates it as “total chaos” and makes the following comment: “ ‘Total chaos’ is an example of hendiadys.”4 Similarly, Westermann says, “E.A. Speiser describes the phrase as ‘an excellent example of hendiadys’; it means the desert waste and is used as the opposite of creation.”5
If this phrase is indeed a hendiadys, it seriously undercuts one aspect of the framework hypothesis.6 The framework hypothesis generally takes the phrase as two separate words, the first meaning “unformed” and the second meaning “unfilled.” Days 1–3 then deal with the forming of the various elements of creation, while days 4–6 deal with their filling. Such hair-splitting of the terms is unlikely.
Matters Having to Do with Syntax
Here the primary syntactical observation is the use of what is called the vav-consecutive in Hebrew (sometimes denoted as a “waw-consecutive”). As was mentioned above, Hebrew verbs function somewhat differently than do English verbs. The vav-consecutive is a verb construction that is the ordinary verb form used for relating a narrative. The verb form also appears in poetry, but it is a matter of dispute among Hebrew grammarians whether the form has the same function in poetry as it does in narrative. It is conceded by all that Genesis 1 is narrative. Some want to qualify that by calling it “poetic narrative” or “elevated narrative.” However, it is still narrative. narrative. Some want to qualify that by calling it “poetic narrative” or “elevated narrative.” However, it is still narrative.
Not only does the repeated use of the vav-consecutive indicate that a passage is narrative, but it also indicates sequence. That is, the action of the second verb follows the action of the first verb in sequence; the third follows the second, and so forth. That is the standard character of the vav-consecutive in other biblical narratives, such as the stories in the books of Samuel and Kings. The vav-consecutive appears approximately 50 times in Genesis 1:1–2:4. This emphatically characterizes the passage as narrative, and it traces an extended sequence of actions throughout the section. This consideration is particularly damaging to the framework hypothesis, which sees days 1–3 as paralleled in days 4–6. Thus, days 4–6 do not follow days 1–3 in sequence, but take place at the same time. If that were the case, there would be no good reason for the repeated use of the vav-consecutive, since there would be no sequence of events to report.
A second consideration having to do with syntax deals with the transition from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 1:2. Though the gap theory7 probably originated in some form well before the 19th century, it became popular in that century as a way to provide concordance between the reading of Genesis 1 and the idea of an old earth (much older than five or six thousand years) that was being put forward by the secular geologists of the day. It later gained great popularity, particularly in fundamentalist circles, through its inclusion in the Scofield Reference Bible.
An essential element of this theory is the idea that there is a gap between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. Genesis 1:1 is taken as a statement regarding the original creation of the totality of the universe. Verse two is then translated “and the earth became formless and void.” The idea is that there was an original creation, perhaps many millennia ago, perhaps even millions of years ago. Then, in more recent time, the earth became formless and void.
Part of the defense of this view is the use of the identical phrase in Jeremiah 4:23, where the formless and void state is a result of judgment. This consideration is strengthened by the fact that in Jeremiah 4:23 there is the additional statement that the earth had no light. The reasoning then is that the earth being dark, formless, and void in Genesis 1:2 is the result of some catastrophic judgment. From that point, gap theorists develop an explanation of what took place in that “gap” period to bring about such a catastrophic judgment that the earth had to be entirely recreated.
There are two fundamental problems with this view. The first is that it makes Genesis 1:2 dependent on Jeremiah 4:23, while the opposite is the case. Genesis was written well before the time of Jeremiah, and Jeremiah is borrowing the imagery from Genesis to express the severity of the judgment that is about to befall the nation of Judah. The people have persisted in their idolatry and their rebellion against God, and He is about to bring judgment on the land. The judgment will be so severe that it is as if the earth will be returned to its primordial state, before God began to order the creation.
The second problem is with the translation of the verb as “became.” The verb used here can indeed mean become, or come into being, as in Genesis 2:7, “and man became a living being.” More commonly, however, it simply means to happen. The definition of the verb itself does not answer the question. The issue here is the syntax. How does this verb relate to the verb in the preceding verse? In English, we do not often think of how one verb may be related to preceding or following verbs. English is full of adverbs and prepositions that indicate how one statement relates to preceding or following statements.
This is similar in the case of Greek, too. So, for example, the reader may well have heard a preacher say that when we see a “therefore” in one of Paul’s letters, we need to ask what it’s there for. Hebrew does not have the same structure as English, and it does not have the large number of conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositions that English has.
Instead, the relation of one verb to preceding and following verbs is regularly indicated by two things. Hebrew indicates the relationship between clauses and sentences first by the form of the verb; and second, by the placement of the verb in the sentence. The verb “created” in Genesis 1:1 is in the perfect state (not to be confused with the perfect in English), as is ordinarily the case with the beginning of a narrative. We would then expect the next verb to be at the beginning of the next sentence, and to be the vav-consecutive form. This would indicate the continuation of the narrative sequence. However, neither of those two things is true of the verb “was” in Genesis 1:2.
First, the verb is not in first place in verse two. In verse 2, the subject comes first (and the earth). Second, the verb is in the perfect state. The combination of these two factors indicates that verse 2 is a descriptive clause about the noun (usually referred to as a nominal clause). It is making some further statement about the last element in verse 1 before the narrative sequence is continued. Thus, verse 2 is very closely related to verse 1, and this close relationship does not allow for the gap needed by the gap theory.
