Thinking Critically

As you continue your study of biblical Hebrew you will no doubt encounter people who take offense to your understanding of the biblical text. You should not feel attacked. Rather, treat your interlocutor as an opportunity to clarify your own thinking and, along the way, give him or her something to think about. But, you should never, ever take it upon yourself to win the argument. Your goal must always be to walk away from the discussion knowing that your interlocutor understands your position. In effect, agreeing to disagree – so long as clarity is achieved – all you should ever expect.

So, what’s this all about?

Recently, I was confronted by an exceptionally aggressive (and fundamentalist) believer who took offense at the implications of my translation of Genesis 1:11-12 (the translation can be found on this page). The thrust of her argument was to the effect that God cannot make a mistake and therefore my translation is bogus.

As it happens, I agree with her that God cannot make an mistake but that’s not really the issue. So I offered to her one of my favorite quotes: this, from Bernard Ramm. The context was a discussion of whether the Great Flood in Genesis 6-9, was local or global.

It is not a question as to what God can or cannot do. Those who believe in a local Flood believe in the omnipotence and power of God as much as any other Christian does. The question is not: ‘What can God do?’ but ‘What did God do?’

– (Bernard Ramm,, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, Eerdmans, 1954, p. 163

This is really important to keep in mind as you engage other people about the Bible. It’s also a good habit to check your own understanding just to be sure your interpretations and translations are not colored by your pre-existing suppositions about God.

Now, go and study

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Isaiah 45:7 – Is God Responsible for Good AND Evil?

Yes, as He himself admits. We begin with the King James Version of verse 45:7:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

And here is the Hebrew text of that same verse, followed by its literal translation:

יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה

yotzer `or uvore` choshekh `oseh shalom uvore ra`; `ani YHWH kol-`elleh

Forming light and creating darkness; forming peace and creating evil; I, YHWH, [do] all these [things]

Now, let’s note some not so obvious, but significant, aspects of the Hebrew.

  1. In the first clause, God forms (וֹצֵר) light and peace, but creates (בוֹרֵא) darkness and evil. Of note is that the the verb  yotzer is only used when modifying a previously existing substance. For example, in Genesis 2, God forms Adam and the animals from preexisting dirt and clay of the earth. Just to emphasize this point, if the creation of Michaelangelo’s statues were to be described by the authors of the Bible, they would be depicted as having been formed from preexisting marble. Never would the authors think of claiming that Michaelangelo created them from nothing or that statues were something never before seen.
  2. By contrast,  בוֹרֵא is a verb that only God uses. It’s the participle form of bara, the verb in the first verse of Genesis. “When God bara the heavens and the earth …”. Bara is closely associated with bringing into existence something that had previously not existed or, had that something existed, had never been seen.

Given the semantics of the two verbs, we might rewrite 45:7 using ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in order to better express and emphasize the verbal ontrast:

Forming light, but creating darkness; forming peace, but creating evil; I, YHWH, [do] all these [things]

I argue that the use of ‘but‘ is a better translation because the contrast between light and darkness and peace and evil is more evident. Moreover, by using a verb that only God can execute, the author is calling our attention to the idea that God wants there to be no confusion on this point. God created the darkness and the evil at some point in time in which the two concepts were previously unknown (or non-existent).

From a theological point of view, we recall that in the story of Adam and Eve, one of its main points was that God created nature to be morally inert. From a cultural context, this was a radical departure from the theodicy of the pagan religions in which good and evil resided in the actions of nature (i.e., personified as gods).

However, the Garden of Eden story reveals to us that evil does not arise in the workings of nature. Rather, evil arises from the actions of humans. Nahum Sarna, one of the great Old Testament scholars of recent memory, expressed it this way: the first and second creation stories elevates evil from the natural world into the metaphysical realm of mankind. Only humans can contemplate evil, argues Sarna, because only humans have free will, rightly understood (see here for a more in-depth explanation).

So, the answer is yes!

