Scholars are known to succumb to the temptation of suggesting that their findings are of revolutionary significance even if they are not. It’s an issue of framing. If the desire of your heart is to be a revolutionary, you will frame your findings in opposition to all previous interpretation. This appears to be the path that Ellen Van Wolde has chosen (note this press report; for a first reaction, see Doug Chaplin here). Based on her recent findings – most of which do not seem unusual – she asserts: “The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.” At the very least, saying something like that is a surefire way to attract attention.
Below the jump, text, translation, and commentary on Genesis 1:1-3. My thesis: the traditional view of God the Creator is as tenable as ever.
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ
וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם
וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר
When God began to create sky and land,
and the land was welter and waste,
with darkness on the surface of the deep
and the spirit of God hovering over the water’s surface,
God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.
It’s complicated syntax – similar to that at the beginning of the creation accounts of Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis Epic, and Gen 2:4b-7 (compare 5:1). Long before EE and AE were discovered, Rashi and Ibn Ezra understood the syntax of Gen 1:1-3 along the above lines. That is, they understood Gen 1:1 to be a temporal clause which introduces that which follows, not an independent main clause. Those who read the text thus differ with respect to the identification of the main clause, with most, as above, taking “God said” as the main clause, rather than “the land was welter and waste.”
A short list of eminent Hebraists who read the syntax along the above lines: Rashi, Ibn Ezra (misidentifying however the matrix clause), Ewald, Dillmann, Humbert (misidentifying however the matrix clause), Speiser, and Francis Andersen; recently, Robert Holmstedt (who offers an analysis in terms of a type of relative clause: [UPDATE: go here and here]). NJPSV and Robert Alter translate accordingly. “Welter and waste” is Alter’s translation of תהו ובהו . The New English Bible (NEB) reads something like a compromise:
In the beginning of creation,
when God made heaven and earth,
the earth was without form and void,
with darkness over the face of the abyss,
and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.
God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.
REB wimped out and returned to the more familiar translation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” NRSV, somewhat like NEB, tries to have it both ways: “In the beginning, when God created . . . , the earth was unformed and void. . . . Then God said.”
On the understanding of Genesis 1 I here re-propose, something of the process of divine creation is described in Gen 1. God is a faber who works with pre-existing materials. The description of water as pre-existing in 1:2 is the narrative presupposition in 1:6. On this understanding, the narrative presupposes the transformation of pre-existent waste and welter into land, with overt narration in 1:9 of its appearance as properly configured land, by divine decree, in the midst of pre-existent water.
The creation ex nihilo and by divine fiat of sky in the midst of pre-existent water is recounted in 1:6. Darkness is also pre-existent, per 1:2. Light is the first thing recounted to have been created ex nihilo and by divine fiat, in 1:3. This serves to raise “light” to the preeminent position in the hierarchy of creation. It is hard not to think of this as anything other than an exceedingly forceful theological statement with echoes in countless other passages, e.g. Psalms 19 and 104.
Later reflection on God as Creator led to a generalization of the ex nihilo principle. The generalization is compatible with Gen 1.
Gen 1 is concerned with (1) the sequential fashioning of the components of creation and (2) assignment of relative functions - on (2), John Walton has written persuasively. Genesis 1, correctly understood, does not imply that darkness, chaotic stuff, and the abyss existed at an absolute beginning, or non-beginning, co-eternal with an eternal God. The text does not recount an absolute beginning.
Genesis 1-2:4b recounts how God began and completed the creation of heaven and earth and all that is in them. There is a nice inclusio, with 2:1-3 picking up in a variety of ways on the language of 1:1. At every step of the way, God in sovereign freedom makes his moves. It is natural to assume that the utterly subordinate realities the text refers to in 1:2-3, the darkness, the deep, and chaotic stuff, were themselves created by God. Isaiah 45:6-7 affirms as much with respect to darkness:
אֲנִי יְהוָה וְאֵין עוֹד
יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע
אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה׃
I am יהוה, there is no other;
the faber of light, the creator of darkness,
the maker of weal, the creator of woe:
I, יהוה, am the maker of all of these.
Are we to assume that “the maker of all of these” made darkness from pre-existent materials? That would be an unfounded assumption. Later theological reflection led to an insistence on creatio ex nihilo for all things, darkness, the waters of the deep, and whatever stuff may have been used to fashion earth included. This is in tune with Gen 1 even if Gen 1 does not go there.
If the desire of your heart is to examine the evidence afresh on the basis of currently available resources, with the expectation that others have come to similar conclusions based on the resources available to them, you will frame your findings as far as is possible in continuity with previous interpretation. This is what I have done in this post.
A final note. I eagerly look forward to the appearance of Ellen Van Wolde’s forthcoming monograph through Eisenbrauns (details here; James Spinti informs me that the proofs will be available for perusal at SBL New Orleans). I have reservations about the way she frames her findings, but not about the quality of her scholarship, which is top-notch.
For another response to Van Wolde's reported findings, see Chris Heard here.