An expanded translation of the two verses, indicating this relationship, would be something like this: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. As for the earth, it was without form and void. . . .” The narrative begins with a general statement about the heavens and the earth. It then moves to focus on the earth, giving the reader information about the state of the earth at the very beginning of time. In order for the gap theory to work at this point, the reader would simply have to ignore this standard element of Hebrew syntax. As Wenham says, “And + noun (=earth) indicates that v 2 is a disjunctive clause. It could be circumstantial to v 1 or v 3, but for reasons already discussed the latter is more probable.”8
Limitations to the Use of Hebrew Grammar and the Work of Hebrew Experts
In the material already discussed, there has been a fair amount of unity in the views of Hebrew experts. However, Hebrew experts are not agreed on all matters Hebrew. For example, while most view “without form and void” as a hendiadys, not all do.
It is at this point, for example, that I would take issue with the NKJV. It translates the beginning of verse 2 this way: “The earth was without form, and void.” By putting the comma between the two words, the translators indicate that they do not see the two words as a hendiadys. In this, it follows the KJV, but it is the only modern translation to do so.
In Genesis 1, however, the deepest disagreement among Hebrew experts has to do with the way the first three verses are translated. Aside from the issue of “formless and void,” the NKJV is representative of most modern English versions. It translates verses 1–3 as follows:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.2 The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Some other translations will give the reader a sense of the different ways some translators understand the verses.
When God began to create the heavens and the earth — 2the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters — 3God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. (Common English Bible)
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (New Revised Standard Version)
When God began to create heaven and earth — 2the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — 3God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Tanak: The New Jewish Publication Society translation)
A careful reading of these versions shows that the Hebrew is being read differently by Hebrew experts. All of them are grammatically and syntactically possible, though each of the three after the NKJV require some playing around with the text. It demonstrates that the translation and interpretation of a Bible passage does not depend on a knowledge of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar alone. As I sometimes tell my Hebrew students, “A detailed knowledge of Hebrew grammar will not answer all your questions.”
It’s important for the reader to know what is going on with above variant translations. This explanation is summarized from that of Wenham, who gives a clear and fair presentation of the evidence.9
There are four ways of understanding the syntax of Genesis 1:1–3 that have been defended by various Hebrew experts. The first is that verse 1 is a temporal clause that is subordinate to verse 2, which is the main clause. That is, “When God created . . . the earth was without form.” The second view is that verse 1 is a temporal clause subordinate to the main clause in verse 3, while verse 2 is a parenthetical comment. That is, “When God created . . . (the earth being formless and void) . . . God said.” The third view is that verse 1 is a separate main clause, serving as a title to the remainder of the section. The actual creation then begins with verse 2. The last view is that verse 1 is the main clause. It indicates the first act of creation, which is then continued in the following verses.
The first view was first set forth by one of the medieval Jewish rabbis by the name of Ibn Ezra, but not many have adopted his view. The second view was adopted by the medieval rabbi Rashi, though it may have been set out earlier. It is represented by all three of the alternate translations given above. The third and fourth views are represented by the standard translations such as the NKJV, the NASB, and the ESV. View three and four are distinguished only by interpretation, not by translation.
The third and fourth views clearly do not understand verse 1 as a temporal clause, while the other two do. The main point of contention is the very first word in the verse, which is usually translated as “in the beginning.” Some grammarians have observed that the first word in verse 1 does not have the definite article (the). As a result, in their view it should be translated as the start of a temporal clause (“when God began to create,” or, more literally, “in beginning of God’s creating”). However, there are other examples where this same word is used without a definite article, yet it is clearly definite in sense (see Isaiah 46:10, where even the NRSV translates: “declaring the end from the beginning”).
The idea that Genesis 1:1 should begin with this kind of temporal clause (when God began to create) has also been defended by the fact that one of the Babylonian creation myths, the Enuma Elish, begins “when the heavens had not been named.” The idea here is that the author of Genesis (not Moses, in the view of those who hold to this theory) was influenced by the way in which the Babylonian myths began. However, more recent scholarship has seen little influence of Babylonian mythology on the organization of Genesis 1. Further, the ancient translations, such as the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was done before the time of Christ), translate Genesis 1:1–3 in just the same way as our modern, literal translations do.
The grammar and syntax of the Hebrew in Genesis 1:1–3 allow for the differing translations provided above. However, the first two options at least leave room for, and probably demand, the idea of matter existing before creation. That is, God and matter are both eternal. However, that view is inconsistent with the theology taught in the remainder of the Scriptures — that God is the sole source of all that is, and that nothing existed but God before creation (e.g., Exodus 20:11; Nehemiah 9:6; Colossians 1:16). That leaves us, then, with the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1–3 as best representing the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, as well as the theology, of the Hebrew text.
A knowledge of Hebrew vocabulary, grammar, and syntax is important for providing the basis for an accurate understanding of what the opening chapters of the Bible teach. The standard, traditional Christian understanding of the teaching of these chapters is not based on English mistranslations and misinterpretations. Instead, it has a solid foundation in the Hebrew language itself. But it is important for the reader who knows only English to realize that faulty theology can be as damaging to understanding Genesis as a faulty understanding of Hebrew. It is only when we are faithful to the teaching of the whole Bible that we can be confident that we have not misrepresented the teaching of any one part.