"In The Beginning": a section heading?

John H. WaltonIn his book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology John H. Walton, as quoted by James Spinti, offers an interesting interpretation of the very first word of the Hebrew Bible, bereshit, generally translated “In the beginning”. Walton links this with the word toledot, usually rendered “generations” but perhaps meaning more like “story”:

bĕrēʾšît is a strikingly appropriate term to introduce a sequence that will be carried on by the tôlĕdôt transitions. It marks the very first period, with the tôlĕdôt phrases introducing each of the successive periods. If this be the case, the book would now have 12 formally marked sections (a number that is much more logical than 11). If the bĕrēʾšît clause is a marker comparable to the tôlĕdôt clauses, it could easily be seen as functioning in an independent clause, just like the tôlĕdôt clauses. The conclusion then is that it is an independent clause that functions as a literary marker to introduce the seven-day account, just as the tôlĕdôt phrase is a literary marker that introduces the passage that follows.

In other words, the suggestion is that Genesis can be divided into twelve sections, a symbolically significant number. And if bereshit is “an independent clause that functions as a literary marker”, it is not a part of the sentence “God created the heavens and the earth” but more like a section heading.

If this is true, Genesis should be divided not into the fifty chapters in our regular Bibles but into twelve chapters of uneven length, with the following titles (regular English chapter and verse references in parentheses):

  1. In the beginning (1:1-2:3)
  2. The story of the heavens and the earth (2:4-4:26)
  3. The story of Adam (5:1-6:8)
  4. The story of Noah (6:9-9:29)
  5. The story of the sons of Noah (10:1-11:9)
  6. The story of Shem (11:10-26)
  7. The story of Terah (11:27-25:11)
  8. The story of Ishmael (25:12-18)
  9. The story of Isaac (25:19-35:29)
  10. The story of Esau (36:1-8)
  11. The story of Esau (36:9-37:1)
  12. The story of Jacob (37:2-50:26)

In each case, it should be noted, the story of an individual (male in every case) includes the stories of his family during his lifetime, while he was head of the clan. In many cases the story concludes with the man’s death. But it is unclear why there is no separate story of Abraham, starting after the account of his father’s death 11:32 – nor why there are two separate stories of Esau. Nevertheless this kind of analysis of the book should be helpful for readers.

The more profound implication of this analysis is that it offers a third interpretation of the first verse of the Bible, to put alongside “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NIV etc) and “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” (CEB etc). We could almost translate as follows:

Chapter One

God created the heavens and the earth.

38 thoughts on “"In The Beginning": a section heading?

  1. But it is unclear why there is no separate story of Abraham, starting after the account of his father’s death 11:32 – nor why there are two separate stories of Esau.

    One thought I have (not well thought through) is a chiastic structure meant to focus the reader’s attention on Abraham (more specifically, the covenant) and Isaac (who also, given the chapter division suggested above, doesn’t have a story).

    If we allow for the 1st 5 chapters to be a major introduction to history, we then have 7 remaining chapters with Abraham and Isaac in the middle. This might explain the two Esau stories (evens the symmetry). Abraham’s story is a chiasm, too–note 12:10-20 (Abraham lies, Sarai gets taken) and 20:1-18 (Abraham lies, Sarah gets taken). The centre of this chiasmus is Ishmael. This is in stark contrast to what surrounds it (A – B – A’) which is the covenant promise. Chapter 21 starts with Isaac, the fulfilment of the promise who is ALSO in contrast to Ishmael.

    Just some thoughts. For what it might be worth.

  2. Thank you, Mike. Interesting thoughts. Abraham may almost have been considered too important to have his own story. But there is a “story of Isaac” section, although as it starts after the death of Abraham, and the brief story of Ishmael, it doesn’t include most of the interesting events in Isaac’s life.

    Another reason for the lack of a separate Abraham story could be that his father Terah was still alive until Abraham was 145, according to 11:26,32. It may be that the only thing recorded about Abraham after this is his death. This might mean that according to the regular structure of stories his story would only be the five verses 25:7-11.

  3. This is an interesting suggestion as it would indeed offer a clarifying header for a section, and show framing device for the rest of Genesis.

    Though 1:1 uses beresit (forgive my terrible transliteration) but the resulting list uses `eleh toldot (or a variant of the roots) save the reference to 5:1. The “Story of Adam” header is still uses tolodot but has different adjectival words preceding it.

    I ran down the uses of the roots for `eleh toldot in the Pentateuch using an Accordance search. The usage only occurs in this fashion in Genesis (specifically in the list above) and once more in Numbers 3:1 in reference to Aaron. Perhaps it is a framing device for Genesis, but why not throughout the Pentateuch? (of course that assumes singular authorship of the Pentateuch…maybe that is erroneous.)

