The book of Genesis: on not beginning at the Beginning

The first Creation myth in Genesis does not start from nothing: Elohim, the (formless) earth, “the waters,” “the deep,” and “the darkness,” and the divine spirit or breath or wind all pre-exist the creative activity described in the text.

UCLA’s Jack Hirshleifer Faculty Tanakh Study Group, having worked its way through First and Second Samuel (the story of Samuel, Saul, and David) has decided to turn its attention to Genesis. I’m way behind in posting to this blog the notes I send out to the Hirshleifer group on each week’s discussion; at some point I’ll try to get caught up on Samuel, but for now I’m going to try to keep pace with the discussion of Genesis.

[Now that we’ve finished, I can say that what Alter calls “The David Story” is both the first and the best historical-political novel ever written, surpassing even the Cyropaedia. Ahitophel’s advice to Absalom about the court concubines is the first reference in world literature to a commitment strategy.]

On, then, to Genesis 1. Everyone knows the first verse.

In the beginning (b’reisit), God (Elohim) created (barah) the heavens (ha-shamayim) and the earth (hah-aretz).

Most of us have been taught that the opening chapter of Genesis is a story of the creation of the world, performing the same function as the Hesiodic Theogony or the Babylonian Enuma Elish: or, in a sense, the contemporary Big Bang theory.

Well … not perzackly.

” Modern translators have finally caught up with the eleventh-century Rashi, who pointed out more than 900 years ago that b’reishit is in the Hebrew grammatical form called the “construct.” So the translation should be something like “When God began to create…” or “In the beginning of God’s creating …”

Except that “create” is also wrong. Barah is closer to “divide,” or “separate,” or even “differentiate.” In the story of Korach, it refers to a rent in the earth.

Moreover, the story is not, one might say, begun at the beginning. Verse 2 says:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The phrase that the King James translators render “without form and void” is tohu v’bohu But it is not the case that “tohu” is a word meaning “formless” or that “bohu,” standing alone, means “void” or “empty.” Tohu v’bohu seems to be an idiom, like “topsy-turvy,” or “at sixes and sevens.”

“The deep” translates the Hebrew word tehom, which seems to be cognate with the name of the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, the sea-monster who is the mother of all things. In Hebrew, as in English, a common noun in that position would take a definite article: the deep. But the verse simply says “over the face of “tehom,” or perhaps we should read that as a proper noun, “Tehom.” Some scholars date the text to the Exile and place its composition in Babylon; if so, those writing and reading it would have had the Babylonian creation story in the back of their minds.

“Spirit of God” translates the Hebrew ruach elohim “And a ruach elohim swept over the face of the deep (tehom).” [In each case “face” translates p’nai, which can mean “surface” but whose primary meaning is a human face.]

Ruach is literally wind, but by extension breath, and since to breathe is to live, animation, and thus spirit. Perhaps the text is telling us in mythical terms how it is that spirit interacts with matter.

And “elohim”? Could be possessive: “A wind from God,” or as the KJV has it, “The Spirit of God,” but also could be adjectival: the wind could be “divine,” or “mighty,” or “awesome.”

In any case, both the aretz and tehom, the land and the ocean depths, pre-exist the b’reishit. So do the mayim, the waters, and the chosech, the darkness. It is those materials that God divides or separates or differentiates.

Is it mere accident that shamayim, “heavens,” includes mayim, “waters”? An ancient commentator says that shamayim indicates a combaination of aish, “fire,” and mayim. We’ve already had earth, and air in the form of the ruach elohim. So in the first two verses the author has named the four classical elements. Coincidence?

In any case, the story of b’reishit does not, in fact begin at the Beginning. Earth, water, the deep, the darkness, the wind, and Elohim all pre-exist the creative act. As the Talmud says, the first letter of the text is bet, not aleph: the second letter of the alphabet, not the first. The story starts in the middle.

The name of the letter bet is also a word, meaning “house;” the letter was originally an ideogram. (Aleph is “ox” and gimel is “camel.”) The story describes the construction of a world that we can live it, and that constitutes our home in the most comprehensive sense.

Nor does our text try to answer the question that Hesiod and the authors of the Enuma Elish answer, the question that occurs to any five-year-old: “If God created the world, who created God?”

The lack of a complete creation story suggests that the text cannot have been meant cosmologically, as a physicalistic story of the origins of the world. Therefore, it is said, this must be a piece of poetic metaphysics. But that is not how it has been received by most readers. Should we assume that the esoteric reading is the “real” or primary one?

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Light is the first created thing; darkness, we have seen, pre-existed. Having crated light, Elohim finds it “good.” No such goodness is ascribed to darkness, and Elohim separates them.

[“Elohim saw the light, that it was good,” (or, “Elohim saw that the light was good”) seems surprising; are we to understand that God was surprised? That light was an experiment, and might have come out differently?]

If indeed the text was written in Babylon, its authors surrounded by worshippers of other gods, then we might look for polemic at various points. For example, the identification of the Deity with light ,might be a rebuke to Zoroastrian dualism, in which Ormuzd and Ahriman, the god of Light and the god of Darkness, eternally co-exist. And by making Elohim the creator of light itself, the text seems to rule out the idea that Light is the name of a divinity. (Later we will see Elohim creating other possible objects Babylonian worship: Sun, Moon, stars.)

Although “Elohim” is a plural form, it takes (usually) singular verbs. That might be a rebuke to polytheism.

The light created in Verse 3 is light in the abstract: there is as yet no sun, no moon, no stars, no fire. It might represent the “light” of understanding, but, separated from darkness, the light becomes Day, and the darkness Night; the first things said to be named by Elohim. Later in the text Elohim will name Heaven and the oceans; the rest of the naming is left to mankind.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: