Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Lion’s Song

Posted in Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 12 March 2010

It has been noted that, according to Genesis 1:3, light has been created by God[1]  before the heavenly “lights,” the sun, the moon, and the stars, were created three “days” later (1:14-19).[2]  In fact, even “vegetables” were “brought forth” by the earth before the sun existed to make them ripe.  The nature of the light that was created on the first day as well as the entire account of the creation of our world found in Genesis has occupied the thoughts of some of the greatest minds of humanity.  This intense interest in the creation story is easy to understand: our views on the origins of the world and humankind have a great effect on our understanding of our purpose and destiny.  If we hold the view, for example, that we are just animals, who appeared through random collisions of atoms and random mutations on one of the rocks that were randomly scattered around by a chaotic Big Bang, on what then do we base our morals and values?  Saint Barsanuphius of Optina (1845-1913) once made the following comment:

The English philosopher Darwin created an entire system according to which life is a struggle for existence, a struggle of the strong against the weak, where those that are conquered are doomed to destruction… This is already the beginning of a bestial philosophy, and those who come to believe in it wouldn’t think twice about killing a man, assaulting a woman, or robbing their closest friend—and they would do all this calmly, with a full recognition of their right to commit these crimes. (qtd. in Rose 68)

We see this philosophy taking hold in modern societies, where the separation of religion and state has forced people and whole institutions to seek foundations for their lives in some of the most bizarre forms of ancestral cults, venerating various legendary “founding fathers” and treating political documents that the “fathers” left behind as sacred scriptures, carefully performing exegesis of one article or another, or redaction criticism of one amendment or another.  In the middle of the truly monumental task of making the union “more perfect” than it already is, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are left hanging in mid air without a basis for their existence, much less importance, without any explanation of what life is if not a terminal illness whose apogee is death, whether liberty is possible and who gave it to us (certainly not the merciless deterministic laws of the survival of the fittest), and what the happiness is that we are to pursue, and many do, often sacrificing both life and liberty in this hot pursuit.  Thus, many revert back to meditating on ancient texts, including the Bible, in their search for answers.  In this paper I shall add my humble contribution to this collective by focusing primarily on just one thing—the creation of light:

God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  God saw that the light was good…  (Gen. 1:3-4a)

We shall take a closer look at the account of the creation of light from several different angles, such as grammatical aspects, place within context, literary criticism, the social world of the writer and readers, and others.  

Finally, we shall take an amateur look at modern quantum physics and cosmological theories as they parallel biblical accounts as well as possible applications of those parallels in religious thought.  Particularly, in light of the latest developments in the so-called string theory, it may be possible to propose new venues for continued dialogue of science and religion.  This dialogue is important if we are to understand the world around us in a holistic way, giving a sense of a higher purpose to science and validating religious symbolism as wisdom and deep insight given as a revelation to humanity.

 

It is Clear that Things are Murky

     In the darkness something was happening at last.

                                                                                    C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia

Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1137-1204) said that “the work of creation is a deep secret which cannot be comprehended from the verses” (qtd. in Zlotowitz 29).  It may be difficult if not impossible to understand all of the allusions and much of the significance of sacred symbolism outside of the religious, cultural, historical and polemic context of Genesis.  Mysteries and ambiguities of the Creation story start right from the very beginning and even before.  Concerning the ultimate beginning of creation, Kass writes:

The ultimate beginnings—and even the status quo ante, before God’s creative acts—are shrouded in mystery.  And well they should be, for neither of the two options—“came from nothing” and “it was there always”—can we human beings picture to ourselves.  We may be disappointed in the text’s lack of clarity, but we are at the same time grateful that the account leaves mysterious what cannot help but be mysterious. (28-29)

The Torah does not cater to profane human curiosity and does not begin its creation story with a piquant description of sexual intercourse between divine beings or a war “upstairs,” in which some goddess gets murdered by her children and chopped into chunks, as is the case in Enûma Elish.  The Torah treats God and the Divine with humility and touches the sacred with hands covered in cloth of utmost reverence.  By doing so, the Torah establishes the proper relationship between God and people from the beginning, and provides an unshakeable foundation for the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5).

Some disagreement exists between rabbis concerning the chronology of creation.  Rashi (Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105) and Ibn Ezra (Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1164), for example, maintained that the creation story does not deal with the sequence of creation.  Rather than establishing a sequence of events, Genesis declares “that God, alone, as Master of the World is the Source of all Creation” (qtd. in Zlotowitz 30).  This approach helps answer some of the questions that can be raised in relation to the creation of light before its sources, earth yielding plants before there was a sun to shine on them, or the creation of the elements: water, fire, air, etc.  In other words, the purpose of the story is theological, rather than scientific insight; consequently, some obvious logical dilemmas are solved by avoiding them; or as Mikhail Lomonosov said, “one cannot study astronomy using a Psalter, nor search for God using a telescope.”

