The Genesis Account: Six Hebrew Words Make All the Difference

Why did the translators of Genesis choose the English words that they did? What might their choices have done to the Genesis story? We (within the limitations of a short essay) would like to exam­ine what English Bible translators have done down through the centuries and, more im­portantly, what we think they could and ought to do today—ifthey are to avoid mislead­ing those who read Genesis 1 in 2012.

But fear not! We will look at only six Hebrew words—five nouns and a verb—six words that have the power to transform this familiar Bible account. In translating Genesis we have picked other English words—perfectly legitimate alternative English words—so that the Genesis crea­tion account now describes the coming-to-be, not of the universe we know, but of a world that is markedly different from the one in which we presently live. It is, however, the world that was familiar to the ancient Hebrews for whom the inspired account of Genesis was originally com­posed.

Following each of the six words below is a listing of the ways each Hebrew word has been translated, beginning in 1530 with Tyndale’s translation of Genesis.

•shemayim: heaven, sky, visible heavens, heaven as realm of the stars.

Although shemayim is a plural form, its meaning here is singular (like “mathematics” in English)—as reflected in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint, which uses the singular form oura­non. For Tyndale in his time and place to translate shemayim as “heaven” was entirely appro­priate, but that is no longer the case. In 1530 shemayim meant the visible dome of the sky in which the sun was embedded. That dome rotated around the earth carrying the sun by day and the moon and stars by night. For us, however, “heaven” often means “cosmos” or “astronomical uni­verse.” Since neither the author of Genesis nor any other human being up to Tyndale’s time (in­cluding Tyndale himself) was aware of what we mean by “universe” it would seem prudent to select another word, from the list above or elsewhere. We propose “sky,” since that is surely closer to what the ancient Hebrews—those who first listened to the Genesis account—pictured mentally.

Therefure: shemayim = sky (not universe).

’eretz: land (1543 times in KJV), earth (712 times), country (140 times), way (3 times), ground.

To follow Tyndale and translate ’eretz as “earth” is to mislead the modern-day reader into pic­turing “Planet Earth,” for this is what the word “earth” inevitably conjures up for us in the con­text of a cosmology. As before, what Tyndale could get away with (without doing injustice to the Hebrew text) is no longer possible for us. “Land”—the most frequently used English equivalent for ’eretz—is much less likely to mislead. This, however, is not merely land as in real estate, but also (and often) land as in “promised land” or “land of Israel” (’Eretz Israel is now the state of Israel).

Therefore:’eretz = land (not earth).

raqia: extended (solid) surface, vault of heaven supporting waters above, firmament, dome, vault.

As we have seen, shemayim and ’eretz—the English words used by Tyndale (and most of his successors)—have come to mean quite different things over the past half-millennium. The Genesis “earth” has become “Planet Earth”; the Genesis “heaven” has become “universe.” In translating raqia we confront a different but equally difficult challenge. What the word still meant when Tyndale was deciding how to render it in English was a rigid (probably metallic) dome-of-heaven, which surrounded and protected us. He thought the sun and the moon to be embedded in the firmament along with the “fixed” stars, and that the whole assemblage rotated around an axis that pointed toward the North Star. We no longer believe that to be the case. In fact, we don’t believe there ever was a “firmament.” Faced with this situation today, translators have gone in two directions. One group, unwilling to translate the Hebrew as it reads, has trans­lated raqia as “expanse,” fully aware that the average reader will interpret “expanse” as “atmos­pheric expanse” (which does exist but which the Hebrew does not support at all). The other group of translators has translated raqia “dome” or “vault,” not worrying about the fact that space exploration has found no evidence of such an entity.

Therefore: raqia = vault (not “firmament,” and certainly not “atmospheric expanse”).

‘ereb: evening, twilight; sunset, approaching darkness, connoting danger and hence dread.