    That the author(s) of Genesis would utilize such a framing device (I haven’t had time to check other commentaries) wouldn’t be unique but it is fascinating. As they refer to Abraham it is almost as if Abraham’s (or Abram at this point) story is under the identity of his father’s generations.

    If anything this header style outlining within the book might be more helpful for pulling the first creation account (1:1-2:3) out and setting it as a kind of prefatory polemic. Then the actual text becomes narrative in Genesis 2:4 with the creation account there.

    This will have me thinking for a while, so I thank you for posting it. Most intriguing and it goes to support my point that I think we need to remember that the original text has more going on than we, linear thinking dualists, give it credit for in present day conversations.

  4. Thank you, Garet. I’m aware that I didn’t go into all the details, as I am trying to make this accessible to a general audience.

    I suppose toledot could be a framing device throughout the Pentateuch, but in that case I would expect to see it more frequently. Authorship is not an issue, because if there were multiple sources I would expect such devices to be added by the final redactor who combined the sources.

    Indeed there is a lot going on in these texts, enough to keep many more generations of biblical studies scholars busy!

  5. James, thanks for the link to Holmstedt’s paper. I have skimmed it, and I think he makes a case that Genesis 1:1 taken alone can be understood as an adverbial of time containing a restrictive relative clause, although it would be using very rare Hebrew syntax. But I suspect him of arguing a bit too much from English: in English the relative pronoun can be dropped but only if the relative clause is restrictive, and so he reads that same behaviour into Hebrew, backed up by just a couple of examples. It is a hypothesis which really needs to be tested by an exhaustive analysis of Hebrew relative clauses, in the rather limited corpus.

    Unfortunately for Holmstedt’s thesis, this verse is not alone but is part of a continuing discourse, which he ignores. Verse 2, he will find if he looks at it, is a stand-alone sentence beginning with the copula we-, which means that what comes before it cannot be part of the same sentence. So verse 1 has to be a stand-alone sentence. On Holmstedt’s analysis it is an isolated adverbial of time. Now from memory there are a few other places in the Hebrew text where an adverbial of time is followed by the copula and a new sentence, with an implied “the following happened” (more commonly made explicit as a sentence initial wayhi). So I don’t say that the construction Holmstedt prefers is impossible. But it does require two separate very rare constructions in the same verse, which seems to me extremely unlikely.

  6. Peter,

    Ok, I began to write a very long response. But the frustration with the lack of research in your assessment of my VT article, and the ludicrous claim that I was blindly influenced by English, was getting in the way of anything really helpful.

    So, I’ll just summarize: go back to the same blog you got my VT article from (ancienthebrewgrammar.wordpress.com), look around a bit, find my 300+ doctoral thesis on the BH relative, or my JNSL article, or my ANES article, or my JNES article, (or I’d even send you forthcoming my Ency. of Heb. Lang and Ling entry on the RC), and read more deeply to actually understand what I argue for Gen 1.1.

    Among other educational things, you’ll realize that I am a trained linguist and use both typology and generative syntax. (So you could have said few things to anger me more than suggesting I let English grammar obscure my analysis of Hebrew, when I explicitly ground all my work in a helluva lot of linguist research.)

    As for Gen 1.2, it’s a parenthesis and the main clause starts in Gen 1.3.

    The construction whereby a temporal PP-adjunct (Gen 1.1) is fronted above a wayyiqtol (Gen 1.3) is very common and there is no grammatical issue with a parenthesis intervening at precisely the phrase edge between the fronted PP and the main clause. It’s all very normal, if one is familiar with Hebrew syntax. The basic structure is no different than Gen 22.4 ביום השׁלישׁי וישׂא…

    If you want to find more such cases of the fronted PP-wayyiqtol construction, use Accordance and my Hebrew syntax database. The search is a simple one to build.

  7. (My apologies in advance to my non-scholarly readers for a long comment which you probably won’t understand!)

    Robert, thank you for commenting here. I’m sorry if I angered you. I did say that I had only skimmed your paper. I’m sorry if by doing so I misrepresented it. But it did look as if you were finding a close parallel between Hebrew and English, and only giving one or two Hebrew examples to justify it. Perhaps if I had looked more closely I would have found references to your more exhaustive work, of the kind which I suggested was necessary.

    I do realise that you are a trained linguist as well as a biblical scholar. So am I, not to the same level as you but enough to appreciate the discussion. I could argue that the whole generative linguistics tradition in which you are trained is unduly influenced by English grammar, but that’s another issue.

    But what really frustrated me about your paper was the way in which you took one verse, what you consider to be only part of a sentence, completely out of context, without considering how the discourse continues. At least you were explicit in doing this.

