Those who have studied the opening verses of Genesis in Hebrew will know that there is a seeming grammatical inconsistency which leads to alternative understandings of the opening verses. These different approaches are reflected, on the one hand, in The King James and New International Versions, for instance, as “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”; and, alternatively, in the Good News Version as “In the beginning, when God created the universe” and in the Common English Bible as “When God began to create the heaves and the earth.
The difference between the two approaches has real significance in terms of the question of the order of creation: the first view would have “the heavens and the earth” as the first creations; the second might have it as “light.” Perhaps even more enticing, the second approach may well suggest “heavens and earth” pre-existing the creation, very probably the source of the ancient Midrash suggesting that this creation was built on earlier cycles of creation.
(I need to pause here only briefly to apologize to any reader who might find the opening lines of this piece patronizing and dripping with pseudo-intellectual self-importance. “Those who have studied the opening verses of Genesis in Hebrew” indeed! But the truth is that I only know of three people who even know that this website exists, and all of them have certainly studied the opening verses of Genesis in Hebrew and are well-aware of the classic discussions of the grammar in the verse. And none of them is the slightest bit patronizing or self-important. If someone else might stumble on this piece, perhaps looking for photos of the Big Bang, and would like me to explain this grammatical thing in the opening words of the Bible, just drop me a note and I’ll be happy to oblige.)
But, however we want to look at the words of this opening, one thing is clear: there is a “beginning.” In classical theology – Jewish theology, in any case – that concept is not at all easy to understand. Our theology begins with an acceptance of the “infinite” nature of God. I am not going to lose myself in the maze of that idea at the moment, other than to say that God must be, by virtue of this infiniteness, not simply older than anything else or older than time, but qualitatively beyond time. He is not subject to it, affected by it. His existence is “other than of time.”
That statement is, of course, ridiculous. It is “non-sensical” in the most basic definition of that word. It makes no sense. We cannot possibly understand the idea of anything whose existence is “other than of time.” Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) wrote in one or two places about “forms of life.” By this he meant some idea or axiom so basic to human existence that it defines how we live; we could not consider it functioning otherwise. For instance, I am speaking to someone at the distance of three or four meters. My attention is suddenly diverted elsewhere for no more than a second or two, and when I turn back, the person to whom I was speaking is no longer there. What has happened to her? I may wonder if she has very quickly left the room, been kidnapped, even whisked away by an alien spacecraft, if I am given to that particular paranoia. All of those might have happened. It would never occur to me that her molecules simple dissipated, that her physical form simply ceased at the molecular level. That is not how our world works. That is not a possible form of life.
There is no “form of life” more quintessential to human beings than the functioning of time.
I do not simple mean here that we all know that there are years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds which move inexorably. I mean that we cannot conceive of anything being, except within the framework of time. I scratch my nose. That is an activity. That is an action. Any action must begin with some instant, travel through some process and end at some instant. That flow of begin-process-end is a flow of time. Were I to take a million still photos of me in the process of scratching my nose, no single photo would be the “scratching of my nose” because scratching my nose is a process, and a process must proceed through time.
Physics is defined as the study of the interactions of matter and/or energy. An interaction must contain action; action can only function through time. What anything is or might be or might not be can only be conceived of through time.
So when I say that God’s existence is “other than of time”, there is no way that a human mind – which can only perceive and function within the cognizance of time, can possible grasp such a concept.
I am tempted to complicate the question linguistically. As the three people I referred to above who know about the existence of this website will already know, there is no present tense state-of-being verb in the Hebrew language. That is to say: If I want to say in Hebrew that I was happy, there is a Hebrew word for was. There is, similarly, a word for will be if I want to say that I will be happy. There is, however, no Hebrew word for the present tense of the verb To Be, for the words am or is or are. If I want to say that I am happy, the Hebrew sentence will be composed of: I happy.
Similarly, to say that God exists beyond time, to say that God simply is, the sentence would be composed of: God.
So beyond, “In the beginning”: God. The singularity of this, the perfection of this resonates as a mode of existence outside of place or time or quarks of matter. God.
