the verb ברא in genesis 1

It appears that Ellen Van Wolde’s article about the meaning of ברא in Genesis 1 has appeared in JSOT (link to the reference is here). There has already been some discussion over her claim on other blogs, so I’m hoping to get a copy of her article soon (if anyone feels motivated to send me a copy please let me know!).

The abstract at the above link provides the summary (here reproduced in unicode rather than using the BFI method adopted at Sage):
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a foreignising translation of genesis 1: part IV

Well, at last it is time to finish the remainder of Genesis 1. I’m sure there remains much room for improvement, so I’m still open to any and all suggestions. I’m also aware that there are parts of the text which remain susceptible to inappropriate domestication, so this is in no way intended to be a finished work!

Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living things, and let flying things1 fly over the land, in front of the barrier of the sky.” And God established the great sea-monsters2 and all the varieties of squirming living things with which the waters swarm, and all varieties of winged flying things. God recognised that it was good.3

And God blessed them with the words, “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the flying things multiply on the land.” And there was evening and then morning, a fifth day.

Then God said, “Let the land produce varieties of animals—varieties of cattle, creeping animals, and wild animals.” And it was so. God made the varieties of wild animals, varieties of cattle, and all varieties of animals which creep over the ground. God recognised that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind as our representation4 to be our proxy5 so they may rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, and over the entire land as well as all of the creeping animals which creep over the land.”

So God established humankind as his representation,
as the representation of God he created that one,
male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them with the words, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the land and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the flying things of the sky, and all the animals which creep over the land.” And God said, “Now I give you all the crops which are on the land and all trees bearing fruit containing its seed—these shall be your food. To all the wild animals, to the birds of the sky, and to the animals which creep over the land which are alive, [I give] every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God recognised that all which he had made was now very good. And there was evening and then morning, a sixth day.

Then the sky and the land was finished, and all their entourage. By the seventh day God had finished the work which he had done, so he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and made it sacred, because on it he rested from all his work which God established.


1. In light of the apparently all-encompassing reference in the previous clause to sea-life, it seems probable that עוף here refers to more than merely birds but encompasses everything that flies (see Lev 11:20; Deut 14:19). Using “flying things” also allows me to preserve something of the parallelism of the Hebrew ועוף יעופף.

2. Translations for התנינם הגדלים include “great sea creatures” (ESV, NET), “great creatures of the sea” (NIV, TNIV), “great whales” (KJV), “huge whales” (Message). These all overly domesticate a term which likely incorporated some element of mystery: “something large lurking in the depths whose identity is not entirely clear to us.”

3. The term “good” is pretty vague, but then so also is the Hebrew טוב. Hamilton translates as “beautiful,” although there are other Hebrew terms (e.g. יפה) which may better express the aesthetic quality inherent in this English word. Perhaps “suitable” or “appropriate” would be good renderings (if Sailhamer’s emphasis on the anthropocentric nature of the narrative is correct, then God’s observation would highlight the suitability of each phase of creation for human habitation). HALOT’s suggestion, “in order, usable,” would seem to fit well here.

4. “Image” and “likeness” are difficult primarily because they incorporate millenia of theological baggage. “Representation” is nice because it incorporates the notion of physicality inherent in “image” but also invokes the idea of a representative which is inherent in the use of צלם but absent from the English “image.”

5. Obviously “proxy” fails to reflect the aspect of physical resemblance inherent in “likeness,” but I’m trying to avoid “likeness” in order to distance the translation from the theological baggage which would otherwise be imposed upon the text by the use of conventional terms. On the other hand, “proxy” nicely conveys the notion of representation inherent in both צלם and דמות.

a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part III

It’s been too long since the last installment in this series, partly due to holidays, partly due to internet problems, and partly due to being too busy, but here come the next two days of Genesis 1 at last.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the sky be collected to one place so that dry ground appears.” And it was so. Then God named the dry ground “land” and he named the collected waters “seas.” God recognised that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land sprout plants: crops1 and fruit-trees producing varieties of fruit containing its seed.” And it was so. So the land produced plants—varieties of crops and varieties of trees bearing fruit containing its seed. God recognised that it was good, and there was evening and then morning, a third day.

Then God said, “Let there be lights on2 the barrier of the sky to separate between the day and the night, and let them mark the times for days and years, and let them be lights on the barrier of the sky to shed light on the land.” And it was so.

God made the two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night—and the stars. God placed them on the barrier of the sky to shine on the land, to govern3 the day and the night, and to separate between the light and the darkness. And God recognised that it was good. And there was evening and then morning, a fourth day.


