In the beginning of Paradise Lost, Milton paints and points and dallies, filling eight lines with sorrow and hope and mountains and fruit, disobeying the strictures of English grammar in favor of the more contorted Latinate, including, even, an “or” in line seven that threatens to undermine his progress, such as it is, until, in the beginning of line nine, he finally delivers the phrase “In the beginning”—the first words of Genesis—and then the sentence continues for several more lines, such that “In the beginning” serves as a sort of hinge, swinging the reader backward into the book’s preliminary lines or forward, if he will, into what follows, itself functioning as a sort of “or,” an opener of possibilities, a poser of questions.

It’s not over yet.

As if in tardy celebration of Milton’s 400th birthday (which, you’ll remember from all the parties, was last year), scholars and graphic novelists and rightist revisionists have been reworking the Bible. Certain conservatives are seeking to reform and void the King James version, which they view as troublingly liberal, while a Dutch scholar investigates Genesis’s first verb. R. Crumb’s Genesis is forthcoming, as is David Rosenberg’s Literary Bible. You're doubtless wondering, as I am: will any of these make the Good Book an even Better Book?

Let's begin with the conservative translation project, guided by ten commandments of sorts. One warns against “emasculation,” urging translators to avoid “unisex, ‘gender inclusive’ language.” Socialist incursions into Biblical text present problems, too (in one edition of the Bible, they write, “the socialistic word ‘comrade’ is used three times”). The authors of the Wikipedia-style page detailing this undertaking anticipate some discomfort with their ideas: “liberals will oppose this effort, but they will have to read the Bible to criticize this, and that will open their minds,” they write.

In analyzing this project, where does one begin?

The first word of the first sentence of the first book of the Bible, naturally.

With Milton's opening in mind, I decided to compare and contrast their version of Genesis 1:1 with the King James translation. The latter reads, “In the beginning God created heaven and the earth.” This makes sense; the first word of Genesis is “B’reisheet,” meaning “In the beginning.” The “Proposed Conservative Translation,” by contrast, reads: “God created heaven and earth in the beginning.” The site provides the following “analysis” as explanation: “The first word is God.”

All right. But it isn’t. Also, the explanation itself rings of the King James translation of the Gospel According to John ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"). If only they could offer a Miltonic defense for the revision--something about Classical syntax, perhaps.

Moving on to the second word of Genesis. Over in the Low Countries, academic Ellen van Wolde is scrutinizing the Hebrew verb “bara." She argues that it means not “created,” as traditionally understood, but “separated.”

According to The Telegraph, she based this conclusion on the observation that God always “created” in plurals: "God was the subject (God created), followed by two or more objects. Why did God not create just one thing or animal, but always more?" Genesis according to van Wolde, then, begins: “In the beginning, God separated heaven and earth.” The idea that heaven and earth predated humans appears in other ancient texts, she writes.

But let’s not dither. The third word of Genesis is Elohim, or God, whose details, physical and otherwise, have provided fodder for R. Crumb. While crafting his recent comic book Genesis, which hews closely to the King James text, he told Time:

He has a white beard but he actually ended up looking more like my father. He has a very masculine face like my father. My problem was, how am I going to draw God? Should I just draw him as a light in the sky that has dialogue balloons coming out from it? Then I had this dream. God came to me in this dream, only for a split second, but I saw very clearly what he looked like. And I thought, ok, there it is, I’ve got God.

(See picture at top.)

If this is getting to be too much, why not eschew that troubling sentence altogether? In his forthcoming tome A Literary Bible, David Rosenberg treats the Bible as a literary work rich with fissures and mysteries. Rather than insist on tidiness, as the conservative translators appear to, he delights in the work's innate messiness. He writes:

The Bible is a deeply complex text, and its primitive passages are set in a sophisticated writer’s looking back, so it’s the wrong material for literal-minded comedians and artists, who are prone to react before they think. My translations, whether they render the Bible as strange or strangely familiar, engage the ancient texts in contemporary terms. I do not seek to embellish or alter the originals, but mainly to restore the original experience of reading them.

That original chaos, he suggests, is most generative.

Originally Published: October 14th, 2009

Abigail Deutsch, the winner of Poetry magazine's 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing, lives in New York. Her criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, and other publications.

  1. October 14, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    eli, eli, lama sabachthani?

  2. October 15, 2009
     Wendy Babiak

    I love the quote from conservatives insisting that it'll be a good thing to get liberals to read the Bible because it'll open their minds (their minds are obviously OPEN...yikes). I just love that they assume liberals must not have read it (otherwise, they'd agree with the conservatives already, right?). Not that they might have read it and come to different conclusions. Too funny.\r

    The only thing more amusing is to have a bible-thumper quote that moldy old book to an atheist or a skeptic as if it had some authority. When God was passing out logic these guys must have been in the wrong line. Probably the one for self-righteous certainty.

