The King James Bible and the Kabbalah

Thursday, 4 August, 2011 - 1:05 pm

The King James Bible and the Kabbalah


This essay will explore whether Kabbalistic ideas found in the classical work of the Midrash referenced to in the contemporary Jewish English translations of the Torah can also be found in the King James Bible of the seventeenth century. We will argue that according to the traditional Jewish translations, there are two Biblical verses that can be perceived as pertaining to Kabbalistic ideas, whereas in the King James Bible (KJB) both translations seem to elude this deeper interpretation from the Midrash, whether knowingly or inadvertently. This is despite the fact that it helps to a certain degree with the literal reading of the Biblical text.


Although we are discussing principally a Midrashic homiletic teaching, this question is also of interest, as it might give us insight into the extent of the appreciation of ideas found in the Kabbalah in 16th century and 17th century in Western Europe during the times of Tyndale’s translation and the KJB. It is true that the 16th and 17th century was a golden era for the Kabbalah, which included the great Kabbalists Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), Rabbi Moshe Kordovero (Ramak) (1522-1570) and Rabbi Chayim Vital (1543-1620), a foremost exponent of Lurianic Kabbalah, who recorded much of his master's teachings. Nevertheless this does not mean the teachings stretched to Western Europe and certainly not England, as can be possibly deduced from this essay.


In the well known opening of Genesis (2:4-5) it states, ‘And G-d saw the light that it was good, and G-d separated between the light and between the darkness. And G-d called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.’


The final disjointed words ‘one day’ after the words ‘it was evening and it was morning’ are the literal translation of the Hebrew ‘Yom Echad’.


The King James Bible however writes, ‘And G-d called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.’ The King James substitutes the literal word Echad ‘one’ for Rishon ‘first’.


The question is: why does the Torah write ‘one’ and not ‘first’, as it does with the rest of the days, second, third, etc?


There are two approaches to answering this question, one grammatical and one interpretive. Leading medieval Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides (1194-1270), explains that ‘one’ in our case means essentially ‘first’. The reason why it writes ‘one’ is simply due to the fact that second and third days of creation had not yet transpired - one would therefore not write in the Hebrew ‘first’ but rather ‘one’.


Ibn Ezra (1089 - 1164) takes a slightly different approach and adds the word ‘shel’ meaning ‘of’ or ‘constituting’ before the words ‘one day’. The verse is simply saying that evening and morning together constitute one day. In the English, then, according to Ibn Ezra, it would be translated as ‘evening and morning was of one day’.


The King James Bible thus seems to follow the translation not of Ibn Ezra in this case but of Nachmanides who seems to support the translation ‘first’ rather than ‘one’ in this context - except for the fact that in the Hebrew one doesn’t write first unless there is already a subsequent second and third.


The question therefore remains on the majority of the Jewish translations: what can this disjointed style of wording - ‘it was evening and it was morning, one day’ - allude to?


The classical rabbinical work of Midrash Rabbah offers the following interpretation, which is also quoted by the Biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040 - 1105). Rashi writes, ‘For the language of this portion to be consistent it should have said "the first day," as is written concerning the other days, "second, third, fourth." Why, then, is it written here "one"? This is because on this day G-d was alone in His world for the angels were not created until the second day. This is the explanation in Bereishis Rabbah.’ It is as if it would have said ‘day of the One’ or ‘day of G-d’s Oneness’.


It seems obvious that the Jewish translation above has this Midrashic reading in mind when it left the literal word ‘one’, rather than first, in the translation and also left the language disjointed, as in the Hebrew itself. This Midrashic interpretation deals with these two problems.  Firstly, the literal meaning of the word ‘one’ refers to G-d, rather than the day, and therefore could not have said ‘first’. Secondly, it explains the disjointedness of the words, since ‘one day’ is not attached to the preceding words about the evening and the morning, but is about the existence of G-d on the first day of creation, namely  that He was alone in the universe.


