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Genesis: What Happened in the Beginning?

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

The first two verses of Genesis chapter 1 in the King James version of the Bible read as follows: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

I will do my level best not to overuse the word "mysterious" during this course but these lines are truly mysterious. We could spend the entirety of this course trying to fathom their meaning and we would hardly have exhausted all the possibilities.

Before we get started, however, we need to acknowledge that Genesis wasn't written in the seventeenth century in English. It was, of course, originally written in Hebrew, like all the books in the Hebrew Bible. "Genesis", however, is a Greek word, like "Exodus" and "Deuteronomy", and why is that? The answer is that the most common version of the Hebrew Bible that was circulating among Jews living in the diaspora in the Hellenistic Era, the period of history following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, was a Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint was probably made for the Jewish community living in Egypt, whose members were more familiar with the Greek language than they were with Hebrew. Septuagint is the Greek for 70. The name derives from the legend that 72 scholars, six from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, were appointed to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Though they were working independently, all, it is claimed, produced identical versions.

There are many English translations, of course. Still one of the most popular is the King James Version, also known as the Authorised Version, published under the sponsorship of King James I of England in 1611 for the Church of England, the Episcopal Church. Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, at Berkeley, says it exhibits "a shaky sense of English", which I'm sure is true, but the English of the King James Version has a grandeur in it and the translation is still used in churches to this day. Alter's widely praised translation of Genesis shows great sensitivity to the nuances of the Hebrew. It includes an illuminating introduction and a very helpful commentary. Then there's a translation of The Five Books of Moses by Everett Fox, professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University. Fox seeks to bring out what he calls "the spokenness" of the Hebrew. He's guided, as he says, by the principle that it was meant to be read aloud and is the most literal. There are many more translations but the last one I'll mention is the New Oxford Annotated Bible, which I used in my teaching. It reads smoothly, perhaps too smoothly at times.

Back to the first verse in the King James Version: "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth." Already there's a problem. Does this mean that the first things that God created were the Heaven and the Earth, in which case "In the beginning" means something like "To begin with", i.e. it defines a moment already within time, namely the moment when the first in a series of events occurred? Or does "In the beginning" denote the moment when time itself began, which happens to be simultaneous with the creation of the Heaven and the Earth?

The difference might not seem to amount to much until we read the next verse: "And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Does this mean that the formless earth and the darkness and the deep existed before creation? Was there a world of some sort in existence before the world which God created that we inhabit? In that case "In the beginning" presumably means the time before time began.

Then there are those two words "and void". "And the earth was without form, and void." How can substance (earth), even if it be formless, be "void"? The image that comes to my mind is that of an empty unbounded blob, which is a physical impossibility.

Next, we read, "and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Is "face" a metaphor or are we to take the word literally? If the author means us to take the statement literally, in what sense does the deep have a face? And what exactly is the meaning of the term "was upon"? Or – here's a thought – why not regard it both literally and metaphorically.

Next, we're told, "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Pure poetry. But what does this actually mean? And what are we to make of the relationship between God in verse one and the Spirit of God here in verse two? And how should we interpret "move upon"? Both Fox and Alter translate as "hover". But what is the consequence of the hovering? Both Fox and Alter see the image as one of nurturing, like an eagle protecting its young.

Even more pertinently, what does the Hebrew word which is rendered in English as "create" actually suggest? When God "created the heaven and earth", what exactly did he do? We don't hear of Him using any materials. So perhaps "create" means "conjure out of nothing."

The first time I gave God any serious thought was when I was five. I was attending morning service in my nursery school. Suddenly out of nowhere I had a panic attack. I got freaked out by the incomprehensibility of existence. I kept asking myself, "Why or rather how is there anything, let alone how is there so much?" Putting God at the centre as the explanation didn't answer that terrifying question, and, as I write this, I can feel that same panic even today, nearly 7 decades later. In the end, existence, the existence of a mere pinhead, is unfathomable – as is the existence of God himself.

Whoever wrote the first two verses of Genesis was grappling, masterfully, with the selfsame question as I was then and still am, three thousand years later. But don't worry. I'm not going to parse any more sentences in this painstaking way. It's just that they are, not to put too fine a point on it, so rich and so unfathomable.

In the next lesson we're going to see where we go from here, on day one, day two, day three, and so on.

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Written by

Robert Garland