The first three words in the most important text for Western Civilization by which the process of God creating the world out of nothing begins and over the course of the next six days, God (who is, of course, good as the etymology of “God” implies) creates the cosmos, which is good. And on the seventh day God chills, because of course creating the universe in six days is tough business.
Such is the manner in which most who have read this story understand and were taught to understand the Genesis chapter 1.
But is this an accurate interpretation of the Biblical story as understood by its ancient authors, the Israelites?
Such is the question from which this post stems.
So let us begin at the start, or, “in the beginning.”
English translations include the definite article, “the.” A simple definition of the definite article is as such: “It is used to restrict the meaning of a noun to make it refer to something that is known by both the speaker or writer and the listener or reader” (source). In the case of Genesis 1:1, “the” point in the beginning of time and creation. In the beginning, as if nothing existed prior to this moment. An it is this “nothing” that of course, by virtue of being nothing, that did not exist. Hence, a traditional and widespread interpretation of Biblical creation as one that is ex nihilo, creation out of nothing.
Now there are two points here upon which I would like to remark.
The original text begins simply with “bereshit,” which means. in addition to “create,” to “shape, fashion, form” (biblehub.com). But how can God form or shape anything (that is, create) if there is nothing to form or shape?
Well, let us read on, for after “in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,” we read, in verse two, “and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.”
So I’m confused…God is supposed to be creating out of nothing, but right here I read there is an abyss and there are waters. That doesn’t sound like nothing to me. Of course, many may interpret abyss to mean nothing, but that is not accurate. “Abyss” is an English translation of the Greek abyssos which is itself a translation of the Hebrew tehom which means “deep, sea” (biblehub.com). So there is something, then, that did exist.
But wait, now I am even more confused. How can something already exist if this is the beginning?
Therein lies the grammatical rub. Biblical Hebrew does not possess a definite article and thus “in the beginning” might be better understood as “in beginning.” How does such change the meaning of the text? The definite article points to creation as the first moment, the beginning of time and thus, creation. But such an interpretation does not accord with the text as just shown.
But, when we read Genesis 1:1 as “in beginning,” what we have is just that, something, in this case a process, is initiated. Reading creation as “in beginning” frees the interpretative conundrum from having to explain how there can be waters, fathomlessly deep, if creation had not yet begun. Moreover, these waters will become part of creation on day 2.
So it a process that has begun here, not a “thing.” The English term is, then, misleading, and is misleading because our modern, scientifically oriented worldview is an ontological materialism; that is, our understanding of existence is defined on an “objects” material properties. But such is foreign to an ancient Middle Eastern worldview. As such, creation would not have been understood in the “thingness” of that which is created. A process is not a thing–it is not a noun, it is a verb.
Such is why “in the beginning,” rather than “in beginning,” to is misleading and a poor translation.
So what is being “begun?” Creation, clearly, but we a clue that sheds more light on the issue in the form of the term bereshit as well as verse 2’s insistence that the earth was without form or shape. Even the terms “form” and “shape” are misleading when interpreted from our modern materialist ontology, for “form” and “shape” are assumed to apply to things. Bereshit, as defined above means “to form or shape” in addition to create.
So what is God going to be doing? Giving form and shape and again, it is a process.
This formless, shapeless void, this bottomless watery abyss is not a creation ex nihilo, but it is, in a way, a creation out of nothing. Not nothing as if there existed nothing, but nothing as in no-thing. The Hebrew tohu means, in addition to formless, confusion. In other words the “things” that God is going to create are “confused,” as in being “fused together.”
The formless abyss is a state of differentiation, it is a primordial unity, the “same” primordial unity found in other ancient Near Eastern mythology, is found in the Maya Popul Vuh, Hesiod’s Theogony, as well as some Chinese creation stories, just to name a few.
Genesis 1:1-2 sets the stage for this differentiation, this differentiation which will take place over the course of the next six days during which God gives shape/form out of that which already “existed.”
To end, one may wonder what is the point of this discussion. First, to offer a different, and perhaps more accurate, interpretation of the original text that what much tradition, particularly Christian, has passed down. Second, the interpretation of a creation ex nihilo would, as I will demonstrate in a future post, pose a real problem for Christian theologians who, by claiming that God is all good, would have to explain the phenomenon of evil and the responses to such problems would direct, in later centuries, the entire Christian project.