Kabbalah in the Biblical text


What is interesting about the Midrashic interpretation is that according to a contemporary rabbinical work Likkutei Sichot (vol. 25 p. 1) by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, it openly points to a Kabbalistic concept about the unity of G-d. The Biblical word ‘one’ in our case is termed as ‘alone’ in the Midrash. This alludes to the Kabbalistic concept of the absolute Unity of G-d, indicating that on the first day of creation G-d’s absolute unity was manifest, since existence had not yet become an independent entity.


According to the Kabbalah the world is brought into existence on the first day of creation from nothingness. This existence of the world however is only a perceived reality but in truth as far as the transcended G-d is concerned there is still the absolute Oneness of G-d. The reason for the perceived reality is due to concealment – Tzimzum - of the transcendent Divine light allowing it to radiate into the world.


However, were there to be a direct emanation of the transcendent all encompassing Divine light, called the will of G-d or the ein sof, our perception of reality would be the reality of G-d’s Oneness, rather than of our existence. The perceived concealment would dissolve and we would only see the Divine life force. According to the Midrash, it is this transcendent light that radiated on the first day allowing for the unity of G-d to be manifest in existence.


This profound concept of the manifestation of G-d's transcendent existence on the first day of Creation (based on the above understanding of the Midrash) is not to be found in the King James translation ‘And the evening and the morning were the first day.’



This may explain why all the traditional Jewish translations of the Torah, including Hertz, Cohen, Samson Raphael Hirsh, Artscroll, Sharfman’s linear, JPS’ interlinear, Kaplan’s Tree of Life, Gutnick and others, apart from the King James Bible and the New English Bible, favour the translation of the word ‘echad’, as ‘one’ rather than ‘first’.


Another distinction between the KJB and the rabbis


A similar distinction between the KJB and the other translations is also in another verse in the same chapter in Genesis. It says in the traditional Jewish translation quoted above (1:4), ‘And G-d saw the light that it was good, and G-d separated between the light and between the darkness.’ This is a literal translation of the Hebrew with the word ‘bein’ meaning ‘in between’ written twice.


The King James Bible however writes ‘And G-d saw the light, that it was good: and G-d divided the light from the darkness.’ Is there any substance to the difference between the two translations - ‘G-d divided the light from darkness’ and ‘G-d separated between the light and between the darkness’?


The verse seems to be reasoning that G-d saw that the light was good and therefore He separated between the light and between the darkness. Interestingly, this is the way the New English Bible puts it: ‘G-d saw that the light was good, so G-d separated the light from the darkness.’


However, it can be read that G-d did not just separate the light from darkness, as the KJB translates, as this would be superfluous - light by definition is separate from darkness.  Rather it can be understood to mean that G-d made a separation within the light itself, thus justifying the additional words ‘in between’ the light. This however seems even more perplexing!


The explanation for this can be understood in light of our above Kabbalistic discussion. G-d didn’t just see that the light was a good and fitting creation on the first day but rather He saw there was goodness within the light that was too intensely spiritual for Man to appreciate. He therefore separated it from the more beneficial light that the world was able to benefit from.


This idea is indeed indicated in the commentary of Rashi, ‘G-d saw that it was not fitting that the wicked should have the use of it [light], He, therefore, set it apart for the righteous in the World-to-Come.’ Clearly the light Rashi is referring to is something out of this world and spiritually transcendent, which is only suitable for the righteous in the World-to-Come.


This interpretation, though venturing into the mystical, allows for a more literal reading of the words ‘G-d separated between the light’ and it is alluding to a Divine transcendent light that emanated on the first day that had to be set aside from the more material light from which the world benefit. 


It is this same unique, radiant and spiritual Divine light that represents the Oneness of G-d on the first day of creation, which as we explained earlier is the reason for the term ‘one day’ rather than ‘first day’.


We have thus shown the consistency of the mystical being brought into the reading of the Biblical text through the Midrash and embraced by most of the traditional Jewish translations, although, not surprisingly, this seems to be lost in the translation of the King James Bible of the 17th century.


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