  3. October 15, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Well, you know what you get when you cross an Atheist with a Jehovah's Witness, don't you?\r

    Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.

  4. October 15, 2009
     Wendy Babiak

    I love it! I had a couple of JW's at my door just the other day...I enjoyed myself. (I was very nice about it, too.)

  5. October 15, 2009
     edward mycue

    reading this post i think oh josephine (josephine miles) you would just love this! she wrote a book on milton's language (and the essay she wrote elsewhere on lycidas is so lively). this post would encourage and hearten her. like all my real friends i suppose jo is never dead in my mind. i hope this opens someone up to reading not only josephine miles' writing on milton but also her everwonderful poems. one place to start is "family" a short poem you can just google. edward mycue

  6. October 15, 2009
     Don Share

    Blake famously foundered on sweet cake, but if we join image to word, we can also talk, along with Mr. Crumb's, about such works as Basil Wolverton's graphic Bible... and maybe even the Manga Bible.\r

    The other day I stumbled upon a strangely designed tome, the Jewish Publication Society's Denim Bible.\r

    Then there are editions of Bibles famous for their mangling of the text, e.g., the "Wife-hater Bible" of 1810 in which Luke 14:26 says "If any man come to me, and hates not his father... and his own wife also", instead of "his own life."

  7. October 15, 2009
     Teri G.

    Or you could just burn them all.

  8. October 15, 2009
     David Rosenberg

    Always neat to see both Milton and the Bible read un-misrememberedly. Gary Fitzgerald, first respondent, quotes the Hebrew words that Jesus quoted on the cross. Thank you, Gary, for allowing history into the picture. Being a rabbi, Jesus knew well that these words were written many centuries earlier by a Jewish poet. But more crucially, it is the Jewish author of this gospel who knows very well that his contemporary readers will recognize the quotation as not only centuries old but as part of their standard liturgy. The tragic tone in Jesus' quotation echoes an earlier Hebrew prophet's--but the real irony is in the gospel writer's quotation of it as if Jesus remains a rabbi to the end, quoting his forebears. In that sense, he resembles Milton, or a contemporary poet's complex use of quotation.

  9. October 15, 2009
     Abigail Deutsch

    Would you consider that Denim Bible a work of jean-ius?

  10. October 15, 2009
     Don Share

    You'd have to ask the Levi-tes!

  11. October 15, 2009

    You're getting entertainingly close to calling a major religion a form of performance poetry. Thank you for that.

  12. October 15, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    I Am\r

    I was showing off my brand new\r
    old unabridged dictionary, huge,\r
    nearly two hands thick.\r
    Over fifty years old. Paid two dollars\r
    at a garage sale up in town.\r
    We all agreed that a '51 UD was worth at least\r
    a couple of bucks, but what the hell for?\r
    Who needs that many useless obsolete words?\r

    I said nothing is more important than words.\r
    They teach us and nurture and lead.\r
    They led us to civilization, right?\r
    And what was it that God said\r
    about words?\r

    Copyright 2008 – SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  13. October 15, 2009

    Good stuff, Abigail Deutsch. I do love it when a pandora type comes along and reopens the treasure chest.\r

    But, and except for the cultural ramifications, I wouldn't take too seriously the word meanings of the Old Testament. The Hebrews were late arrivals in the Levant, no earlier than 1100 BCE. My goodness. Sumeria was already forgotten to memory. Egypt was entering into its Middle Kingdom I think. The high civilization of the Minoans had already been swallowed up by both man made and natural disasters. And the conquest of Troy by the Myceneans was about to be a done deal.\r

    We all know how Europeans landing in the Americas called the two continents virgin territory. I hope we all know the Americas had for a good two thousand years supported thriving civilizations prior to the arrival. The case is parallel.\r

    When the Hebrews entered the Levant, coming out of the desert, they met with highly organized societies tending to the matrifocal. In order to establish themselves they had to call foul on all their neighbor-competitors, which they certainly did. And so the Goddess becomes a God, the notion of which has been a bugger boo ever since. Blake said it best when he called God a demi-urge and the Noboddaddy.\r

    You say this: "That original chaos, he suggests, is most generative."\r

    Here is the thing. To the ancient Egyptians, to Sumeria, even to the early Greeks, Chaos was known as generative and she was called Mother to all the Gods.\r

    One other thing. "In the beginning was the word" is a Greek translation of the ancient Hebrew. Word in Greek is logos. In Greek it means truth. I think Jung rightly pointed out that the greatness of Greek Civ. depended upon the two essentials it understood, the play, the dynamic, between Logos and Eros.\r

    By itself the word is never enough. Neither is truth in my opinion\r


  14. October 16, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Lots of desert tribes come out of nowhere into the metropolis, take over with purist energy, and then more or less soak in assimilated synergy. The Manchus in China, out of the Gobi. The Aztecs in Mexico, out of Atzlán.