Last week, I was honored to be invited by President Jose R. Irizarry to be the Robert Jones Lecturer at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Dr. Timothy Beal and Dr. Patrick Reyes were the other two endowed lecturers for the MidWinter Lectures. I learned so much from both of them as they shared their work and research in their respective fields. Since my work on climate crisis overlapped Dr. Beal’s work, I asked him to share a bit of how his biblical translation of the first Creation Story impacts our outlook and action on climate change.
Dr. Beal’s book, When Time Is Short explores how religion, especially the theology of human exceptionalism, has fueled our denial of death as a species, and invites us to discover how a new-yet-ancient vision of “earth creatureliness” can help us break through that denial to find hope – deep hope, as opposed to shallow optimism – for living into a finite human future
Dr. Beal believes religion is interpretation. It’s about reading and rereading, connecting, and reconnecting, imaginatively re-membering the world. It’s about making new meanings from inherited traditions, including biblical texts, on new horizons of meaning. One of our most urgent tasks is to read ourselves out from under biblical interpretations that have inspired and ordained our delusional faith in human exceptionalism and our godlike dominion over the rest of creation. We need to estrange ourselves from what we think we know about these texts and traditions in order to reread and remember them with fresh eyes, to bring them back down to earth.
Translation is powerful in revisiting and rereading inherited religious texts. Dr. Beal states that we need to estrange ourselves from what we think we know and understand so well. New translations can help us do that by interrupting our familiarity with a text like this, reasserting its rich cultural, historical, and linguistic otherness. The Creation Story has become the most powerful inspiration for human exceptionalism and dominionism. If we are to fight climate change, we need new ways of reading and understanding the Creation Story.
Below is Dr. Beal’s translation of the Creation Story (Genesis 1:1-2:4a):
When Gods began shaping skies, earth, earth was bottomless brine.
Dark on deepsface. Gods breath brooding on watersface.
Gods said, “Is light.” Was light. Gods saw that light was pleasing.
Gods divided between light, between dark. Gods called to light, “Day,” to dark called “Night.”
Was evening, was morning day one.
Gods said, “Vault amid waters, dividing between waters to waters.”
Gods made vault, divided between waters under vault, between waters over vault.
So it was.
Gods called to vault, “Skies.” Was evening, was morning day two.
Gods said, “Waters under skies, gathering to one place, dry ground showing.”
So it was.
Gods called to dry ground, “Earth,” to gathering waters called, “Seas.” Gods saw that it was pleasing.
Gods said, “Earth greening green, grass seeding seed, fruiting tree making fruit of its kind, with its seed in it on earth.”
So it was.
Earth bore green grass, seeding seed of its kind. Tree making fruit, with its seed of its kind in it. Gods saw that it was pleasing. Was evening, was morning day three.
Gods said, “Lights in skyvault, dividing between day, between night.
They are for signs, for times, for days, for years. Lights in skyvault for light on earth.”
So it was.
Gods made two great lights: great light ruling over day, little light ruling over night. Stars too.
Gods put them in the skyvault, for light on earth, for ruling over day, over night, dividing between light, between dark.
Gods saw that it was pleasing. Was evening, was morning day four.
Gods said, “Waters swarming swarmlife, birds birding on earth on skyvaultsface.”
Gods shaped great seamonsters, every creepinglife, waters swarming with their kind, every birdwing of its kind. Gods saw that it was pleasing.
Gods blessed them saying, “Burst forth, breed, fill waters in seas. Birds breed on earth.”
Was evening, was morning day Five.
Gods said, “Earth bearing life of its kind: beast, creeper, earthlife of its kind.”
So it was.
Gods made earthlife of its kind, beast of its kind, every groundcreeper of its kind.
Gods saw that it was pleasing.
Gods said, “We make human in our form as our image.
They rule over seafish, over skybird, over beast, over all earth over every creeper creeping on earth. ”
Gods shaped human in his form, in godsform shaped him, male, female shaped them.
Gods blessed them.
Gods said to them, “Burst forth, breed, fill earth, tread it, rule over seafish, over skybird over every life creeping on earth.”
Gods said, “Behold, I gave you all grass, seeding seed on all earthsface, every tree with treefruit in it, seeding seed for you as food.
To every earthlife, to every skybird, to every creeper on earth with lifebeing in it, all green grass for food.”
So it was.
Gods saw everything made. Behold, it was very pleasing. Was evening, was morning day six.
Skies, earth, all their array, were finished. Gods finished doing work in day seven.
Rested in day seven from doing all work. Gods blessed day seven, hallowed it, for in it he rested from working, shaping, doing.
Some Translation Principles:
I translated ’elohim as a plural proper name, “Gods,” rather than as a singular proper name (“God”) or as a plural generic noun (“gods”).
I went with the most embodied, physical senses of words (e.g., “shape” instead of “create”; “face” instead of “surface”; “breath” instead of “wind” or “spirit”; and “called to” instead of “named”).
I invented a few neologisms by making compound words from construct phrases (“godsbreath,” “deepsface,” “watersface”).
Campbell University: 2023 Annual Christian Studies Lecture Series at Campbell University. Please do join me.
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