Most other rabbis, such as the Vila Gaon (Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720 – 1797), Maimonides, Rabbeinu Bachya (Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa, d. 1340), Nechemiah (c. 150), and others, argued that Genesis offers a more accurate account of creation, which, therefore, could be examined and studied.  They propose that “prior to Creation nothing existed” and that

…the world was chosen to indicate a definite beginning, before which one cannot imagine any form of existence…  At the beginning.  It cannot be a construct phrase, but must stand alone because it designates the very first state of existence, preceding all of Creation, and preceded by nothing except for God. (Zlotowitz 30)

Keeping in mind the sacredness of the text and the theological implications of interpreting it, I shall often refer to this second point of view for the purpose of this paper; and thus, with great reverence we proceed with our examination of the creation story, assuming that not only mystical and theological revelations can be gained from such a study, but that there also may be found a basis for continuing dialogue between theology and science, mysticism and physics.  Yet, above all, I must humbly repeat the words of Saint John Chrysostom:

With great gratitude let us accept what is related (by Moses), not stepping out of our own limitations, and not testing what is above us as the enemies of the truth did when, wishing to comprehend everything with their minds, they did not realize that human nature cannot comprehend the creation of God. (qtd. in Rose 95)

 

Close Reading of Genesis 1:1-3

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.  God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the Darkness He called Night.  And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. (Gen. 1:1-5)

Several interesting points may draw our attention as we read the first verses of Genesis closely.  Etz Hayim renders the opening line as “when God began to create heaven and earth,” contrary to the more traditional English version “in the beginning when God created heaven and earth…” (NRSV)  The former translation may be more accurate than the latter, since many commentators assert that the word b’reshit (or bereshit) implies “the construct state (a word which is attached to the next: in the beginning ‘of’)” (Zlotowitz 28); in other words, “in the beginning of creating of,” or “when God began to create…”  Thus, the beginning is that of the divine act described in the verse, rather than the beginning of everything.  In other words, God in such a construct is not a creator by divine nature, but by divine will; therefore not obliged to create from the beginning of everything, but rather beginning to create whenever He wills; and “the world came into existence through His purposive will” (Zlotowitz 39).  This, perhaps, is a very Christian idea, which was crystallized in the polemic against the teaching of Origen that God must create due to His divine nature as the Creator, beginning the creative process from the very beginning of everything and never ending it.  Questioning the direct chronological interpretation of the creation story and the meaning of the word b’reshit does not, however, presuppose an automatic acceptance of Origen’s idea of other worlds preceding and following ours in a time continuum.  The text of Genesis, in our opinion, does not support such a teaching, although it may be argued that some state of things pre-existed the creation of heaven and earth:

… the waters, indeed, preceded them [the heaven and the earth—S.S.], for the next verse says “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters,” proving that the creation of waters preceded that of the earth, while Scripture had not yet disclosed when the creation of the waters took place. (Zlotowitz 29)

Certainly, “water” is likely to refer to the primordial “waters of chaos,” “the deep,” Tiamat—not the chemical H2O (see Etz Hayim 4).  Even so, God’s act of bringing order to chaos points to the pre-existence of darkness and chaos—food for thought for any amateur philosopher[3]—much disagreement on this matter exists among scholars, as was mentioned in the previous section. 

Some scholars think that “the Hebrew word for ‘the deep’ (t’hom) refers to the subterranean waters that ancient humans believed were beneath the earth” (Etz Hayim 4), and that “the waters of the ‘deep’ were created together with the earth and completely submerged the earth” (Rose 109).  This water over the entire planet, according to Rose, is “the cause of its unfinished appearance” (109) as is related in Gen. 1:2a.  Etz Hayim comments that the Hebrew words for “unformed and void” “(tohu va-vohu) mean ‘desert waste’” (4), despite which assertion the editors of Etz Hayim chose to leave the translation as “unformed and void.”  Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah deals with a similar translation—“shapeless and formless”—commenting that “the two words in Hebrew, tohu and bohu, are understood to mean virtually the same thing,” and that “the hendiadys of ‘tohu and bohu,’ plus the references to the deep and the water, yields a picture of an undifferentiated, shapeless fluid that had existed prior to creation” (6).

It is clear that most scholars cannot imagine what the earth might have looked like while being tohu and bohu.  So much so, that the rabbis who produced the Septuagint translated tohu as ἀόρατος (bohu is rendered as ἀκατασκεύαστος).[4]  No doubt, it would have been hard to see what the earth was like in the primordial darkness, for darkness was “over the surface of the deep”; or as Niels Bohr would have it, the earth was but a shapeless wavefunction-of-a-thing because no one was there to observe it.  Although, Bohr apparently did not take into account that God observes His creation and saw to it that it was good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). 

Some commentators assert that the phrase “heaven and earth” “expresses the totality of cosmic phenomena, for which there is no single word in biblical Hebrew” (Etz Hayim 4).  In other words, the phrase “heaven and earth” refers to our entire world and stands alongside similar constructions: “good and evil” (Gen 2:9), “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8), “the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13).  Such an interpretation would allow us to understand the beginning words of Genesis as “when God began to create everything,” or “when God began to create our world, He did so by first creating light.”

