What Do the First Three Chapters of Genesis Really Mean? — Summary and Concluding Thoughts
This is the fifteenth and last article in a series, following on from an introduction. This is a summary of what has preceded with a few extra reflections, possibly for the benefit of any new readers who may be interested in going back to read some of the earlier articles. (For links to the whole series, please see this list.)
The series explores the claim of the French scholar Fabre d’Olivet (1767–1825) and Shabaz Britten Best, his modern admirer, that the text of Genesis as found in modern editions of the Bible has been subject to various mistranslations and misunderstandings, so that its true meaning has become obscured. In order to arrive at this true meaning we need to revisit the original Hebrew version, which was apparently lost for many centuries, modern versions being based on the Septuagint and the Vulgate. However, in 1515 Cardinal Ximenes published a book called the ‘Polyglot of Paris’, which included the original Hebrew text. This was studied and translated by d’Olivet about 300 years later in a book called The Hebraic Tongue Restored¹, which has been translated into English by Nayan Louise Redfield. Best’s commentary, which includes his own translation and esoteric commentary, is called Genesis Revised: the Drama of Creation².
The main claim is that Genesis is an esoteric text where the intended meaning has been concealed beneath veils of allegory. Best quotes two sources to confirm this viewpoint:
- Saint Jerome (the translator of the Greek Septuagint into the Latin Vulgate): “The most difficult and obscure of the Holy books, Genesis, contains as many secrets and mysteries as it does words, even concealing many mysteries under each word”.
- Mosheim (I assume he means the German church historian Johann Lorenz von Mosheim): “All the Fathers of the second century attributed a hidden and mysterious sense of the Mosaic Scriptures”.
This means of course that difficulties may well remain in any attempt to penetrate to the depths, and I am certainly not suggesting that this series has completely achieved this.
I’ll now list the significant differences between the modern versions and d’Olivet’s translation.
In chapter 1 we are apparently told about the creation of the universe and life on earth. In the original version, however, all this merely exists in potential. What is being described is something like a blueprint for existence, not its reality.
Also in chapter 1 (verses 26 and 27) , in modern translations (for example New Revised Standard Version — henceforth NRSV) we are told that ‘humankind’ was created. As the footnotes there concede, the original Hebrew word meant ‘Adam’. The translation as ‘humankind’ is therefore merely an assumption, seemingly an inaccurate one. The original text tells us that this was not intended to suggest physical humans, rather a spiritual entity with the potential to become human.
Modern scholars believe that there are two distinct and separate accounts of creation in chapters 1 and 2. One reason is that two words for ‘God’ are used, Elohim and Yahweh. In the original version, however, there is only one continuous narrative, Yahweh (the creative principle) being a manifestation or emanation of Elohim (the ultimate source). This is approximately similar to the Hindu distinction between Brahman and Brahma.
The suggestion that God ‘rested’ on the seventh day is therefore a misunderstanding. As Best puts it: “the beginning of the 2nd chapter states how AELOHIM ‘returned to the perfect peace of His own unique Ineffable Self, after producing IHOAH, the Being-Who-Is-Was-and-Will-Be’. IHOAH is the proper name that Moses gives to the Manifest Deity, Who appears for the first time only after the Supreme Being had completed his Sovereign Act, and HE then re-established Himself in His Ineffable and Immutable Divine Nature”.
Modern translations of chapter 2, probably influenced by chapter 1 verses 26–27, suggest that Adam and Eve were, or symbolically represent, the first humans. In the original version, however, they represented two aspects of the spiritual being created in chapter 1. Eve in general terms represents the soul principle within a single human, which becomes separate from the male principle.
It is only at chapter 3 verse 21 that this spiritual being becomes physical. NRSV has: “And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them”, and is therefore misleading. Best comments: “The ‘coats of skin’ naturally do not mean that God killed animals and made coverings for the bodies of our ancestors. It means they had by then become more densely physical, in contrast with the ethereal forms of the earlier Edenic period”. His own translation is: “And IHOAH made for Adam and his intellectual companion, sheltering bodies of increasing density, and enveloped them with care”. These ‘bodies’ are what in esoteric traditions are known variously as astral, etheric, mental, causal, and so on.
