The following translation and notes is designed to illustrate some points of source and structure in the Genesis creation stories. It is not intended as a full exposition of the various issues involved, but rather as a tool to help understand them. I discuss issues of the historical-critical method further in the Participatory Study Series pamphletWhat is Biblical Criticism? available from Energion Publications. Some of the books I recommend for studying this issue can be found in my Aerbook store.
The translation is mine, and I have done some things to try to clarify the structure even though this often results in a less natural translation in English. I do not recommend my translation for reading comfort, but I believe it does well in helping to answer the questions often posed about this text:
- What is the primary intention of the author(s)?
- Is this a single story or multiple stories?
- Is there scientific evidence available from this text?
- What cosmological assumptions are involved?
Obviously I will not answer all these questions in a single translation with notes. What I hope is that this translation will help others answer those questions for themselves.
Format of the Translation and Notes
There are three sources in the text of this translations. The font, size, and style of text remains in accordance with the source. The color and background reflect structural elements as designated below. The source fonts are:
Text that is from none of the major sources
- Text from the priestly source
Priestly Source, commonly designated P
- Text from the Yahwist soruce
Yahwist (Jahwist) source, commonly designated J
The following text colors are used to highlight particular phraseology illustrating theme and structure.
Elements common in Genesis 1:1-2:3
1. God created/made
2. God said
3. Let there be
4. It was so
5. God called/named
6. God saw that it was good
7. There was evening and there was morning
8. the _____ day
Additional element common in Genesis 2:4ff
9. Personal actions of God–formed, planted and so forth
10. God created/made
Verse numbers are indicated by superscripted numbers (1). Notes on the translation and text are indicated by subscripted lower case letters (a) with links to the note included. Notes on the content are indicated by subscripted numbers (1).
The Priestly Creation Story
Often people refer to the Genesis creation story as myths, but this is not technically correct in reference to Genesis 1. The priestly account is liturgy. It justifies and underlies the celebration of a worship cycle of seven days. If you look at the color coding below you will see how much of the text consists of formal elements that tend to outline and drive the text. This is carefully written theology.
Besides its liturgical purpose (as liturgy and justifying liturgy) it is tightly written theology. Elements of this story explicity contradict the Mesopotamian stories. Where there is conflict in the Mesopotamian accounts, there is no conflict here. Where there is expressed concern about the outcome there, there is none here. The key focus of the structure and vocabulary is to express the simple, uncontested power of God exercised in forming the world as we know it.
At the same time as it contradicts elements of the Mesopotamian stories, it also is founded in a similar cosmology. This cosmology has the world as a fixed area of land, above and surrounded (horizontally) by a primeval ocean, and a dome (sky or firmament) stretched above that. Water exists above the firmament as well.
1 In the beginninga God created heaven and earth.
2 Now the earth wasb formless and empty, and there was darkness above primeval ocean1, and God’s wind2cwas blowing above the water. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” 4 And God saw that the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light day, and he called the darkness night. So there was evening, and there was morning, day one.
6 Then God said, “Let there be a dome4 between the waters, and let it divide between water and water.” 7And God made the dome, and he divided the water that was under the dome from the water that was above the dome, and it was so. 8 And God called the dome heaven, and there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
9 Then God said, “Let the waters under heaven be gathered to one place, and let the dry land be visible.” Andit was so. 10 And God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the water he called seas, and God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, “Let the earth produce vegetation, herbs bearing seed and fruit trees bearing fruit with the seed in it according to its kind upon the earth, and it was so. 12 And the earth produced vegetation, herbs bearing seed according to its kind and trees bearing fruit whose seed is in it according to their kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
14 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of heaven to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for appointed times, and for days and years. 15 And let them be for lights in the dome of heaven to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 So God made two great lights, the big light to rule the day and the little light to rule the night, and also the stars. 17 And God placed them in the dome of heaven to give light on the earth, 18 and to rule the day and the night and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the water swarm with swarming creatures that are alive, and let birds fly above the earth on the face of the dome of heaven. 21 So God created great sea serpents, and every living creature that moves that the water brought forth according to its kind and every flying bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Bring forth fruit and multiply, and fill the water in the seas, and let birds multiply in the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind, domestic animals and creatures that move, and land animals according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the land animals according to their kinds, and the domestic animals according to their kinds, and every moving land creature according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity3 in our form4, according to our appearance, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of heaven and the cattle and over all the earth, and over all the moving creatures that move on the earth. 27 And God createdhumanity in his form. He created it in the form of God. He created them male and female. 28 And God blessed them and God said to them, “Bring forth fruit and multiply and fill the earth and bring it into subjection and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of heaven and over every living creature that moves on the earth. 29 And God said, “Look! I’ve given you every herb giving seed which is on all the earth and every tree which has on it the fruit of a seed bearing tree. They will be yours to eat. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of heaven and to every moving creation on the earth which has in it a living soul will belong every green plant for food. And it was so. 31 And God saw everything he had made, and yes, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.
1 And heaven and earth were finished and all their host. 2 And on the seventh day God put and end to his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 And God blessed the seventh day, and set it apart, because in it he rested from all his work that God did in creating.