Some modern cosmological theories propose that there was a time before forces of gravity pulled large dust clouds into spherical shapes, the earth was in a formless state of dust swirling around the still-forming sun.  The epithet “void,” however, is hardly applicable to such clouds, unless it is specified that the earth was void of something specific (life, for example), in which case it becomes unclear why the inspired writer of Genesis would choose to mention this at all.  Additionally, modern cosmological theories are just that—modern; and just as there does not appear to be a clear mention of the Big Bang in Genesis, there may not be room for dust and dirt clouds.  It may be necessary, therefore, to assume that Gen. 1:2a does not refer to the early physical state of our planet.  Further support for this assumption may be deduced from 1:2b, which, as was mentioned above, is not likely to refer to the early physical water floating along with unformed earth somewhere in the deep (or high).  Based on the English translation given in Etz Hayim, it may even be argued that neither the earth nor heaven existed before the creation of light, for “when God began to create heaven and earth […] God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”  In fact, according to Rashi, “verses 1 and 2 set the stage for verse 3, the creation of light” (qtd. in Zlotowitz 29).  The creation of light, therefore, may be thought of as the first act in the creation of our world, after which the rest followed. 

Etz Hayim says that light is “the first thing God created” (4).  Additionally, Friedman points out that:

Only light is expressly created from nothing (creatio ex nihilo).  All other elements of creation may possibly be formed out of preexisting matter… Thus God later says, “Let there be space,” but the text then adds, “And God made space.”  And God says, “Let there be sources of light,” but the text adds, “And God made the sources of light.” (7)

Friedman proposes that the “preexisting matter” is “undifferentiated chaos,” thus asserting that chaos preexisted creation as an entity or some sort of matter.  This would lead us to an assumption that God created chaos sometime beforehand without any stated reason, or that chaos is a property of God and as such always existed as God always existed.  If the former is true, then we are left with the question of who created chaos, why and when; if the latter—then the Genesis creation story becomes a variation on the Babylonian Enûma Elish, and the world is made of a god (or part thereof) who was separated and chopped into parts and sections.  In later chapters I shall propose one more positive way to look at the nature of primordial chaos, but here I shall offer just one alternative to Friedman’s idea.

Perhaps, we could think of chaos or “the water” and “the deep” as “matter without substance” (Maimonides, qtd. in Zlotowitz 29).  Matter without substance is a platonic idea, merely a thought, a Divine plan ready to be materialized.  Certainly, nothing substantial can come from that which is “without substance.”  I shall therefore propose that everything was made from that which was created first ex nihilo—the light or, rather, that which is called “the light” in Genesis 1:3-4.  The light could be that “preexisting matter,” that matter which preexisted everything else because it was created first.  I shall try to develop this concept further in the sections below.  Here I shall only tentatively propose that “darkness” may refer to the state of non-existence, while “light”—to the very foundation of the existence of our world.  The created light of God[5] may be the very elementary building material of our world.

The creation of light, perhaps the first divine act in the creation of our world, is also signified by the revelation that God is a person in the words “He said.”  The property of speech and purposeful communication is usually attributed to persons.  Here I shall not take time to offer any proof for this hypothesis, but rather mention that, while it may be acceptable to speak of a whispering wind or old trees that tell stories, within the Judeo-Christian paradigm these images can only be allegorical and in order to assert the wind’s or the trees’ purposeful communication we would have to exit the paradigms of religious thought which produced Genesis as well as that of modern scientific thought.  The phrase “let there be light,” however, presents a challenge and appears to be more complex than an item of communication—it is not relating any information to anyone and there does not appear to be anyone to communicate with. 

If light was the first creation, then “’He said,’ must be understood as ‘He said to Himself’ for nothing else yet existed for Him to address” (Zlotowitz 39).  This idea, of course, can be expanded and enriched with the use of Christian Trinitarian theology.  Maimonides, however, suggests that “it is the heavens—and all their potentials—that are here being addressed by God” (qtd. in Zlotowitz 39).  As romantic as this may sound—God willing that from the substance of the heavens and all their potentials “there should come forth a shining matter” (Zlotowitz 39)—it is, as a matter of fact, substantial that “let there be light” or “may light exist” is not an address, but rather an act.  Grammatically, these words are not addressed to anyone, and as such they do not signify communication, but an act.      

This first creative act of God—the creation of light ex nihilo—may therefore be seen as God’s laying of the foundation for the world to be.

The good architect lays the foundation first, and afterwards, when the foundation has been laid, plots the various parts of the building, one after the other, and then adds thereto the ornamentation. (St. Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 1:7)

The foundation is laid in two ways: the elementary material foundation for building the world and the Personhood of God, a necessary condition for ensuring the world’s existence as well as the existence of human freedom.  Both aspects of the foundation are to be discussed in later sections.

 

Textual Context

Genesis 1:1-3 is not preceded by any text—it is the very beginning of the Torah.  This fact in itself is of utmost significance, according to Rav. Yitzchak:

Since the Torah is the book of laws, it should have begun with ‘This month shall be to you the first of the months’ (Ex. 12:2), for that was the first commandment given to all Israel.  Why, then, did it begin with the narrative of creation?