    Thank you for now giving me your argument about what follows, something which I would have expected to see at least summarised in your paper. Or did I miss an explicit reference to it? Even if, as you say, this temporal PP before wayyiqtol construction is very common, it does sound rather like special pleading to allow a parenthesis to be inserted between the PP and the wayyiqtol. Maybe you can make a good argument for that, but it was missing from your paper. So you can hardly be surprised that I was not convinced by it.

    You do seem very defensive about your position. I understand that you think that you have proved your point. But the traditional understanding of 1:1 has a history going back over 2000 years to LXX. To overturn such a tradition you will always need overwhelming evidence. And neither I nor the majority of professional Bible translators have seen that overwhelming evidence. So for the moment you need to accept that your position is considered one of the possible alternatives, and not over-react when someone questions it.

    For what it’s worth, my own suggestion would be that in bĕrēʾšît the Masoretic pointing, which comes more than a millennium after the LXX evidence, does not perfectly represent the original author’s intended grammar and vocalisation. Suppose for a moment the original intention was definite, bārēʾšît “in the beginning”. According to normal phonological processes this word, with its three long vowels in succession, would tend to be shortened to bĕrēʾšît. That shortening would normally be resisted in cases like this where the long vowel has grammatical significance. But in this special, indeed unique, context at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible the phonological pressure might have been strong enough, and the grammatical significance which we all fight over now might have been considered trivial enough, that the pronunciation change took place.

    I understand, mainly from the BHS notes, that the Samaritan reading tradition has the long initial vowel representing a definite understanding. That would tend to support my suggestion. But this was also not mentioned in your paper.

    Thank you again for giving me your time.

  8. Peter,

    I’m not defensive about my argument, per se. Scholars choose alternatives for Gen 1.1 all the time (although increasingly, those who write books in Gen 1 are citing and adoption my argument). The point is that those who disagree do so (or should do so) with good reason and an attitude that befits good scholarship.

    Rather, I am impatient with poor research and doubly so in a public setting, such as a blog.

    My article was explicitly about Gen 1.1, not Gen 1.1-3. There is good reason to “divide and conquer,” since to cover all necessary research for all the issues for vv. 1-3 would have made my article twice as long — which was quite against the word count rules of every journal in which I aimed that article for.

    Suggesting a parenthesis at the phrase edge is certainly not special pleading. I have good evidence, which is my job: to collect and analyze data carefully. That is precisely the context where such things come. Such an analysis was not part of the point of my paper, so of course it wasn’t there. Again, reading more closely rather than skimming is a mark of good scholarship, Peter.

    Your phonological suggestion is ad hoc and, unlike my analysis of the RC in Gen 1.1., is likely influenced by your understanding of English. In Hebrew, there is no such reduction with the vowels under clitics, like the preposition /b/. Rather, propretonic reduction occurs within word boundaries, after inflectional and derivational morphs are added.

    And as for generative grammar, the too-English-influenced claim simply reflects your lack of knowledge. That was a criticism that ceased to have validity by the late 70s. In any case, I more often work within a typological framework — would you like to dismiss that program, too?

    Sum: if you make claims in public (I don’t care what you do in private), do some real research first. The pursuit of truth should not be taken to lightly.

    That is why I’ve given my time, not simply to defend my argument. I’m no thin-skinned egotist; I’m a crabby professor who takes ideas and their presentation seriously.

  9. Robert, while this comment thread is public, I suspect very few people are reading it. In fact the post has been read just eight times today, which started here only an hour after my comment, and that includes you at least twice. Probably most of the other six didn’t read as far down as the comments. More to the point, blog posts should never be judged on the same level as formal academic papers, and blog comments even less so. I never attempted proper research here, nor intended any detailed academic response to your paper. I was simply offering an off the cuff response intended mainly for James Spinti. I pointed it out to you as a courtesy.

    As for my suggested phonological explanation, I accept that it is somewhat ad hoc, but as I said this is a unique word for which a unique explanation may be necessary. But I don’t think I am basing my ideas on English. I am basing it on the well known Hebrew reduction of qamets in such phonological environments. Yes, this reduction is usually blocked when the qamets represents the article, to avoid ambiguity. My ad hoc suggestion is that in this one case the blocking did not happen. Yes, this might be unique in the Hebrew Bible, but so is the combination of three rare constructions which you are proposing.

    Again, I am not trying to say that you are wrong, simply that I am not yet convinced by it, and that other alternatives are worth looking into.

  10. Actually, James, this post has been more popular than average among my posts, with a total of 67 views in less than 48 hours. I think 50 of these came through Facebook. 11 of these now are today, but as usual the great majority were in the first 24 hours.

