Thursday, 8 September 2011

In the Beginning...

The creation accounts (plural) in Genesis have always been of interest to me; I suppose it comes of having a degree in geology. Not long after I became a Christian, a fundamentalist girlfriend pressurised me into reading a couple of creationist books. I checked out everything I read - none of it sounded remotely right - and hit the roof. The books were a mass of halftruths, larded out with plain porkies. Worse, they had to have been written by someone who knew exactly what he was doing. One thing I never could stand is the person who earns money as a religious charlatan.

Despite all the arguing about the first few chapters of Genesis, it's not often they get read for what's really there in the text. People tend to bring their preconcieved ideas - this is a regular problem when it comes to reading the Bible - and of course they find what they expect to find.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.

On the face of it, Genesis 1 verse 1 is simple enough. In the beginning - as a first act - God created everything there is. Genesis 1 uses the same word for God - Elohim, which can be used of any divine being, as well as being a name for God - throughout. The word used for the creative act; BARA', is used elsewhere in the passage, in 1:21, 1:27 and 2:3. So it's reasonable to suppose it was all produced at pretty much the same time, by the same group of people. Whoever put the Bookof Genesis together placed it at the beginning; whoever compiled the Hebrew canon - the official list of holy books making up the Hebrew Scriptures - placed it in pole position, right at the start. The placing of the text privileges it, forces us to read it as making an important statement about God and his creation.

However, there are debates about its exact meaning. Should it be translated 'In the beginning God created', or, as the NRSV has it, 'In the beginning when God created...'? Is it part of a continuous narrative, a title, or perhaps an independent creation story? Let's not forget that the Bible has several accounts of creation, and they're all different. Whatever the author's intention, the narrative moves on to God's interaction with things he doesn't appear to have created. The waters, the deep, the darkness; where did they come from? We're used to the idea of creation ex nihilo - out of nothing - but this is a much later idea. As far as I can make out, it's first mentioned by Tertullian, writing at the end of the 2nd Century AD. He rejects it, insisting that God created out of something, namely matter.

In the Ancient Near East, it was assumed that the god, whoever the individual worshipped, had created the world out of a pre-existing, watery, chaos. This was ruled over by a monstrous deity, whom the god defeated in a primal battle. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, there's a long and elaborate acocunt of how the god Marduk fought against the armies of his mother Tiamat, and killed her after a titanic struggle. Having done so, he then built the world out of her corpse. There's only the faintest generic resemblence to Genesis 1, but we do find the chaos monster and the primal battle elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Psalm 74:10-17:

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.

The sanctary of Zion - or Jerusalem - has been destroyed; Judah's enemies are triumphant, and the psalmist reminds God - or his people - of his mighty power. He rules everything; he destroyed Leviathan; he can deal with Babylon as well. In the midst of it all, we find the primal battle clearly, though briefly, described. God crushed the heads of the dragons (TANIN: sea-monsters) in the waters; he crushed Leviathan's heads and fed him to carrion beasts. Leviathan (LWTN in the original; vowels are a medieval addition to the text) derives from the Canaanite Latan (LTN), a seven-headed water monster who features in a poem found on a clay tablet at Ugarit, in modern Syria. There, Baal slays Sea, dragons (TANIN again), and Latan. Lingustically,  Hebrew is a late dialect of Canaanite, so the resemblances aren't surprising.

We find the battle again in Psalm 89, which celebrates god's covenant with the house of David, and sings of his might:

Psalm 89:9-12

You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it-- you have founded them.
The north and the south-- you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.

The name Rahab is sometimes used of Egypt, but the primary reference is to the chaos battle. Perhaps we're justified in hearing an echo of the destruction of Pharaoh as well, since the story of his end in the waters of the Red Sea parallels it so neatly. In Isaiah 27:1, Leviathan and the primal battle appear again, this time as a metaphor for evil:

Isaiah 26:20 - 27:1 Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past. For the LORD comes out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no longer cover its slain. On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

Over time, the Israelites' idea evolved. God gets bigger, and the monsters smaller. In Genesis 1, the monster appears in v21, as something created by God. In Psalm 104:26, Leviathan is said to have been created by God, to play in the sea. The monster makes a final appearance in Jonah, in the form of a great fish which turns out to be a more faithful servant of God than his wretched prophet.

The chaos battle, then, has disappeared in Genesis 1, which presents a God who is clearly in control of the creation. Even he, however, doesn't seem to find it easy to get the primal waters under control. On the forst day, he calls light into being, and separates it from dark; on the second, he makes a dome (RIQQUA - something beaten or stamped out, an expanded plate). He doesn't call it into being, he gets his hands dirty, and he uses it to split the waters horizontally, into waters above and below. The expanse is called 'sky'. In the story of the flood, we gain an extra detail; the expanse contains sluices or floodgates - there are various translations to be found, but this is the only one which makes sense in this context - which God opens to let the waters through. The waters above make good sense in a pre-scientific society; large quantities of water regularly fall from the sky, so there must be a great deal of it up there somewhere. God is seen to control the weather thoughout the Old Testament, in, to give one example, the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, who was another, rival, weather god.

On the third day, once more, God is at work, commanding the waters to be gathered together in the sea. Thus the dry land appears. There's a pattern here; heavens (light and dark) - sea/air - land, which is found repeated in the rest of the six days of creation; with the creation, first, of the heavenly bodies, then of fish and birds, and finally of land animals and human beings.

I think that's enough for one post, but this stuff fascinates me, as you've probably gathered. I'll continue in a couple of days.

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