The reason is in order to establish the sovereignty of God over the earth…  He declared to His people the power of His works in order to give them the heritage of the nations (Ps. 111:6).  If the nations accuse Israel of banditry for seizing the lands of the seven nations of Canaan, Israel will tell them: ‘The entire universe belongs to God.  He created it and He granted it to whomever was deemed fit in His eyes.  It was His desire to give it to them and it was then His desire to take it from them and cede it to us.’ (qtd. in Zlotowitz 28)

While it rarely works well to excuse one’s banditry with one’s own Scripture, as the victims of the banditry are not likely to hold such scriptures sacred if they are victimized by them, it is nevertheless a valid position that the first verses of Genesis “establish the sovereignty of God over the earth.”  The beginning and the foundation of any law is the establishment of the authority that issues the law.  By beginning the Torah with the profound proclamation of God’s overwhelming power, by declaring that the whole world exists only due to God’s word, by leaving absolutely no room for any pondering on the origins of God or His being before the creation of the world, the first verses of Genesis provide an unshakeable foundation for God’s authority as the Divine Establisher of the universe and the laws within it.  Consequently, Genesis 1:1-3 provides the basis not only for the rest of the creation story, but for the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  Both the covenant of voluntary obedience and the covenant of love rest on the realization that the Almighty Creator of all things visible and invisible humbles Himself before the human heart and does not violate human will, as foolish and nearsighted that it so often is.

The verses that follow Genesis 1:1-3 tell the rest of the creation story that was recorded for us.  Those verses do not necessarily provide us with the “know-how” of creation, but nevertheless may give us the proper direction; and the entire creation story crowns all of the Hebrew Bible with royal jewels:

The scope of Genesis 1:1-2:4 contains an entire portrait of the nature of Yahweh, the God of Israel, over against all pagan claims.  Such a profound statement was not the earliest, but rather is the last part to be added to the Pentateuch, a summary of what God can do, a guarantee that the story to follow makes sense. (Boadt 118) 

 

Verb Analysis

Genesis 1:3 has three verbs: “and-he-said,” “let-him-be,” “and-he-was.”  These verbal constructions represent single verbs in Hebrew, therefore we shall treat them as such.

Verb Mood Tense Voice Question
and-he-said Indicative Past Active (1) No
let-him-be Imperative (2) Present Active (3) No
and-he-was Indicative Past Intransitive verb No

(1)   While the English construction appears to be in an active voice, theologically it may be treated as being in a passive voice, since there may not have been anyone or anything to direct speech to, but the very producer of the speech.  Thus, the action may be viewed as directed at the subject, a fact which makes it possible to speak of the passive voice.  In Christian Trinitarian theology, however, a more active approach could be taken, with one Person of the Trinity directing speech to another.  Consider, for example, John 1:1, “εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος.”  Contrary to the usual “and the Word was with God” (NIV), “και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον” could be translated as “and the Word was to God” (προς—to).

(2)   An “imperative” may not be the best definition of this “verb,” since the very pronouncement of it also was the very action.  The whole construction, therefore, may be viewed not in terms of “God said to do it,” or “God said for it to happen,” but “God did it,” or “God made it happen.” 

(3)   If the light was created ex nihilo, then it is difficult to say that an action was directed at something other than the producer of the action—there was nothing at which to direct the action.  In the absence of an object, the action would necessarily have to be directed at the subject, rather than at the nihilo, thus it is philosophically, though not grammatically, possible to speak of the passive voice of this verb.

 

Word Study

Light

Some scholars tend to favor more simple explanations for the light which was created before there were luminaries to produce it.  In the process of doing so, they inevitably assume that ancient people’s understanding of physics was very limited or that ours is superior:

The notion of light independent of the sun … derives from the observation that the sky is illumined on days when the sun is obscured and that brightness precedes the sun’s rising. (Etz Hayim 5)

While the image is indeed beautiful—the light that comes independently of the sun and in fact precedes the sun—it is, nevertheless, merely a speculation into early human beliefs.  In this attempt to condescend to the ancients, one could even propose that the sacred poem may well have been written early in the morning, when the inspired author first observed the break of dawn (day 1); and he was able to see the horizon (upper and lower waters, day 2); and then distinguish between dry land and the nearby pond (day 3a); furthermore the vegetation was noticed (day 3b); the sun rose, which prompted the poet to mention the luminaries (day 4); and the air filled with the sound of morning birds and a fish jumped out of the pond to catch an early mosquito (day 5); finally, the yard dog and the gardener woke up (day 6).  Such “poetic” renditions of the meaning of the sacred text may stem from misunderstanding of the sacred language as well as an attempt to minimize the value of divine revelation in “real” science.  Possible late-twentieth-century misunderstandings of the sacred ancient language are to be discussed later in this paper.    

The more allegorical approach to the meaning of this word is also used.  It has been noted that “light in the Bible serves as a symbol of life, joy, justice, and deliverance.”  Additionally, “in the ancient world generally, light itself is a feature of divinity” (Etz Hayim 5).  This last point, however, may require additional research, since many other things were “features of divinity” in the ancient world.  Darkness (abyss) and chaos, for example, are also “features of divinity” (Tiamat).

The allegorical approach to the understanding of the meaning of the word “light,” if applied to Genesis 1:3, appears to require further explanation.  It is relatively possible to make sense of “let there be life,” but “let there be justice and deliverance” seems less comprehensible within the context of the first few lines of Genesis. 