With ‘ereb the translators’ problems continue. The problem arises because of the unique role that ‘ereb plays in the Genesis account, repeatedly associated with boqer, “dawning.” The historically dominant KJV translated this association as straightforward addition: evening plus morning equals “day.” However, the Hebrew text actually says that there was evening; then when light displaced the darkness, “day” came to be. This arrival of light, because it was the first time light had come-to-be, was “day one.” There will soon be “a second,” “a third,” etc., day, as reflected in NRSV, NIV, and other recent translations. Taking note of the immediately preceding explanation that “God called the light ‘day’ and called the darkness ‘night,’” a more appropriate interpretation of the text as the author verbalized it and the ancient Hebrews heard it is that the “darkness” was not an intrinsic component of the day but a preceding “non-day”. It did not merit God’s approval as “good.” In other words, it was the dawning, not the darkness, that inaugurated the day; the darkness was not the first part of each day, but rather the separation between the days. This understanding of the text is confirmed by the fact that, despite frequent claims to the contrary, the day for the ancient Hebrews did begin in the morning (see Gen 19:33, 34, Judg. 19:9, 1 Sam. 19:11). It was not until the intertestamental period that one day each week—the Sab­bath—began at sundown. So ‘ereb meant something like “gathering-darkness” or “on­com­­ing night,” connoting the danger and fear that accompanied darkness in a world lit only by candles.

Therefore:‘ereb = gathering-darkness (not just “evening”).

boqer: morning, break of day, dawn, approach of day, connoting security and joy.

Boqer, in contrast to ‘ereb, means not only morning but often, in Scripture, connotes the relief and joy accompanying the daylight that conquers the darkness.

Therefore: boqer = welcome dawn (not simply “morning”).

• wahayah: and it was, and there was, and it came to be, and there came to be (as in “and it was gathering darkness and there came to be dawning”).

Wahayah is a compound Hebrew word combining (1) a third-person singular form of the verb “to be”—was, came to be, there was, there came to be—with (2) the ubiquitous conjunction “and,” which could mean “now” (in a logical rather than chronological sense), or sometimes nothing more than that the speaker is continuing (something like an “uh” or “um” in English speech). In this latter case it is often left untranslated.

With wahayah we come to the word that relates ‘ereb to boqer. Though it is rarely done, there is no inherent reason why the compound wahayah cannot be translated one way in one phrase and differently in the immediately following phrase if the change more clearly conveys the meaning of the original text. Thus we suggest “There was gathering-darkness; there came to be dawning, day one.” With such a translation the Genesis text finally makes sense. Whereas the influential KJV, “and the evening and the morning were the first day,” seems (mistakenly) to include “darkness” as a constituent part of the “day”), that day-initiating-all-days was preceded by darkness domi­nat­ing everywhere; it was constituted by God’s glorious light every­where.

Therefore: wahayah . . . wahayah = there was . . . there came to be.

So we translate Genesis 1:1-8:

“To begin with, God brought into existence the sky and the land. Now [as for] the land, [it] was without form or function, darkness covered the water, and God’s Spirit hovered over the surface of the abyss. God said, “Let there be light”; light came to be, and God saw that the light functioned well. God separated the light from the darkness, and named the light “day” and the darkness “night.” There was gathering-darkness; there came to be dawning, one [Creation]-day.

“God said, “Let there be a vault within the water, and let it separate the water.” God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above the vault, and thus it came to be. God named the vault “sky.” There was gathering-darkness; there came to be dawning, a second [Creation]-day.”[1]

With this translation, few modern readers would mistake the text for anything other than what it is—an explanation by and for ancient Hebrews. It speaks in language that the first hearers readily understood: their home, their world of “sky” and “land” had come into existence by the will of a transcendent Creator. We, with thousands of years of ac­cu­mu­lated information (though not necessarily greater wisdom), in­ev­itably use quite different lan­guage. But the inspired—and inspiring—truth is just the same: our plan­e­tary home, attached to an unspectacular star in a corner of a galaxy we call the Milky Way, came into existence by the will of a transcendent Creator.

Further—and much more important than any of our modern cosmological insights—through the subsequent his­tory of the Hebrews and especially through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—who is for us the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the supreme reve­la­tion of the relation­ship of the Creator to the creation—we know that the transcendent Crea­tor is also transcendent love.

[1]Brian Bull and Fritz Guy, “Translating ‘Backwards,’” in God, Sky and Land: Genesis 1 as the Ancient Hebrews Heard It (Roseville, California: Adventist Forum, 2011), 27-29.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4870
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Hi, there: I am excited to find this topic, but I have some questions. I can see the article is from a few years ago, and won’t know if previous comments have answered these questions, but I hope it’s ok if that is the case.
I am developing my storytelling side and the creation story has been one of my favorites from adolescence.
As I prepare my story, I am looking for the rhythm and beauty in the ancient hebrew words and syllables. I see you describe “shemayim” and “wahaya” and those syllables reflect powerful feelings similar to the effect that beautiful chants have over the years. However, when I look up other hebrew to english translations (http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/gen1.pdf) , different hebrew words show up. Can you explain the difference to me? Thank you! :slight_smile:

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RE: “wahaya” …
Within in the scope of “Spectrum Magazine” - and along the perspectives through which we may see -
It is of scholarly concern, and not limited to Rabbinic versions, that “what is” shall be known as "what has comm to pass."
The subject of the exacting and contextual meaning of each Aramauc (Hebrew) Character shall be called on, from within the 22-character matrix, to denote its’ own place within a given “word” composed of other characters. These become not mere ‘additive’ devices, albeit terms, themselves, which magnify on another, within their term of inclusion.
It is mystery, then, with perpetual solution, that “wahaya” cannot be other than a term composed of “vov” + “het” (“chai”) + “yod” - which forms, itself, a sentence - as an equation - to constitute the term.
Each character combined with another to create a third product, which is a tenet principle of the Philo-Science known as “Kabbalah” - and is composed of the cypher by which the meaning of all particularly relevant and significant principles and meanings are revealed…
Look at the name, “Joshuah” thus, to discover Anglo-Saxon characters, substituted, in part, for the original Hebrew ones, and assimilate the genesis of these, through dialectics and phonetics.
As a result of differences in tongues (dialects) only, the name comes into Greek, only , as “Jesus” - when it has been pronounced “Yeshvah” in Aramaic spoken Hebrew. The character “Yod” IS a factor of the construct Tetragrammaton - YHWH - as well, and can be determined to magnify the meaning of each character in the term of "“wahaya” - in a different order of character construction.
It is furthermore necessary to see, within the scope of the geo-cultural circumstance between ancient Egypt and Canaan, the perspective of the Coptic Sect of Theological Scholars, who are stewards of knowledge common the both tongues, respectively, and themselves form keynote perspective to the commonalities of HEB./GR. (Aleph-Bes - vis-á-vis Alphabetic) within the cypher of Rosetta Stone constitution, and the upgraded Aramaic Hebrew text of Torah/Pentateuch by Megiddo scholars, during the time before Christ (Chi Rho, the announced Messiah [“Moshiach”], AKA Emmanuel.

To see clearly is to abide is what is given, by the Unseen, more than what separate senses can constitute, individually, by Tongues or Letters, to hear or to see.
The “Voice of God” comes as His own dynamic if awakened mind, long before speech or written word (and Aramaic Characters) came to be.
It is His language to which we harken, to SEE and to prove the perpetual, prevailing, and eternal Truth, what IS…what IS Given.
It is our first language of Mind, which allows it to be possible to know, what IS…VaChai’ah…
To apply interpretation to it can only satisfy commmunication between individual Mind perspectives, in Fact, at the same time of sharing the common Mind of Truth.
Selah.

I hope the author is not implying that this part of the Bible is not relevant for Christians. Especially since, without Genesis 1-11, much of what is written in the rest of the Bible would be much less clear.

One can analyze the Hebrew words to death, but the clear intent in an obviously historical, rather than metaphorical, narrative, is that God created the earth in 6 literal, 24-hour days, and not by process of evolution. If God has used evolution, He could easily have inspired Moses to include that fact, rather than deceive us into thinking He created ex nihilo.

Creatio ex nihilo isn’t about time, but about whether matter pre-existed and the transcendence of God vis-à-vis the creation.

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WOW!!! Thanks for this article. I have an Israeli friend who can read the Hebrew Bible and we discus matters of the creation all the time. We do not always agree but I have asked him to take a look at this article on SPECTRUM online and he has promised to do so. He wants to know what SDA’s believe and so on. We both believe the word ELOHIM means simply " those who from the sky came"and he claims the Elohim are 25,000 years ahead on their creation, Homo sapiens, in science and technology. If this is so they may as well be supernatural as far as their scientific /technological abilities are concerned, from a human perspective. But we must always remember Gen 1:26 and that we are related species. The birth of Yeshosh ua(Jesus) and perhaps also Samson and Noah , are powerful reminders that Homo sapiens and our creators are related species , notwithstanding the humongous gap in science and technology.