  11. FWIW, I have just read Walton’s book ” The Lost World of Genesis 1″

    Of all the things that have been wriitten about how we should interpret Genesis 1, his proposition of a Sky Temple and comparison with other ANE texts makes more logical sense to what the writer of Genesis was trying to convey and drives a coach and horses through the “creation in 7 literal days” interpretation so beloved of some brands of evangelical christianity.

    Walton has made a systematic and concerted attempt to understand how Genesis was meant to be read for those for whom it was written, and in the culture in which it was embedded. He has I think, largely succeeded.

  12. Peter,

    I understand your view on blog posts and comments and have heard them before. But regardless how few people read them, they are public nonetheless. And when they engage scholarship, they should play by the same rules.

    You have not supported your assertion that בראשׁית is unique and how. The noun ראשׁית occurs elsewhere, nouns bound to a relative clause occur elsewhere (with or without an explicit relative word), and PPs in front of the verb, whether a wayyiqtol or not, occurs all over in Hebrew narrative. Thus, the assertion that בראשׁית is unique can only fall on the fact that this is the only case of this preposition attached to this noun. That is very weak, indeed. In fact, the same thing could be said for hundreds of Hebrew words. But we don’t make up ad hoc phonological rules for those words.

    Anyway, I have written up my analysis of Gen 1.1-3 and posted it here: http://ancienthebrewgrammar.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/genesis-1-hebrew-grammar-translation/

    You’ll note that I also find your comment about you “and the majority of professional Bible translators” deeply disturbing. But alas, it is consistent with what I have read on BBB and the BHebrew list in the past.

  13. Iconcoclast, thank you. I haven’t actually read Walton’s book. It looks an interesting one.

    Robert, I stand by my right of free speech to comment as I wish, here on my own blog, on your scholarly paper. You have the right of reply here, which I will not restrict as long as you don’t make it personal. But I resent your attempts to deny me the right to comment.

    My point about the uniqueness of bereshit refers only to its position at the start of a book, and indeed at the start of the whole canon. I don’t know much about Jewish recitation traditions, but I would expect the very start of a discourse to be pronounced rather differently from the body text.

    Thank you for your new blog post. I don’t buy it that “the vast majority of occurrences of וַיְהִי in BH narrative are discourse markers and not the main verb for a following prepositional phrase”, an assertion which you seem to rely on for your argument that a fronted PP followed by wayyiqtol is very common.

    But I am quite frankly dismayed at your claims in that post like “there is no problem” and “grammatically indefensible. Period. End of story.” It seems to me that a little academic humility is in order here. This kind of arrogance will only win you enemies. Also it is characteristic of people who know that their case is weak and try to cover this up with bluster. I’m not saying that is what you are doing, just that you remind me of people who do.

    The only other explanation I can think of for your behaviour is that I am touching on a strongly held faith position of yours. Is there something in your personal beliefs which requires you to deny that the creation was at the beginning, in any absolute sense? Do you hold to some strange version of the gap theory according to which God only got involved in a recent re-creation of the universe, after some cosmic disaster? I know this sounds far-fetched, but I am simply trying to understand where you are coming from.

    Also in your post I am troubled that you are quoting from one of my comments above without attribution, in breach of my license conditions (see below), and also misrepresent my position. I will comment on this matter on your post, also on the point about “the majority of professional Bible translators” which you bring up there. I realise this will bring more people to read my comments, but that is because you have chosen to give them a wider readership.

  14. For the record, and in case for some reason it does not pass through moderation, here is the comment that I have just made on Robert Holmstedt’s new post:

    Robert, your quotation starting “But the traditional understanding of 1:1 …” comes from a comment on my blog, which you have quoted without attribution and so in breach of my license terms. I realise you may have withheld the attribution to avoid making personal the accusations you make against me. But as I wish to refute these accusations I am forced to identify myself.

    I do not “present[] [my]self as a representative of professional Bible translators”. As a grammarian you should recognise that the English phrase “neither A nor a majority of B” does not imply a claim that A is a member of the group B, still less a representative of that group. I was formerly a professional Bible translator, but I am speaking for myself, not as anyone’s representative.

    In fact the Bible translators I primarily had in mind here were those responsible for recent English versions like NIV 2011, ESV, CEV, HCSB, and NLT. All or most of the translation teams for these versions “have PhDs in biblical studies” – and I make no claim to represent these teams. Yet all of these versions chose the traditional rendering for their main text, and only CEB among recent versions preferred something similar to your suggestion – with a footnote showing the team’s uncertainty. Against the large number of top notch scholars in those teams put together, you put forward yourself and three others, plus what I understand to be a minority opinion, if a long held one, among Semitists. I hardly think you can claim to have the kind of overwhelming academic consensus on your side which justifies comments like “In fact, there is no problem, only a long-term misunderstanding of Hebrew grammar.”