Chapter 3 describes the gradual descent of the spiritual being Adam/Eve into physical form through the acquisition of these various bodies. The Garden of Eden does not refer to any place on Earth, rather to a higher spiritual realm. Perhaps the hardest part to understand is that at some point this descent appears to be against the will of Yahweh (IHOAH as Best calls him), as if the Divine did not want humanity as we know it to exist, so that the descent into the material world by Adam/Eve was in some sense an interference in the divine plan.
Along those lines d’Olivet has: “But from the growth (growing might) of the knowledge of good and evil, not shalt thou feed upon any of it; for in the day of the feeding thine upon some of it, dying thou shalt die (thou shalt transmute to another state). Best’s similar version is: “But of the physical substance of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not feed thereon; for in the day thou feedest thereon, becoming mutable thou shalt die — pass into another state of being”. There is a clear prohibition here in both texts.
As an aside and not mentioned in my two source texts, the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son, which begins at Luke 15.11, seems to be in line with this interpretation. There the younger of two sons asks to be given his birthright (the fact that he was of the same nature as God), then takes it off to a distant country (the material world), thus exercising his free will, where he squandered this birthright “in dissolute living”. At some point he comes to bitterly regret this decision, and seeks to return home to his loving father (in the spiritual realm), who forgives his indiscretion and eagerly welcomes him back.
Best, however, resists such an interpretation, saying: “The truer and more mystical meaning of the ‘Fall’ was the descent of the human soul into physical incarnation, which was not a ‘sin’. Thereby we merely fell from a state of apparent helpless angelic innocence into individual activity. Only by such means was it possible to fulfil our role in the divine drama of Creation, make the tragic journey away from the conscious Presence of GOD, by the process of imposed involution, and so have the great adventure of all forms of material experiences, and then know the ‘joy of return’ to the heavenly abode by means of evolution”.
He further says that “it is these lower material planes and conditions that evoke the divine malediction”, thus not Adam and Eve themselves. This fits in with his and d’Olivet’s interpretation that the serpent symbolises desire or covetousness. The fact remains, however, that this is what is said to have tempted Adam/Eve downwards, apparently against the will of Yahweh.
It’s also worth pointing out that these lower material planes and conditions were apparently created by Yahweh himself, a point which Best does not address. It would seem that he is not accepting the most obvious meaning of his own translation. He is much more spiritually knowledgeable than me, however, so I have to accept the possibility that he is correct. I leave readers to reflect upon this difficult question of the true meaning of the Fall.
Whatever one makes of Best’s claims as to the origin and authenticity of d’Olivet’s translation, it does have some advantages. The primary one is that, unlike modern versions, it does actually make sense. We lose the ridiculous elements — Eve emerging from Adam’s rib, the references to nudity, fig leaves etc.
It also has great relevance for our understanding of the human condition, describing as it does the struggle between the personal self and the soul, and the true meaning of what it is to be human. As Best says: “The inherent antagonism of opposing forces within man, the spiritual versus the physical, is at the root of all the tragedy and drama of human life”.
It also has strong connections with other spiritual traditions, notably Eastern ones, where incarnation into physical form and the return journey are the focus.
I have explored in detail the first three chapters of Genesis, because they have probably had the greatest influence on developing Christianity. The two texts, however, also go on to discuss the following seven chapters. I would invite any reader who has found the material in this series interesting to explore further by consulting these two impressive books for themselves.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.
- The full title is The Hebraic Tongue Restored and the True Meaning of the Hebrew Words Re-established and Proved by their Radical Analysis, Kessinger Publishing Company. This is a reprint of the 1918 translation.
2. Sufi Publishing Co., 1964, 2nd printing 1970