The four elements of early physics were fire, wind, earth, and water. They all appear in Gen 1:2-3. Earth is mentioned first; the waters next; over which the breath of God (the wind) hovers; finally, light ( = fire) is created ex nihilo. The idea that water, darkness, inchoate matter, and God’s breath were interacting and pre-existed the creation of light has always spoken to me on an archetypal level.
Mythopoeic language is muted in Gen 1:2-3. In an early piyyut that deserves to be far better known, אז באין כל, the events of Gen 1:1-2:4a are covered in great detail. The gaps are filled in. The intertextual range of the poem takes one’s breath away. It’s as bad as an episode of Homer Simpson. Unless one knows the entire sweep of Jewish tradition inside and out – and no one does – a host of allusions are missed.
The introductory 22 + 1 strophes of אז באין כל, all of which begin with a word whose first letter is aleph, covers the creation of God’s supernal host – a narrative lack in Gen 1 that subsequent Jewish tradition filled with great care. The aleph section concludes, per the rule in this highly crafted composition, with a prooftext:
ככ׳ מי תיכן
ונ׳ את מי נוע<ץ>
As it is
written, who has plumbed [the mind of ]
and it is said, “Whom did he consult? [Isa 40:14]
He consulted with no one, not even his supernal host. No wonder, then, that they are hardly alluded to in Gen 1. But God was not without help in creating the universe. Torah pre-existed creation. Knowledge, Torah, Wisdom, names of a singular reality – the grammatical gender of all these nouns in Hebrew is feminine - such was the means by which God created everything. One way in which Gen 1:1 was read by tradition construed it as follows: “By [means of] the first [principle: wisdom, Torah] God created the heavens and the earth.” Furthermore, everything was created according to justice and benevolence (brief discussion here). The bet section of the poem begins thusly (the translation is my own; the text as found in Swartz and Yahalom is cited, along with their translation and notes, to which I have my own):
knowledge you relied,
in your understanding you trusted,
in your power you were revealed,
in your strength you were exalted,
S & Y:
relied on Your knowledge;
You trusted Your discernment;
in Your power you were revealed;
and on Your strength You depended.
cf. Prov 3:5; Ps 119:42; Isa 10:13.
Lines 3-4: Isa 53:1; 56:1; Ps 21:14; Dan 11:36.
In line 4, S & Y restore נסמכתה, but the above or התרוממתה seems more likely, based on biblical diction and proximate parallelism.
ברחבה מני ים
בר<אש>ית [לכל פועל]
whose extension exceeds the earth,
on that whose breadth exceeds the sea,
on your primeval procreation,
on the principle of all action,
S & Y:
that which is longer than the earth,
with that which is wider than the sea,
with your primordial possession,
with that which is the beginning of all action,
S & Y: that which is . . . : a poetic substitution for Torah, based on an interpretation of Job 11:9. The vastness of Torah was emphasized in rabbinic literature.
Line 3: cf. Prov 8:22. Line 4: based on an interpretation of Gen 1:1.
on the measuring
line of justice,
on the scales of mercy,
in the right hand of life,
along with wealth and honor.
S & Y:
measuring line of judgment,
and with the scales of mercy,
with the right hand of life,
with riches and honor;
Lines 1-2: cf. Hos 2:21; Isa 1:27; 5:7
S & Y: lines 3-4: cf. Prov 3:16.
Zvi Malachi, העבודה ליום הכפורים ׃ אופייה תולדותיה והתפתחותה בשירה העברית, (2 vols.; Ph.D. diss.; Hebrew University Jerusalem, 1974; Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, Avodah: An Anthology of Ancient Poetry for Yom Kippur, Penn State Library of Jewish Studies; University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005; Joseph Yahalom, אז באין כל׃ סדר העבודה הארץ ישראלי הקדום ליום הכפורים, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996.