    Indeed LXX omits the article, and this may be evidence that the Hebrew did not originally have the article. But LXX also shows that the pre-Christian era translators understood the Hebrew of verse 1, even without the article, as an independent sentence, and not as dependent on verse 3 as you seem to insist that it must be.

    As I have said elsewhere, I accept that your exegesis may well be right. It deserves a place as a footnoted alternative in a Bible version. But I don’t see here the kind of academic consensus which I think should be required before making a theologically significant change to our translated Bible texts. Still less do I think the matter is sufficiently settled that you can claim that “there is no problem”.

  15. Good grief. When someone takes the discussion down the “you can’t deny my right to free speech” road, it’s over. There is no longer room for the kind of critical thinking I’m pushing you for when you’ve flipped that rhetorical switch. Again, good grief.

    A few mop up issues:
    I was entirely unaware that *comments* fall under the whole licensing issue. If you so want, I will revise my blog post and identify you. You wrote the comment and while you are free to explain yourself as you wish, the “I and professional translators” can also be legitimately interpreted just as have, especially in light of the fact that I knew you to be a translator from when I used to read BHebrew posts years ago.

    I don’t care what you say or how you choose to exhibit your critical thinking skills. I was calling you to think twice before you engage a scholarly argument with unscholarly opinion and, now, rhetoric (i.e., the whole free speech nonsense).

    The inability to back up one’s assertions with any serious argument is precisely why I quit interacting with you on BHebrew so many years ago.

    And I’m pleased that you’ve clarified the you’re no longer a professional translator. I was simply taking your statement and adding it to both what I knew of your past statements (granted, years ago) and your authorship status on Better Bibles Blog. But what you had “in mind” does not follow from a common sense reading if your statement. Why in the world would I have assumed that committees from those translations you mention, which were all either finished or mostly finished before my article ever came out, be the translators you were referring to? The simplest reading is that you were referring to translators engaged in translating work (not necessarily English translations) since 2008 and who thus have access to my argument.

  16. As a friend of Rob’s and fellow-survivor of the UW-Madison Hebrew doctoral program, and one who has read his article, I’m with Rob here. It does seem like the material was at least partially misunderstood. And anyone who knows me and what I’m engaged in on the web will chuckle when I say that I know *exactly* how Rob feels!

  17. Robert, I’m amazed. First you try and claim that my first quick blog comment was a publication to be responded to as seriously as a scholarly paper, then you try to dismiss it as something so trivial that you are free to quote it without attribution. I have changed the wording in the blog footer to clarify that the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License applies to all material published on this site.

    I mentioned free speech because you insisted that I “should play by the same rules”. The only rules I recognise on this blog are those of free speech, and the laws of defamation. I try to be gentle and courteous, because I freely choose to, not because this is some rule. I do not attempt to be scholarly in any rigorous sense because this is not intended to be a scholarly blog. I am grateful when people like you point out weaknesses in my arguments, but not when they try to claim that I am breaking some rule by presenting those arguments.

    I was unaware that you remembered me from when I was a Bible translator. The About Peter Kirk page on this blog clarifies that I no longer am one. Perhaps I should have clarified that I was referring primarily to recent English language Bible translation teams.

    But are you arguing that your interpretation is a long-standing one, which you have simply clarified, or a novel one in 2008? In the former case, if the interpretation was convincing you might have expected many earlier translation teams to accept it – as the NRSV team more or less did. If the latter, then I accept that only the NIV 2011 and CEB teams could benefit from your scholarship – but you can hardly claim that something so new represents the scholarly consensus. Anyway, elsewhere you claim that your 2008 paper was based on your 2002 thesis, so you can hardly insist that your proposal was new in 2008.

    Mike, I accept that initially I partially misunderstood Robert’s paper. Thanks to his interaction with me, and the further explanation in his new blog post, I believe I now understand his arguments better. But I am still not convinced by them.

  18. There is no longer any good to be gained by continuing the discussion. So I copy below the final part of the last comment I made on my blog ….

    Peter, I am sorry that we have had a rather pointed and unfriendly back-and-forth. This won’t be comforting, but it will illustrate that I engage in these discussions out of principle — last summer I had a similar heated series with John Hobbins, whom I have counted as a friend for a dozen years. The topic had nothing to do with anything I’ve written on, but was simply about a claim regarding the nature of ancient Hebrew and translation technique. Why did I get John so mad at me? Because I am adamant that blog posts and comments should be held to the same standards as any academic discourse: if a claim is made, it must be supported. Call me what you want (and I’m sure you can think of plenty of colourful terms), but my intention to to be a pit bull for scientific standards in scholarly discourse, regardless of medium.

