I’ve been working on a commentary on the book of Genesis, and the very first verse presents challenges. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The traditional rendering is on the outs these days. New translations shy away from the metaphysical atmosphere of an absolute beginning, preferring formulations such as “In the beginning when God created,” or “When God began to create.”
It’s important to realize that we don’t possess a quick way to settle the question of which translation is the most accurate. And even if we did, the very notion of “beginning” is complex. A journey can have a beginning. But we can also say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The one signals a temporal beginning, the other a substantive basis.
The old translation of the first verse of Genesis calls to mind the substantive sense of beginning. God is the eternal, self-sufficient deity whose creative act “in the beginning” established the basis for all of reality. The newer rendering suggests a different theology of God and creation, one that we find in Ancient Near Eastern creation myths. At a certain point in time in a pre-existing cosmos, the god worshiped by the Israelites began to form this particular world.
This isn’t the place to dissect the methods of modern biblical study or argue over which translation is best. Instead, I want to draw attention to some traditional Jewish and Christian interpretations of Genesis that emphasize the substantive sense of beginning. However translated, there is a fascinating consensusone that even includes (unwittingly) the main insights of modern biblical study.
Rashi (the acronym for Rabbi Solomon ben Issac) was a medieval Jewish scholar whose biblical commentaries have been extraordinarily influential. At the outset of his commentary on Genesis, Rashi conveys (and implicitly commends) the earlier rabbinic opinion that the Bible should have begun with Exodus 12:2 rather than Genesis 1:1.
When I first read this passage I chuckled, but then I took at look at Exodus 12:2. It reads, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” Of course, it doesn’t make sense to read this verse as suggesting that time and the cycles of the moon “began” when God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. But I looked at the passage more closely. Exodus 12 as a whole is concerned with preparations for the Passover. Therefore, the implied meaning of 12:2 is that the Passover festival provides the basisbeginning in the substantive sensefor the Jewish calendar. Or more fully, the Passover and all it represents in the life of Israel functions as the ultimate purpose and rationale for marking time, for having history.
After unpacking the peculiar logic of Exodus 12:2, I could return to Rashi and see his point: God’s plan for the people of Israel is the most elementary, most fundamental rationale for creation. God creates for the sake of his commandments, for the sake of the Torah. Or as another ancient rabbinic interpretation glosses Genesis 1:1, “God looked into his Torah and created the world.”
The traditional rabbinic view that the law of Sinai precedes realityprecedes in the sense of serving as the basis or beginning for creationlines up fairly closely with the most obvious echo of Genesis 1:1 in the New Testament, the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” It is not that Rashi or any other Jewish commentator would agree that Christ, the incarnate Word, is the basis for creation. Instead, the key point is that they take a common approach. The divine plan or project is the beginning out of which and for which God creates.
At this point, contemporary scholars are likely to raise objections. The penchant for fiddling with traditional translations stems, at least in part, from an anxiety that traditional theological loyalties have for too long over-determined our reading of Scripture. The anxiety becomes acute when modern biblical scholars see the New Testament (or traditional rabbinic interpretation) serving as the lens through which we read the Old Testament.
No doubt it is a good thing to want to recover the integrity of the distinctive historical contexts for the diverse books of the Bible. Nonetheless, the modern tradition of biblical interpretation tends to be blind to the wealth of reasons in favor of traditional approaches. After all, exegetical judgments don’t emerge out of nowhere and impose themselves on the interpretive imaginations of traditional readers (and translators) of the Bible. In the main, traditional approaches to the Bible were influential because they allowed for a broader and deeper reading.
Consider, for example, the larger sweep of the first chapter of Genesis. The days certainly move forward in a temporal sequence. Day two comes after day one, and then three after two, and so on to seven. Yet, in spite of this apparent focus on when God creates, the dominant rhetorical emphasis of Genesis 1 draws attention to how God creates. Each day is introduced with the refrain, “And God said.” As Psalm 148 affirms of all reality, “he commanded and they were created.” You don’t need a PhD in theology to see that it is a very short step to John 1:1 and its implicit gloss on Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning”that is to say, in his all-powerful and eternal Word“God created the heavens and the earth.”
It is fascinating that modern biblical scholarship unwittingly supports the classic interpretation of Genesis 1:1. The first chapter of Genesis reflects the interests and ideology of P, the so-called Priestly writer. The second chapter, in contrast, arises from J, the Yahwist writer. This is Old Testament 101, and the interpretive payoff is simple. The Priestly writer, we are told, is committed to the cultic ideology of the Temple, the economy of ritual and sacrifice we find in Leviticus. Great. Now we know how to read Genesis 1. We should be careful to discern its sourcedare I say beginning?in the priestly theology of temple and sacrifice.
Thus, we find ourselves pretty much back where Rashi and the Gospel of John left us. There are, of course, important differences. Rashi suggests that God creates for the sake of the eternal Torah. The Gospel of John points to the truth that the Father creates for the sake of giving himself to us in his Son. Modern biblical scholars say that the creation account was written (created) in order to give expression to an already existing cultic ideology. Thus the surprising consensus: They all present the days of creation in terms of a prior sourcea beginning that is substantive and not temporal.
I’ve long found modern biblical scholars puzzling and paradoxical. The actual implications of their methods and analysis are so often at odds with their exegetical pronouncements. The contemporary preference in new translations suggests a thin, temporally focused reading of the first verse, as if Genesis were primarily about a sequence of events. But the most basic assumptions of the modern historical treatment of Genesis suggests otherwise. God (the P writer) has a purpose in mind, and creation stems fromfinds its beginning inthat purpose.
Funny, that’s pretty much what the traditional translation conveys: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Those old men who worked for King James weren’t so blinded by dogma after all. Or maybe it works the other way. They trusted in the doctrines of the Church, and so they could see more clearly and more deeply.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things.