How many heavens are there?
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.
Categories: translation accuracy, Hebrew, Greek, lexicography