  19. Robert, I too am sorry that it has come to this. I too have had my heated discussions with John Hobbins, which you may have seen because most have been on BBB. I would agree with you that claims made in blog posts and comments should be supported. However, I would not agree that they need the same kinds of scholarly rigour and peer review as published papers. Blogs are a place for open debate and for people to put forward opinions for discussion. As such writers can expect negative responses, pointing out their inaccuracies and even stupidities. What I don’t appreciate is when people try to stifle debate by claiming that comments, unless defamatory or rude, are illegitimate.

  20. Aside from the problems Robert points out, Walton’s proposal is weak when one considers what the toledot formulas are actually doing. Matthew Thomas’ book These Are the Generations will be the reference point for this discussion in the future, and given the publication date, I suspect that Walton was unable to consult it.

  21. Peter, I’ve appreciated your sharing the information which appears to indicate a helpful, discourse level, division to the book of Genesis.

    I also find it ironic (though this isn’t your fault, nor is there really anything you can do about it) that there’s really no scholarship supporting the notion that blog postings are to be measured by the same scholarship metric as peer-reviewed articles. I, for one, am thankful that ongoing conversations–being verbal across a table in a coffee house or pub, or textual across the blogosphere–allow for a broader audience and a more dynamic pursuit of truth not stifled by the pretence of presumed authority.

    Good, sound scholarship needs to be readily available. But, the ongoing discussion which such scholarship breeds needs to be able to “talk” at all the many, many levels of people’s needs. The nature of scholarly debate appears to preclude the pastoral feeding generated by that same scholarship–debate and shepherding are too often like wolf and shepherd. I suggest that the blogosphere presents a ready platform to transition from debate to the pastoral led benefits brought by greener pastures. Sadly, one can starve the sheep in an effort to protect the grass.

    Scholarship, like love, is grown when the recipients are nurtured by the giving of it. The recipients are suffocated when there’s the militant protecting of it.

  22. Mike,

    Your sentiments sound nice, but this wasn’t about militant protectionism, though this characterization is a admirable rhetorical attempt to assert my part in this to be somehow overblown. Rather, this was about how you argue in public. There’s no scholarship on how arguments are supposed to me made in academia, either. Does that mean that you would find it acceptable to put forth unsupported claim, ad hominem rhetoric, and arguments that are shot through with a lack of logic, just because some think tank hasn’t wasted money investigating the “rules of the game”? The expectations that were at issue in this blog were not about media, per se, but that any intelligent discourse presumes certain rules of logic, regardless of medium.

    I think careful reading and argumentation is important, regardless of the topic. So, if you go back and read the entire exchange, including my first comment about this on James Spinti’s, you’ll see that where I had a simple exchange with James, Peter’s involvement proceeded from the “hey, you might like to read my comment on your article,” which was of the “umm, I don’t think it’s good” type, without support.

    Ideas are important. Good ones are worth good debate, even it is isn’t touchy-feely-nice. Is the flock so delicate that they must be sheltered from what the pursuit of truth looks like? The consistent thread throughout all my comments is my request for Peter to back up his criticisms of my argument with more than opinion. If that’s troubling to you, then the only logical option is to stay away from scholarship. That’s what it’s about and that’s what we do (and many of us do it in the service of the shepherd and his flock).

    You may approach blogs like a coffeehouse discussion, but if so, then this was like me walking through with someone else, Peter overhearing the topic of our conversation, and then telling the whole coffeehouse that he thought my argument was bunk. It needn’t have started that way. Criticisms like “I don’t understand it,” “he should have clarified X,” or “it doesn’t take into account these data…” all invite good discussion. That was not the case here.

  23. Robert, your conversation with James was a public one, on his blog, so I was not making anything more public. It was out of courtesy to you that I posted there a link to my comment here.

    My main point in my first comment here was that the paper you first pointed to lacked both “an exhaustive analysis of Hebrew relative clauses” and a discussion of how verse 1 fitted into its context. Surely these are “he should have clarified X” and “it doesn’t take into account these data…” matters. I am grateful that in response you pointed out other places where you had addressed both of these issues. I think it would have been better if you had left the matter there, rather than let yourself be angered simply because I didn’t use the precise form of words you thought appropriate.

    As it is, let’s end things here.

