When Does The Person Begin?

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Creation: The Archetypal Action of God

1.2 Translation

In beginning19 20, God created the heavens and the earth.  But21 the earth was formless and void and a darkness upon a face of a deep22; and the Power23 of God is24 hovering25 over the face of the waters.  And God said let there be light and there was light.  Now26 God saw the light that is good27 and God established division28 between the light and the darkness.  And God called the light day and the darkness he called night; and there was evening and there was morning of one day29.

19 Cf. Wenham pp. 11-13 for his discussion of some of the alternatives for these opening words, a number of which do not merely translate but reconstruct this opening verse.  This opening is chosen because of the difficulty of justifying even the inclusion of the definite article "the" without having recourse to a complex argument.  For if the intention of any author is to be read easily, especially in the case of a publicly read liturgical text, then there is a case for saying that an obvious meaning is the intended meaning unless there is a clear justification for the contrary.  This thought and many others are indebted to many conversations with Martin Higgins on any and every aspect of the English language.  So given that the Hebrew could have inserted a definite article under be, or that if 'beginning' is in a construct state it presents a number of not easily resolved problems, then it seems fitting to opt for an opening which is linguistically simple and yet a pivotal opening phrase.  Thus one reverts to the original two words "In beginning" because of the point that "In beginning" conveys, in addition to other linguistic features to be subsequently discussed, the possibility of an act of creation which is begun but which does not end.  It is not my intention to discuss these grammatical points exhaustively, so much as to indicate what led to certain conclusions.    Back
20 Although Latin does not have the definite article and would not, therefore, have this particular problem, yet there is a certain resemblance between this use of English and the Vulgate: 'In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram' (Bibliorum Sacrorum, Iuxta Vulgatam Clementinam, Nova Editio, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, MCMLI [1951]), Vulgate.    Back
21 Cf. Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1973, on the use of we p. 163: But translates the conjunction we in the case of a contrastive use.  It therefore gives the impression that the "earth" is begun in a different way, a beginning which entails the possibility of development, in contrast to the heaven of God which is fully developed.  For a spiritual type of creation does not require the same kind of process of development as an 'incarnate' form of reality.    Back
22 The lack of a definite article in this phrase raises the question of how to translate it; indeed it gives the impression that hoshek refers back to "the earth", as if to say 'the earth was ... a darkness upon a face of the deep.'    Back
23 Ruach is a feminine noun, less often masculine (Nu 11: 31).  It can cover a wide range of meanings such as spirit, breath, or wind (p. 924) and in this connection is said to be understood 'as energy of life' (and p. 927 of the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).  Breath and wind, however, can certainly cause practical effects and are in themselves signs of life; and yet they can model a meaning which transcends the physicality of such a concrete entity when it is coupled with the divine name Elohim.  Taking up the image of wind, particularly on the basis of it being a powerful force and capable of diverse effects, great and small, one sees that it leads analogically to the concept of the "power" of God.  Thus one notes the correspondence between this text and the "genesis" of Christ (Lk 1: 35).    Back
24 The Cath. RSV inserts 'was' at this point and a number of other translations employ a verb in the past tense (e.g. 'moved' [e.g. The Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament: Hebrew and English, British and Foreign Bible Society, no date]).  First of all there is no Hebrew word at this point.  Secondly, the simple past 'was' gives the impression that the presence of the Breath of God was then and not now.  In other words, the Hebrew author may have left this verb out in order to avoid precisely that meaning and thus to convey, if anything, the abiding presence of the Spirit.  A presence not only at the beginning of creation but also at the heart of its existence such that it cannot but exist in the presence of the Spirit of God.  The insertion of 'is', then, follows from the following participle merahefet, in that the participle does not appear to be functioning as an adjective but as a verb; and so the present tense of the verb 'to be', understood in Hebrew, is brought in to complete the verbal function of the participle.  Furthermore, even if this translation differs on the tense of the verb, it agrees with other translations on the point that this participle is being used verbally.    Back

The question at this point is: what is the Breath or Power of God doing?  One solution is to translate the Hebrew as "causing waves ...upon ... the waters" in an attempt to take account of the pi'el, factitive participle merahefet, which by definition is a verb form which causes a practical effect.  The Hebrew rahfat, to hover (p. 934 of Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford) gives the possibility of the waving of wings; and, therefore, if one was to make this verb causative of a "waving", then it leads to the idea of 'causing waves'.  If, however, the practical effect of the pi'el is already expressed in the verb 'to hover', in that the kal form means 'to grow soft, relax', then the causative of something which is growing soft is more like kneading or working, than hovering.  At any rate, there does seem to be some kind of relationship between an action and an effect which is not as clear as it could be.

