Saturday, December 27, 2008

In the Beginning: The Need for Theological Exegesis

Just a taste of the kind of exegetical comments I will be making in 2009 as we read through the Bible.

The traditional rendering of the opening verse of the Bible is, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." But a number of newer translations have challenged that rendering by offering other possible renderings. The NRSV offers three possibilities, one in the text itself, and two in the footnote. The text version is, "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth," (note the comma). The first alternative is, "When God began to create the heavens and the earth," (again, note the comma). The second alternative is the traditional rendering. In his commentary on Genesis (Word Biblical Commentary series), Gordon Wenham discusses four possible ways of taking the text (pp. 11-15) though in the end he prefers the traditional rendering. Barry Bandstra in his Genesis 1-11: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, pp. 41-49 also discusses various options, from a technical linguistics/discourse analysis approach. Again, he prefers the traditional approach, but recognizes the viability of the other options.

The purpose of this comment is not to call into question the traditional rendering, but to note that a detailed understanding of Hebrew grammar and syntax will not tell us which rendering is the correct rendering. All of the options are grammatically and syntactically possible. In addition, linguistics/discourse analysis cannot solve the problem, because all of the options are again possible. The question can only be answered theologically, and each of the options represents different theological assumptions: about God, about the text, and about what the text is to be understood as teaching in its larger context. The NRSV, for example, is influenced by a late medieval rabbinic understanding, as well as by the assumption that Genesis 1 has certain commonalities with an Ancient Near Eastern "creation" text known as Enuma elish. This text is titled from its opening words, which mean "when, on high." It then goes on to tell the story of "creation" from a polytheistic perspective.

Another way of putting all this is that words have their meanings in contexts, but, particularly with Biblical texts, those contexts include the theological context. Is the text part of a much larger collection of texts that constitute the Word of God written? Or is the text part of a compilation over time of ancient Israelite religious texts, written from a variety of theological perspectives? How you answer those questions will affect not only your exegesis of texts, it will also affect your translation of texts.

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