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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

How many heavens are there?

Genesis 1:1 in traditional English translations says:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Have you every thought much about the word "heavens" in that wording? I hadn't, until today. It sounds from the English translation that there is more than one "heaven." At least that's what I think it sounds like to native speakers of standard dialects of English. So, since Genesis 1:1 in English refers to heavens, how many heavens are there?

Perhaps there are three. Most English translations have Paul saying in 2 Cor. 12:2 that he knew a man (he is referring to himself) who was "caught up to the third heaven."

I suggest that references to "heavens" in Gen. 1:1 or to the "third heaven" in 2 Cor. 12:2 reflect a cosmology that is not shared by everyone around the world, a worldview of ancient people, at least the Hebrew people. I suggest that in the English language and in the cultural framework of many, if not most, English speakers there is only one heaven, which is where God lives. There is nothing in the Bible that tells us how many heavens there are. There are no propositional, revelational statements declaring, "God says there are ___ heavens" where the blank would be filled in by the number of heavens that actually exist. I suggest that some of the language of the Bible, such as the literal references to "heavens" is cosmological and culturally relative, that is, it reflects the cultural worldview of those who wrote the books of the Bible that refer to "heavens."

I suggest that the proposition that is stated, namely, the divine truth that is being communicated by means of language in Genesis 1:1 is that "God created everything." In more specific English terms we could say that "God created the earth and everything else." Or we could say that "God created the entire universe." Are each of these statements translation equivalents to the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1? Yes, I believe they are. Genesis 1:1 does not declare that God created multiple heavens. Rather, it expresses that God created everything which from the ancient cosmological viewpoint was categorized as consisting of two entities, the earth and the heavens. But there is not claim in Genesis 1:1 that there is more than one heaven.

I suggest that English translations that use the traditional wording, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," are misleading and, therefore, inaccurate for English speakers who do not have a worldview that there is more than one "heaven."

I have suggested some alternative English translations which I believe would more accurately communicate the propositional revelation of Genesis 1:1 to English speakers.

English translators already have a tradition of recognizing that at least some cultural and linguistic categories are not most accurately translated to English through "literal" translation. A well-known example also comes from Genesis 1 where the text speaks of the elohim, Hebrew which literally means 'gods.' Now, we know that at least after their last exile, the Jewish people no longer incorporated polytheistic ideas into their theology. They got cured of polytheism. And Christian readers of the Bible are monotheists, as well. So English translators of the Bible do not translate elohim of Genesis 1:1 as 'gods', but, rather, as "God." I believe that is an accurate translation. Theologians have various ways of explaining how the Hebrew grammatical plural really is a semantic singular.

And in the New Testament, we do not translate all the possible linguistic categories of Greek literally to English. Today we do not refer to the Holy Spirit in English translations as a neuter "it," even though to pneuma hagios, 'the holy spirit,' in Greek is of the neuter gender, not masculine (or feminine as is Hebrew ruach as 'spirit').

And we do not refer to a child in an English translation of the Bible by the English neuter pronoun "it" even though Greek teknon 'child' is neuter in gender.

English translators commonly make adjustments in translation so that he original biblical language forms are rendered completely literally at all times. English translators pick and choose what they render literal and what they do not. This includes translators of the more literal and "essentially literal" versions which are used today, such as the NASB and ESV.

It is perfectly fine to include in an annotated English translation a footnote to Genesis 1:1 which states "Lit, Hebrew heavens; the ancient Hebrews viewed the area above the earth as consisting of multiple levels of heavens." The footnote, then, tells us something about ancient beliefs, while the translation text itself would accurately communicate to us that God intended that we know that he created everything. That truth will be expressed differently in different languages, but the propositional truth will remain the same.

I think we would do well not to include a plural "heavens" in English translations of Genesis 1:1. We need to accurately translate the propositional statements of the Bible. We will often need to make adjustments in translation to reflect the linguistic and/or cultural categories of the target language and culture, if we are going to accurate communicate the propositional statements of the original biblical texts.