Finally, Zlotowitz claims that the word “’light’ in our verse designates the sun, moon, and stars which were created on the first day.”  On the fourth day, according to Zlotowitz, “the luminaries were ‘suspended’” (39).  Thus, in this scheme the word “light” refers to the usual stream of photons proceeding from the usual cosmic luminaries which were created on the first day and presumably stowed away in some storage facility until they were taken out and suspended on the fourth day.  Zlotowitz, however, alludes that the luminaries may have consisted only of their potentials (39) and the very “light that was created that day …[is] stored away” (40).  The last point may need further argumentation since “no one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed” (Luke 8:6 NIV).

Even if we view the proposed creation of the luminaries on the first day as merely creating their potential for the purpose of producing the photons, the idea of potential luminaries producing actual photons may be equally as absurd as the idea of me issuing executive orders, for although I have the potential to become a U.S. president, I may not begin issuing orders until I am in fact inaugurated.  Finally, no good reason for such hermeneutical acrobatics appears to exist merely because photons can and did exist—at least, according to most modern scientists who subscribe to some form of the Big Bang Theory[6]—before stars, planets, and other heavenly bodies were formed.

 

Good

“And God saw that the light was good”—the meaning of the word “good” in this phrase also warrants a careful study, since it is unusual to think that God would create anything bad.  Why then was God seemingly surprised that what He had created had turned out good?  Zlotowitz writes that:

There are two implications in the phrase ‘it is good’: (a) that an object is functionally good in that it is compatible with its intended purpose; and (b) that it is intrinsically good. (41)

The Vilna Gaon also notes that “’good’ designates that its usefulness is obvious” (qtd. in Zlotowitz 41).  Thus, we may propose that God’s seeing that the light is good may be viewed as a declaration of its usefulness for its intended purpose, perhaps further creation.  Before all other things could be created, or in order that all other things may be created, it may have been fitting to create light; thus “good” may refer to “useful” or even “necessary” and “foundational.”

 

Literary Criticism

The Genesis creation story is not only the beginning of the book of Genesis, but it is an opening to the entire sacred Scripture of the Jews and the Christians.  It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the best writing is employed within the passage.

The P[riestly] account of creation in seven days is a brilliant beginning to the Old Testament.  It combines the best of Hebrew narrative style with the soaring refrains of a hymn.  It does not waste a word, but uses a carefully worked out structure combined with repetition of key expressions to create a powerful effect on the reader or listener.  As in a good drama or carefully told children’s story, we experience the awe and majesty of God’s creative power in the very telling of the event. (Boadt 114)  

Genesis 1:3 is part of the so-called “first” creation story which some scholars attribute to the P or “Priestly source” (Blenkinsopp 60).  This priestly account of the creation of the world is composed of seven days with eight works of creation fitted into the first six days.   The creation of the world starts with the creation of light on the first day and concludes with the creation of humans on the sixth day and the Sabbath of God on the seventh.

The entire creation story is the first part of the first pentad of the toledot series (Blenkinsopp 58).  The form of toledot, or genealogy, therefore, can be seen as one of the main characteristics of the literary form of the creation story.  This form guides the structure of the text and the way information is presented.  It is not purely a list, however.

While toledot presupposes a basic genealogical structure, it does not exclude narrative development; in fact, some of the later toledot are composed almost entirely of narrative. (58)

In this genealogical structure, the Genesis creation story is a typical example of similar literature produced by other peoples of the ancient Middle East; and creation stories in general are quite typical in the Middle East and the rest of the world.  As a tool in shaping a religion and a nation, the Genesis creation story both borrows from such works as Enuma Elish and engages in a polemic with them.

The primordial waters in Genesis 1:2 and 1:6 remind the reader of the waters of Apsu and Tiamat; and the parting of the dead Tiamat, splitting her up “like a flat fish into two halves” and making the “covering for heaven” out of the carcass, seems to correspond to the parting of the “water from water” in Genesis 1:6-8.  Regardless of personal beliefs and scientific discoveries of the past, the author of Genesis may have felt the need to use common terminology and imagery of his time.  Yet, Genesis may also be viewed as arguing for a new understanding of the old Babylonian images. 

Neither chaos-Tiamat, nor her waters which made up the world, nor any forces in the world have any divinity according to Genesis.  The heavenly bodies, much revered in the Middle East as gods, are mere creatures in Genesis, having neither divine attributes nor personalities—they do not even have names, but are referred to as simply “the greater light,” and “the lesser light” (Gen. 1:16).

… the anonymity of the luminaries, and  the detailed descriptions serve to emphasize that the sun, moon, and stars are not divinities, as they were universally thought to be in other creation narratives. (Etz Hayim 7)

The author of Genesis as well as his audience were probably aware of the existence and the content of those “other creation narratives” as they navigated the contemporary social world.

 

Analysis of Social World

According to some scholars, the creation story contained in Genesis1:1-2:4a may be attributed to the so-called Priestly source (Blenkinsopp 60).  Based on the research by Julius Wellhausen, Boadt states that the Priestly source is the collected work of a group of priests that started while in Babylonian captivity and concluded with the edited Pentateuch sometime after the exile ended in 539 B.C.

