First verse of Bible was mistake, professor says

The first sentence of the good old bible has been misunderstood for centuries because of an error of translation, says a Dutch catholic professor of exegesis

By Dirk Vlasblom
NRC International

A detail from Michelangelo's 'Creation of man' jigsaw puzzle.
A detail from Michelangelo's 'Creation of man' jigsaw puzzle.

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," says the first verse of the first chapter of the first bible book, Genesis. But a Dutch professor of Old Testament exegesis now says this phrase was wrongly translated.

Ellen van Wolde, who holds her inaugural speech at the Raboud university in Nijmegen on Friday, says the Hebrew word bara should not be translated as 'created' but as 'separated'. So the first verse would read "God separated the heaven and the earth", indicating that there was something before Creation began.

Van Wolde has analysed the Hebrew original of Genesis and gives a plausible explanation for her alternative translation. She mentions a series of other places in the Old Testament where the word bara appears, and she demonstrates convincingly that separated would have been the appropriate translation there too. Furthermore, she analysed creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia, from the era in which Genesis originated, which mention a deity who separated heaven and earth at the beginning of time.

Van Wolde's interpretation of Genesis assumes that heaven, earth and water were one originally. God took them apart and gave them separate places in the universe. That leads to the conclusion that Genesis is not about the absolute beginning of time. According to Van Wolde the people who lived in the 7th and 8th century BC, when Genesis was created, did not believe that "in the beginning there was nothing". Genesis itself suggests that people at the time imagined primeval waters where sea monsters lived. The professor draws the conclusion that the book does not speak of 'creation from nothing' (creatio ex nihilo), as her own Catholic church teaches.

Van Wolde's alternative translation of the word bara in the first verse is new, but her other conclusions are not. Scholars of the Old Testament determined as far back as the 1950s that in the conceptual universe of the ancient Near East creating amounted to separating, giving things a place. The assumption that people in antiquity had no conception of 'nothingness' is not new either. The concept of creatio ex nihilo in the Catholic doctrine does not derive from Genesis but from a verse in the second book of Maccabees [7.28], which Protestants regard as apocryphal.

Van Wolde's exegesis is supported by many origin myths, also beyond the Near East. Most stories mention a mythical world before the creation of the sun, moon and stars and the existence of living nature and men. Myths refer to a world created from something that preceded it. This is related to the limits of human imagination. In the course of human cultural evolution people define the unknown by analogy with the known. And nothing can be a model for 'nothing'.

Devout Jews and Christians will probably not be shaken in their faith by Van Wolde's findings. Even if there were primeval waters before God intervened, He was the one who brought order out of chaos. That still makes him 'the Creator'.

October 9, 2009 — Return to cover.