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At Thu Aug 18, 07:32:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, here I think you have misunderstood the Hebrew, or have been misled by translations. In Hebrew there are a number of words which are plural in form, but singular in meaning. Two of them appear in this verse: אֱלֹהִים elohim "God" and שָׁמַיִם shamayim "sky, heaven". The grammar here, with a singular verb, proves that elohim was understood as a true singular by the original author, and not only, as you seem to suggest, by later interpreters and translators imposing their own theology on to the text. Similarly shamayim is a true singular, with no intended reference to multiple heavens; there is no corresponding singular form. I note that the LXX Greek translation also has a singular here, τὸν οὐρανὸν ton ouranon, and KJV still has a singular, "the heaven". I am not sure when this was changed to a plural, perhaps by some misguided hyper-literalists (before RSV). But there is no justification for using a plural here in a translation, unless of course the target language uses a plural form for this concept.

At Thu Aug 18, 08:01:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter, I am trying to address hyper-literalism in translation in this post. BTW, the KJV uses the literal "heavens" in Gen. 2:1 and in many other passages throughout the KJV. And grammatically plural shamayim is sometimes maintained as Greek plural ouranoi 'heavens' in some passages in the N.T.

My point is that we cannot simply "literally" translate linguistic forms and hope to have as accurate translations as possible.

At Thu Aug 18, 12:58:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I don't actually see the problem with a (good) literal translation of this phrase: "God created the sky and the land" is what the phrase בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ means (a polytheist who has not read the whole [Hebrew] Bible might read "the gods", but if she had read the whole Bible that mistranslation is not possible). I think Wayne is right to interpret this as "everything" but I don't really think that is a good translation - surely the hearer should have the decision (as the first hearers did) whether to read the phrase as a figure of speech or literally!?

At Thu Aug 18, 02:16:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim, doesn't shamayim semantically cover more than just English sky?

At Thu Aug 18, 02:34:00 PM, Anonymous Kenny said...

Let me comment on English (I don't speak Hebrew): I think that "the heavens" is a good English phrase, but it doesn't mean the same thing as "heaven," and "the heaven" is totally ungrammatical in most contexts (the exception being a different theological framework, in which someone might say "the heaven where group X goes, as opposed to the heaven where group Y goes"). "Heaven" is a term of pop-theology in English which means "the place where God, the angels, and the righteous dead are." By contrast, "the heavens" is a poetic (and perhaps slightly archaic, but well understood) term for the sky, particularly the night sky. Based on what I've read about the meaning of the Hebrew term, it seems that this poetic term is equivalent in denotation (at least on the understanding of the term that I have). However, there is some question about equivalent connotations, as the use of poetic language could serve to indicate that the passage was figurative, and I have read that the language of Genesis 1 is not significantly different from the language of the later (clearly historical) chapters. If this is true, then poetic language could be misleading and should be avoided. This could lead to a translation like "In the beginning God created the planet Earth,and also the rest of the universe." This has the feel of a factual account rather than a poetic metaphor (and I do not personally know if that is what we want, given the Hebrew text).

Perhaps the use of singular and plural "heaven" in English would be a good topic for a poll?

At Thu Aug 18, 03:38:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Kenny said:

I think that "the heavens" is a good English phrase

Yes, it is, Kenny, and I was aware of that when I wrote my post. But I'm not sure if "the heavens" is indigenous to English or if it was imported from English Bibles which translated the grammatically plural Hebrew shamayim. Of course, if most English speakers now understand the terms "the heavens" that would settle the issue for me, since language change is a reality and it really doesn't matter if some changes come about by borrowing--huge numbers of terms have come into English through borrowing. And many, many terms have come into common usage in English from literal English Bibles. My ultimate concern is for those terms which church people understand but which are no longer understood by a majority of unchurched people. I don't know if "the heavens" is one of those.

FWIW, for me, "the heavens" refers to the universe, esp. the stars which are visible to us at night (and which have always thrilled me and make me think of the majesty of God). I don't think I have a meaning of "sky" for "the heavens."

At Thu Aug 18, 04:45:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Tim wrote: a polytheist who has not read the whole [Hebrew] Bible might read "the gods", but if she had read the whole Bible that mistranslation is not possible.

Actually, no, for the verb in Genesis 1:1 is singular and so the subject must be singular, just one God.

At Fri Aug 19, 12:16:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Oops! Sorry, I allowed polemic intent to carry me away, of course the singular verb makes that reading equally impossible!

I'm afraid though that even if "heavens" is good semi-poetic English for the night sky (with stars) it won't really do here, in close proximity in 1:26 there is talk of the "birds of the night sky (with stars)" - and I can see no reason for claiming that v.1 needs a different meaning from v.26 "earth and sky" make a good standard word pair whether the sky is viewed as having stars or not, but birds are hardly "of the starry sky"...


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