Translating Genesis 1:1: Aristotle or the Big Bang? Part 2 (of 2)

Translating Genesis 1:1: Aristotle or the Big Bang? Part 2 (of 2)

Acceptance of the big bang theory in the latter half of the twentieth century provided scientific justification for the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1. But certain new translations potentially undercut this. The popular 1985 New Jewish Publication Society Torah (NJPS or TNK) and the 1989 New Revised Standard Bible (NRSV) in particular offer troubling translations. As explained in part one of this series, their retranslations of Genesis 1:1 do not make clear that God is the omnipotent super-being of Judeo-Christian theology. He could just as well be a “god” of Mesopotamian mythology.

When we reviewed the writings of negative critical scholars who propose retranslating Genesis 1:1, one or more of the following reasons for doing so emerges consistently. One reason cited is based in Hebrew linguistics—even though the linguistic validity of the traditional translation does not seem in dispute. Another is founded on a desire to make the Bible consistent with ancient Mesopotamian creation myths. Nevertheless, the dominant reason appears to be a reliance on the commentary of Rashi, an eleventh-century Jewish scholar well-respected for his familiarity with and understanding of his rabbinic predecessors. Even when Rashi is not quoted directly, the pattern of his logic is evident.

What Rashi Really Said

With this in mind, it’s important to understand the logic that compelled Rashi to retranslate Genesis 1:1. As one reads his commentary, he seems to be addressing an eleventh century religious-scientific debate, namely which of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) was created first. Rashi indicates that he believes it was water. Furthermore, a review of the full text of Rashi’s commentary1 reveals that he is attempting to make the Torah consistent with the scientific beliefs of his time, and he adjusted his translation of Genesis 1:1 accordingly.

The following comment from Rashi is often cited as a rationale for retranslating Genesis 1:1:

If . . . you wish to explain it [Genesis 1:1] in its plain sense, explain it thus: At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth when the earth was without form and void and there was darkness, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ The text does not intend to point out the order of the acts of Creation—to state that these (heaven and earth) were created first, for if it intended to point this out, it should have written . . . [bareshith]: ‘At first God created etc’ (italics in original).  

Later in his commentary, Rashi expounds on this. He makes clear that his reason for proposing a retranslation of Genesis 1:1 is his desire to overturn what he views as the error of the traditional translation, namely the suggestion that earth was created before fire and water. Yet before elaborating on earth, air, fire, and water, Rashi acknowledges the potential accuracy of the traditional translation. Nevertheless, he rejects it,

 not based on earlier rabbinic interpretations, but rather because of its conflict with eleventh century science. He states this unequivocally:

Should you, however, insist that . . . the meaning is: In the beginning of everything He created these, admitting therefore that the word [bereshith] is in the construct state . . . [like] Isa 46:10. . . this verse [Genesis 1:1] intends to point out that heaven and earth were created first . . . [whereas] as a matter of fact the waters were created before heaven and earth for, lo, it is written (v. 2) ‘the spirit of God was hovering on the face of the waters,’ . . . consequently you must learn from this that the creation of the waters preceded that of the earth. And a further proof that the heavens and earth were not the first thing created is that the heavens were created from fire and water (italics in original).2

Some scholars disagree with Rashi’s assessment that the word bereshith is in the construct state3 but the net result is the same: Rashi admits that the traditional translation is linguistically valid.

In summary, Rashi is compelled to suggest a new translation because he believes water was created before earth. This is why he combines Genesis 1:1–3 into one sentence, making Genesis 1:1–2 dependent clauses describing verse 3: “Let there be light.” But by contrast, if we consider the Torah in the same way the ancient Hebrews understood it, we see nothing to suggest that they devoted a moment’s thought to whether earth, air, fire, or water was created first, nor that they believed heaven was created from fire and water.

Rashi seems to have allowed eleventh century Aristotelian science to guide his interpretation more than linguistics or the opinions of his rabbinic forbearers. Perhaps more than anything else, his commentary may reveal why it’s so risky to use current scientific theory as the primary basis for biblical translations. Theologian Marcellus Kik observed in 1964, during the final years of scientific belief in Aristotle’s eternal universe: “There is a dangerous tendency to interpret the first chapter of Genesis, not by strict or accurate exegesis, but in a manner so as to satisfy the ‘scientific mind.’”4 This is what Rashi did in the eleventh century. However, twenty-first century science now rejects the theory of earth, air, fire, or water as basic elements, as well as Rashi’s claim that water was the first product of God’s creation—or of the big bang. And since Rashi’s retranslation of Genesis 1:1 rests on Aristotelian physics, it seems fair to suggest that it should also fall with Aristotelian physics.