  24. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants

  25. Pingback: Creation stuff in the Gigantic Biblioblog Carnival | Unsettled Christianity

  26. One of the world’s foremost experts on the meaning of Genesis chapter one in its ancient Near Eastern environment is Mark Smith. In his book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, he explains (keep in mind I have only cited a few passages, not including his extensive endnotes):

    “It is the relative clause that makes ‘in beginning’ definite in the NRSV and NAB translations, which allows for their translation ‘the beginning,’ instead of an indefinite rendering, ‘a beginning.’ At the same time, this translation may make it seem that the verse is talking about the beginning. So it is better to avoid using ‘the beginning’ in a translation. It is for this reason that I have instead adopted the translation: ‘When at first God created’ (this is fairly similar to the NJPS translation: ‘When God began to create’). . . . Most modern translations, such as NRSV, NAB, and NJPS, follow this understanding. The reasons in favor of this interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3 have been nicely expressed by the biblical scholar Jack M. Sasson, professor at Vanderbilt University: Although there are competent philologists who still defend the traditional translation, I personally think that this exegesis is really beyond dispute: first, because it is supported by grammar and syntax; second, because other creation narratives similarly open with temporal or circumstantial clauses; and third because the first of God’s creative injunctions does not come until v. 3. Despite the length of such a sentence, it falls entirely in line with the openings of creation accounts from Mesopotamia. For example, Enuma Elish, which we discussed above, begins in this manner. Such introductions start with a clause beginning ‘when,’ and often follow with a description of the conditions lacking for life, followed by a ‘then’ statement describing an important, initial act of creation. Significantly, this is also essentially the structure of Genesis 2:4 (in the second half of the verse) through Genesis 2:7: verse 4, second half, is the when clause, verses 5-6 are the parenthetical clause describing the conditions prevailing at the time, and verse 7 describes the divine act.

    “The implication of this interpretation is that Genesis 1:1 does not talk about “the beginning” in an absolute sense. Instead, it simply refers to the remote time when God began to create. We will study the meaning of the word ‘in beginning of’ (bere’shit) shortly, but we should be careful that we not allow the traditional interpretation of the meaning of Genesis 1:1 to dictate about how we think about it. This verse presents the situation of the world when God first started creating—a point that was well recognized by ancient writers. The great Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (roughly, a contemporary of Jesus) put the point this way: “‘in (the) beginning he made’ is equivalent to ‘he first made the heaven first.'”

    “Modern commentators have followed this approach as well. According to the giant of German biblical scholarship of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen, re’shit does not denote ‘the commencement of a process which goes forward in time, but the first. . . part of a thing.’ The account talks about “the beginning,” namely the beginning of God’s creating the world, not the absolute beginning of everything. In the words of the great twentieth century scholar, Wilfred G. Lambert, Genesis is “about the processes by which the universe we know reached its present form, with no attempt to delve into the question of ultimate origin.” This is the general understanding of biblical scholars today. As we will observe below, the idea of creation from nothing arose in the Greco-Roman period and is alien to the Hebrew Bible. With this question about “the beginning” addressed, we may turn to the specific words of verse 1.”

  27. Thank you, Ed. But I’m afraid the appeal to Wellhausen does nothing to increase my confidence in this interpretation. He led Hebrew Bible scholarship seriously astray for over a century by imposing on it his speculative and now discredited reconstruction of the history of religions, based on his own liberal presuppositions more than on the evidence. The way in which he is used as an authority here tends to support my suspicion that the campaign to reject the traditional “in the beginning” interpretation is driven by similar liberal presuppositions as much as by the Hebrew text. Yes, Enuma Elish is important background for Genesis, but it is important to read what the Hebrew writers actually wrote, rather than impose upon the text a presumption that they were saying the same as ancient Mesopotamians.

  28. Peter, “Welhausen?” That’s all you focused on when you read Mark Smith’s remarks? I focused on what Smith said here, “I personally think that this exegesis is really beyond dispute: first, because it is supported by grammar and syntax; second, because other creation narratives similarly open with temporal or circumstantial clauses; and third because the first of God’s creative injunctions does not come until v. 3. Despite the length of such a sentence, it falls entirely in line with the openings of creation accounts from Mesopotamia.”

    Regardless of the arguments of leading Hebrew scholars and ANE scholars like Smith, no doubt some Evangelicals will never relinquish a particular understanding of Genesis 1:1.

    Others will never relinquish a literal Adam and Eve.

    Geisler will not even consider admitting that there is a question regarding the historicity of the “many raised saints” tale in Matthew or the birth tales in Matthew and Luke.

    Some Evangelicals and Catholics will never relinquish the idea that abortion must be made illegal.

    World views apparently need to create distinctions, demarcation lines, between themselves and other world views, otherwise views blur into one another and uncertainties arise, and with uncertainties come doubts and when doubts arise then primeval fears return such as fear of death and lack of meaning. Hence world views fight to maintain their distinctions, demarcation lines. “You shall not pass!” Truth must be sure! Certain! And defended as such.

