Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bereshith - The Creation



In the beginning of the year I am beginning again, again. I last read the Old Testament cover-to-cover on my mission. I was inspired to this by one of my missionary companions. He actually read the entire Old Testament while sitting on a toilet. Now that was not all in one sitting but I still found that quite impressive. However, I don’t think I will be doing that for this read-through. One reason I want to write about my readings as I go through is that I hope it helps me to learn more and to record the things I learn. I can also get into discussion with people online and have stimulating conversation. The problem now is that the first chapters of the Bible are the most difficult to get through. This is not because I find them boring but because I find them so interesting. There is so much in these verses and there is a lot of history in their interpretation. So I may not get very far in this first post. I want to start by looking at the first three words of the Hebrew Bible.

“Bereshith bara elohim...” are the first three words of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. The name of the Book of Genesis in Hebrew is also “Bereshith”. These three words are usually translated “In the beginning created God...” sometimes with the word order switched around. I’d like to talk a little about each word individually.

“Bereshith” is really a combination of two concepts. “Be” is a preposition meaning “in” or “with”. “Reshith” means “the first” in place, time, order, or rank. By the way, all my definitions here are from Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary. The first word in the Bible, “bereshith” is understood to mean the first in time, as to say the beginning of time. This in itself is an interesting topic that deserves it own post. What happened before this beginning? What was God doing before the creation? Saint Augustine reportedly said “He was preparing hell for people who ask questions too deep for them.” A viable possibility to be sure, but perhaps the risk isn’t so great to prevent pressing the issue a little. I will come back to “bereshith” because the next two words reflect back on it.

The next word “bara” is a verb, meaning in the absolute sense, “to create”. The same verb also means “to cut down (a wood)”, “select”, and “feed (as formative processes)”. Blake Ostler, in his book Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods, gave an exhaustive overview of this words which I refer to here. The other uses of the verb refer to cutting, dividing, and separating. The verb “bara” is often understood to be more of an organizing process as opposed to an instant materialization with a snap of the fingers. This is a view in opposition to creatio ex nihilo, or “creation out of nothing”. Again, this topic deserves its own post. But I would call attention to the interpretation of “bara” as an organization or bringing together.

The third word of the Bible, “elohim” literally means “gods”. The singular word for a god or deity is “eloah”. The plural “elohim” can be used to refer to multiple deities at a time or to refer to the supreme God. This word is often understood to simply be referring to the God in a superlative form in a form of deference. Yet later in the chapter elohim speaks in the first person plural. Verse 26 says “And said, elohim, let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” After both words, image and likeness, the nouns our followed by the possessive suffix “enu” which is the first person plural pronoun suffix meaning “our”. This seems to suggest that the elohim speaking is more than one deity. In fact, modern biblical scholarship often suggests that the prevailing understanding of divinity in Ancient Mesopotamia was not of one and only one god but a heavenly council of many deities over which one god, the most high God presided. But this is also a topic for another post.

Joseph Smith had an interesting interpretation of the Bible’s first word. Never shirking his role as an iconoclast, he claimed that the very first word of the Bible was not correct. The following quote is taken from a transcription of Joseph Smith’s Sermon in The Grove, given June 16, 1844, one week before his death.
Some say I do not interpret the Scripture the same as they do. They say it means the heathen's gods. Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many; and that makes a plurality of Gods, in spite of the whims of all men. Without a revelation, I am no going to give them the knowledge of the God of heaven. You know and I testify that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods. I have it from God, and get over it if you can. I have a witness of the Holy Ghost, and a testimony that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods in the text. I will show from the Hebrew Bible that I am correct, and the first word shows a plurality of Gods; and I want the apostates and learned men to come here and prove to the contrary, if they can. An unlearned boy must give you a little Hebrew. Berosheit baurau Eloheim ait aushamayeen vehau auraits, rendered by King James' translators, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." I want to analyze the word Berosheit. Rosh, the head; Sheit, a grammatical termination; the Baith was not originally put there when the inspired man wrote it, but it has been since added by an old Jew. Baurau signifies to bring forth;Eloheim is from the word Eloi, God, in the singular number; and by adding the word heim, it renders it Gods. It read first, "In the beginning the head of the Gods brought forth the Gods," or, as other have translated it, "The head of the Gods called the Gods together." I want to show a little learning as well as other fools.

I like this quote at least partially for Joseph Smith’s attitude. I think it’s kind of funny. But he brings up some interesting ideas. The spelling in the transliteration is different here so I’ll review the point of interest. Basically, he says that the preposition “be” does not belong in the text and that the first word in the Bible should be simply “reshith”. As noted earlier, “reshith” means “the first” in place, time, order, or rank. It is almost always understood to mean the first in time. But Joseph Smith understands it to mean the first in rank. In effect, the word “reshith” is identifying the God of gods. He is also correct that “reshith” shares the same root as “rosh” which means “the head” whether literally or figuratively. You might recognize this word when combined with another Hebrew word. The Hebrew word for year is “shanah”. So the New Year is the head of the year or “rosh hashanah”.

But Joseph Smith also understands the next word differently. Rather than referring to the creation of the universe itself, Joseph Smith sees the word “bara” referring to the calling forth or organization of divine beings, the elohim. Thus the third word is also understood differently. In Joseph Smith’s view the word “elohim” is not referring to the highest God himself at all but is referring to the other deity whom he is assembling to prepare for the creation.

Taken together, Joseph Smith taught that the first words of the Bible should be “reshith bara elohim.” His interpretation is essentially: “the head organized the gods”. Put another way: “the Head One of the Gods brought forth the gods.” This is basically the way the Book of Abraham lays out the Creation.

So there is a little review of my reading of the first three words of the Old Testament. Let’s see how far I get as I move on. I have touched on some topics that our too juicy to pass up. I definitely need to come back to the Council of the Gods. There are many references in the Bible itself, as well as ancient Ugaritic and Babylonian texts. But I’ll get to all that later.

1 comment:

  1. Hey.. Would you be so kind as to send me a bit more on your progress on this, particularly the bit about the references to the Council of Gods found in the Bible?

    my email address is iyasu_yosomono@yahoo.com..

    I would really appreciate it. Thanks a ton!

    ReplyDelete