How did the universe originate? The Bible's opening words give the age-old answer:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light."
That's Genesis 1:1-3 in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation. Most Christian renditions are virtually identical.
The Jewish society's modernized English translation from 1982 begins a bit differently: "When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep. ..."
E.A. Speiser's 1964 translation and commentary agreed with that reading. He spent a page arguing that the Hebrew grammar means that "when" God began to create, "at which time" there was formless waste, "then" God said let there be light.
Speiser objected that the traditional "in the beginning" translation implied that chaos ensued after God created and something more was needed. "In other words, the Creator would be charged with an inadequate initial performance."
A biblical commentary widely used by Orthodox Jews -- edited by J.H. Hertz, chief rabbi of the British Empire who has since died -- notes that pagan Near Eastern creation stories had the gods emerge from primeval chaos. The Bible affirmed the one God and also "proclaimed in language of majestic simplicity that the universe, and all that therein is, are the product of one supreme directing Intelligence; of an eternal, spiritual Being, prior to them and independent of them."
Hertz also argued that the Bible uses the Hebrew word for "created" exclusively for God's activity, signifying the uniqueness of "producing something out of nothing," while different verbs occur whenever humans make something.
Christian thinkers have similarly held that God created everything out of nothing ("ex nihilo" in Latin). The New Testament teaches: "By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews 11:3).
However, consider Richard Elliott Friedman's translation in his new "Commentary on the Torah" (HarperSanFrancisco, $50), treating the Bible's first five books:
"In the beginning of God's creating the skies and the earth -- when the earth had been shapeless and formless ..."
Unlike other Jewish translators, Friedman thinks the sentence structure in Hebrew conveys the past perfect tense ("had been"). So the earth "had already existed in this shapeless condition prior to the creation. Creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed."
Instead, "there is pre-existing matter, which is in a state of watery chaos. Subsequent matter -- dry land, heavenly bodies, plants, animals -- may be formed out of this undifferentiated fluid," he writes. Friedman thinks the only thing God created "out of nothing" in Genesis is light.
He also says the Bible "does not claim to report everything that has occurred since the beginning of space and time."
His book should grab attention as the most important commentary on the five books by an individual Jewish scholar in many years.
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