The Yahwist Story
This story looks at creation from a completely different angle. Here God is personally and actively involved in the creation process and is visible to the newly created human for whom he seeks a helper. Rather than simple commands which are fulfilled, there is formation and growth. The chronology is also not precisely the same. It is unlikely that an editor heavily concerned with chronology would have put these stories together. On the other hand, someone more concerned with theology could easily see these two aspects of God’s power–creative force and personal attention–as being complementary and presenting a more complete image of God. I argue elsewhere that Psalm 104 is another creation story with the focus there being on the continuing creative and sustaining power rather than the initiation.
4 These are the records of heaven and earth when they were created, in the day when YHWH5dGod made earth and heaven, 5 and every shrub of the field before it was on the earth, and every green plant of the field before it sprouted, because YHWH God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no human being to till the ground. 6 And a stream used to go up from the earth and it watered all the face of the ground.
7 And YHWH God formed a human being from dust from the ground, and breathed into itsenostrils living breath, and the human became a living creature. 8 And YHWH God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and there he placed the human being whom he had formed. 9 AndYHWH God made every tree that was nice to look at and good for food sprout from the ground, and the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 And a river went out from Eden to water the garden and from there it separated and became four heads. 11 The name of the one was Pishon. It is the one that surrounds the whole land of Havilah whre there is gold. 12 And the gold from that land is good, there are bdellium and onyx stones. 13 And the name of the second river is Gihon. It is the one that soes around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river was Hideqel. It’s the one that goes to the east of Ashur, and the fourth river is Perath (Euphrates).6
15 And YHWH God took the human and placed it in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it. 16 And YHWH God commanded the human saying, “From all the trees of the garden you may certainly eat, 17 but from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat from it, because in the day you eat from it you will definitely die.
18 And YHWH God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone. I will make for it a suitable helper.” 19 So YHWH God formed6 from the ground every beast of the field and every bird of heaven, and he brought them to the human to see what he would call them. And whatever the human called a living thing, that was its name. 20 And the human gave names to all the beasts, and to the birds of the heavens, and to all the beasts of the field, but for the human there was not found a suitable helper. 21 And YHWH God made the human sleep deeply, so it slept and God took one of its ribs and closed the flesh instead of it. 22 And YHWH God made the rib which he had taken from the human into a woman, and he brought her to the human. 23And the human said, “This now is bone of my bones and flesh from my flesh. She will be called woman (ishshah) because she was taken from man (ish).” 24 For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife, and they will become one flesh. 25 And the two of them were both naked, the human and his wife, and they were not ashamed.
Translation and Textual Notes
- The first word of the Bible is a textual problem. A considerable difference in translation would result from different pointing or from some different possible translations of the first two words. The major options are “In the beginning God created” or “When God began creating.” I choose the former, but I recognize that there is a considerable basis for the alternative.
- The ruin and restoration theory requires the translation “became” here, since this theory holds that the earth was created, as described in Genesis 1:1, and then destroyed (and the earth became formless and empty) and then was created again as described in verses 2 and following. This is, however, an extremely improbable translation of the passage. Frequently, the verb “hayah” is used in the perfect following the subject simply meaning “to be” rather than “become” or “happen” as it does in most passages when it precedes the subject. Another option is the pluperfect meaning, “the earth had been”. In either case, this is not a story about creation from nothing, but rather of formation out of chaos which is already presented as existing.
- I translate “God’s Wind” rather than “God’s Spirit” because of the parallels and because it is blowing over or above the waters.
- I use YHWH for the proper name of God in order to let readers know where it is used, and to allow them to choose whether and how to pronounce it.
- With a certain amount of concern about the impression I will cause, I use “it” to refer to the human being as first created before we have the identification of the genders at the end of the chapter. Even though ‘adam is grammatically masculine, it refers to the person as a human being, and not specifically to gender, which is made clear later. Thus I use “it” in English (Hebrew does not have a neuter) to help produce the same suspense that the original does. Be aware that all pronouns in Hebrew referring to the first human are masculine.
- Tehom, or the primeval ocean is what there is before the creation. We will see this again in the flood as the fountains are opened up from the tehom as part of the flood. This is linguistically related to the Mesopotamian Tiamat though here it does not have personality and takes no action as it does in the Mesopotamian tales. It is completely subject to God’s action.
- Again we have an element that compares to the Mesopotamian stories, but again its function is different. God’s wind seems positively inactive, whereas in the Babylonian story it is Marduk’s primary weapon.
- I use either “humanity” or “human” throughout to translate the Hebrew ‘adam, thus distinguishing it from ‘iysh or “man (a male person)”. The latter term is not introduced until the end of chapter 2.
- It is hard to find a translation here that would truly be neutral in English. Whether this is a moral and ethical form or pattern, or whether it was intended as a physical form is a matter for interpretation.
- One literary characteristic that changes between the two stories is the name for God, with the more generic ‘elohim used in Genesis 1:1-2:3, but the proper name along with the generic title used in 2:4ff.
- This is identified as an interpolation because it disrupts both the subject matter and the syntactical flow of the chapter. Amongst other things there is a long sequence of verbs that begins in verse five and continues through most of the chapter. The editor probably placed it here to relate it to the stream identified in verse 6.
- In trying to solve the differences in chronology between the two creation stories many read “had formed” here (pluperfect). It is possible for the form to be translated that way, but not likely. Normally, the pluperfect is indicated by a switch to the perfect in a sequence of imperfects with the waw-consecutive as are shown here.