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929 Project: Genesis 1 – what does the first verse mean?

July 15, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Every book has a beginning (with a few notable exceptions).  Genesis 1 is the beginning of the Hebrew Bible with this famous line:

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

The only problem is figuring out what it means.  According to the Mishna (M Chagigah 2.1) and the Talmud (BT Chagiga 11b-12a), it is even forbidden to teach what it means:

אין דורשין בעריות בשלושה, ולא במעשה בראשית בשניים; ולא במרכבה ביחיד, אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו.  וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים, רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם–מה למעלן, מה למטן, מה לפנים, מה לאחור.  וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו, רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם

One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things would be better off if he had not come into this world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.

The prohibition against explicating the creation must be one of the most ignored of all religious laws.

How to translate Genesis 1:1?  Jon Levenson summarizes two approaches in the JSB14:

A tradition over two millennia old sees 1:1 as a complete sentence:  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause.  This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin – including the one that starts at [Genesis] 2:4b.  Hence the translation:  “When God began to create heaven and earth.”

I prefer to see the Hebrew text as having both meanings – meanings that have been assigned to it by careful readers.  I see no reason to argue over the meaning – anymore than we can ever hope to resolve whether Hamlet’s flesh (that he wish would melt) is too too sullied or too too solid.  And we can assign more meanings to the text as well.

According to Daniel Matt, the mystical text Zohar reads the verse differently, “not as “In the beginning God created”… but rather: ‘With beginning, [the Unnamable One] created God.’ This sounds shocking or heretical. But the point is that our usual understanding of God is pretty childish. What we think of as God is only one limited aspect of the infinite divine reality, which transcends and explodes all names.”  (You can watch a brief video of Matt lecturing here)

This too is an interpretation of the Hebrew, and a “hidden meaning” we must consider.

(NB this blog entry was written on July 27, 2018, and backdated to July 15, as explained here.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2018 8:42 am

    I prefer to see the Hebrew text as having both meanings – meanings that have been assigned to it by careful readers. I see no reason to argue over the meaning – anymore than we can ever hope to resolve whether Hamlet’s flesh (that he wish would melt) is too too sullied or too too solid. And we can assign more meanings to the text as well.

    Thanks for expressing so well what, thanks to Else Frenkel-Brunswik, we can understand as an important “tolerance for ambiguity.” When any of us approaches God as authoritarian or, in our approach, would pretend to be the authority on God, then we do tend to get into arguments. I know this is not all you are blogging on with your series. And yet I admire anyone who can appreciate difference, especially allowing for difference among and assigned, as you put it, “by careful readers.” Thank you again.

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