What the word still meant when Tyndale was deciding how to render it in English was a rigid (probably metallic) dome-of-heaven, which surrounded and protected us. He thought the sun and the moon to be embedded in the firmament along with the “fixed” stars, and that the whole assemblage rotated around an axis that pointed toward the North Star. We no longer believe that to be the case. In fact, we don’t believe there ever was a “firmament.”
Very Interesting writing [quote=“system, post:1, topic:1460”]
raqia: extended (solid) surface
[/quote]

I have come to know this word because of the bible and "we don’t believe there every was a “firmament”. Do you think God took it away with the Garden of Eden.
Do you think the floodgates of heaven existed in the context of Noah ( Gen 7: 11-13). Maybe these things are actually true.
Glad you brought such article.

God created the earth in 6 literal, 24-hour days, and not by process of evolution. If God has used evolution, He could easily have inspired Moses to include that fact, rather than deceive us into thinking He created ex nihilo.

Evolution is any change in genetics within a population over time. The discussion above is about the forming of the cosmos, not the origin of humanity. Gen 1:7 mentions how mankind came to be:

And יהוה Elohim formed the man out of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils breath of life. And the man became a living being.
—(ISR)

I’m not sure of a better way to explain to prehistoric man the evolution of multicellular lifeforms from single-celled organisms than “formed out of the dust of the ground.” It’s even more telling that the word adam (אָדָם) can mean person, man, mortal, being; Adam, the first man; and youngling. It’s also comparable to the word creature in other Semitic tongues. Even more similar is the word adom (אָדַם) which means ruddy, red, or reddened. In fact, without proper niqqud—the dots which denote vowel sounds—one cannot tell the difference between the two words. Most interestingly is the fact that word ground or land, as in “formed out of the dust of the ground,” is adamah (אֲדָמָה). These three words: man, ruddy, and ground are inexorably tied. Modernly, we know that soil is teaming with single-celled organisms.

More to the point, Genesis 1:7 says we were “formed out of the dust of the ground.” This word dust is aphar (עָפָר) and can also be translated as ashes, debris, dried soil, heap, loose earth, plaster, rubbish, or rubble. That is, that which has been cast off from the ground; the excess. In 2014, Czech scientists successfully produced adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine ©, and uracil (U)—the four bases found in RNA, which is the precursor of & companion to DNA—in an experiment that simulated the temperature and pressure of a large meteorite impacting the earth. Importantly, they were only able to do so after introducing clay to their experiment. (Full paper here.) As you know, clay is the soil constituent most associated with ruddiness. I don’t know about you, but when I imagine a meteorite smashing the ground, I envision dust, ash, debris, rubble, and so on.

So, not only does Gen 1:7 hint at our monocellular origins it is, unexpectedly, even more explicitly descriptive of our abiogenesis. This could not be understood in days of old. Far too often when one fails to observe something, one deems it nothing. It’s time we start recognizing that not every variable is presently observable. In doing so, concepts like creatio ex nihilo start to tell us more about how we think than about reality itself. For further edification have a look into the various Hebrew words that are translated to created, made, and formed.

:heart:I leave you in the love and the light of the One Infinite Creator.
אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה

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בראשית In-Beginning (Time) ברא Formed אלהים Elohym (Source) את AlephTav השמים The-Sky (Space) ואת And-AlephTav הארץ The-Land (Matter)

Can or is there any possible way Genesis 1.1 could be interpreted plural? As “IN THE BEGINNINGS”. This has been one interpretation I have heard to justify that Lucifer was here and ruled the earth at that time.

I’ve just discovered this site and found this thread fascinating. Several years ago I wrote an article entitled “Lost in Translation”. I used the Biblos website to discover alternative meanings for the original Hebrew words in Genesis.
I had already been prepared to look at Genesis in a different light by reading the book: “The Two Creation Stories in Genesis”, by James S. Forrester-Brown, in which he separates the two apparently conflicting stories into a) a purely ‘noumenal’ creation (not visible); and b) a progressive ‘physical’ creation.
This made perfect sense to me because that is the way things are still ‘created’ today: everything that has been and continues to be made by humans had first to be imagined.
Much later on - only a few years ago - after having a "Eureka’ moment in relation to Genesis and what was apparently viewed by biblical scholars as a puzzling statement by St. Paul, I put together the article already referred to. I believe that it offers a consistent answer to the question: what is our purpose as humans in relation to the ‘physical’ world and its non-human occupants i.e. the ‘external’ natural world - potentially overcoming the false and dangerous message that the natural world is there for humans to exploit and dominate.
For anyone interested in my thesis, it can be read and downloaded on the Academia,edu website either under my name or under the title “Lost in Translation”.
Regards, Paul (Carline)