Creation in the Old Testament

Vid Snoj

Our intention today is to speak about »the beginning of things«. When I was invited to participate in a conference on this topic, I accepted the task of discussing the creation of the world in the book of revelation, the Bible.
My time is, like that of other speakers, limited. Yet I am nevertheless convinced we should ask ourselves at the very beginning, before tackling the selected topic, whether we are ready at all for a biblical narrative about creation. I don’t think we’re losing time with this question; after all, in Jewish mysticism it was once necessary to reach a certain age before being admitted to the meditation of ma’ase be-re’šit, God’s »work in the beginning«.
So: are we ready for a biblical narrative, a fundamental Jewish-Christian testimony on the beginning of the world, after having experienced rejuvenation, regeneration or even the rebirth of mankind, an attempt by man to take over himself, which is most evident in modern science?
We have heard the story of the origin and development of Earth, the story of the origin of animal species and the human race and their struggle for survival, these two and other stories from the 19th and 20th centuries which presented themselves as theories seeking to elucidate the mystery of the beginning and, in doing so, refuting the biblical narrative. The answer is – no, we are not ready for a biblical narrative if we remain caught in the horizon of expectation opened by these stories. We are not ready for it if we expect a clarification, which we are also encouraged to expect by researchers of mythology when they speak of the so-called aetiological myths; in other words, if we expect light, more light, Lumières at the origin; if, as a projection of our hermeneutic presupposition, we expect the Enlightenment there in order to satisfy our more or less scientifically trained reason, educated in daily logical operations. If we seek an argument, a rational cause-and-effect answer to the question of the origin of earth and heaven, plant and animal species, and the human race.
A biblical narrative simply does not provide the answers to our new questions. For example, in the 19th century a certain bishop’s answer was that God created, in addition to all that is written in the Bible, also the newly discovered fossils; this is apology destined to failure. A delayed apology which has succumbed to the intrusiveness of a question, so that the biblical narrative is vainly defended with a witless, stiff, rigid falsification.
On the contrary, readiness to read the biblical narrative requires us to withstand light compulsion. We must be drawn to this readiness, this maturity, by the darkness of the origin, in awed attitude towards it and with shivering skin.
The biblical narrative on be-re’šit, about what happened in the beginning, does not use the word »because«, nor does it throw light on the beginning. Not too much light. It uses the word »light«, but, at the very beginning, as a word that is in reality intended for light, which does not yet exist. It uses this word as a call beckoning for light to come. And light can spill over us if we are willing to accept the biblical narrative as a narrative about a wonderful and magnificent, yet at the same time insuppressibly mysterious, absolutely sublime event – about an event before man’s deed, before human history, an event before which, as St. Augustine says in Confessiones (11, 13), »no time existed«. My intention is to show, in a few strokes, the sublimity of this event exactly as it is presented in the biblical narrative, the narrative-testimony, which is also sublime in itself.
The grammar of this narrative is simple. The sentence in the first chapter of Genesis, which frames the story of creation and links separate acts of creation within this frame, is affirmative. Yet this is not the affirmativeness of a theory, of »objective« discourse, which twists and conceals in itself the presupposition of its point of view, of its perspective and inevitable partiality. Who narrates and from where? Moses, as claimed by old tradition? We don’t know. The narrator is completely hidden behind the words of the narrative. He has left traces of his identity in the Hebrew language and also in the name Elohim, a name he gave to God, as established by a historical-critical method which attempted to identify his signature – »Elohist«. However, he narrates from mystical experience, from communion with God, one could also say with the Spirit of God (ruah Elohim), who »was moving over the face of the waters« (1,1), or with the Holy Spirit in the old Christian interpretation, which comes from Origen. To speak properly of be-re’šit somehow presupposes being in the beginning, with God – how can one otherwise speak of an event before time, in the beginning, be-re’šit, if not in a certain with-God, from no-time of a mystical experience? For this reason the narrative of a biblical writer is, by its basic literary determination, a testimony that is not authenticated by anything outside of it, by no external fact. Far from being fiction, which is usually imagined as a figuring out of something, it is, in communion with the Spirit, formed from the inner demand for the truth postulated by such communion.
The sublime event as presented by the biblical narrative is the following: in the beginning, God speaks. The biblical narrative quotes God’s speech. It does not quote it from any previous source or book, but from the beginning, before anything existed, and it interlinks this speech or speeches in the beginning placing them in a frame. Jehi ’or, said God, »Let there be light« – and the writer close to God adds: va-jehi ’or, »and there was light«. And so on. That is how the earth and heaven, the lights in the firmament of the heaven, the plants and living creatures on earth are coming into being. The biblical narrative first speaks of God’s call. This is followed by – in another voice, the voice of the narrator, in which the author speaks – the coming of things into being. Be, God calls – and it was, the narrator adds, confirms, claims. Calling is the first act of the sequence of creation. It may repeat itself as such (1,14), or it may be followed by making (1,7) and naming (1,8).
Chapter nine of the famous essay entitled Perì hýpsous, once attributed to the rhetor Longinus and probably written in the 1st century A.D., says:

So too the lawgiver of the Jews, no ordinary person, having formed a high conception of the power of the Divine Being, gave expression to it when at the very beginning of his Laws he wrote: »God said« – what? »Let there be [genéstho] light, and there was [kaì egéneto] light; let there be land, and there was land.«

Longinus quotes these words freely from the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebraic original. By replacing the verb »be« with »become« (genéstho – egéneto), he above all marks the dynamics of the coming of things into being. In words qouted he recognizes the »worthy« grasp of God’s power, a grasp so high and strong that it prevails in the face of God’s magnificent power of creation, which means that it is also capable of revealing this power in a sufficiently high position of style. Longinus’s statement is not only one of the first antique pagan mentions of the Bible, but the first mention at all that sets the Bible as an example of sublime style. From this aspect, the pagan Longinus even has an advantage over the Fathers of the Church in late antiquity, for whom the biblical speech was merely sermo humilis (St. Augustine) or sermo incultus (St. Jerome).
Emphasis on the dynamics of coming into being can also be found many years later in the book entitled The Sublime and Beautiful of Scripture, which, in the mid seventies of the 18th century, was the first English-speaking book to praise the literary excellence of the Bible. In this book, the today less-known Jackson Pratt explains that the third line of the first chapter of Genesis is a sentence comprised solely of monosyllables (the -e- in the Hebrew word jehi is a reduced vowel), and thus gives the impression of speed. Pratt compares it with the creation of light celebrated in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), and establishes that Milton, the greatest English baroque poet, used five verses instead of one and, futhermore, eliminated the sublimity of the biblical presentation by the use of numerous polysyllabic words. And since a polysyllabic word is slower than a monosyllabic one, it stops being similar to the movement it is supposed to present. Polysyllables provoke a loss of speed, and Milton loses the race with the Bible (7, 243–8):

»Let there be Light,« said God; and forthwith light
Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure,
Sprung from the deep, and from her native East
To journey through the aery gloom began,
Spheared in a radiant cloud – for yet the Sun
Was not …