…when the whole country went into exile under the Babylonians in 597 to 586, a school of priests seems to have gathered many of the cultic and legal traditions together… This Priestly work (called P) thus formed a fourth source which made the earlier historical accounts more complete… According to Wellhausen, these four sources were finally edited by the Priestly school into the Pentateuch after the exile ended in 539 B.C. (95)

The social world of the Priestly writer/editor of Genesis 1, therefore, may have been that of a recent return from Babylonian captivity, good knowledge of Babylonian mythology, and heavy influence of Babylonian culture.  Furthermore, the Priestly writer/editor may have felt compelled to preserve Judaic beliefs which were being threatened by the assimilation of Babylonian beliefs.  Several generations of Hebrews had been born and raised in Babylon and perhaps were familiar with their hosts’ beliefs.  The Priestly editor may have needed to strengthen the traditional Hebrew beliefs and at the same time weaken the influence of Babylonian beliefs on the younger generations by engaging in a polemic against the said beliefs, yet having to use the language, imagery and symbolism of Babylonian mythology because it was familiar to people who had spent nearly seventy years in Babylon.

Most of the text of the Torah had already existed in the forms of writings and perhaps oral stories within the E, J and D sources.[7]  During the process of surviving captivity and later rebuilding a nation after an exile however, a unifying editing of the source material and establishing of a strong tribal religious system based on rituals and laws may have been instrumental:

… a school of priests seems to have gathered many of the cultic and legal traditions together.  This included the lists of ancestors preserved in the temple, the isolated stories and traditions not found in the earlier works, and most of the great law collections in Leviticus and Number. (Boadt 95)

Thus, in summary, the social world of the writer/editor of the first chapter of Genesis and his intended readers was marked by Babylonian captivity and the need to unify the people on the basis of a strong tribal religion, Babylonian beliefs and the need to enter into a polemic against them in order to preserve a national and religious identity, and later the rebuilding of the country and the temple as its most sacred shrine and religious center.

 

“Let there be light!”

“Glory be!” said the Cabby.  I’d ha’ been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.”

                C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

Scientific progress coupled with humanist philosophy and the apparent inability of traditional religious institutions to handle a dialogue between religion and science put a rift between the two which may have reached its apogee in the first part of the twentieth century.  In the recent decades both scientist and theologians have done a great deal to repair the “great schism” and have made considerable progress in beginning honest dialogue.  There are now biologists and physicists, astronomers and mathematicians who personally believe in the Divine and have conducted their research in a way that supports a dialogue with religion.  On the other hand, there are now theologians that do not insist that they understand everything within the Sacred Scriptures and are open to studying and reconsidering the meaning of the ancient texts in light of modern scientific research.

Despite these developments, some theologians tend to explain away the parts of sacred texts that seemingly disagree with our modern understanding of science by declaring that the ancients did not know any better; that they did not fly into space, so they thought that the earth was flat and rested on three turtles.  While we indeed seem to possess more technical knowledge, it has also been noted that “Much learning does not teach understanding” (Heraclites of Ephesus, On the Universe).  It is possible that the ancients, while not possessing modern technical vocabulary used more “simplistic” terms to express truly profound ideas.  Indeed, if our descendants were to study our cutting-edge astrophysical ideas, they would notice a reference to the mysterious dark energy,[8] and, after analyzing the social world of Star Wars, theosophy, and various occult trends in society, they might come to the conclusion that our science is quite primitive in its view of the world and is easily influenced by movies and pseudo-religious hoaxes.  In this section of the paper I should like to respect the integrity of the Priestly creation story in Genesis and offer a few links between the language of the Bible and modern cosmological theories as I view them.[9] 

As a foundation for this study, I would like to look at the time before the creation of light.  In my model, this time does not correspond with any knowledge of physics that we humans can gain, but in my opinion this speculative foundation must be laid in order for the study to move forward.  It is my belief that we cannot know or express anything about the existence of God before He began to create the heaven and the earth; but if I may anthropomorphize God, before He began to create, He had the idea, the desire, or the vision of creation.  Perhaps anthropomorphizing the Divine is grossly incorrect, but if, as Genesis claims, we were created in His image, the Divine plan of creation may have been not unlike creative ideas that we humans bear, perhaps something of that image or likeness.  This idea may not have included the entire detailed structure of the world with its entire history.  Perhaps it was merely an inspiration, a tohu feeling, a desire.  

Next, when God began to create the heaven and the earth, He created space for this new world to exist in.  This seems to be the necessary first step since space is “one of the few fundamental qualities” in nature (φύσις).  While, like any truly fundamental concept, space is not easily defined, one possible view of space is that it is a potential for placement of a mathematical point, which is usually thought of as roughly having Ø dimension, Ø presence, and -∞ potential.  Yet there is an alternate way to think of a mathematical point: Ø dimension, Ø presence, and +∞ potential. 

