Translating Genesis: Just a few words translated more carefully can make a huge difference!

Seeing how many have written and said enjoy these Bible-related and creationism topics—and valid and interesting observations in the process—I’ll mention yet another observation on these tangents: I get annoyed at Young Earth Creationists for thinking that a text has only ONE “literal interpretation.” The popular use of the word “literal” has drifted from what a linguist means by “literal”. And creationists go ballistic when I tell them that there are often MANY literal interpretations for just about all of the controversial statements in Genesis 1 and 2. Of course, when they insist that theirs is the ONLY truly literal interpretation of each pericope, they usually ignore the fact that “the plain and natural, simple reading of the text” can depend upon the particular English translation. If one is working from a “literal reading” of the Hebrew text of Genesis, the “literal interpretation” can be quite different.

For example, if one adopts a “plain and natural reading” of the Hebrew text of the Noah account, it is hard to come up with anything but a REGIONAL/LOCAL flood, not the GLOBAL one favored by Young Earth Creationists. After all, the Hebrew text refers to a flooding of Noah’s ERETZ, that is, his “land”, “country”, or “region”. There is no mention of ERETZ in the plural (“lands”) and even today in modern Hebrew, nobody assumes that ERETZ YISRAEL means “the planet of Israel” or “Planet Israel.” It is always read as “Land of Israel” or “Nation of Israel.” Thus, if I read Genesis LITERALLY, I will understand Noah’s flood to have destroyed all Imago Dei descendents of Adam— not every hominid (and NEPHESH creatures in general) worldwide.

In fact, I used to have my students import the Noah chapters of Genesis into a word-processor using the King James translation (or even sometimes other translations if sufficiently literal in translation approach) and then doing global replacements on the following words:

earth ===> land
heaven(s) ===> sky
mountain(s) ===> hill(s)

All three of these translations of the underlying Hebrew words are valid. But when the student reads the KJV account of Noah’s flood where “land”, “sky”, and “hills” appears instead of “earth”, “heavens”, and “mountains”, he/she discovers that their “simple, plain, and natural, LITERAL reading of the Biblical text” leads them to assume that Noah’s flood was restricted to Noah’s region, the only “world” Noah knew.

If I really want to irritate every Young Earth Creationist within earshot, I will tell them, “I prefer to interpret Genesis literally and work from a plain, simple, natural reading of the Hebrew text. Therefore I follow both the scriptural evidence and the scientific evidence to their natural conclusion: The Theory of Evolution is our best explanation of the diversification of life on earth. Moreover, “Let the waters bring forth [living things]…” and “Let the land bring forth [living things]….” (in Genesis 1) and even “God formed the human one from the dust of the ground” (in Genesis 2:7) are all references to ABIOGENESIS (biological life from non-living ingredients, the very definition of abiogenesis.) No matter how much they protest, I tell them that my interpretations are LITERAL because I’m using a “literal meaning” for each word as defined in the Hebrew lexicon.

No, I’m not claiming that readers down through the centuries could have consulted the Hebrew text of Genesis and predicted the eventual publication of The Theory of Evolution. I am saying that someone can affirm The Theory of Evolution while also maintaining literal interpretations of Genesis. Convincing the skeptical of that claim would take far more space than what is available here. But I am quite serious. (Yes, believe it or not. I’m totally serious. I’ve posted generously on this topic on various forums. Dr. Janis, who first invited me to subscribe to this blog page, has seen some of my essays on this topic. So this is not the first venue where I’ve discussed this idea.)

My purpose in doing that is not to convince anyone that “the Bible had it right all along.” Nor am I pursuing Science-and-the-Bible concordism for concordism’s sake. No, I want to reach the many Christians who are constantly at war with science and explain to them that such conflict is entirely unnecessary.

I’m sick and tired of the YEC peanut gallery, the infamous origins-ministry millionaire entrepreneurs (e.g., Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, Kent Hovind et al) and concerned for the many thousands of sincere but science-illiterate and gullible “creation science”-endorsing pastors who are manipulated into whipping millions of Christians into a frenzy of anti-science nonsense that is neither scriptural valid nor scientifically valid. Whatever one thinks of the Bible and its teachings, if I can convince Young Earth Creationist Christians that they can affirm the Bible while also affirming the scientific method and following the evidence wherever it leads, their silly war on science (and The Theory of Evolution in particular) can be ended.

