My Book on Genesis 1

I am currently writing a book on  Genesis 1,  under contract with the Maxwell Institute,  tentatively titled Reading Scripture, Reading Creation: The Ancient Near Eastern Context of Genesis 1. It grows out of personal interest, a perceived need among LDS, long study of Genesis, the ancient Near East, the history of science and religion, and LDS history and doctrine. Most directly, it comes from the UI-Urbana/Champagne Institute class (largely made up of PhD students in hard science) how I made sense of Genesis as a believing Mormon studying the ancient Near East. I taught a course on Genesis, which I repeated a few years later in Manhattan, which eventually grew into a book proposal and contract.

While some people wonder how you can write an entire book on just one chapter, the number of topics I must include (for my conclusions to make sense) or want  to include (useful, fun, interesting) is quite large. For example, the book touches on

  • the Israelite conception of the cosmos
  • how and why Genesis differs from the uniquely LDS creation accounts of the Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and the temple account
  • why Genesis 1 differs both from a second creation account in Genesis 2-3 and sharply from a third creation tradition scattered elsewhere in the Bible
  • the relationship between Genesis and science
  • what Genesis 1 meant to Israelites
  • who wrote Genesis 1 as we have it, when, and why
  • what relation it has to other Near Eastern creation accounts such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish
  • why that relationship with other ancient Near Eastern creation texts is crucial to understanding Genesis 1
  • the relevance an ancient creation account has today
  • reading scripture in context
  • what we can rightfully expect from ancient scripture
  • how inspiration, whether in scripture, to prophets, or to us, can be “wrong” or even wrong (see here for a New Testament example)

Below is a summary and sample. Any of this may undergo major or minor changes as the work progresses, but here’s how it stands at the moment.

The book has several main sections.

  1. Necessary groundwork
  2. Looking at different creation accounts and related questions
  3. Setting Genesis 1 against its ancient Near Eastern background
  4. Translations and commentary
  5. Addendum and Excursis

Section 1- Groundwork
This section makes explicit assumptions, definitions, and methods. A few principles need to be clearly established regarding 1) revelation (which comes to) 2) prophets (which sometimes becomes) 3) scripture (which we must then understand through) 4) interpretation. These include

  • the nature of scripture and revelation, including the principles of
    • adaptation (i.e. revelation is not necessarily unique, and often draws on preexisting cultural elements, adapting and recontextualizing them to give new meaning)
    • accommodation (i.e. divinity must condescend to work with humanity at the human level, communicating with them in ways they understand)
    • responsivity (i.e. revelation rarely comes out of the blue, but is prompted by an issue, question, problem, situation, etc.)
    • variation (i.e. inspired material takes a variety of forms: legal material, letters, poetry, parable, “biography”; it may be historical, semi-historical, or non-historical)
  • the importance of context and different kinds of context
  • the importance of genre and genre confusion
  • different kinds of interpretation

Relevant past blog posts

Section 2 Joseph Smith and the Double-Creation Problem
This section looks in depth at creation accounts in the Bible, the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the temple. Where did we get each one, what kind of thing is it, what is it trying to say, why don’t they all agree? How should we understand them? I frame these accounts within the general process of the Joseph Smith Translation.

I also presents a brief historical look at non-LDS and LDS interpretations of Genesis to establish that a variety of views have been held both throughout early Christianity and at the highest levels of the LDS Church.

Relevant past blog posts

Section 3- The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Genesis 1
This section contextualizes Genesis 1 as an ancient Near Eastern creation account like many others,  primarily by commparing the Babylonian Enuma Elish. It focuses on the important points that become clear when Genesis is set against this background. This is broad commentary from the 30,000 ft level.

Relevant past blog posts

Section 4- Translation and Commentary

In this section, I provide three translations in parallel, along with detailed verse-by-verse commentary.

Here’s a sample of the three-column translation.

The KJV in the left column is there for comparison and familiarity, the other two are both mine. Neither has literary aesthetics as a primary goal.

The center column is a formal or “literal” translation, which hews closer to the Hebrew text in terms of rhythm, syntax, brevity, etc. but at the cost of smooth, clear English. Punctuation is minimal. This approach to translation is often referred to as a “word-for-word” even though such a thing doesn’t really exist. The italics represent transliteration of Hebrew words I’d prefer to explain instead of translate, and each has a section in the accompanying commentary. This gets you closer to feel and flavor of the Hebrew text. It’s a bit like the clear window over the engine of exotic cars; even if you don’t understand how all the pieces of the engine work, it’s still neat to be able to see under the hood.

The right column is a dynamic translation, which is more expansive and interpretive in trying to convey the meaning of the Hebrew into English. In contrast to “word-for-word” this is sometimes described as “thought-for-thought.” It borders on periphrastic at times.

Because you can see it from different perspectives, reading multiple translations together contributes greatly to understanding the original text.

My initial outline commentary on these three verses runs about four pages with footnotes. Most verses won’t require as much, but there’s a lot going on here.

KJV

1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.2 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. 3 And God said, Let there be light.

Formal translation

When ‘elohīm began creating the heavens and the earth
the landmass was wild and waste
darkness on the face of the Deep
ruaḥ of ‘elohīm raḥaph-ing upon the face of the waters
and ‘elohim said let there be light

Dynamic Translation

When God began creating everything (the earth being purposeless and nonfunctional, with darkness upon the Deep, and a divine wind hovering upon the water), God said, “Let there be a period of light!”

There are very few other usages of raḥaph and none in similar contexts. I’m not attached to “hovering” in the dynamic translation, but raḥaph is a very rare word, which makes it  hard to pin down semantically. Thus my preference to transliterate and anglicize the participle as “raḥaph-ing”  in the literal translation. Then, like so much else here, it gets an explanatory paragraph in the commentary. Nearly every word in these verses requires commentary. As I said, there’s a lot going on here.

Relevant past blog posts

  • I had a series at Times&Seasons on translation that was expanded and edited into a published article.

Section 5- Addendums

These currently include a short guide to Hebrew and pronunciation, a glossary/abbreviations, a bibliography, and an index.

Here’s a sampling of major popular works from my research list. Beyond these, I have a broad variety of technical commentaries, monographs, and articles.