Saturday, September 13, 2014

In The Beginning...

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
With these dramatic words opens the scriptural cannon. In themselves they are profound and have inspired volumes of philosophy and debate. Joseph Smith would famously see hints of the divine council in its opening words. Others would see a structured cosmology mirroring that of other Middle Eastern cultures. Some would find reflections of pagan myths of the subduing of chaos in the form of the sea. These opening chapters would be the sharpest contention in the confrontation of Science and Religion.

Grand Architect of the Universe
William Blake's Ancient of Days depicts
God as the Architect holding the Compasses
Modern commentators sometimes too easily dismiss the story as symbolic rather than literal without ever answering the all important question: "Symbolic of what?" What are we to learn from these stories? Why are they so central? Their themes recur repeatedly through the scriptures that follow in every volume of the Standard Works. Joseph Smith would reveal three more major accounts of the stories in these chapters, two in written documents and a third only taught orally in his lifetime in sacred ordinance settings.

In this entry I will take a closer examination of the Genesis account and specifically point out some things that are lost on the casual reader.

To begin let's start by realizing that there are two creation accounts in Genesis not one. The first account runs from 1:1 to 2:3. The second story begins in 2:4 and continues to 3:24. These two accounts were not unknown to early church leaders and Joseph specifically inserts an explanatory verse between them in his inspired translation of the Bible.

The First Creation Story

The first prominent point in the first creation story is the use of Elohim as the name of God. This is of course the common name for God throughout the Old Testament and King James Version (KJV) renders it simply as "God" in almost all cases. Because of this I will call this first account the E account and the second account the J account. Note that this naming is not unique to me and will likely be the subject of a future post. Also note that many refer to this first story as P, but I am not going to go there today.

 

In the beginning Elohim created [bara] the heavens and the earth. Note the verb bara here for creation. Its root indicates cutting and shaping such as making a reed for writing or an arrow. In biblical usage it is used only for divine activity and has the sense of ordering or organizing such as creating the nation of Israel (Is 43:15), or a transformation such as a clean heart (Ps 51:10) or using an interesting format with two direct objects, turning Jerusalem into rejoicing (Is 65:18). An especially interesting use of the word is in Is 57:19, where God creates the fruit of the lips or speech which will be be the vehicle by which all creation will be called into existence in the E story. The concept of ex nihilo creation is foreign to either of the accounts.



Creation begins not by describing nothingness but by describing chaos. In fact it is described by a nice rhyme. Rhyme is not used much in ancient Hebrew but it seems entirely intentional here that the earth is described as "tohu" and "bohu". Robert Alter, a biblical translator I greatly admire, describes it thus:



"The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it."
Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses
Alter tries to capture this feeling in his translation as "welter and waste" whereas KJV goes with the somewhat cumbersome "without form and void".



The next verses proves no less fascinating. We are told that darkness was upon the face of the Tehom [abyss or deep] and the spirit or wind of Elohim is brooding over the waters.



So before the first word of creation we have an earth, although a welter and waste one, and an abyss of chaotic waters, as well as darkness and a wind or spirit. None of these has God called into existence. Indeed they seem coeternal with God. Of note here is the word Tehom. It has a nice similarity to the tohu of the previous verse. It also however has a similarity to the goddess Tiamat who was represented as the chaotic waters and that relationship is worthy of some further post.



Also of note is the verb brooding (moving in KJV). This verb only occurs a few times. One important place it does is Deut 32:11 where it describes a bird brooding over her young. The image of the nurturing God protectively guarding his nest is striking and is a metaphore that is used several other times in scripture.



So finally into this dark void of welter and waste comes the first divine utterance "Let there be light!" And there was light! And Elohim sees the light that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning: day one.



This begins one of the very notable themes of the E story and that is the rigorous attention to time. How exactly evening and morning existed before the lights of the firmament is not clear but we are assured it did. Creation will be marked into six distinct periods with this same refrain. This idea of dividing and organizing is very strong through the E story and I will return to it.



Postscript

As I write this it seems to me that this will clearly be a multi-post topic as there is much more I want to say. I must apologize that this is my first time attempting a blog. I am hoping some readers find this useful and encourage me to continue. I have a passion for this type of discussion but mostly this has been done with close friends and private emails. Placing treasured thoughts on the internet for others to see is a bit unnerving although I certainly have a thick skin. I welcome all viewpoints of commentary but ask that even where we may disagree, we may do so with respect. Stay tuned for my next post that will continue exploring the E story.



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