1. The expression עשב מזריע זרע is usually rendered “seed-bearing plants.” This raises the question: why the qualification about seeds, are there any plants which do not bear seeds? I suspect something more specific is on view here, and that is that the plants on view are crops and that the expression focuses on the ‘sowing’ aspect of the verb זרע. By extension, the reference to ‘fruit-trees’ probably focuses specifically on those cultivated for food. Furthermore, verses 29–30 specifically identify these plants as being for human consumption but also draw a distinction from other plants (כל ירק עשב) which are for animals. Cultivated crops are certainly in view later in Gen 2:5.

2. Note HALOT on the use of the preposition ב says “5. in association with high objects ב means upon: בחרב 1K 89, בסוסים Is 6620.” So also in subsequent uses of ב here in reference to the placement of lights on the barrier.

3. “Govern” is fairly neutral in Australian English, although I’m concerned a little over its connotations in US English where you actually have governors (or a “governator” in California), so the term may be less suitable in that context.

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…

a foreignising translation of genesis 1, part I

Debates over types of translation of the Bible are typically dominated by discussions of the relative merits of either “literal” (or formal equivalent) translation verses dynamic equivalent wherein the primary goal is the transfer of meaning from the source to the target. While there is a place for both types of translation, I personally think that literal translations have a rather limited place, serving best those with some grasp of the underlying languages and the way they operate, but without the fluency to be able to rely on them alone. Otherwise they can be used in conjunction with a good dynamic equivalent translation in order to highlight possible intertextual links, linguistic parallels, or formal features of the original text. For those unfamiliar with the original languages, however, I would not recommend using a “literal” translation alone because it can obscure as much as it reveals.

These are, however, not the only two options. With the growing awareness of the distance between modern western readers of the Bible and the original context of the text’s composition comes a growing awareness of the manner in which most translations of either type allow the reader to domesticate the text by permitting the reader to impose upon the text their own cultural ideals and norms simply because the translations employ concepts sufficiently vague to allow them such freedom. The problem has been highlighted by Lawrence Venuti, who wrote,

By producing the illusion of transparency, a fluent translation masquerades as true semantic equivalence when it in fact inscribes the foreign text with a partial interpretation, partial to English-language values, reducing if not simply excluding the very difference that translation is called on to convey.1

Now it might be tempting to think that a formal equivalence translation overcomes the problem by reflecting more closely the structure of the original together with a more wooden approach resulting in a text which doesn’t sit comfortably as contemporary English. Unfortunately that is not the case, for although a FE translation can highlight the fact that the text is unlike “normal” English literature, in practice they rarely highlight the nature of the foreignness of the original text. Indeed, I suspect it is easier to produce a foreignising translation of a biblical text in what appears to be good contemporary English than it is in the less natural English which results from FE methodologies, simply because it is possible to highlight the semantic difference more precisely when the meaning can be more directly conveyed to the reader.

Now of all the texts in the Bible to which a foreignising translation may usefully be applied, it is perhaps the cosmological passages which stand to gain the most, for there are some of the greatest differences in worldview between the modern and ancient audience, and there, too, do we find that modern readers are most readily both willing and able to impose their own perspective upon the text with the resultant domestication of the text and loss of its original significance. My foreignising translation aims to use contemporary English grammar and syntax, but preserve or highlight alien aspects of the text in such a way that the reader cannot easily ignore the differences but is forced to see them.

With that background, my translation shall appear in the next post!


1. Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995) 21.

is everything we do ‘worship’?

There’s a tendency among many evangelicals—at least many of those with whom I’m familiar—to take Rom 12:1 as the basis for arguing that the Bible tells us that all we do should be described as “worship.”1 As a corollary to this, the point is often also made that referring to parts of a church service as “worship” is unbiblical. Indeed, many years ago I preached just one such sermon!
But there are problems with this. For starters, “worship” in contemporary English has specific connotations that do not easily accord with the broader meaning many evangelicals and many English Bible translations try to invest in the term. More significantly, however, it glosses over clear distinctions in the Greek text of the NT which we’re trying to understand. So let’s take a quick look at the Greek terms.