The Lexicon also gives a Syriac word.  Gordon Wenham says that this stands to the Hebrew as a 'parallel' word, Syriac being one of the same family of languages, and he advises caution on what can be concluded from it (conversation, 8/01/03).  The Syriac means 'brooding (and fertilizing)', which are more obviously along the lines of one thing causing another at the fundamental point of life beginning.  Furthermore, if life is defined at its most basic as that which moves, then this does fit the specific point being made about how what has been brought to exist has also been brought to be in movement and therefore to that extent to be alive.  John Skinner says in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, Edinburgh: T and T Clark, second edition, 1930, p. 18: 'The Syriac vb. has great latitude of meaning; it describes, e.g. the action of Elisha in laying himself on the body of the dead child (2 Ki. 4: 34); and is used of angels hovering over the dying virgin.  It is also applied to waving of the hands (or of fans) in certain ecclesiatical functions, etc (see Payne Smith, Thes. 3886)'.  Thus even here, two out of three of these meanings are to do with the kind of meaning advanced in this translation of the Hebrew; and even the reference to the angels hovering over the dying Virgin involves the moment of her entry into heaven and thus a moment of new life.  On p.12 of A Bible Commentary for English Readers: Vol 1: Genesis to Numbers, edited by Charles J. Ellicott (London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1904), the author says of the same Syriac word that it is a common verb for the 'incubation of birds' and it is also used to denote the sacramental 'waving of the hand' at the consecration of the Eucharist and over the head of a bishop at his consecration.  Thus there is an even clearer indication, not only to the existence of new life, but to the existence of new sacramental life.

Furthermore, even if the RSV, Cath. Ed., says the 'Spirit of God was moving over the ... waters.', it still imparts an irresistible sense of the Spirit moving the waters over which it moves.  There is, too, the support of a causal relationship between the activity of the Breath and the movement of water which is evoked by the gender of the Hebrew nouns: Ruach, wind, spirit [and so one thinks of spiration], which is a feminine noun, transmitting movement to the waters, mayim, which is a masculine noun.  And while this appears to reverse the normal understanding of a masculine agent of motion, as in the activity of the sperm, yet it has to be remembered that Ruach stands in a construct relationship to Elohim, which is masculine.  So if the construct Ruach, meaning 'Sprit of', is indicative of a genitive relationship between Ruach and Elohim, then it is like saying that a 'feminine Spirit of God' is proceeding from a 'masculine God'.  It is interesting to note too that the Hebrew pi'el participle, merahefet, is feminine (Wenham, p.3: 'Fem sg piel ptcp [rahaf] "hovering" ', signifying that it is "Ruach" which is taken up as its subject.  Another consideration is that the Vulgate renders merahefet as ferebatur, an imperfect passive verb meaning 'was being borne, brought, carried'.  This conveys the sense that the Spirit of God is not the originator of the movement which it is nevertheless undergoing; and so it brings to the fore the question of Ruach as the wind of God, the wind from God: the Breath of God.  Taking account of these different possibilities, perhaps the kind of word which sums up these different meanings is one which pertains more to the nature of Breath than one which follows too closely the action of a bird; and indeed one which pertains more to the meanings of 'wind' or breath implied in the "subsequent" activity of God speaking a word.  Thus one arrives at the idea of the Breath of God 'proceeding over the face of the waters'.  The only way, however, this can be reconciled with a verb 'to hover' is by combining the different images of 'wind' and 'hovering' so that one reads an activity which accords with their complexity.  This leads to some kind of wind moving like beating wings, likely to cause waves, such as flapping or waving: a movement at once continuous, "stationary" and yet capable of "moving" the waters: a moved moving mover.  This concept is not that far from the Cath. RSV which renders it as 'was moving' or the Vulgate's spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas, '[the] Spirit of God was being borne over the waters.'  This conveys an action more pregnant of the immediate presence of the Spirit of God over what has been created, while still implying an effect upon the waters due to this movement; and it also indicates a more direct relationship to the God Who created the 'heavens and the earth' as it also suggests that the very breath which ever proceeds from God is now proceeding, as it were, through the very first act of creation and will ever continue to proceed over what has been given existence.  For no more can a word be uttered without it being borne upon a breath, than a breath can proceed without itself being borne on the diaphragm within the body from which it comes.  But if 'proceeding' is too dependent on its relationship to Ruach, then what follows from the more concrete merahefet?  For the more merahefet is considered the more does its range of meaning fluctuate: it seems to be a word which can denote the 'thing' or bird being supported by the flapping of wings, the effect of flapping wings in the sense of a kind of movement like waving hands or beating upon, or the effect of the flapping wings in the sense of a concrete effect such as creating waves.  In the end, if Breath implicitly entails proceeding, then merahefet can be taken to denote the relationship between the Breath of God and the waters.