We suspect the same may have been true of nineteenth century translator Robert Young. In Young’s day, Aristotle’s concept of an eternal universe was still generally held to be correct. So when Young followed Rashi in his translation of Genesis 1:1, he may have been seeking to make his Young’s Literal Translation consistent with contemporary science. However, modern negative critical scholars do not have this excuse.

Despite the fact that some modern retranslators seem to have such a high regard for Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:1 prominent Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages did not share this elevated opinion. Maimonides and Nahmanides,

 for example, lived after Rashi and in a time of Aristotelian science, yet they disagreed with Rashi on Genesis 1:1. Maimonides writes: “Some of our [Jewish] sages are reported to have held that time existed before Creation. But . . . the theory that time cannot be imagined with a beginning has been taught by Aristotle . . . and is objectionable”5 (italics added). This may have been an indirect attack against Rashi, who supported Aristotle’s theory.

Nahmanides disputed Rashi’s opinion that “the whole passage [Genesis 1:1–3] leads up to the creation of light.” He proposed an alternate interpretation: “Now listen to the explanation of the verse [Genesis 1:1] in its simple sense, correct and clear. The Holy One b.b.H. created all that has been created from absolute nothingness. . . . He brought forth from the complete and absolute nought a very subtle substance devoid of real existence but which is a potency to produce. . . . Know that the heavens and all that is in them are one substance, and the earth and all that is in her is one substance . . . and everything else was made from them. This substance . . . is called in the holy tongue tohu.”6

It is our position that since Rashi’s translation is based on antiquated, disproven scientific arguments it ought not to be taken seriously in the twenty-first century.


Any translation of Genesis 1:1 that is based on whether earth, air, fire, or water was created first should be disregarded, yet this was Rashi’s position. On the other hand, Nahmanides’ views seem worthy of consideration. Nahmanides had the foresight to suggest that the first product of creation was a “subtle substance” from which the balance of matter emerged. The big bang theory would agree with this: that a “subtle substance dominated the universe until matter and radiation decoupled and there was light.7 Hence it seems strange that Rashi’s interpretation of Genesis 1:1 is so popular among modern negative critical scholars whereas Nahmanides’ is ignored.

It is our considered opinion that twenty-first century “retranslators” of Genesis 1:1 cite the commentary of Rashi more as justification than as rationale. These scholars seem to rely on Rashi’s reputation, not on the validity of his arguments. Rashi used linguistic gymnastics to justify a point of view, and these recent retranslations may be an example of modern scholars doing the same.

The fundamental question today is this: if the traditional translation of Genesis 1:1 is in sync with science, then why do scholars seek to retranslate it to make it disagree with science? Outside of ignorance, there seems only one logical answer: some in academia are uncomfortable with the fact that science and Genesis 1:1 are in agreement. They do not acknowledge the Bible is divinely inspired and, thus, seek to remythologize it. They claim the Genesis creation story is just another ancient Mesopotamian fable like Enuma Elish, and—by inference—the God of the Bible is not much different from Murduk of Mesopotamian mythology.

Anyone who wishes to justify retranslating Genesis 1:1 by quoting Rashi, a highly regarded Jewish sage, would do well to reconsider. We do not question Rashi’s credentials, but we must question his science. And because Rashi’s eleventh century scientific understanding influenced his translation, twenty-first century translators need not be bound by it.

Dr. Hugh Henry, Ph.D.

Dr. Hugh Henry received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.

Daniel J. Dyke, M.Div., M.Th.

Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.

Part 1 | Part 2
  1. Rashi, M. Rosenbaum and A. M. Silbermann, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi’s Commentary: Genesis (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1965), 2–3.
  2. Isaiah 46:10 is the most similar construction to Genesis 1:1 and here Rashi clearly affirms the validity of the traditional translation.
  3. Edward J. Young, Studies in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964), 4–7.
  4. Marcellus Kik, editor’s preface to Studies in Genesis 1 by J. Young (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964).
  5. Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, trans. M. Friedländer (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 212.
  6. Nahmanides, The Commentary of Nahmanides on Genesis Chapters 1–6, Pretoria oriental series, v. 4, trans. and ed.  Jacob Newman (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1960), 32–33.
  7. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988).