The Genesis of Time
Four Primordial Elements
Before there was nothing, there were many things; actually, just four of them; but their nature was so inchoate that Hebrew theosophists used commonplace words to label them. Donning their most omniscient garb, they speculated that when God decided to shape a space in which to place humankind, “he”—let me use for now a hardly applicable masculine pronoun—turned to four pre-existing elements for building blocks of a universe that would eventually stretch from heaven (שָּׁמַיִם) to earth (אֶרֶץ).
As it was told, there was an earthy ingredient (אֶרֶץ) that had neither function nor future, for it was תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ , a pair of alliterative words that together give a meaning distinct from their constituent parts (a farrago). Something like our “topsy-turvy” or “hodge-podge” might do for them. There was also darkness (חֹשֶׁךְ), set all about a watery mass so primordial that only a poetic word תְהוֹם (“the deep”), itself derived from absorbed lore, could come close to express it. These waters (מַיִם) were constantly churning, whipped by a mighty (or divine) wind (רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים) that was sweeping over it.
The Greek Translation: Against Pre-existing Elements
This is not how the opening is commonly understood. We owe the more usual reading to interpreters of the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Gen 1:1, ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν, (“In the beginning, God made the heaven and the earth”). It is difficult to determine why the third century B.C.E. Jews of Egypt (presumed to be the first of many other Mediterranean Jews that sought a Greek translation of Scripture) decided on this take for the opening verses.
Most likely, they were trying to produce a work that directly connected with their contemporaries, by emphasizing the uniqueness and transcendence of the Hebrew God. In this way, the translators sought to shield their readers from Hebrew passages that might hint of anthropomorphism or anthropopathism. They might also be veering away from the prevailing Hellenistic notions of a cosmos with components predating the gods.
In this sense, the Jewish translators were following the cautionary dictates of Deutero-Isaiah who expresses discomfort with the possibility that elements pre-existed creation:
ישעיה מה:ז יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְ־הוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה.
Isa 45:7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe—I YHWH do all these things.
ישעיה מה:יח כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְ־הוָה בּוֹרֵא הַשָּׁמַיִם הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים יֹצֵר הָאָרֶץ וְעֹשָׂהּ הוּא כוֹנְנָהּ לֹא תֹהוּ בְרָאָהּ לָשֶׁבֶת יְצָרָהּ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה וְאֵין עוֹד.
Isa 45:18 For thus said YHWH, the Creator of heaven who alone is God, who formed the earth and made it, who alone established it—he did not create it a waste, but formed it for habitation: “I am YHWH, and there is none else.”
Still, the LXX translation is an attempt to undo the basic meaning of the opening verses of Genesis which introduce primordial elements into the creation story.
Medieval Exegetes: In Support of Primordial Elements
The simple meaning was understood by a number of Jewish exegetes, who treated the opening words of the Torah as either a circumstantial or a temporal clause. In effect, not until verse 2 (Ibn Ezra) or verse 3 (Rashi) do we begin the initial description of what existed primordially.
If we follow Ibn Ezra, we would translate the beginning of Genesis something like:
בראשית א:א בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. א:ב וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר...
Gen 1:1 When at the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, 1:2 the earth was formless and void, with darkness over the deep, and a divine wind sweeping over the waters. 1:3 God said, “let there be light”....
Rashi’s gloss suggests the following similar translation:
1:1 When at the beginning God created (Or: When God began to create) the heaven and the earth (Or: The universe) – 1:2 the earth being formless and void, with darkness over the deep, and a divine wind sweeping over the waters – 1:3 God said, ‘let there be light’... .”
According to either of these translations, then, God utilizes pre-existing elements to create the world as we know it. This is the simple meaning of the text. In fact, depending on what era in antiquity you imagine the Hebrews were writing, they might actually be the first to report on a cosmological wisdom broadly shared in antiquity that was best articulated among Greek philosophers such as Empedocles of Sicily (5th c. B.C.E.). They spoke about earth, water, air, and fire, as the primordial building blocks of the universe. As succinctly stated by Parmenides (slightly earlier), ex nihilo nihil fit, “From nothing, nothing arises.”
The Creation of Time
Here is how the biblical version differed: As God began to muster futures for all these purposeless elements, he first conjures up a component ex nihilo, “from nothing,” merely by pronouncement. This component is אוֹר, “light.” God judges it to be good; yet by itself, this “light” too had no definition. So God contrasts it (יַבְדֵּל) with one of the primordial elements, חֹשֶׁךְ, “darkness.” With that act, “light” becomes יוֹם, “day,” (an unfortunate term, since it will eventually have several applications) while “darkness” becomes לָיְלָה, “night.”
As these two entities course after each other—primordial darkness as עֶרֶב, “evening,” then newly generated “day” as בֹקֶר, “morning”—something entirely new comes to be: יוֹם אֶחָד. These two words ought not be translated “first day” or “day one,” for which יּוֹם (הָ)רִאשׁוֹן might be expected, but “one day.” That is, “one day” as a measure for time as well as for its sequential alternation of nighttime and daytime, our civil day.