Before coming to a final conclusion it was necessary to discuss the question further with Gordon Wenham (1st conversation, 10/01/03).  The following points were clarified.  The usual relationship between a kal and a pi'el form of the same verb, identified by a common tri-consonantal root (e.g. rhf), would give the following kind of transformation: kal, 'to be thin', pi'el, 'to cause to be thin'.  In the case of rahaf, the kal form means, 'grow soft, relax' and the pi'el form means 'hover', therefore there appears to be a discontinuity between these two form of the same verb.  And while the point cannot be pursued here, it can be noted in passing that the verb rafah, (sink, relax), while actually only sharing two consonants with rahaf (the h in rafah is a he and the h in rahaf is a het, although there is a theory of bi-consonantal roots to Hebrew words [Wenham, 2nd converation 10/01/03]), yet overlaps the meaning of these verbs.  For the kal denotes a drop of the hands or of wings and the piel gives the causative form of it (p. 951 of Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford).  Thus we see at work the relationship between a physical action on which the word is "modelled" and the meanings which are abstracted from it: the dropping of hands or wings denoting both 'to sink' with respect to their downward movement and 'to relax' with respect to the reason for that movement.  In view, however, of the limited data on haraf, three things are possible.  In the first place the aforementioned two verbs do not necessarily belong to the same "conjugation".  Secondly, it is 'possible but unproveable' (Wenham, 1st conversation) that acting on the assumption that the aforementioned two verbs are not part of the same conjugation, that the piel form of rahaf could be "imagined" to mean 'causing waves'.  He further added that to do the latter was to do a Midrash on rahaf; and a Midrash, according to the dictionary, is a type of ancient Jewish commentary on the Scripture which 'is a meditation on the sacred text or an imaginative reconstruction of the scene and episode narrated' (p. 575 of John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1965).  However, while in general this activity is not 'an attempt to investigate the literal sense of the sacred text' (ibid, p. 574), in this context it is being used precisely in order to "imagine" the actual sense of the term as it is used in Gn 1: 2.  Thirdly, there is an as yet undisclosed but different relationship between the two verbs.

An objection to this is the fact that there is an attested imperfect of the pi'el form of rahaf which denotes a 'vulture hovering over young' (Dt 32: 11; p. 934 of Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford).  In reply it can be observed that Lambdin (pp. 193-94) gives four varieties of meaning to the pi'el: factitive (causative: from 'to be sound' comes 'to make sound'); denominative (from the noun 'word' to the verb 'to speak'); the possibility of an 'intensive' meaning; and, finally, unclassified: 'there are many Piel verbs whose origin is not clear.'

Secondly, on inspecting the attested kal form of the verb 'grow soft, relax', rahafu (3rd person plural, perfect) at Jer. 23: 9 (p. 934 of Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford), it is found to mean '[t]o move, flutter' and at Jer. 23: 9 'all my bones shake (emphasis added, p. 871 of Robert Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible, Edinburgh: George Adam Young and Co., revised sixth edition, nd., [giving a literal meaning of the Hebrew and Greek].  Thus there is a certain discrepancy between the Lexical rendering of the verb, 'grow soft, relax' and the Concordance's meaning of 'to move, flutter, shake'; however, it is not the task here to reconcile these meanings, so much as to look with a new light on the relationship between the kal and pi'el forms of the verb haraf.  There is now a clearer possibility that the two forms of the verb haraf are related as kal to pi'el.  Thus the kal 'to move, flutter, shake' becomes the intensive form of the pi'el participle, yielding the following: hovering, moving and shaking.  In conjunction with the attested form of the pi'el, however, this becomes narrowed down to hovering.  Nevertheless, owing to the actual use of the kal as 'shaking', it is impossible to exclude the idea of 'causing waves' if the action of the Ruach Elohim is taken in relation to the water.  But against that is the possibility that as water is commonly in movement, part of the purpose of adverting to the water is to advert to it as already in movement.  In other words, it is not that the Ruach Elohim causes what is not moving to move, as that the Ruach Elohim is the reason in God, as it were, why what is made cannot but be made in a state of movement.  For if life in the sense of "movement" is so fundamental to the mystery of God (as wind, Ruach, cannot but be in movement) then, taking account of Augustine's idea that the 'earth' in verses 1-2 is the simplist form of existence, then 'moving water' is as it were indicative, analogically, of the simplist form of the "life" of creation's "physical being".  Thus the Ruach Elohim as causative of the moving waters is as naturally inherent in the idea of Ruach Elohim as it is that Ruach Elohim is ever proceeding from God as the wind or breath of God.