It is possible, of course, to speak of the creation of space as the potential for space, which, once created, strives for fulfillment and is in the state of constant expansion in the same way that time can be thought of as being in the state of constant expansion.[10] This time when the fabric of space or the “space potential” was created, but the heaven and the earth existed only as a Divine idea, is perhaps designated by the mention that the earth was shapeless and void.  The earth may have quite literally lacked its shape due to the fact that it had not materialized yet, or, as the LXX claim, it was unseen.[11] 

So, what filled the space that God had created for His world?  What were the primordial waters of chaos?  Before Planck time, modern cosmology offers no coherent model of events, and neither does Genesis, for that matter.  It is presumed that before Planck time, space, time, matter, and energy exploded outward[12] from a singularity or a mathematical point,[13] and that all of the four fundamental forces were unified.  At Plank time, the gravitational force begins to differentiate:

Some 15 billion or so years ago, the universe erupted from an enormously energetic, singular event, which spewed forth all of space and all of matter… The temperature of the universe a mere 10-43 seconds after the bang, the so-called Planck time, is calculated to have been about 1032 Kelvin, some 10 trillion trillion times hotter than the deep interior of the sun.  As time passed, the universe expanded and cooled, and as it did, the initial homogenous, roiling hot, primordial cosmic plasma began to form eddies and clumps. (Green 346)

This description certainly sounds to me like the waters of chaos of Genesis.  It is interesting to note, however, that at Plank time, when space, matter, energy, and forces are in existence, the role of photons is of no significance whatsoever:

Prior to [the forming of the first electrically neutral atoms a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang], the universe was filled with a dense plasma of electrically charged particles—some with positive charges like nuclei and others with negative charges, like electrons.  Photons, which interact only with electrically charged objects, were bumped and jostled incessantly by the thick bath of charged particles, traversing hardly any distance before being deflected or absorbed.  (Green 347)    

What can theology add to that?  Certainly, while according to Genesis, God is separate from His world, He may not be thought of as being located outside of it, as if sitting on the other side of the fence or behind a door.  More correctly, perhaps, the world may be thought of as existing within God; so both statements would be correct: God is outside of space and time, and space and time are within God.  Being actual limitlessness, God would fully actualize Himself in every point of potential limitlessness, every point of Ø presence and +∞ potential, with the full force of Divine action.  God’s divine power and action (ενεργεια) would be fully present in every mathematical point of the created space, however many dimensions it may have.  This divine presence, however, would prevent any other existence in any point in space, and most importantly it would make human freedom impossible.  The Divine Ocean in its unbridled force would not tolerate any individuality, swallow every single droplet, and dissolve every individual salt crystal.

The postulate of human freedom, of course, is in itself is an argument against determinism.  I will not develop this argument in this paper, but if there has been at least one human in all of human history who at least once in his or her life made a free choice, however insignificant, then freedom is possible.  Our legal system, certainly, believes this and holds humans accountable for their actions—an absurd notion in a deterministic world.

In order to reconcile God, actual limitlessness, and personal freedom, one must propose that God is a person.[14]  To explain this, let us imagine a stream of water flowing from a hose with a great force and devastating everything in its path.  Let us also imagine that on a particularly hot day we would like to take that hose and carefully water a beautiful flower, preserving its fragile beauty and providing it with life-giving moisture.  In order to accomplish this task, we would have to decrease water pressure by partially closing the faucet to the degree acceptable for our purpose.  Now let us imagine that the enormous power of water is God’s might and that He wants to allow for the fragile beauty of human freedom to exist and not be destroyed by the water pressure.  If the faucet is controlled from the outside, that means that there is a force greater than God, and the Torah does not appear to accept or support such a notion.  This allegorical faucet must be thought of as an internal control—God, Who wills to control His energies and carefully dispense them in quantum proportions—and this property can belong only to a person.  This statement of God’s personhood, this inner complexity and separation between the Person of God and His divine action may perhaps be seen as the “wind from God sweeping (brooding) over the water” (Gen. 1:2)—the creative action of God, His purposeful activity, Divine Presence and Energy “sent” by the Divine Person or the Divine Person calming, separating and measuring the infinitely-powerful waters of Divine Energy. 

When God created the conditions necessary for the existence of the world with its fragile beauty and freedom, it was time to build the foundation for the materializing of heaven and the earth.  And “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).  Modern physics believes that everything in our world, including fields of energy, is made up of elementary particles: within the Standard Model of particle physics, fermions are the basic building blocks of matter and bosons guide the fundamental forces of nature.  These particles, also referred to as “point particles,” are treated in mathematical calculations as mathematical points, having Ø dimensions, Ø presence, and therefore existing in space only as coordinates.  In fact, according to the Big Bang Theory, the entire universe, including space and time, came from a mathematical point, thus, out of nothing, ex nihilo.  This view strangely enough corresponds to the Buddhist belief in which the world consists merely of a stream of dhammas, although even those, when observed closely, do not exist, thus the world is nothing but a dream—a momentary element of consciousness of a subjective perceiver who is also non-existent and is “extinguished” to Ø presence.  In this system, all matter and energy can be reduced to mere mathematical points, leaving only the Great Nothing, the Great Void.