Brief though it may be, this passage introduces a God who is multi-faceted beyond the normal potential of any single pagan national deity: He summons, creates out of nothing, reorders and gives new shapes to existing elements. Above all, God pre-existed time, an instrument of his own devising (when he constructed “one day”), and so he cannot be assigned a pre-history, let alone a genealogy, as was common in ancient mythologies.
Shaping a Universe
With time serving as instrument, the real work divides into two phases. In the first, God dedicates Days 2 and 3 to preparing a world in which inanimates will come into realization. Day 2 follows the earlier pattern: God generates a second element out of nothing, a hammered object (רָקִיעַ) that serves to split primordial waters into two bodies, thus defining the space familiar to us.
Day 3 shapes our planet Earth. First, the lower waters shrink back to form Sea, allowing primordial, hodge-podgy, earth, to harden into Land. Then Land acquires its potential to generate vegetation (not animate, in Hebraic conception), setting the stage for the next phase (Days 5 and 6) in the creation process, the production of animates.
In preparation for those momentous events, God consecrates Day 4 to deliver the means by which animates could calibrate their own existence. Day remains a major unit of time; but in the vault (רָקִיעַ) that was also invoked ex nihilo, two orbs are set, the larger one (the Sun) controlling a major chunk of time we now call Year, and the smaller one (the Moon), defining a briefer interval we now call Month. God assigns them control of the diurnal oscillations that will chart for future creations a rhythm for life and a pattern for worship.
We need not detail here how, on Day 5, rivers and seas spawned living creatures nor how primordial air swarmed with insects and birds. Nor need we catalogue the richly detailed events of Day 6 that brought into being land animals, among them (and in favored position) humans, as a pair, in stark contrast to the uniqueness of the God after whose contours they were cast. What is worthy of notice is that we are still missing the Week from the other major calendric measures.
The Innovation of the Week
This missing unit, in fact, proves to be a clue for the motivation, if not also the inspiration, behind opening Hebraic history on creation. (In antiquity, this way of initiating the past is not at all germinal to the historiographic traditions.) For, by launching the saga of their people on a creative act, Hebrew historiographers were advancing a very distinctive myth: that the fashioning of the entire cosmos was just preparatory for the selection of Israel as a עַם קָדֹשׁ לַי־הוָה, “a people holy to YHWH” (Deut 26:19).
Having generated in six days all that there was cosmically to be, the Hebrew God consecrates Day 7 in which to celebrate the cessation (verb: שׁבת) of the creation process. This notice is by no means an afterthought, for it is anticipated throughout the text of Genesis 1 where crucial sentences and words had been couched in sevens or multiples of seven.
Yet, unlike the year, the month, and the day, each of which had birth in some celestial motion, the week is a very artificial construct; like the hour and the second, the week is based on no recurring stellar or planetary movement. Not surprisingly, until the triumph of Abrahamic religions in the West, none of the neighbors reckoned the passage of time with such a seven-day interval.
However, the Hebrews also knew of a recurring seven-day sequence independent of the lunar cycle or the civil month, a period that crested on the Sabbath, a cultically vital day. We can speculate endlessly on the etymology and origin of the Sabbath (שַׁבָּת), the special name Israel has given to its seventh-day consecration; in fact, the Hebrews themselves gave contradictory lore about its origins and goals.
Nonetheless, by opening the long story of “a people holy to YHWH” on a drama divinely choreographed to display the birth of a sanctified seventh-day that is uniquely Hebraic, Hebrew historiographers were able to glorify the special link between their people and a unique God– a rapport that is a principal theme in Hebraic theosophy.
Mythic Prose or Ancient Cosmology?
Faithful readers of TheTorah.com contributions need no reminding that all biblical narratives worth their salt are open to diverse and compelling interpretations, many of them barometers of cultural and intellectual concerns of their times. The more so regarding verses as seminal as those opening Genesis. As we saw, the Septuagint’s translation has prompted an understanding of a course of human affairs that has come to be traditional over the centuries.
In the modern era, academia has spawned a flourishing assortment of methodologies by which to unlock Hebraic notions of creation(s), among them textual, documentary, literary, and a horde of other constructs. Influential since the early days of the decipherment of forgotten scripts are comparisons with Mesopotamian lore, particularly Enūma eliš (“Babylonian Creation Epic”), a myth from the late Second Millennium B.C.E. that justified the primacy of Marduk, consequently also of his city Babylon.
A widely held opinion is that Hebrew cosmographers came to be adapters of a shared mythopoetic that was best represented in Mesopotamia. I have my doubts. I think of them, instead, as immensely sophisticated scientists (in most senses), rigorous and disciplined of mind, who found a daring way by which to argue primordial links between cosmology, theology, and the fate of their own people. These thinkers had traditions (rather than facts) by which to assess the validity of their own construction; but they also had a vision by which to weave their beliefs into a dramatic whole, granting their ancestors a privileged linkage to their one and only true God. And they did so without breaking into poetry by which to camouflage their conviction.
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October 24, 2019
January 7, 2021
Prof. Jack M. Sasson is the Mary Jane Werthan Professor (Emeritus) of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University as well as Kenan Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. in Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University. Sasson’s publications include commentaries on the Biblical books of Ruth (1979), Jonah (1991), Judges 1-12 (2014), and Judges 13-21 (in preparation). His most recent monograph is From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters (Eisenbrauns, 2015).
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