Thursday, April 16, 2009

After the beginning

Mark Kleiman's Tanakh study group turns to Genesis, and finds that perhaps the familiar first verses--
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
--could be translated better like this:
When God began separating the heavens from the earth, the earth was all jumbled up; and darkness was upon the face of the ocean depths. And a breath from God moved upon the face of the waters.
"Heavens," shamayim, includes mayim, waters, says Kleiman. I wonder, does "sha-" connote "great" as in similar languages? So "heavens" would be "great waters," or "higher waters"? (Wiki says shamayim "comes from shameh, a root meaning to be lofty" and "literally means the sky." Whereas shah is Persian, not a Semitic language. So my proposed etymology is incorrect as to derivation, but seems right on the merits. The connection to mayim would seem to be a pun by the author of (this part of) Genesis, if the derivation from shameh is correct.)

Anyway, as Kleiman notes:
So the story is not one of the creation of something from nothing, but about separation and arrangement. As the Talmud says, the first letter is bet, not aleph. Hebrew alphabetical order is parallel to Greek: for alpha-beta-gamma substitute aleph-bet-gimel. So the text starts with the second letter of the alphabet, not the first.
I note that the NRSV, a descendant by revision of the KJV, notes "When God began to create" as an alternative for "In the beginning," but clearly the theological implications prevent the translators from being any more frisky with the text.

1 comment:

  1. A more commonsense rendition, I must say. It's always bothered me how something could be created and still without form.

    Hebrew, ancient or otherwise, is beyond me, but compare Greek kosmos, "order", FWIW.