    Inerrantists also apparently realize that believing they have an inerrant text is not enough if their interpretations and understanding of that text are not also inerrant. They don’t put it that way, claiming inerrancy for their interpretations, but they often defend their interpretation with the same vigor with which they defend the general idea of the Bible’s inerrancy, and they will argue with other inerrantists over every the meaning of every jot and tittle from Genesis 1:1 to the end of the book of Revelation. To not do so would be to admit uncertainties and with uncertainties come doubts. . . etc. as above.

    Though today a growing number of Evangelicals are admitting more uncertainties. From Scott McKnight to Michael Patton. Though even they have their limits.

  29. Ed, if you had wanted to focus clearly on the part you now say you are focusing on, you could have highlighted it in some way, or omitted the part that you don’t want me to comment on. But you have chosen to include focus on “it falls entirely in line with the openings of creation accounts from Mesopotamia”, which implies some presupposition that those accounts will be relevant.

    Yes, I also have my presuppositions. But, as you will discover if you read this blog more widely, they are by no means the inerrantist ones which you seem to attribute to me. It is not only inerrantists who defend their interpretations of the Bible with religious fervour, as both you and I demonstrate.

    Merry Christmas!

  30. Pete, If you come out of the Evangelical tradition you probably heard early on in Sunday school or read in Old Earth and Young Earth creationist works that Gen. 1:1 depicts God’s first act of creation. But you’re an adult now and I’d settle for you maintaining some sort of indecision in the face of the majority of scholarly opinion among experts in Hebrew and ANE studies today.

    Neither do I t have a horse in this race, it’s Christian and Jewish scholars, arguing amongst themselves and with each other over this verse and over the question of how to interpret the Bible from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation that have the race horses.

    But here’s how I view matters. You may cite any translation of Gen. 1:1, including, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Just ask what it means to place such a sentence BEFORE the rest of the chapter that describes HOW the heavens and earth arose out of darkness and primeval waters. If they the heavens and the earth were already created in verse one, then why does it say everything was formless and void and part of dark primeval waters and had to be called forth out of those dark primeval waters? Obviously light was not even created nor the space in the primeval waters out of which the earth was called forth. So there was no “earth” in the beginning, and the opening sentence is merely saying that “in the beginning” was WHEN God created the heavens and the earth — but HOW they were created out of dark primeval waters, and in what ORDER, is described later.

    Some ANE myths (both Mesopotamian and Hebrew) speak about vast dark primeval waters in the beginning, “before anything had been named” in Enuma Elish. The naming is the calling forth out of the dark primeval waters. The naming is the creating. And like such ANE myths Genesis does not say that God created the darkness and primeval waters, but merely assumes their existence.

    Neither is the story in Genesis chapter one talking about a Big Bang, but a Big Splash, since it begins with darkness and water and the waters are separated so that heaven might appear, a space between the waters had to be created, without which the earth also could not proceed to be called forth out of the same waters, and only after heaven and earth were created were the sun, moon and the stars also “made and set in the firmament.” So “in the beginning” there were dark primeval waters, there was not “heaven and earth.” They had yet to be named, yet to assume form, which took place afterwards.

    Therefore based on the context of the story the first sentence is more about WHEN the heavens and the earth were created rather than saying they were instantly CREATED. They were created “in the beginning,” in the dimmest most ancient time imaginable, and they were created by God. That’s all the first sentence says. HOW they were created comes later. That’s the context.

    There is also a case to be made that the Hebrews were reacting to Enuma Elish. Enuma Elish was apparently recited in public festivals in Babylon. And the point of Enuma Elish was to enthrone Marduk as the god above gods in the nation of Babylon. Genesis one was composed by the Hebrews to enthrone Yahweh as the god above gods with no peers in fact. It is not the earliest of Hebrew creation stories and passages in the Bible. Some earlier passages in the Bible depict Yahweh fighting and defeating various foes. But Genesis 1 does not involve struggle, just royal commands. The point of Genesis 1 is not that Yahweh created out of nothing, but that Yahweh commanded the primeval waters and everything else. The primeval waters were the ones out of which Marduk himself arose, they were personified in Babylon, Marduk’s grandparents in fact, and defeating them he made creation out of them.

    There is also a case to be made that the laws in the OT were composed in reaction to ancient Babylonian laws. There is a new major monograph on that topic. And the story in the OT of David being given the directions on how to build Yahweh’s temple by Yahweh himself is later than the Egyptian story of Thutmose being given the directions on how to build a temple to an Egyptian god by that god himself.

    I can email you a copy of my paper, “The Cosmology of the Bible” is you’d like to read my references. But I don’t think the context is plain as I’ve pointed out above.

  31. Pingback: Aantekeningen bij de Bijbel · De Genesis oorlogen

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