Thursday, January 24, 2008

608. Done

A wonderful blogger linked to my site--thank you!--and I'm really enjoying her observations. On Tuesday she wrote about the difficulty of reading and interpreting spiritual texts in the context of actual life, and how the lines

Vayomer Elohim na'aseh adam betsalmenu kidemutenu
God said, "Let us make man with our image and likeness."

pose a particular challenge. The world of blogs is one big midrash factory, and her post got me thinking about those words and the ones immediately preceding, which I repeated over and over and over again last summer while preparing for Simhat Torah. In my Hebrew class (about which I've said little, since I'm always too busy doing homework), we've been navigating the stormy sea of verb forms. As I understand it, Biblical Hebrew has no past and future tenses; the closest it gets to those definite points of time and space are the perfect and imperfect tenses, which imply a conditional state and always leave the door a little bit open. (At this point I must add a disclaimer: I really don't know what I'm talking about. We're only 3/4 of the way through the textbook. Real Biblical scholars, please avert your eyes or laugh loudly as I offer the following ideas, which may be completely incorrect.)

The conversive (reversing) vav, that strange little letter which magically changes perfect and imperfect tenses to their opposites, further confuses the intent of words in the Bible. The conversive vav was originally a way to indicate sequence, and over a few thousand years morphed into a kind of past tense. Most completed actions described in the Torah use this construction rather than the perfect tense. The very beginning of the Bible employs both:

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.
Bereshit bara [perfect tense] Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets.

The earth was without form and empty, with darkness on the face of the depths, but God's spirit moved on the water's surface.
Veha'arets hayetah tohu vavohu vechoshech al-peney tehom veruach Elohim merachefet [perfect tense] al-peney hamayim.

God said, "There shall be light," and light came into existence.
Vayomer [conversive vav formation] Elohim yehi-or vayehi-or [conversive vav formation].

God saw that the light was good, and God divided between the light and the darkness.
Vayar [perfect tense] Elohim et-ha'or ki-tov vayavdel [conversive vav formation] Elohim beyn ha'or uveyn hachoshech.

When God acts (speaks, makes light appear, divides), those words are formed with the conversive vav, a tense that embodies timelessness: it was the future, but now it's the past. So what really came first? Can a story told in mere human language describe the concept of creation with any accuracy? I doubt it. Maybe the conversive vav appears in these instances to remind us that we'll never even come close to understanding the sequence of events.

Other words are in the perfect tense: God saw, God's spirit hovered over the water, and of course, God created (bara). These verbs suggest a more stationery state of watching, waiting and, during creation... being God. Bringing the universe into existence strikes me as a verb state all its own, not comparable to any word describing plain old action. Although the perfect tense carries some doubt ("vayar" could mean "he had seen" or "he might have seen" as well as "he saw"), it has no whiff of a future time. The acts are rooted, immobile. They happened, and life began. Everything else (perhaps even the firmament dividing part, who knows) is commentary.

(Biblical scholars, I hope you're still averting your eyes. I don't know if any of this makes sense with respect to the rest of the creation story, and there may be very good grammatical reasons having to do with J, E, D, P et al to explain the use of those two past tense constructions. But it's been fun to speculate.)

So I agree with Claire Joy's observation that we've thrown a wrench into things by trying to re-make God in our image. The first line of the Torah is clear: God created without need of a conversive vav--it happened, done with, no question who's in charge here. The rest is up to us.


Claire Joy said...

Whether the Biblical scholars want to laugh or cry makes no never mind for me. I am fascinated by your explorations and by the minute differences in translation that amount to a world of misunderstanding... ie: "Let us make man with our image and likeness." Not in... with. Does nobody but me think that is HUGE?!?

alto artist said...

But, you know what... I'm not sure that's a literal translation, either. The prefix "be" usually means "in," as in "betsalmenu," "in our image." But here they translate it a few times as "with"--in the next line, too ("God [thus] created man with His image.") There MUST be some long and involved rabbinic/historical reason behind this choice of words--I'm sure it's not just poetic license.

"With" is a VERY intriguing concept...

Thank you for visiting and helping me think about all these things!


Claire Joy said...

my suspician would be that neither in nor with are the whole story... that just our caring enough to puzzle it out makes God smile.