Saturday, August 16, 2008

Time and tense

There is a long discussion of Genesis 1:1 at Better Bibles Blog: In the beginning .... In the beginning of one's study of Hebrew verb forms, one might be taught that there are tenses of sorts: the perfect, usually meaning a past completed action, the imperfect, usually indicating an incomplete ongoing action or state of affairs, and perhaps the participle, indicating a present aspect of action. Or perhaps not - for if any is preceded by a vav then the aspect switches, or perhaps not - perhaps the vav indicates modality. I have read too many arguments over aspects of verbs and time to think that anyone knows anything - so it appears that when translating a Hebrew verb one can take creative liberty with tense and aspect as one wishes.

The conversation at BBB referred to above is about bias in translation. Do you have to know who did the translation to know with what sort of care to read it? I bet you do - 100 to 1 in favour of Yes. There is historical bias, pious bias, governance bias, sexist bias, faithless and confessional bias, and all manner of bias!

But what about this first verse of Genesis?
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

Is there even an active verb in the sentence? Is the creative job complete in the first word? Perhaps the ending indicates that the first word is also the last. If we are as recent theologians say co-creators - then maybe the verb should be translated with a gerund possessed by God from the beginning or when God began to create. But what then becomes of the form of the verb בָּרָא which is qal perfect and not a gerund and not preceded by a vav? Does the Bet act as a modal shift?

If my bias is toward God and the human co-operating - a sort of multi-verse of infinite possibilities - then maybe the gerund is a good ploy. If my bias is of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, then the perfect is better and the ית of the first word acts like a sofit - closing off the roof of the house from the beginning, a final letter form in the first word! If my bias is for creation ex nihilo then perhaps I don't want to imply that anything might have existed in the beginning with God except of course all the uncreated things like word, wisdom, throne, Torah, etc.

It seems we might translate with bias yet our translations might still be read by someone else of a different bias and our carefully hidden hopes that the reader will be swayed by us will be missed anyway!

Funny - but I think we translate for ourselves - in confrontation with the unknown and known Knower expressed first by אֱלֹהִים the word used for God in 1:1 and then at the end of the section by יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים

I put Genesis 1 to 2:4 into a diagram some time ago. It is a wonderful and engrossing masterpiece of literary form and function. By the way, God did not take 7 days, but only 1 and we live in it.


J. K. Gayle said...

Great post! Thanks for your thoughtful perspective!

"I think we translate for ourselves - in confrontation with the unknown and known Knower..."

Funny also: "Bias" in English comes from Greek βίᾳ (for life, for force).

Bob MacDonald said...

Nice to see a positive thrust for bias. My Hebrew coach notes how words have changed from ancient to modern - sometimes from a positive note to a negative one.