Perhaps a metaphoric approach: Lurianic mysticism postulates that no physical world could exist within the perfection which is God. Physicality is, by its nature, imperfect. All things are subject to the degeneration caused by time. All living things die; all inanimate objects decay. How can a physical world be when all is only the presence of the perfect God who is? For creation. then, to occur, God must withdraw himself slightly, contract his perfection slightly, to allow place/time for the existence of imperfection. Without this Act of Grace, there can be no imperfect physicality that can co-exist with God’s perfect Being.
And of course I have no idea what that means. My mind cannot conceive outside of time and space. How could I possibly understand the contraction of perfection to allow for imperfection? the contraction of “beyond time” to allow for the existence of time?
Another annoying note. The study of how we know things is called “epistemology” which basically translates as “the study of how we know things.” Epistemologists ask if any of these religious speculation can really be considered “knowledge” at all. If they cannot be measured, proven or disproven, held up to the same evaluation criteria as other kinds of knowledge: (how much is 2+2? What is the capital of Denmark? What does a rose smell like?), in what way can these be considered areas of knowledge at all? But that discussion is for another time.
But this much must be clear from the opening words of Genesis: “Beginning” is, in itself, a creation. In order for there to be a physical world, time/space must be made. There is an echo of this in the opening phrase of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created. . . .” Imponderable for the human mind is the religious belief that even as the world has been created — time and space, physics and astronomy all go on –God nonetheless “is” outside of time. This co-existence of “existence” and “beyond existence” is not only a linguist absurdity, but a logical impossibility.
Some will see this as the essence of faith; others as the folly of religion.
I spend too much time thinking about this, and I generally go back and forth about it in my mind. And sometimes I sit alone quietly and wait for the phone to ring.
– copyright 2013 Gary M. Levine
Genesis 25 – 10 And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. 11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13 And, behold, the Lord stood above ??? and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;
-King James Translation
Jacob, having taken the birthright from his brother and the blessing from his father, is now leaving home to stay with his mother’s family in Haran. This revelation from God that he receives on the road is, in fact, the end of the story of the second generation -the generation of Isaac -and the beginning of the third generation, the generation of Jacob.
The angels climbing up and down the ladder is a striking metaphor although, as is usually the case, the text stops short of suggesting what the metaphor may actually be meant to represent. Commentators and interpreters run the gamut considering this dream image: Jacob’s personal guard, the guardians of different geographical locations, the guardians of the world, a retelling of the past, a prophetic foretelling of the future.
There are, in any case, three elements to this vision: God, Jacob and the ladder. You will note that the translation I give above presents three question marks in verse 13. This, the perceptive among you will realize, is not part of the original King James translation. Rather, it indicates a translation problem which I would like to bring to your attention.
The original Hebrew states: “vehinei HaShem nitzav alav vayomar.” The Hebrew alav is a prepositional pronoun meaning “above him” or “above it.
I have noted elsewhere that the two or three people who might actually be reading this, all know Biblical Hebrew as well or better than I, so that the options of translating the pronoun is obvious to them. Should someone have stumbled across this page, however, while searching for instructions of building the child’s toy of wooden slats and colored straps, let me quickly note here that Hebrew, like French and unlike English, assigns gender to all nouns and pronouns. Alav is a masculine pronoun.And in the context of this chapter, it can mean either “above Jacob” or “above the ladder.”
And indeed, we find translators and commentators divided between these two choices.
Over it (the ladder)
American Standard Bible
Contemporary English Bible
1599 Geneva Bible
King James Version
Over him (Jacob)
Complete Jewish Bible
New Revised Standard – Anglicized
New Revised Standard – Catholic
And certainly the classic Jewish commentaries are similarly divided in their translation of the pronoun, although I will not list them all here.