Quality science education in America today is only safe if a large percentage of the population is not bent on destroying it. And while I appreciate what Biologos is trying to accomplish in that regard, I believe their present strategies will not be successful in reaching fundamentalist Christians (for reasons beyond the scope of this modest post.) My approach is to convince fundamentalists that the Bible does not contradict or denounce abiogenesis nor The Theory of Evolution. And I can do so even while using literal interpretations of the Hebrew text. For the most part, Christians who oppose The Theory of Evolution will not be won over by science-education alone. First they need to be convinced that modern science and the scientific method does not pose a threat to their faith—-only their extra-Biblical TRADITIONS.

Duane Gish despised me, Henry Morris thought I asked too many [embarrassing] questions that he didn’t want to address, and John Whitcomb considered me a traitor. But quite a few rank-and-file YEC-ists have decided that perhaps a evolution-affirming Christian might not be so dangerous after all. And if such people remain Young Earth Creationists but they decide that evolution and billions of years is just a secondary matter of personal opinion, they are far less likely to send donations to build the “Ark Park” and are far more likely to oppose local school boards and even state legislators who try to sneak “creation science” and ID into science classes at their schools. I’m a pragmatist. Once they can safely be open-minded about the science, they are far more likely to actually investigate and learn about the evidence that supports it. Even if they remain allegiant to their church’s traditions, their children will be at greater liberty to pursue science majors in college and eventual science careers. I can draw parallels to the American civil rights movement.

Commenter’s Corner

A commenter once responded to one of my articles: “I’m confident that people like Ken Ham will never debate you.” True enough. I so wish he would. He is nearly as ignorant of the Bible as he is of Science. And he prefers that his audiences assume false dichotomies. He insists that one must agree with his Young Earth Creationism *OR* be an atheist “evilutionist”. Whenever he is forced to admit the existence of Christians who disagree with him, he labels them as “compromising Christians” who are tools of Satan. But most of his followers are not so extreme because many of them have friends and family who are Old Earth Creationists, Gappers, and even Framework Hypothesis advocates and Days of Proclamation-ists. So I think Ham is becoming less and less willing to debate any Christians who his audience would refuse to categorize as demonically manipulated. Even his condemnations of ID advocates and the Discovery Institute have to be pitched carefully because he risks losing the many Young Earth Creationists who are also DI and ID fans.

While I generally agree with the advice that scientists never debate a Young Earth Creationist, I would make an exception for myself—not only because I want to shred him on both scientific AND Biblical grounds, but because I spent years in the movement during its early days [The Genesis Flood was published in 1962] and I know all the tricks, dodges, quote-mines, and mantras. I know how to compete with Ham for the approval of his own choir. Christian audiences are sensitive about hypocrisy and Ham is vulnerable from many directions. (Perhaps I could be a last minute substitute for some scientist who Ham has agreed to debate. If he saw me walk onto the platform and he pulled out, even his own fans would consider him a chicken.)

Another commenter wrote: “As for your strategy – I am all for multiple attempts. Yours doesn’t need to collide with SC’s.” Exactly. Before Dr. Eugenie Scott’s retirement, I would have loved to have partnered with her to do a tag team debate against Ken Ham and one of his resident staff “creation scientists.” Perhaps Dr. Georgia Purdom could protect his flank. She’s probably still sore at me for making fun of their much hyped “baraminology” project. I told her, “When it comes to putting together a good baraminology project, I guess it takes all kinds.” Hey, my turn-of-phrase is no more lame than baraminology is. They should be accustomed to bad jokes.

Another commenter wrote wrote: “God wouldn’t allow the translators from Hebrew and Greek to make erroneous or even ambiguous translations, would he?” Excellent point. And it is yet another fundamental of Introductory Linguistics that that is the nature of human languages. They nearly ALWAYS involve ambiguity and translations inevitably involve trade-offs. And when the Young Earth Creationist fundamentalists try to argue otherwise, I quote from the Apostle Paul himself: “We see through a glass but darkly.” Moreover, the same apostle talked about the MYSTERIES of the Gospel. This is just one of many topics where YECs are actually in defiance of the scripture they claim to honor more than everybody else.