Now, go and study



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Romans Chapter 5: Adam and Christ

I want to share some reflections on Chapter 5, one of the more theologically significant chapters in what is arguably the most theological of St. Paul’s writings. However, as this is a website dedicated to learning how to read biblical Hebrew, this post will focus on tracing Paul’s thinking back to the Hebraic witness. Let’s begin with the Greek. The RSV is as good a place to start as any:

(5:1) Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (my emphasis)

This verse is problematic in that it is clear that Paul is referring to Genesis 15:6 taken from the Septuagint. And while this verse is translated correctly from Greek to English, the original translation from Hebrew to Greek is problematic, if not outright incorrect.  In other words, it appears as though Paul’s understanding of justification arises from the Septuagint’s mistranslation of Genesis 15:6.

Verses 12-13 are significant:

(5:12-13) Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

Paul rightly understands that sin, חַטָּאת (chattat – “the sin”),  is correctly expressed as estrangement or separation, in this case from God and was precipitated by  Adam and Eve when they ignored God’s warning not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In the Garden of Eden allegory, the primordial couple’s expulsion is symbolic of sin (separation from God) and the loss of immortality (life in Eden).

These next two verses form the crux of Paul’s understanding that the estrangement from God and mankind’s loss of immortality were the inevitable consequence of Adam and Eve’s willful disregard of God’s words.

Now, we turn to verse 5:19 (verse 18 provided for context):

(5:18-19) Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.  (19For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous (my emphasis).

The issue in verse 19 is its use of ‘disobedience’ for the Greek in verse 19. The translation from Greek to English does not reflect the Hebraic witness1)For example, the use of ‘disobedience’ implies that disobedience of God’s commands is the root of sin.  It is not and this claim deserves a post unto itself, but if you want to explore this idea, please read and reflect on Joshua’s disobedience of the LORD’s order to kill all the Canaanites when entering into Canaan.. More specifically, the Greek word in question is parakoes((παρακοῆς – See Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, p. 149)) the literal meaning of which is “failure to hear” or “inattentive hearing”. With this meaning in mind, a better, more literal translation of 5:19 would read something along the lines of,

(5:19) For just as by the one man’s failure to hear God’s words the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s sacrifice the many will be made righteous (my emphasis)

Parakoes has a wide semantic range because it can convey one of three meanings:

  1. To fail to hear or heed (most common)
  2. To be indifferent to what is heard (i.e., to ignore commands, instructions, warnings)
  3. To disobey an order or command (least common)

In other words, Paul’s use of parakoes in 5:19 is entirely consistent with the interpretation that God did not command Adam, but warned (or alternatively instructed) him.

Now, a final note: how does the Septuagint’s Greek line up with Paul’s? It does not. Here is the RSV’s translation of Genesis 2:16, but with  Septuagint’s Greek translation of וַיְצַו  (vay’tzar) of the Hebrew:

(RSV) And the LORD God ἐνετείλατο the man saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 

The word used in the Septuagint’s translation of vay’tzar is ἐνετείλατο (eneteilato) literally means commanded which, as has been shown by scholars to be highly suspect2)see, for example, the article, Was the Fruit Really Forbidden?.

Arguably, Paul’s understanding of Genesis 2:16 is better understood as Adam and Eve disregarding God’s words (parakoes) and not explicitly disobeying God. Of note: Paul chose the term parkoes (failure to hear/heed) instead of the more definitive eneteilato (command). This suggests that Paul’s own understanding of Genesis 2:16 was that Adam and Eve’s decision to ignore God’s warning. The larger meaning is that their willful disregard of the LORD’s words resulted in two theological consequences:

  1. Death entered the world (loss of immortality).
  2. Sin entered the world (mankind became separated from God).

The second consequence is important because the reason why God expelled Adam and Eve was not because God sought to punish them. God expelled the primordial couple because as immortal but also procreative beings, their presence in Eden (a bounded, fenced enclosure) could no longer accommodate them. In other words, the consequences suffered by Adam and Eve were brought about by their own, willful actions3)For more information see this article, The Knowledge of Good and Evil..

Now, go and study







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Whose Righteousness – Abram’s or God’s?

Genesis 15:6 (NRS)

And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

As translated by the RSV, this verse is grammatically incorrect. Correcting the English translation to correspond to the Hebrew

וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה

the English should read,

Then Abram believed in the LORD and thought the truth of God’s promises to be evidence of the LORD’s righteousness.

In other words, God is deemed righteous, not Abraham! The translation is explained in the October 2017 As It Is Written columnWhose Righteousness – God’s or Abraham’s?

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