Thursday, January 1, 2009

Birthing Genesis

This year (happy new year btw), my blogging is going to be a series of what we "expert compositionists" (you know, people with the high-fallutin' degrees in comp studies and rhetoric) call "zero drafts."  The posts are also going to be hard to understand because I'm disciplining myself to write in 15 minute bursts.  Then I hit "publish post."

Now, let's get to what we call in English "Genesis."  I suspect the first Jews to translate the first book (i.e., בְּרֵאשִׁית) made a very careful decision to call it, in Greek, Γένεσις. I doubt they were limiting themselves to 15 minutes -- although the story goes that the translating was miraculously quick. The Greek word suggests Birthings.

This first translation of the first book looks very much like an engagement with the Hellene creation stories. There's both the people and the place of the translating. And there's the seeming awareness of the Greek traditionS.

Historian Sylvie Honigman (in reviewing her fellow Jewish history of Aristeas) suggests that the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt were working in a "Homeric paradigm" as they translated. Looking at the Greek text, I think the translators were acutely aware of the various "paradigms." Here they are in a polytheistic state (the one where they'd been enslaved as a people for so long) and that state was dominated further by another polytheistic state where the central city was named after the conquerer, Alexander. Alexander had imposed (through his great domination of the world); Plato and his Socrates had transposed (through dialectic what poets and playwrights and sophists had woven into the cultural literacy of the Greeks); and Aristotle had proposed a more factual Truth altogether. I imagine (from our best histories and from looking at the translational choices) that the Jewish translators knew what Aristotle was trying to do when he read, through his lens of Logic, what Hesiod said about beginnings. In Metaphysics (984b.20 and following), Aristotle distorts what Hesiod has written by himself writing:

ὑποπτεύσειε δ’ ἄν τις Ἡσίοδον πρῶτον ζητῆσαι τὸ τοιοῦτον, κἂν εἴ τις ἄλλος ἔρωτα ἢ ἐπιθυμίαν ἐν τοῖς οὖσιν ἔθηκεν ὡς ἀρχήν, οἷον καὶ Παρμενίδης· καὶ γὰρ οὗτος κατασκευάζων τὴν τοῦ παντὸς γένεσιν πρώτιστον μέν (φησιν) ἔρωτα θεῶν μητίσατο πάντων, Ἡσίοδος δὲ πάντων μὲν πρώτιστα χάος γένετ’, αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
γαῖ’ εὐρύστερνος . . .
ἠδ’ ἔρος, ὃς πάντεσσι μεταπρέπει ἀθανάτοισιν, ὡς δέον ἐν τοῖς οὖσιν ὑπάρχειν τιν’ αἰτίαν ἥτις κινήσει καὶ συνάξει τὰ πράγματα. τούτους μὲν οὖν πῶς χρὴ διανεῖμαι περὶ τοῦ τίς πρῶτος, ἐξέστω κρίνειν ὕστερον· ἐπεὶ δὲ καὶ τἀναντία τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς ἐνόντα ἐφαίνετο ἐν τῇ φύσει, καὶ οὐ μόνον τάξις καὶ τὸ καλὸν ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀταξία καὶ τὸ αἰσχρόν, καὶ πλείω τὰ κακὰ τῶν ἀγαθῶν καὶ τὰ φαῦλα τῶν καλῶν, οὕτως ἄλλος τις φιλίαν εἰσήνεγκε καὶ νεῖκος, ἑκάτερον ἑκατέρων αἴτιον τούτων.

It might be inferred that the first person to consider this question was Hesiod, or indeed anyone else who assumed Love or Desire as a first principle in things; e.g. Parmenides. For he says, where he is describing the creation of the universe, Love she created first of all the gods . . .
And Hesiod says, First of all things was Chaos made, and then/Broad-bosomed Earth . . ./And Love, the foremost of immortal beings, thus implying that there must be in the world some cause to move things and combine them.

The question of arranging these thinkers in order of priority may be decided later. Now since it was apparent that nature also contains the opposite of what is good, i.e. not only order and beauty, but disorder and ugliness.

Without getting too diverted by Aristotle, isn't it important to read Hesiod's Theo-Gony alongside the Septuagint translators' Genesis?

Look at the play with the phrase Ἑν ἀρχῇ ("Right at the start") and with the phrase ὁ θεὸς "the god." (This god has yet no name, but in Greek has written vowels).  The backdrop is polytheism in the beginning, with a definite god figuring. Then there are the plays with ἡμέρα, not the personified Ἡμέρη of Hesiod (i.e., "Day") but the six "days" of the birthings, of the poetic creative ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς.

(In Hesiod: "Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Love, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day [Ἡμέρη], whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself. . . .")

Even more interesting to me are the perhaps unintended Hebrew-now-Hellene interplays between A) Γένεσις and B) τὴν γῆν and C) τῷ ποταμῷ τῷ δευτέρῳ Γηων and D) γινώσκειν καλὸν καὶ πονηρόν and E) γυναῖκα / γυνή. Here, in Greek (not Hebrew) there are rhymes --puns made between A) the title of the book "Birthings" and B) the "birthing ground" which the god made and C) the second River transliterated (in contrast to the first river transliterated to sound like the Greek word for snake) and D) the "birthing knowledge of good form and evil (see Aristotle's notes above).....and E) the womb-man for birthing.  (Homer and the lovers of his epics played with words in this way--which is something Plato and Aristotle even more despised and disparaged).

It's also fascinating that Adam is transliterated while "Eve" is translated, at first: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν Αδαμ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ Ζωή, ὅτι αὕτη μήτηρ πάντων τῶν ζώντων (Genesis 3:20). It's not until some point later in the text that Adam's wombman, his woman, his wife is called by the Hebrew sounding name meaning "life" or "Ζωή": Αδαμ δὲ ἔγνω Ευαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ (Genesis 4:1) -- which might be understood in Greek as "and Adam committed birthing knowledge on Eve, his birthing woman" -- but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself into the traditional chapter 4.

To sum up, the Jewish translators made Greek choices, knowing the various traditions of the Hellenes. They seem defiant and rebellious in working against Aristotelianism and perhaps Platonism. The prefer the wordplays, the puns, the creativity, the novelties in sound tradition, the pluralities within which to re-cast their mono-theism. These are the things of Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, even of Sappho, and especially of mother Helen (μήτηρ πάντων τῶν ζώντων of pan-Hellenism).


  1. Like your new blog w/ a focus via the name and a limit via the time of writing.

    Am in FW, noticing something interesting: a huge majority of the homes here have potted bushes flanking the front doors or steps to the front doors.

    You look at these things and study them via the language. I am looking at this cultural sign and wondering about the context of it all (having lived in Manhattan, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe...).

    Is this a feminist element? I've had quite a debate about this, tongue in cheek, with my husband who grew up here. I could go on a bit about what I think it means but don't want to diverge from your topic at hand.

    You mentioned in an earlier post here that you were encouraging your family to read the Bible this year. Our outgoing president has read the Bible front to back each year. Go figure that one, too.

    I like your perspective and what you have to say and am glad, once you have your Ph.D. that you are giving a focus and outlet to your area of expertise.

    New Year Cheers...

  2. Kurk,

    Did you see that Martin Shields is also re-translating Genesis 1?

  3. >H.A.,
    "Is this a feminist element?" Wow, I'd never thought about this. Please say more -- it may be more on topic than we first imagined? And our president-elect inspires my family to read the bible somehow more than the outgoing president has. New Year Cheers to you too!

    Thanks -- I'd like to see what Martin Shields is doing.


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