Understandably, peoples’ various stories of the ‘Creation’ tend to begin with these three seemingly simple words: In the Beginning . . . But then, as one moves deeper into the various narratives that follow them, sometimes one discovers that the words didn’t mean what one had thought they meant at first glance.
Because while sometimes they go on to speculate—if I may use that word here—on the creation of the world, at others they may turn out to focus, rather, on the creation of a single people and their culture within that world, while at most, barely touching on the other issue in passing.
A case in point: have you ever wondered why there are two Creation stories in the Christian Bible? They appear back-to-back in the first chapter and part of the second in Genesis—though not at all to the exclusion of each other.
In both versions, one reads—in English, that is—“In the beginning, God . . .” But someone reading those same words in the Old Testament’s original Hebrew finds that that fourth word, ‘God’, doesn’t refer to the same thing in both stories.
In the first, apparently older story, the Hebrew word that’s translated into English as ‘God’ is Elohim; while in the second, it’s Yahweh. And the difference in meaning?
Well for one thing, the -im at the end of a Hebrew word indicates a plural—same as the -s does in English. So ‘Elohim’ is actually a plural word—to be more exact, the plural form of ‘Eloah’: an innocuous, impersonal generic term that just means something like force or power. In short, as but the plural form of an impersonal Hebrew noun, Elohim isn’t a personal name at all—and doesn’t even refer to a singular entity, or being, but at least two.
In the second story, the term that’s translated into English as ‘God’ is Yahweh—a singular, personal noun, as in someone’s name. No problem with that translation. But that story isn’t really about the creation of the world—granted that it briefly touches on the matter at the outset. It’s specifically about the creation of the Jewish people as a people, or nation. Which is why Yahweh is never referred to in the second story as just ‘God’, but always—and all in upper case—as the ‘Lord God’.
And then, as for the next, or fifth word of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created”—we need to take a second look at that past tense. Because back in the day that Genesis was written, Hebrew verbs didn’t have tenses as such; rather, as with some modern languages, their verbs simply distinguished, via a special prefix, between action that was ongoing—with reference to the past, present, or future to be determined by the context—and then, via a special suffix, action that had been completed, or was now over and done with.
And while the Hebrew verb that comes across in English as ‘created’ in the first story appears to be of the over-and-done-with variety, it’s immediately followed by so many of the other throughout the rest of the story that some biblical scholars find it entirely within the realm of possibility that somewhere along the way, some scribe or other, possibly while making a copy of it, changed the meaning of that one word, if only in that one instance, so as to bring the first story more into line with the spirit of the second.
So now let’s paraphrase a little: In the Beginning, [interacting] forces created our world, which is still being created or ‘evolving’ today and will continue to evolve . . . or something like that. Suddenly, one isn’t reading just another Creation myth, but a perfectly reasonable, timeless truth.
As already noted, the two stories by no means contradict each other—since the first is essentially about natural creation, and the second, cultural. And as we leave the sundry stories of the Bible behind for the present, we might also point out that to his credit, whoever put Genesis together not only bothered to include the older, traditional Hebrew story of Creation—rather than make some attempt to bury it in memory, as many are known to have done in similar situations—but appears to have taken special care to lead off with it, if only to suggest that the second story should be recognized as but its natural extension.
In the future, we shall be finding it more and more necessary to distinguish between the concept of natural Creation and that of cultural Creation—all the way to the present
The Interpreter‘s Bible, 12 vol., Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950s
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, 2 vol., ed. Maria Leach, 1949
Wikipedia, Elohim https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elohim
Wikipedia, Yahweh https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahweh
University of Texas, Biblical Hebrew Grammar https://www.laits.utexas.edu/hebrew/drupal/themes/hebrewgrid/bh/bhonline/grammar/aspect.pdf