A closer reading of the verses will suggest to us that those who interpret the word as “above it” or “above the ladder” are following the more classic view of the use of the pronoun: it is generally presumed to refer to the noun most recently used. That would clearly be “the ladder.” Jacob is last referred to at the beginning of verse 12, whereas the ladder is referred to both in the middle and at the end of that verse. The presumption that the pronoun would refer, then, to the ladder would seem the more natural choice.
behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it…
Those who see the pronoun as referring to Jacob, though – or at least it would seem this way to me – are noting that although Jacob has not been mentioned by name since the beginning of verse 12, he is about to be addressed here, immediately after the use of the pronoun, although not by name. However, God is surely not addressing the ladder:
And behold the Lord stood above it and said: I am the Lord, God of Abraham thy father…
The phrasing of “and said” followed immediately by the quotation addressed obviously to Jacob, might be said to be missing the identity of the one being addressed by God, unless the pronoun reaches further back to the beginning of verse 12 for its antecedent.
And behold the Lord stood above him and said: I am the Lord, God of Abraham thy father…
In short, then, those who see the pronoun referring to the ladder are looking back to the phrase before, while those who see it as referring to Jacob are using the pronoun to better prepare for the phrase coming after.
Ordinarily, we would call this problem one of “indefinite antecedent”; we would circle the phrase in red and take off several points for the author’s failure to make clear to which noun he wished his pronoun to refer. But fundamentalist Jews who believe in the Divine authorship of the Five Books of Moses cannot consider the option of an editorial mistake by the author. The issues then slides over to what is called “poetic ambiguity.” By this we mean that the ambiguity of the pronoun is not an error but a conscious choice by the author who wishes to use the question of antecedent posed by the pronoun to focus our attention on an idea or ideas which might otherwise have escaped us.
And what might that be? The same three elements: Jacob, the ladder, God – are in play no matter how we read the verse. Does it really matter who is standing where?
I would suggest that it does. The position of two of the elements remains the same however we apply the pronoun: Jacob is on one side, viewing the vision of the ladder; the ladder is on the other, being viewed, if you will.
The ladder and its angels are “the system.” As we have said before, what exactly the meaning of that allegory is open to discussion: God’s supervision of the world, perhaps. Or the protection afforded to various countries of the world or to Jacob. An interesting question, but not our question at the moment. Whatever that system may be, the angels on the ladder established between heaven and early are clearly the system God has created for the overseeing of the physical or perhaps the spiritual world. Jacob, on the other hand, is very clearly, as God states here, the Jewish people -the next generational development of the Jewish nation.
The question our pronoun raises is central: where is God in this scene? The ladder on one side; Jacob on the other. God is certainly not in the middle. Is he a part of the system as he speaks to Jacob, standing above the ladder which reaches from the earth to the heavens, or is he apart from the system, standing with Jacob the Jew as he views the ladder from afar? Or to put it another way: Does God take his stand with the system and speak to the Jewish people as being part of the “system of the world”, or does God take his stand with the Jewish people and speak to the Jewish people as the God of the Chosen to which the system of the world is subordinate?
The difference is crucial, essential.
We have reflected in Midrashic literature spanning many centuries the concept that “the world was created for the Torah”, i.e. that the reason for the existence of all things that exist is that the Jewish people must live by the words of Torah. God stand with Jacob. There is a system by which the world runs, but it is and must be subservient to God’s higher goal for the world, which is the Jewish people.
But perhaps the real function of the Jewish people is to serve the world. The function of Torah is as a universal guide to the service of God which must be taught to all peoples. The Biblical admonition to be “a nation of Priests” is not meant as Priests who serve the Deity, but as Priests who serve the Congregation, who teach and minister, who bring man to God and God to man. In that sense, the Jewish people are a part of the plan of the world and not the entirety of it. God stands above the ladder and speaks to Jacob who lives in the world serviced by the system of the world.
Which is the correct perspective? God stands above “it”; God stands above “him”.
I don’t know. Poetic ambiguity. Perhaps both; perhaps neither. The goal of the ambiguity is to raise the question. Pretty much by definition, ambiguity leaves us with questions unanswered. It is ultimately the responsibility of every individual to choose for her or himself the place of God in the literary construction of the chapter and the theological construction of the world.
‘ Copyright 2014 Gary M. Levine
“A Man’s a Man for a’ that.” – Robert Burns