One of my former Hebrew instructors has argued that recent translators of the Bible are still too influenced by earlier translations, especially the King James Version, and this negatively affects the rendering in English of many important passages.
A good example comes from Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (KJV). “Earth” in English means two things: The whole planet, or the soil in the ground. In Hebrew, However, the word is eretz and means “land”, look how it’s described in verses 9-10:
“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth…”
Thus, eretz is distinct from the waters that were gathered together and refers to “land”. And as for heaven:
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven (Gen. 1:7-8).
The Hebrew word is shamayim and means “sky”, or everything above the land and the seas. The waters above the firmament are clouds, and it’s also where the birds fly:
“And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven” (Gen. 1:20).
Getting back to Genesis 1:1, professor John Sailhamer, who holds a doctorate in Semitic languages from UCLA, explained that the phrase “Heaven and Earth”, better translated “sky and land”, represents a merism. A merism is an expression in which a combination words expresses a single meaning, the totality of something. “Lock, stock and barrel” has nothing to do with guns, but refers to “the whole of anything that has constituent parts” (Wikipedia). Professor Sailhamer cites an example from Psalm 139:2, “Oh Lord you know my sitting down and my rising up.” The Psalmist is using a merism to affirm that God knows everything about him.
Sky and land together in Hebrew simply means “everything”. There is no word in Hebrew for “universe”, so the totality of everything is expressed by a merism. If you’re at the beach looking at the horizon, you would see the sky above and the sea before you while you stand on land; that was the ancient Hebrew’s universe. The better English translation of Genesis 1:1 then being, “In the beginning God created the universe.”
The Hebrew scholar further argues that “In the beginning” cannot be a single point in time but an undisclosed duration of time. The Hebrew reshit (pronounced “reh-sheet”), “beginning” in the Old Testament is never used any other way. In Genesis 10:10 the word reshit refers to the early period of Nimrod’s kingdom, a block of time that precedes the later expansion of his dominion. The reshit of King Zedekiah’s reign (Jeremiah 28), for example, includes events that happened years into his reign. Moreover, the author of Genesis had other language tools at his disposal to clearly express a definitive beginning point of something.
Professor Sailhamer thinks this is important for understanding the creation story as it was understood by the Hebrews. He argues that the creation of the universe preceded the actions that followed:
“If, for example, God created the whole universe in the first verse, then what was He doing in the rest of Genesis 1? The very next verse provides the answer. Genesis 1:2 immediately focuses our intention on ‘the land’. Therefore the rest of the creation account (Genesis 1:2-2:4) is about God’s preparing the ‘land'” (Genesis Unbound: A Provocative new look at the Creation Account, p. 57).
He’s preparing it for human habitation and this is more cohesive with the overall message of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), the settlement of the Hebrews in the “Promised Land”, and the Mosaic covenant.
Another possible conclusion the professor’s suggests is that the text of Genesis shows that the creation account is not inconsistent with scientific evidence that today’s universe took billions of years to evolve. It is during this block of time, represented by “In the beginning”, that God created the universe. He calls his interpretation of Genesis “historical creationism” because it analyzes the text in its historical context.