I would like to propose that the Genesis account of the world is better supported by a system that was developed relatively recently—the so-called “string theory” or, more specifically, Edward Witten’s M-theory.  In this system, elementary particles are thought of not as mathematical points, but as one-dimensional vibrating strings of energy about as long as the Planck length (Green 136).  The strings vibrate in a manner that can tentatively be described in terms similar to that of the vibrating strings of a cello or a violin (Green 145), and “the properties of an elementary ‘particle’—its mass and its various force charges—are determined by the precise resonant pattern of vibration that its internal string executes” (Green 144).  The entire world, therefore, may be envisioned as a beautiful symphony played by the Divine Virtuoso, Who gives the strings their initial energy and specific resonance and sustains their “singing.”  These strings are thought of as the foundational elementary building blocks of everything that exists; so instead of the postulate that everything is made up of nothing, as is the case with point particles, we may propose that everything is made up of “singing” strings of energy.

Here I would like to make another speculation and propose that an ancient writer, no matter how divinely inspired, would have been unlikely to use the term “one-dimensional strings of energy” and instead may have chosen the word “light” to describe the foundational enegry.  The first-created light, therefore, may be thought of not as a stream of photons which “the wicked were unworthy of utilizing” (Zlotowitz 41), but as elementary strings of energy that came into existence and began to vibrate and resonate in response to God’s speaking.  God said, “Let there be light,” and the world sang back; God lifted up His voice, and the world responded with a symphony of vibrating energy, God’s action produced action (ενεργεια).  Here is a poetic description of this divine concert:

In the darkness something was happening at last.  A voice had begun to sing…  Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself.  There were no words.  There was hardly even a tune.  But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise…  Then two wonders happened at the same moment.  One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count.  They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices…  [I]t was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.  (Lewis 1:106-107)

God created “light” and saw it fitting, good for the intended purpose.  Thus, the very fabric of the world was produced, enabling further creation of particles, stars, planets, homos, and the vast multiplicity of the created world.  God sings the world into existence and turns the tohu and bohu desert waste, the dark abyss of non-existence into the Garden of Eden.  This perhaps is one possible vision of why the “light” was created on the first day, but the luminaries on the fourth. 

The shining fabric of the created world, the song of God radiating back in the form of His created “light” or energy provided the building material for everything in the universe, including ha-adam.  Therefore, in addition to thinking of humans as made of star dust, dirt, and debris, one might consider them to be the children of light.  Continuous dialogue between the science of particle physics and theology on the topic of world and human origins could, in my opinion, provide a foundation for why we are called to live not like dust (albeit, even star dust), dirt, or rubbish, but to “live as children of light” (Eph. 5:8 NIV).

 

Bibliography

Blenkinsopp, J. The Pentateuch. An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Boadt, L. Reading the Old Testament. An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1984. 

Etz Hayim. Ed. David L. Lieber et al. The Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

Friedman, R. Commentary on the Torah With a New English Translation. San Francisco: Harper, 2003.

Green, B. The Elegant Universe. Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. New York: Norton, 2003.

Kass, L. The Beginning of Wisdom. Reading Genesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2003. 

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia. 7 vols. New York: Harper, 1994.

Rose, Fr. Seraphim. Genesis, Creation and Early Man: the Orthodox Christian vision. St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000.

Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir. Genesis, A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1977, 1980. 

 


[1] Here et passim in this paper we shall use the terminology of Etz Hayim when referring to God. 

[2] Here et passim in this paper the English translation of the Bible is taken from Etz Hayim, unless specified otherwise.

[3] As a matter of philosophical choice, I believe that darkness actually lacks existential properties.  Darkness has no more substance than the emptiness in my stomach when food is absent from it.

[4] Here we choose not to examine the conspiracy theory that claims that the 72 rabbis purposefully mistranslated parts of the text.

[5] Not to be confused with the uncreated light of God.

[6] In this paper, I shall work to some degree with the so-called Big Bang Theory because it is most widely accepted in cosmology.  Of course, it is necessary to keep in mind that this theory, despite its name, does not actually deal with the very bang—it does not describe what banged, why, and how, but rather offers some insight into what happened a short time after the bang and into the present.

[7] E, J and D correspond to Elohist, Yahwist and Deuteronomist sources within Wellhausen’s “Documentary Theory” (Boadt 94-95).

[8] A force acting in opposition to gravity at large scales.  The idea of a cosmological constant needed to balance gravity was first introduced by Einstein as a solution to his gravitational field equation.

[9] My understanding of modern astrophysics is merely amateur and accidental, so a careful review of the material presented in this paper is necessary.

[10] Some physicists and theologians would argue that all of spacetime is mene, mene, tekel u-pharsin, yet this view appears not to take into equation two important variables: the free Person of God and the free person of man.  

[11] It must be noted here that the word ἀόρατος may also be translated as “without limits, borders, or shape.”

[12] It is, of course, impossible to speak of exploding “outward” in the absence of space.  It may well have imploded inward!

[13] “Mathematical point” is, perhaps, a poor term for “that thing” due to the impossibility of locating that point—technically speaking, we are now within that point, actually inside of it—but the term “singularity”—a point where a mathematical function goes to infinity—offers no more comprehensibility.

[14] The following argument is based on the ideas of Emanuel Kant.  

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