Monday, May 01, 2006

On Bereishit

The Talmud and midrash state that the (approximately) 70 rabbis who were forced to translate the Pentateuch into Greek (producing the Septuagint) all (miraculously), independently of each other, altered the verse "Bereishit bara elohim" to read, in their translations, [the Greek equivalent of] "Elohim bara bereishit." This statement is generally understood to mean that the rabbis switched around the words of the verse in their translation, so that one could not erroneously conclude from the verse that some entity named "Bereishit" had created ("bara") "Elohim" (God) - a mistake one could make when reading the words "Bereishit bara elohim" in the verse's original order.

Dr. Moshe Bernstein, a professor of mine at Yeshiva University, was bothered by the following question: ancient Greek was an inflected language (I'm taking his word for that), meaning that the subject and object of a sentence were gramatically identified. I'll explain inflection with an example from English. If I want to express the first person plural as a subject, I say "we", whereas if I want it to be an object, I say "us". This means that English inflects the first person plural to indicate whether it is acting as a subject or as an object. The distinct usages of "I" and "me", "he" and "him", "she" and "her", and "they" and "them" represent similar inflections. These examples notwithstanding, English does not, generally speaking, inflect nouns to indicate their role in a sentence; anglophones identify which words in a sentence play which role based on the sentence's word order. Hence, if I say "The dog bit the cat," you know that the dog did the biting, and the cat was what was bitten - not because of any grammatical modification to the word "dog" or "cat", but because "dog" came before the verb, and "cat" came after. "The cat bit the dog" has an entirely different meaning, while "The dog the cat bit," as a sentence by itself, is ambiguous: who bit whom?

However, when we use inflections, the word order can be changed around without altering the meaning. Thus, "I bit him," "Him I bit," "Him bit I," "Bit I him," etc., all mean the same thing (though some sound awkward). Now, imagine that English inflected all subjects by adding an "o" prefix, and all objects by adding an "i" suffix. Then, "The odog bit the cati" would mean the same thing as "The cati bit the odog," "The cati the odog bit," and "Bit the odog the cati." They would all mean that the dog bit the cat. According to Dr. Bernstein, ancient Greek inflected all subjects and objects, meaning that regardless of word order, the subject in a sentence was always unmistakably the subject, the object clearly the object, etc. If so, Dr. Bernstein asked, what does it mean that the rabbis translated "Bereishit bara elohim" as "Elohim bara bereishit?" In inflected Greek, the word order wouldn't make any difference!

The only answer I can think of is that the Talmud is distinguishing not between word orders but between meanings. In Hebrew, "Bereishit bara elohim" can mean "Bereishit created God," whereas "Elohim bara bereishit" means "God created in the beginning" (or "God created Bereishit"). Perhaps the Talmud is saying that all of the rabbinic translators, via the proper inflections, assigned Genesis 1:1 the meaning "God created in the beginning..." as opposed to "Bereishit created God." The problem with this explanation is, however, obvious: why would any of the rabbis have translated Genesis 1:1 otherwise? Isn't "God created in the beginning..." the interpretation they all actually held to be the correct one? Why is their agreement on this verse's translation noteworthy, and how did they change its meaning?

Again, I have only one suggestion: perhaps the Talmud is saying that in truth, the simple "peshat" of Genesis 1:1 is "Bereishit created God," and that our accepted interpretation of it - "God created in the beginning" - is actually a more awkward way to read the verse; not the "peshat". This seems like an absurd explanation, but I don't know how else to answer the question. Any ideas?

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