It’s gotta be hard living in the “creation science” camp nowadays. You’ve not only got the REAL scientists laughing at you. You’ve got the Biblical literature scholars at both the evangelical seminaries and the secular universities shredding your exegesis. And you’ve even got the evangelical Church historians exposing the embarrassing fact that your movement didn’t really begin with the apostles after all. It started with Seventh Day Adventist prophetess Ellen White, got polished up in semi-scholarly clothes by George McReady Price, and “sanitized for your protection” by Grace Brethren Old Testament professor John Whitcomb Jr., carefully removing all SDA references so that nobody would accuse him of plagiarizing from a “cult.” Then, if you are going to invent the new “creation science” field of “flood geology”, you gotta have a water specialist. Fortunately, John had met Henry Morris, hydrologist-engineer extraordinaire, at a fundamentalist Bible conference. The rest, as they say, is history! The circus has been on the road ever since. (In this case, the circus and the side show is the same thing.)

Now if some doubter comes along, let’s say someone like Ken Ham, and asks, “Were you there?”, I might just turn to him and say, “Yes. Yes I was.”

Another commenter wrote: “If nothing else, they will needle the hell out of Ham. LOL. Perhaps that is where I should publish my prophecy that Ken Ham’s “Ark Park” will be his financial doom: the YEC PTL (for those who remember Jim Bakker’s downfall.) Seriously, I don’t see how Ham could possibly sustain both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, even if he raises the $150 million he said he needs to complete the latter. Once all of the home schoolers and die-hard YECs within driving distance of both tourist destinations have spent one vacation there (within no more than seven years), they will fail to produce their own operational revenue stream and Ham will have to subsidize them from the sale of his wacky DVDs and books (and “member” tithes and offerings.) Special bail-out donations will allow him to complete his fiscal years for a while but eventually the deep-pockets will tire. Long-term, I think the Creation Museum will limp along. But if it ever completed, the Ark Park ruins will eventually become a monument to the YEC Golden Age and highwater mark. (And the Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate will be considered the beginning of the end, not because Nye won but because Ham lost. Something like 86% of ChristianityToday readers polled gave the win to Nye in recognition of Ham’s “emperor has no clothes” performance. Indeed, I thought it notable that Ham did not make much mention of the usual brand of “creation science” pseudo-science he normally babbles on about at his various webpages. Instead, he simply reached out to potential donors who can save his Ark Park dream by saying, “I have a book!” That draws laughs from non-YECs but to the faithful that is a proclamation of purity. Instead of creation science, there was only reminders that AiG alone stands up for the Genesis text in its only truly literal interpretation. As Ham said, “It is a matter of Biblical authority!”)

Professor Tertius and the Bible.and.Science.Forum wants to hear from you! Comments appreciated below. At the present time, the professor can’t promise to respond to every comment but we do read all of them!

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Translating Genesis: Just a few words translated more carefully can make a huge difference!

  1. waldteufel

    I first encountered your writings in the comments section of The Sesuous Curmudgeon’s blog. I find your thoughts and contributions both there and here to be very interesting and entertaining. I hope you continue posting here for a good long time!

  2. TomS

    Thank you for bringing up these topics. i’d like to bring up even more reasons for your analysis of the word ERETZ, but I’ll skip that for the following:
    I beg to differ somewhat from your diffidence in reading of Genesis 1 as describing abiogenesis, almost evolution. (This had been seriously proposed by John Zahm by following up on a reading of Augustine.) Rather, I think that it is describing, not a genesis of species/kinds/populations, but spontaneous generation (or, more precisely, anomalous generation – living things arising from inert matter) of individuals, something which was surely accepted as commonplace in the Ancient Near East, and seems to be attested to elsewhere in the Bible, as in the plagues of Egypt in Exodus (and in a related form, equivocal generation, the bees generated from the body of the carcass of the lion in the story of Samson in Judges).
    And I use this as a segue to a related point, which is that there is no reason to believe that the world of the Bible had any concept of species (etc.), that concept seems to have appeared first in the Late Middle Ages/Early Modern Era. And I therefore claim that the word MIN cannot in Genesis 1 (or elsewhere) designate “species” (etc.), and I would be so bold as to suggest that MIN does not designate anything at all.
    In making this point, I have to confess that my knowledge of Hebrew is very slight, and I have to respect genuine knowledge in others.

  3. Thanks for your comments, TomS. Yes, I see great merit in all of the ideas you mentioned. Indeed, one thing I should probably emphasize more often is that because I’m trying to meet YECs on their own “home turf”, I like to show them how they can keep their “synergy/synthesis” hermeneutics of Science and the Bible and still come up with other valid, very literal interpretations. In other words, whether one sees Genesis 1 and 2 as reflections of Hebrew cosmology *OR* as God describing scientific and historical facts in a form the original Hebrew audience could understand, one has respected the text either way.