It is now necessary to go back to the attested reference to 'hovering' in order to consider what it offers in contradistinction to what follows from 'breath, wind, spirit' or power.  The Lexicon gives the meaning of a 'vulture hovering over young' (Dt 32: 11).  But in The New Jerusalem Bible (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), the reference is to the wings of an eagle and to the action of God: an action of God in 'the howling expanses of the wastelands' (Dt 32: 10).  Following the cross-references this place was an 'unpeopled desert...in inaccessible places' (Wis 11: 2), a 'land of dreadful drought' (Ho 13: 5): a place of such an extreme condition that it was absolutely necessary for God to hover over His young (Dt 32: 11), the people of God, for Whom He provided a place of 'shelter' under or in the 'shadow' of His wings (cf. Ps 17: 8; 36: 7; 61: 4; 63: 7; 91: 4 and Rt 2: 12).  In other words there is an inescapable sense of the correspondence between the situation in the desert and their experience of God in it and the equally extreme condition of the earth at the moment of its beginning and the hovering of God over it.  This gives rise to two possibilities.  The first one is the implication of an authorship common to Genesis 1: 2 and Deuteronomy 32: 11; and, in so far as the latter is Moses then it raises the possibility that he is also intimately invovled in the writing of Genesis.  This is as it were underlined by the literary fact of the rare Hebrew word rahaf being used in a parallel way by someone who was in a position to see the parallel between the desert experience of the people of God and the analogy between that and the beginning of creation (cf. 'In Hebrew tohu and bohu, "trackless waste and emptiness" ' [NJB footnote c, Gn 1: 2]).  The second possibility is that if 'hovering' is taken as an intensive use of the pi'el form of this verb, then what this adverts to is an analogy between the people's relationship to God in the desert, taken as a beginning and the beginning of creation's relationship to God at the dawn of time.  What this verb signifies about the relationship of the Spirit or Power of God to creation is that it is analogous to that of an eagle hovering over its young.  Thus the first act of creation has begun a reality 'earth' which is as pregnant with the possibility of development as germinating seeds are to the full grown plant.  In other words, what this adverts to is God as a 'help' to creation (cf. Ps 63: 7; and consider, too, this divine help as a "model" to the 'help' of woman to man [Gn 2: 18]): a help which is as inescapably "feminine" and "maternal" as it is "masculine" and "paternal" to create.  Thus the dialogue of creation, discussed in due course, has more the characteristic of realizing the potential of what has been given existence, than it has of modelling things out of a pre-existing material.  And so the "Word" of the Creator stands to creation as that 'through' (Jn 1: 3) which creation becomes what it is (and this ends the present use of the New Jerusalem Bible).

Therefore "hovering" both comes closest to the attested Hebrew and at the same time expressively develops the presence of the Power of God at the beginning of creation.  Indeed, if 'eagle hovering over young' is the basis of the relationship between the Power of God and the 'waters' then it follows that this relationship pertains to the 'waters' as a whole.  Wenham, p. 2 gives: 'the 'Wind of God hovered...'    Back

26 Cf. Lambdin, Hebrew, p. 164: The use of "Now" here is not strictly to do with where an 'Explanatory or parenthetical ... disjunctive(s) clause(s) break[s] into the main narrative to supply information relevant to or necessary for the narrative.', and yet there is a sense in which "Now" both relieves a repetitive "and" and at the same time draws attention to a development of the narrative.  For to say that the 'light' is good is not simply to continue with a narrative of facts in the same way as it has been begun.  Although as we come to the discussion which follows this translation we will see that even thus far creation is not simply a question of bringing to exist 'material facts'.    Back
27 By not inserting a verb 'to be' in the past tense, there is a certain vividness to the goodness of the light which is as it were both emphasised and at the same stated in anticipation of the contrast with the darkness from which it is to be separated.  But whether this darkness is a kind of good is a point to be explored in the discussion section since the author says, subsequently, that everything or the whole of what God has made is very good (1: 31).    Back
28 While not attributing this translation to Gordon McConville's general definition of a hiphil verb describing a result or an outcome of an action in more general terms than that of a piel ( telephone conversation 16/ 12/ 02 ), yet what is done to the light and to the darkness seems to fit this kind of possibility.  Clearly a constant question for the translator is the biblical theology implied in any translation and so it cannot be avoided that here there is an impression that light and darkness are apprehended as something like the different ends that are possible within the created order.  As it says in Isaiah, God is one Who is capable of 'declaring the end from the beginning' (Is 46: 10): a thought certainly consonant to a text such as Genesis 1: 4.    Back
29 Again, by retaining the cardinal number 'one' as distinct from the ordinal number 'first', there is a sense that the time referred to here is that of created time in its entirety.  This affects how one reads the preceding words of 'evening and ... morning of one day'.  In other words these terms function as much as indicators that time is a consequence of divine action as they indicate that time is a sequence of events: each part of which is imbued with its orientation to the goal of the day of rest (2: 2).    Back

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