“Genesis” comes from the Greek word for birth, and the Hebrew name comes from its opening words, “In the Beginning.” In Japanese, the book is called Souseiki, or “An Account of the Creation of the World.”
That’s certainly how it starts. The 7-day creation account is pretty famous, and not just because people keep trying to get it taught in American schools. It’s got a lot of lovely repetitive patterns that give it a poetic feel.
The NRSV gives three possible ways of translating the opening line (v 1):
- In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…
- When God began to create the the heavens and the earth…
- In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…
What seems to me to be interesting is that the last one seems to put the creative moment in the first sentence. God creates the heavens and the earth, boom! The first and second, though, place the action right before the book actually starts.
The Japanese is maybe a little clearer. Hajime ni, it says – “to begin with,” or “first.” The heavens-and-earth (one word, tenchi, in Japanese, going back to Confucius) are created in the first sentence.
And what are they like, these early heavens-and-earth? The English says ” a formless void,” (v 2) the Japanese says konton, which as a religious studies major just made me go squee! because I know that term. It means “chaos” or “disorder,” but the term come Chinese cosmology, where hundun (same characters, different reading) is the faceless, primordial mass out of which everything in the universe arose. You can find it in Daoist texts like the Daodejing or the Zhuangzi.
I’ve read a lot of people arguing that somehow the existence of this “formless void” means that creation ex nihilo isn’t a Biblical concept, that God created the universe out of already-existent Chaos. And maybe they’re right, but as I read it, God made the heavens-and-earth, but at first it was just an undifferentiated mess, chaotic, dark, and deep.
Then God starts creating order in the universe, by making opposites. He makes light (v 3), but rather than replacing the darkness he divides them and puts them in a sequence, making the duality of day and night (time). He makes a sky, and divides the waters of chaos (the Japanese characters both have the radical for water) into those above the sky and below it (v 6-8), making up and down (space). Lastly he gathers the water to make oceans and land (v 9-11), creating a habitable space for the living creatures whose creation takes up the rest of the chapter.
Now, some of you are going, “But what about the sun, moon, and stars?(v 14-19) Those aren’t living creatures!” Well, so says you. Back in the day, most people thought they were; how else could they move? In fact, they were often considered deities, and Genesis puts them in their place by saying they only exist to give light and help you calculate time.
One of the disappointments reading this chapter in Japanese was discovering that they translated “sea monster” (v 21) as kaibutsu. I was hoping they’d use kaijuu.
Then there’s the famous bit where God makes humanity. First of all, God shifts into using the plural. The word “God” here has been translating Elohim, which is a plural word meaning “the gods,” only it’s treated as a single entity. In v. 26, God says “we” (wareware in Japanese), and there are a number of theories as to why. Some say it’s a leftover from a time when this myth might have been polytheistic, but I find it hard to believe the editors would have missed something that big. Some say it’s the royal we, but why only use it here? Some Christians view it as a foreshadowing of the Trinity, but I’m uncomfortable reading that into it. So I tend to agree with the idea that God is talking to the Sons of God, the angelic beings that pop up throughout the Old Testament. In one of the Psalms it even says humans are almost like Sons of Gods, so it would make sense that we might be like all the supernatural beings collectively.
“In our image and according to our likeness,” says the English. katadori and nisete, says the Japanese, “modeled on” and “copied from.” The words that English translates as “subdue” (v 28), it translates as “make obey,” and “have dominion” as “control” or “direct.” I don’t know whether either of those words make me more comfortable with how these verses have been used as an excuse to brutalize the world. Just because you can make things obey your or control them doesn’t mean you get to treat them like trash. Nor could the creators of this passage, I think, have ever imagined the potential humans have had for wiping out species or damaging the environment.
Also, apparently everything was vegetarian. I’d remembered that humans were, but I forgot about how all the beasts, and birds, and creeping things also just ate grass. Until, of course, the children of El-ahrairah ruined it for everyone.
I learned a few new bits of Japanese from reading this: kachiku (domestic animals), katadoru, and the character for “creeping.” So far this is proving to be an interesting project. We’ll see how long I can keep it up.