a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part II

For background information, read the previous post.

This translation is by no means final—it is very much a first draft with notes highlighting areas which I consider remain inadequate. Consequently I’ll be very pleased to consider any suggestions for improvement which I will gladly incorporate!

I begin with the first two days. Obviously there is much that could be said, I’ve included footnotes to points of particular interest.

When God began establishing the sky and the land,1 the land was uninhabitable,2 and darkness covered the surface of the primaeval depths.3 But the spirit of God stirred over the surface of the waters and God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. God recognised that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light “day” and he named the darkness “night.” Then there was evening and then morning, a first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a barrier4 between the waters which will separate the waters, and let the barrier separate the waters which are below the barrier from those which are above the barrier.” And it was so. Then God named the barrier, “sky,”5 and there was evening and then morning, a second day.


1. I’m not entirely happy with ‘establishing’, but I’m aiming to go beyond ‘create’ because I think Walton probably has a point when he suggests that ברא refers to assigning a function to something, although I think he overstates his case. I don’t think the notion of “create” is readily excluded from the semantic range of the term, doing so creates(!) too many difficulties in some contexts. Consequently, I suspect that the term may refer to creating with a view to assigning function, and so I’ve lazily adopted the vague “establish everything (i.e. את השמים ואת הארץ)” to encompass the task of creating and assigning function. On Walton’s views, see his Genesis (NIVAC) 70–72; Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 181–184.

I think ארץ is best translated “land” in Gen 1, although I think that the expression את השמים ואת הארץ is a merism for everything (since there is no land at this point anyway). Unfortunately ‘everything’ is also inadequate, because ‘everything’ in the ancient world (cosmologically speaking) was quite different from everything today.

2. Although the precise meaning of תהו ובהו has long been debated, I suspect that in context here it describes the state of the world prior to the acts of God described in the remainder of the chapter—that is, before order, shape, and function had been imparted to the creation. Sailhamer argues that it means no more than “uninhabitable” (see Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound [1996] 60–66).

3. תהום is often translated in such a way as to suggest it is a simple reference to the ocean, but it almost always appears in reference to the ancient waters from which the cosmos was fashioned. Here I want to ensure the modern reader is aware that there’s more in the mind of the ancient reader than the ocean or sea.

4. For רקיע I’ve tried to choose a term which reflects the notion of a solid canopy over the world, hence “barrier.” Terms like “expanse” allow modern readers to escape the significant cosmological differences which exist between the ancient world and our own and should be avoided.

5. “Sky” is ultimately inadequate as a translation for שמים in this context since the Hebrew idea here doesn’t simply reduce to what modern English speakers mean by “sky.” However, until I can think of (or someone can suggest) a better alternative, it will have to remain for now.


To be continued…

7 thoughts on “a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part II

  1. Bravo. I really like your part I, and I’m also enjoying reading your translating! What you’re doing (both theorizing and practicing) takes much skill–and you’ve got it. We need to think of ourselves more as outsiders to the texts we translate. I think the original bible translators did: here’s a post on that

  2. Martin,

    Very nice. I happen to disagree about bara’. The fact that br’ is a nomen professionis in Phoenician, an artisan of some kind, is suggestive though of course not probative.

    “Barrier” is a very nice touch. “Sky,” “land,” “stir over,” and “primeval depths” are, too.

    I don’t like “uninhabitable” because it takes a phrase that is physically descriptive and makes it into something else.

  3. John, thanks for your comments. I have to admit that “uninhabitable” was a last-minute change and I am not particularly attached to it. I’d be interested to know how you would translate the phrase?

  4. John, to take a cue from the Phoenician we could use something like “When God began crafting the sky and the land…” I’d be more inclined to go down this track if the image was more clearly employed elsewhere in the immediate context (perhaps if תהו ובהו could be shown to refer to the state of raw materials in such situations?). In light of other texts which view God in this way, however, it is worth thinking over a little more.

  5. Pingback: first impressions of the 2011 niv | “shields-up”

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