  1. What is ‘worship’ (προσκυνέω)?

    Underlying this term is the notion of prostrating before a ruler or deity. It is thus an expression of submission motivated out of respect/fear and/or gratitude.
    These issues are discussed in David Peterson’s book, Engaging With God. Peterson does engage in a generally useful study of the terminology. When it comes to the meaning of προσκυνέω, I think the title to the section which examines the term is perhaps a useful definition in itself: “Worship as homage or gratefull submission” (although I would add the notion of fear/reverence as well.) I think this is correct:

    In the Old Testament, bowing down or bending over could simply be a respectful greeting, but more often than not it was an expression of inferior status and subservience to another person. Sometimes this obeisance was an indication of gratitude and sometimes it was associated with supplication or entreaty. Whatever the situation it was a recognition of the total dependence of one party on another for the provision of some need.2

    ISTM that this defines what we do when we ‘worship’. Being so restrictive, however, is not to say that this description defines all aspects of our relationship with God. Other aspects of our relationship, however, are better described with different terminology.

  2. What is ‘service’ (λατρεία)?

    In the LXX the term is not common, but is usually tied to some form of cultic (in the technical sense) action, so the rehearsal of the passover is λατρεία, for example. As Peterson says:

    … the Septuagint gave it special prominence, using it to refer exclusively to the service rendered to God or to heathen gods, and especially service by means of sacrifice or some other ritual.3

    As such, Paul’s use of this term in Rom 12:1 in association with being a ‘living sacrifice’ is eminently appropriate. This is our equivalent of the OT service which took place in the precincts of the temple. The word is also used in Rom 9:4 which the NASB nicely translates as ‘temple service’ (contrast the ESV and its predecessor the RSV which simply use ‘worship’ in this instance).
    There are only 3 other uses of λατρεία in the NT. Heb 9:1, 6 refer to service in the temple, and John 16:2 uses the term in reference to a perceived ‘service’ to God, again probably in a technical sense.
    In summary, all uses of λατρεία are technical and refer to service of a deity (often in the specific context of the temple or high place or whatever), and in the NT when not applied to OT cultic activity, it remains tied to the sacrificial language. So perhaps the translation ‘service’ itself is too vague for this term, and it should be translated along the lines of the NASB in Rom 9:4 with ‘temple service.’

The danger in collapsing distinct terminology, terminology which is not strictly synonymous, into a single English term is that it obscures the meaning of the different texts. If ‘service’ and ‘worship’ are different in meaning but we translate them using the same term, we lose sight of the distinction and can feel free to import the meaning from one context into another.
This is, in fact, basically one of the arguments the ESV employs in favour of its approach (although it does not employ the methodology when it comes to this terminology!).
It is also at this point where I depart from Peterson, who writes:

‘Bowing down’ to God in the Old Testament, however, is ideally an expression of one’s desire to ‘serve’ him. It is therefore necessary to recognize that, from a scriptural point of view, worship involves specific acts of adoration and submission as well as a lifestyle of obedient service. To make this point, it may be helpful to translate words indicating service to God as ‘worship’. There is always a danger, however, that readers of the English text will then understand such worship purely in cultic terms! The problem for translation and for theology is that the English word ‘worship’ is generally used too narrowly.4

In response:

  • While I would not suggest a complete disjunction between notions of ‘worship’ and ‘service’ in biblical terminology, I would not want to associate them quite so closely as Peterson. His identification of texts where השתחוה and עבד appear together seems to imply they function almost as a hendiadys, but he fails to note that they frequently appear as part of a list of different actions associated with relating to God, such as making oath (cf. Ex 23:24; Josh 23:7). This observation means that the case for such close identification of these two aspects of relating to God from various possibilities is weakened (IMHO).

  • It is surprising that he is able to conclude that English uses a word too narrowly when the Hebrew and Greek used terms equally narrowly and did not themselves have a single term which encompassed all the meanings Peterson would like ‘worship’ to encompass. According to his own observation, English ‘worship’ is a good semantic match for προσκυνέω and השתחוה, but does not inherently encompass λατρεία. Surely the logical conclusion is that English translators should seek other English words for other terms which are currently (mis)translated as ‘worship’.

So, Peterson at least acknowledges that the common English understanding of ‘worship’ works best only as a translation of the terms השתחוה/προσκυνέω, which is essentially my point. On further reflection, I don’t think this can be reduced to a subset of ‘service’, at least when that service is reflective of the semantic range of λατρεία.
I think these are all aspects of how we relate to God. My beef is with the practice of conflating distinct meanings into one overarching term so that the distinctions are lost. I do not think this enhances our understanding of the text, but instead obscures or confuses it.


1. For example, Don Carson writes “[y]ou have Romans 12:1–2, for example, where cultic sacrificial language is used to say that the offering of our whole selves is at the heart of Christian worship” (see here). See also The Sola Panel article by Sandy Grant.
2. David Peterson, Engaging With God, 63.
3. David Peterson, Engaging With God, 64.
4. David Peterson, Engaging With God, 70.