Comparative Translations

In this section are translations of Genesis 1:1-2 from a popular commercial Bible the New Revised Standard Edition (RSV) and four well-known and widely respected Hebrew scholars. These translations are not found in any of the older, commercially available Bibles. I offer them because I think they constitute a representative sample of work based on the best linguistic, archaeological, and literary scholarship available today.

If these translations, three explicitly claim that God created the universe ex materia (from preexistent matter) while the other (vis, Cassuto) is somewhat ambiguous but leans toward ex materia.

New Revised Standard Edition

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Robert Alter

At the time his translation was published, Robert Alter was a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is one of the best known and earliest proponents of reading the Bible as a literary work. I think most would argue that Robert Alter has done more to advance this model of biblical exegesis than anyone before or since. He is particularly famous for his discovery of biblical “type scenes” – a literary device in which a scene is replayed in different contexts. A typical type scene is that of a man meeting a young woman at a well, whom he goes on to marry. The scene occurs twice in Genesis, once in Exodus, arguably in 1 Samuel, and finally in the book of Ruth.

When God began to create the heaven and the earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep And Elohim’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”[1] (Alter 2004) p. 17

Nahun Sarna (27 March, 1923 – 23 June, 2005)

Professor Sarna is probably best known for his magisterial JPS commentaries on the books of Genesis (used extensively in this book) and Exodus. In addition to his scholarly work, Sarna wrote extensively about the Bible for popular audiences – perhaps the most famous of which is his book, “Understanding Genesis”, McGraw, 1966. Sarna was especially critical of literalism, the attempt to read the Genesis creation accounts as historical, scientific works.

When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said, “Let there be light.”[2](N. M. Sarna 1989) pp. 5-6

Richard Elliott Friedmann

Professor Friedmann is the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. At the time of the publication of his commentary on, and translation of, the Torah, he was Professor of Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at the University of California, San Diego. He is probably best known to the lay public as the author of “Who Wrote the Bible?”, Harper San Francisco, 1987) an explanation of the Documentary Hypothesis[3]See Wikipedia,

In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth – when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep And Elohim’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water – God said, “Let there be light.”[4] (Friedman 2001) pp. 5-6

Umberto Cassuto (1883 – 1951)

Professor Cassuto was Chief rabbi of Florence Italy. and a biblical and Semitic scholar. For a time, Cassuto was employed by the University of Rome to catalog Hebrew manuscripts of the Vatican Library. He was dismissed in 1938, as were all Jewish professors, with the advent of the Italian Racial Laws[5]These laws restricted the civil rights of Jews, banned their books, and excluded them from higher education. Later laws confiscated their assets and imprisoned the Jews in internal exile.. Cassuto is mainly known for his opposition to the Documentary Hypothesis[6]Idem (Wikipedia) preferring instead the existence of an oral tradition that included a number of ancient poetic epics woven into the narratives of the Hebrew Bible.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. As for the earth, it was without form or life, and darkness was hovering upon the face of the Deep; but the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”.



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