The End of the Beginning
March 08, 2021
The Creation of Adam: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (Public Domain)
The Hebrew Bible is a collection of books written by Israelites, for Israelites, about Israelites. The allegorical story of the pair of humans in Eden is intended to represent the unknown progenitors of Israelites and other Ancient Near Eastern peoples at a time before the call of Abraham, after which point the story narrows its focus to the descendants of Abraham and their interactions with non-Israelites. The accounts in Genesis are therefore geographically, linguistically, and culturally limited in scope.
The intent of this commentary is not to deal exhaustively with all the issues that could be raised about the early chapters of Genesis but rather to address just a few important points.
Creation ex-nihilo, a term which refers to God creating everything from nothing, is one of the foundational assumptions of Jewish, Christian and Muslim theology. It is based on the opening verses of the Bible which are usually translated into English as a sequence of independent statements:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
And the earth was formless and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
It is not generally recognised that this understanding of Genesis 1:1-3 has been challenged on a linguistic and exegetical basis since at least mediaeval times by Jewish scholars and sages such as Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and by later scholars who adopted their views. According to these critics, the three verses are not a sequence of independent statements but depend absolutely on the correct understanding of the very first Hebrew word (bereshith) which then governs the meaning of the verses that follow.
The Mediaeval View
Because so much depends upon a correct understanding of this word, we will first focus on Rashi’s rendering of Genesis 1:1-3:
In the beginning of (ִbereshith) God’s creation (bara) of the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.
And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.1
The Hebrew word bereshith ) בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית ( is formed from the root noun reshith meaning “beginning”. Prefixed to this root is an inseparable prepositional form indicating “in the”. The form of the noun reshith is in the “construct” state meaning that it is dependent on the word bara (בָּרָ֣א ) which follows it and indicates possession, hence “In the beginning of…”
Rashi also pointed out that there are five occurrences of the word bereshith in the Bible: one in Genesis and four in the Book of Jeremiah. In every case, except for perhaps the most important one in Genesis, the word has been rendered into English as “in the beginning of” e.g:
The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah the prophet against Elam in the beginning of (bereshith) the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, saying…(Jeremiah 49:34 KJV).
According to Rashi, Verse 1 is a temporal clause stating when the action takes place, Verse 2 is a circumstantial clause describing the conditions in which the action takes place, and Verse 3 is the main clause stating what the action is: “Let there be light…”
The Modern View
There is a modern English version of the Hebrew Bible that reflects the general views of critics such as Rashi so let’s take a look at the primary translation of Genesis 1:1-3 according to this version:
When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 2
If both Mediaeval and Modern translations of Genesis 1:1-3 are correct, and one were to take a purely naturalistic approach to the story, then one could assume that the only difference between the Creation story and the view of modern science is one of agency. Modern science would claim that natural processes can explain the development of life on earth from primordial waters whereas the authors of Genesis would claim that the initiation of such development can only be explained by divine creative activity.
However, such a naturalistic approach does little justice to an account which is multi-levelled and rich in meaning.
As Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, observes:
Two and a half millennia of Western theology have made it easy to forget that throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, including Israel, the point of creation is not the production of matter out of nothing, but rather the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order. The defeat by YHWH of the forces that have interrupted that order is intrinsically an act of creation.3
Within the account of God’s mastery over the forces of chaos and formless darkness is embedded a more meaningful story about the intention of God to bring “light”, to bring wisdom, understanding and order to the chaotic darkness of the human mind.
According to this approach, Adam and Eve are the representative humans who portray their darkness of mind in an allegory using conflicting values: lies as opposed to truth; evil as opposed to good; guilt as opposed to innocence; curse as opposed to blessing; and death as opposed to life. They cannot master their darkness of mind and so fail to reach their imago dei potential. It is a message which is deep in consequence, a message quite lost on creationists and evolutionists alike.
Consider the ramifications if it were generally recognised that the authors of Genesis were not asserting Creation ex-nihilo of the material world but making theological statements about the human condition. The fundamentalist, literalist doctrine of Creation would be finally and fully discredited, the endless arguments about theology versus science would cease, and the weapon of ridicule used to promote wholesale rejection of the Bible would be disarmed.
1 The Complete Tanakh : The Jewish Bible with a Modern English Translation and Rashi's Commentary
2 Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1985
3 Levenson, Jon.D. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1988, p. 12.
Without going into laborious detail, Hebrew words are formed from stem roots with the addition of prefixes and suffixes which determine particular meanings. A single word in Hebrew often represents several words in English.