Now for the moment of truth. How would I translate this verse if I were on some committee of translators? Here it is.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Incidentally, this is the same as the English Standard Version (ESV). You might be thinking, “Well, that was much ado about nothing.”
I know it might look that way. I ended up translating it almost the same as the King James, which has been around for over 400 years. The only change I made was to make heaven plural. Maybe you think Bible translation is like making sausage. Don’t show me the process. Just give me the end result. The thing is, we still need some people who know how to make sausage.
At an early age, I learned that there are some things in our English Bibles that were lost in translation, and I wanted to investigate them. In just this one verse, I found some things that could not be translated into English or even the ancient Septuagint.
Created comes before God to show something God did for us before revealing God’s name.
An untranslated word et reinforces important ideas: that the heavens and the earth are not deities but created by God, and that God created not only the heavens and the earth but everything in between and everything that exists in them.
The heavens is preferable to heaven or the heaven, because it includes every possible meaning of the Hebrew word ha-shamayim.
And even though I ultimately did not agree with the Masoretic Text (Hebrew) which said, “When God began to create heaven and earth,” that reading needed to be considered, and the reasons for changing it needed to be compelling. When the scribes and Rabbis who copied, preserved, and taught these scriptures in their original language for thousands of years tell you what they think it means, you need to at least listen, even if you disagree.
Also, the idea behind that reading is that creation did not happen all at once. It was a process of bringing order to chaos. That idea is important not only for the Bible but for life. God ordered everything about this world—light, darkness, water, land, sky, plants, and animals—just by commanding their patterns of organization, and I can’t even bring order to my office. But if God is so good at ordering chaos, maybe somehow God can impart just a little of that to me.
In the end, though, I think what is most important about this verse is it declares boldly that God not only created the heavens and the earth, but everything in between and everything that exists in them. The entire universe and all that is in it. That is why—with all due respect to Rashi and the Masoretes—I have to part ways with them here. But they took me on a fascinating journey, and I hope to have many more opportunities to explore with them on this wild, wild world of Hebrew scriptures.
This may sound weird, but one of my favorite hobbies is Bible translation. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to translate Hebrew to English, you can check out these posts on my Medium blog. I just did the first word, bereishit, and it took two posts. All that just for the first word? Yep. If you have a modern study Bible, you might see the verse read, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” But there might be a footnote saying, “Hebrew reads, ‘When God began to create the heaven and the earth'”.
In the Beginning, Part 2, and Justice for the Aleph. I get into some of the more technical aspects of translating bereishit. Then you can get some insight into the Rabbis who preserved and taught these scriptures over the millennia through a story of why they say creation begins with the second letter of the alphabet and not the first.
If you are following my blog on Medium, let me know in the comments if you like having a blog dedicated to religious topics. I will start posting some of my ideas on writing soon. After all, this is supposed to be an author’s blog.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (NRSV).
I’m sure some of them will say, “Well, what about Philippians 2:5-6?”
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
See? It says we should have the mind of Christ Jesus and think it is not robbery to be equal with God.
Problem is that reading is out of context. Context is so important to understanding the Bible, so let me explain what that means. Reading in context is about trying to figure out what the author meant when he wrote it, and what it meant to the audience it was originally written for. When I say something is being read out of context, I’m saying that is not what the author meant when he wrote it, and/or that is not what it would have meant to the original audience. When the author of Genesis 1:26-27 said the first man and woman were made in God’s image and likeness, he did not mean they were equal to God. The original audience would have thought of an image or likeness in the same way they would have thought of a statue, drawing, or painting of a person. It can look just like the person, but it is not the person. Therefore, reading image and likeness as equality is out of context.
With that in mind, does Philippians 2:5-6 say we should think of ourselves as equal to God? What does it say in context? That’s what I am about to examine.
Context: What does the verse really say?
To answer that, we have to dive into the Greek a little bit. If you didn’t know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew—except for a few chapters of Daniel that were in Aramaic—and the New Testament was written in Greek. Or maybe they thought Paul wrote in King James English. If so, you need to know he wrote in Greek, because that was the language of the people of his congregations. And because King James English was over a thousand years and hundreds of miles removed from even one person speaking it, but I digress. For us trying to understand today what any of the Biblical authors wrote, it is inevitable that some things will get lost in translation.
In Greek the word translated robbery in the KJV is harpagmos, which could mean “robbery” but also could mean something taken, plunder, a prize, or a thing to be taken or held onto forcibly. Most other translations say “a thing to be grasped.” So should we consider it not robbery to be equal with God, or should we consider equality with God not a thing to be grasped? More context is needed.
Context: What does it mean within this particular section?
In this case the section we are looking at is Phil 2:5-11. Here is the World English Bible’s translation, which I am using because it is not copyrighted.
5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So Paul starts with “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). I prefer the NRSV, which says , “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phi 2:5 NRSV). What does it mean to have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus? That is what Paul explains in the rest of the passage. We believe verses 6-11 were a hymn. If so, it could be the oldest Christian hymn we have record of. They didn’t know how to write music then, so we can only guess how it was sung. But the Christians in Philippi would have known and probably sung along in their minds as it was read to them.
Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death.
The hymn starts by describing Jesus as “existing in the form of God,” but then goes on to say in verse 7, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” So the hymn begins by contrasting his existence before he became a man with the human form he took as a man called Jesus of Nazareth. And when he was “in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, [even] the death of the cross.”
In between his being in the form of God and in human form, verse 6b says he “didn’t consider equality with God” harpagmos. This is a Greek word that can mean either “robbery” or “a thing to be exploited,” which explains the difference between KJV,
“Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:”
“though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”
In that context, which is more likely, that he did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, or did not consider equality with God a thing to be exploited? Considering how verses 7-8 stress how in his human form, he humbled himself, taking the form of servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, that does not sound like someone going around saying, “I don’t consider it robbery to call myself equal with God.” That sounds like someone who did not consider equality with God a thing to be exploited. Unlike us, he already existed in the form of God. He had the right to claim equality with God. But instead, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Paul is saying that is the mind of Christ that you should have.
Context: What else does the Bible say about this?
I’ve already talked about Genesis 1:26-27, where it says human beings were created not equal to God but in God’s image and likeness. This passage from Philippians makes the point more powerfully by saying even Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. That particular phrase also connects this passage with the Creation story in Genesis.
15 Yahweh God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. 16 Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” (Gen 2:15-17 WEB).
They can eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They should consider that poison, because “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” They were fine with that until a serpent told them,
4 … “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
(Gen 3:4-5 NRSV)
They probably never thought about being like God before. But now that the serpent put that idea in their head, they thought, “That would be awesome.” So at a tree on a hill, they considered equality with God a thing to be grasped, and they grasped it. Because of that, they were banished from the Garden. God would still be with them, but it would never be the same.
The Second Adam
In Romans 5:12-21, Paul describes Christ as a second Adam. When he was brought to a tree on a hill, he did NOT consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross—the perfect act of faithful obedience to God and loving self-sacrifice for us. And in so doing, he reversed the curse and restored our broken relationship with God.
Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death. He had a right to claim to claim equality with God, but instead he submitted himself to God’s plan to redeem humanity. How much more then should we stop grasping for equality with God and show God’s love through service and humility?
God Highly Exalted Him
That was the first half of the hymn. The second half describes how God highly exalted Jesus in response to his perfect obedience. He gave Jesus a name that is above every other name, confirming his status as Christ and Lord. Because God glorified him, he can be called equal with God. We cannot expect to be glorified in the same way. But Paul said in the book of Romans we are children of God and heirs with Christ “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17 NRSV). If we share in his suffering to redeem the world, we will also share in his glory.
Furthermore, he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 NRSV). We still won’t be equal to God. But whatever we are, it will be awesome.
Jesus is not a model for us to claim equality with God. He is the model of a servant who submits to God’s will, even when it means suffering unjustly at the hands of others. God’s will was for the redemption of humanity, even those who persecuted him. God’s will was to show the extent of God’s love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Only after Jesus’s death and resurrection did the disciples understand what it meant for him to be the Messiah. It meant suffering and death, not for its own sake, but to save others.
A Suffering Messiah
It was foreshadowed in one of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. God prophecies of someone called “My servant,” who is beaten so much that he does not even look human anymore. People see his suffering and think it must be the wrath of God on him. The servant does not demand justice, because he understands they do not know what they are doing. They are like lost sheep who have gone astray. Somehow they see God glorify him, and their conscience is pricked. They seek the one whom they once despised and rejected and want him to teach them the ways of justice and righteousness (Isa 52:13-53:12).
And the irony was he could have rescued himself. He could have exploited the equality with God that was already his. Before he came to us in human form, he was in the form of God. But he willingly surrendered his privilege as Son of God to become the suffering servant. If you want the mind of Christ, meditate on that for a while.
So if you think this verse is about how you can become equal with God, you have missed the point entirely.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back next time. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.