    Accordingly, I try to show YECs that they don’t have to treat ABIOGENESIS as a “dirty word”. They can apply a very literal reading of Genesis and still have no beef with modern science.

    Indeed, that is probably my primary goal: to show YECs that they don’t have to wear themselves out and whip audiences into a frenzy trying to stir up constant conflict between science and the Bible.

    Furthermore, because my PERSONAL preference for what I think is the BEST interpretation of various text could very likely incite them to turn their eyes and ears “off-line”, I generally write in “the Biblical text could easily be interpreted this way…” style.

  4. By the way, I hope to post an old article where I wrote about MIN / BaraMIN as soon as I find it. Yes, MIN is not a taxonomic term at all, obviously, but just a general way to say “all sorts of” or “all kinds of”. For example, “John has all kinds of tools in his garage” is usually understood to mean, “John has a very large and varied collection of tools in his garage.” Nobody assumes that every tool in the world ever made by modern man (or even ancient man) is stored in John’s garage. That is how MIN was used.

    • TomS

      I would like to see your analysis of MIN.
      Given that the word appears only in a very special context, preposition L’ + MIN + 3rd pers. gen. “after his/their kind” it might be some kind of idiom (“on air” or “in sync” or “in his way” do not refer to an “air”, a “sync” or a “way”).

      • I have an old article on MIN I can dig out sometime. But I agree that MIN is NOT at all anything so formal as a “species”. I see as much like in English: we use “all kinds of” as a way to categorize and group everything and anything. And common sense tells us that animal parents produce offspring which are much like them. That is, they are the same kinds of animals as their parents.

        As you can imagine, YECs go nuts when I tell them: The Theory of Evolution is very compatible with “each after their own kind” because the ToE predicts that offspring are much like their parents. They have no reason to be anything else because they have their parents mixed genes and scattered mutations here and there which rarely make them look more than slightly different.

        They want to believe in “kinds” being some kind of rigid “thing”. But they sure can find that in the text. It is eisogesis for sure.

  5. TomS

    I am suggesting an even more radical interpretation of MIN. It is based on these ideas:

    1) Not every noun is understood as having any referent at all. A noun can occur in a very limited context, as an idiom. As “a lot of”, “in a trice”, “by dint of”, and so on. Now I have no knowledge of Hebrew, except that MIN is used exclusively in what seems to be an idiom. L’MINU could mean all sorts of things without having MIN referring to anything, such as a collective.

    2) Facts which are obvious and common sense to modern westerners have not always have been worth commenting on. The idea of gathering living things in more-or-less lifetime categories, depending on their birth is one of them. When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, when a cow loses it clean status, when bees are generated out of a lion’s carcass, when goats are born with different coloration from their mother (let alone their father).

    3) The description in Genesis 1 is as compatible with origins of individuals by spontaneous generation (which would certainly be understood in the ANE) as for the origins of a category (which is, at best, problematic, in the ANE). I find no reason to see that Genesis 1 about the only origins, or that all life stems from the creation week. Lot of living things (without any implication that they form “lots”) appeared, but this does not preclude spontaneous generation going on forever.

    4) BTW, humans are not referred to as being L’MINU.

    I therefore suggest that L’MINU could mean something like, “the way it was” (with no suggestion that “way” has any any referent, let alone that it is in some otherwise unattested taxonomy), or “appropriately”, or “fully formed”, “how it turned out”, “behold”, or something vague, untranslatable, idiomatic.

    IMHO FWIF YMMV

  6. Love your comment, TomS. I hope to post more when I have time. I’m a big believer in IDIOMS in handling many scriptures!

  7. TomS

    There is a small consideration which is the lack of a convincing etymology unless the Biblical expression is “from MIYNEH of itself, of themselves, reduplicated form of MIN from” (quoting from the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, David JA Clines).

  8. Many scholars I worked with never seemed to consider what a long history the Hebrew language had, even in the OT alone, and therefore its potential for enormous changes. With a very old text like Genesis 1, which itself probably had a very long history which went back to proto-Semitic languages and beyond as an oral retelling, we just don’t know much about the Hebrew language of that time. Imagine if we had a portion of Beowulf but no other Old English texts to study and compare.

    Most Christians treat Hebrew like it was a special, exceptional “Divine Language” and therefore never changed and was (somehow) always “perfect”. Incredibly, there are many OT scholars who treat it almost the same. (That mentality seems to be dying off, but it is still strong at many fundamentalist schools.)

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