December 14, 2018

The Grammar of Creation

“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. And God said, “Let there be light.”

So begins the King James Version of the first verses of the Bible that were read this week in synagogues all over the world. Majestic and mysterious, the words are engraved on Western consciousness. Anyone opening the noted literary critic Robert Alter’s soon-to-be-published The Hebrew Bible, a monumental translation that has taken him decades of work and that spans the whole of Jewish scripture from Genesis to Chronicles, will therefore be startled to read:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”

Since I intend to write about Alter’s translation at greater length in the months ahead, I won’t comment here on his “welter and waste” for the Hebrew tohu va’vohu, or on his “God’s breath” in place of the generally preferred “spirit of God.” Rather, I wish to address the way he combines the short four initial sentences of the King James Version (in the Hebrew Bible, these are three) into a single longer one by turning the first of them into a dependent clause starting with “When.” Instead of God first creating an earth that was “welter and waste” with a watery “deep” over which His “breath” hovered and next creating light, we are now told that He began His creation with light when the deeps and the chaos already existed. This, it would seem, makes for a different creation story.”

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