“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.”
That’s the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the first words of our Torah which we heard read this morning. Gunther Plaut’s version is a little different:
“When God was about to create heaven and earth – the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters, and God said, ‘Let there be light!’ – and there was light.”
And the Anchor Bible’s translation:
“When God set about to create heaven and earth-the world being then a formless waste, with darkness over the seas and only an awesome wind sweeping over the water- God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”
It’s amazing, isn’t it? How different translators view the first two verses of our Torah? They tried their best to capture the awe of it all, the beautiful simplicity and the vastness all at once. It’s unclear what came before creation in Jewish understanding. Some say God created the universe “ex-nihilo” from nothing; others say it was God who filled the expanse of everything, and that in order to create the world, God retracted God’s self to make the space for existence. Our commentators argue whether or not time existed before Genesis, or if it was also the result of God’s creative acts. But all of the translators try to encompass the idea of darkness unformed, of void, of chaos. We can let ourselves explore this vision but it’s difficult to do. Our minds simply cannot comprehend the nothingness, the emptiness.
Our creation story makes sure to describe the creation of our world as organized, simple, architectural. God speaks and the world comes to be. Light, the sun, the moon, the form of the earth, the seas and the sky, and, of course, all that lives. Each step is verbal and gentle: “Let there be light,” “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water,” “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” According to Genesis, through speech, from a creator unseen, our world come to be. It differs greatly from other creation myths and legends, which describe the divine beings, their struggle for power, and the violent or sometimes accidental creation of our world through crashes and thunder. Of course, it’s unclear what the Israelites believed, in regards to the creation of the world, but we know the intellectual elite, those who could read and write Hebrew, were the ones that put it down into our canon. The Genesis story reigns supreme, put in the front of our Torah, to be the unquestioned origin of our people; the creation not only of our universe and world, but the creation of Shabbat. But like so many things, the later additions to our canon could not be controlled by those in power at the time. Our Tanakh is a virtual library, full of different authorships, theologies, stories, and belief systems. And when we peek into other aspects of our Tanakh, we can see how some others envisioned creation.
Take, for instance, the mentions of creation in our psalms. I’ve long enjoyed reading and teaching about the psalms because they are a collection of thoughts held by authors over the expanse of our early days. They show us what was heard, what was sung, what was spoken on the steps of the great temple, to teach us and move us toward belief in God. They are the predecessors to our worship liturgy. And they do not disappoint.
Psalm 74, a song of Asaph, dated to be shortly after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, begins like many lamenting psalms, directed towards God asking “Why, O God, are you eternally angry? Why do your nostrils smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” One might read over it as we do the Lamentations, and think of it as no more than a sad song sung watching the ashes of our Temple smolder and the house of our God demolished. But if we keep reading to verse 13 of Psalm 74, we find a gem, a peek into the door of the thoughts of Israelites in the 6th century BCE and their view of creation. It’s just five verses, just five, that the author gives us, but they are powerful. The verses speak of God’s work:
It was You who shattered the Sea with Your strength, who smashed the heads of the Tannin [the monsters in the waters;] it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan, who left him as food for the tribes of the desert; it was You who released springs and torrents, who turned primordial rivers to dry land; Yours is the day and yours is the night; it was You who set in place the orb of the sun; You fixed all the zones of the earth; summer and winter — You made them.
Now that is a not an orderly creation of our world via speech; no, it is the vision of a warrior God, a God of strength that breaks the backs of mythical creatures, and uses muscle to create the world. This is the poem of God’s victory over chaos and evil before God created the universe. According to this author, God did not speak the water to divide into sea and sky; rather, the water was broken, shattered by a mighty fist. And apparently, there were creatures that existed in those dark chaotic waters before creation, such as the Leviathan. The language is similar to a Canaanite legend of their god, Ba’al, and from poems found in Ugarit, a city destroyed in the 12th century BCE, which give us insight on this primordial beach. Their poem about Ba’al states the being: “When you smite Leviathan, the primeval dragon, when you destroy the twisting dragon, the mighty one of the seven heads.” So, not only did God create the dry land, but God crushed all seven heads of the mythical sea creature. Can’t you see it? Like an old Godzilla movie, two powerful forces wrestling with one another? Can’t you picture our God standing over the earth, a club in one hand, bare-chested, breathing heavily, digging fingers into the ground to make rivers and smashing anything in God’s way?
What a different creation story there may have been, lost in Qum’ran, or in the countless libraries burned and destroyed by the Romans, and all our other foes throughout history! In the end, the rest of that story has been lost, and another story took its place, gaining popularity as the canon came together.
My students know that I like to say that anyone who tells you the Bible is clear on something clearly has not read it, or has only read one translation. Hidden inside the Hebrew, the Psalms, even the small stories throughout our Torah, are snippets of what might have been, the stories that didn’t make it. Stories of dragons, demons, witches, sorcerers; from the fire-breathing snakes of Isaiah’s vision, to the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah, they’re in there, just waiting for us to pull them out and see them for what they are; little snippets of Israelite belief, hidden in the book that was meant to overrule it all.
As we journey together this year in worship, and Torah study, these ideas and theories are not meant to break your beliefs, or create a foundation of sand for your faith. They are to give you a different perspective of who we are. For instance, now when you read Genesis 1:1, “When God was about to create heaven and earth – the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness,” now can you see better those waters, and the chaos that must have been? Can you picture better God’s form floating over the face of the black waters of the void? And now can you see why God needed to rest after seven days of this?
This morning we have praised God in worship, following the thousands of years of doing so, with poetry and music. We continue on the legacy of the complexity of our God and the stories and legends that surround God. And as we begin the Torah at Bereshit, let us begin also the partnership we have to study with one another, to ask questions, and discover new ideas. To create. It is said that each day God renews creation. Let us emulate God, as we are commanded to, and do the same.