The biblical writer is quicker than Milton, but in the beginning, the first to speak – the first to speak in the biblical narrative –, is God; and when he is speaking, the world is coming into being. According to Claus Westermann, the history of religion distinguishes between four types of creation of the world: first, by the union of gods and their generation (e.g. Uranos and Gaia in Hesiodus’s Theogony); second, by combat (Baal and Yam in the Canaanite myth); third, by making or forming (of demiurge, which follows the contemplation of ideas, in Plato’s Timaeus); and fourth, by the word.
Biblical creation naturally belongs to the type of creation of the world by the word, although the biblical narrative contains neither »word« nor »world«. The Hebraic word for »word«, davar, does not appear at all in the biblical narrative. The word of creation is not named in the narrative, but simply presented as a word pronounced by God, as a spoken word, which is simultaneously a word-for-a-thing, for the coming of a thing into being. Even more: God is speaking, but his voice is also not named by the word – it is merely at-word. And again: God has a voice, though this voice is without its word or name and is merely presented at work. But God has no visible image which, according to biblical testimony, he may acquire, sometimes even a human image, such as the image of »three men« on the occasion of visit payed to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18,2), of the »likeness as it were in human form« in Ezekiel’s vision (Eze 1,26), or of the »ancient of days« in Daniel’s vision (Dan 7,9).
God’s voice at work, or rather, because it is a voice, at-word in the beginning comes from nowhere – and is coming nowhere. Yet where God is speaking and working, the world is dawning. And though neither God’s voice nor the word of creation are named in the biblical narrative, God’s creation by the word is explicitly mentioned in other parts of the Bible, as well as in Jewish tradition. For example, Psalm 33,6 reads: »By the word [bi-devar] of the Lord heavens were made …« One the other side, one of the later rabbinical appellations for God was »He who spoke and the world [‘olam] was created«. God therefore spoke and created the world by the word, even though there is no word for »world« neither in the biblical narrative nor in the entire Hebrew Bible, and old tradition uses earth and heaven in the meaning of world.
Creation by the word is first and foremost a calling. The word of creation is first the call: »Let there be light!« The grammar of our human language teaches us to recognize, in this call, an imperative (»be«) and a noun, that which Plato and Aristotle referred to as ónoma, »name« (»light«). Yet this name in creation as presented in the biblical narrative is not a sign referring to something else outside itself, to a certain being for which it stands. It is no word-indicator. Together with the imperative, which calls up, orders, that is, which says commandingly – and it commands that which has not yet been to be –, it is a performative. The word of creation is a great, unprecedented performative belonging solely to the grammar of creation. A performative that not only does what it says, but also makes what it says come into being. It does and makes.
In the first part of Faust (1808), Goethe refers to the beginning of the Gospel according to John, which with its opening En archê refers, on the other hand, to Be-re’šit of Genesis, and thus profoundly paraphrases the beginning of this first book of the Bible, i.e. creation at the beginning of the Bible, when he places in Faust’s mouth the words: Im Anfang war die Tat. »In the beginning was the deed« – it was a word of creation, nothing other than a deed, an absolute deed, a deed of primordiality (in the meaning of the objective genitive: a deed that made primordial). Or as the Norwegian biblicist, Thorleif Boman, complements Goethe in his book Das hebräische Denken im Vergleich mit dem griechischen (1952) with the implication: in the beginning there was Tatwort, word-deed.
The word-deed, a word of creation, is the calling of a thing and the thing called by its name is: Be light – and there is light. Fiat lux. Et facta est lux, translates St. Jerome, without any other work or factor. A thing is made a thing exclusively by the word of creation, and comes into its »is«, that is, into being, ex nihilo, »out of nothing«, as has been emphasized by the traditional Christian interpretation since the second century A.D. (Are we at all able to think creation in the Bible without being caught in the net of its philosophical-theological-mystical-literary interpretation?). Even more: a thing is commanded, in the word of creation itself, in its name, to come to its place – and it comes from nowhere, that is, from no-place, from the abyss. But when things are coming to their place in a word of creation, they are coming into their own names. The things I should now name in brackets so as to draw attention to their not-yet-being, their being-in-coming – thus (things) are things only in their own names, in the word of creation, i.e., ultimately, in God. Only then are they suddenly – out of nothing, above the abyss of nothing – in being and time.
On the other hand, the world is also only at the arrival of things to their place a landscape, an order of places, a kósmos. The world exists in the word of creation, which is not a tool, but a medium of creation. However, it is not »substantially« out of the word of creation, but from it. Or as is explained in one of the mystical sermons of Meister Eckhart, who developed the old Christian understanding that creation by the word is creation in the Word: all things, all creatures spoken by God the Father in the beginning, that is, in the Son, in the uncreated Word, in the Christ Logos, are »created words«. Everything can last in a speech or address of God. And as the Word was with God in the beginning (Jn 1,1), so »must the by-word [bîwort] be with this Word«, says Meister in the same sermon. Ultimately, a mystic must also be a by-Word, a word with the Word. A witness of this »with«, a word at-word in God.
The calling in the biblical narrative is followed by making, which is no manual working out, but part of creation by the word, the second act of the same sequence of creation. In the Confessiones (11, 5), Augustine confesses to God his reading of Genesis as follows:

Also in your hand you had nothing from which to make the heaven and earth: as from where would you have taken a thing which you did not make yourself in order to have made something from it. […] Then you said it, and it was, and with your word you created everything (Ps 33,9).

Naming, however, which in the sequence of creation follows making as the third act, introduces knowing. For example: God made the firmament (1,7) – the firmament he named heaven (1,8) and the dry land earth (1,10) – and he saw that it was good (1,10). God saw – he saw the thing in its entirety, he saw it to the end, to the bottom, or to the abyss. Thus he knew the thing he had called into being in the word of creation, and he knew it to be good (Hebr. tov) or, as translated by the Septuagint – which adds to the biblical narrative the fundamental Greek experience of the world as a beautiful phenomenon – to be beautiful (Gr. kalón). God’s seeing of things in the word of creation, each thing in its own name, is all-overviewing abysmal seeing, i.e. a knowing of the world in its entirety and down to the abyss: »And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good« [tov me’od; Septuagint: very beautiful, kalà lían] (1,31). What is the world? Pulcherrimum nihil, the German baroque mystic, Angelus Silesius, will say in the be-with-God experience, and this saying will be the earliest to testify on his turn to mysticism.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God created on the sixth day of creation, by the word of creation, the last thing, a being to have dominion over other living beings (nefeš hajja) (1,26) – man, the crown of creation. In order for man to have dominion over living beings, God made him, as a distinction from them, »in our own image« (1,26–27). At this point the biblical narrative names God’s image and at the same time names this image, by which man becomes visible (and in which God himself remains invisible), as a name. But in the second chapter, as the historical-critical method pointed out, the narration is taken from Elohist by the so-called Yahwist, and the second report on creation is presented. According to this report, man is a being which was not called into being by the word of creation and named in it. Here, the biblical narrative mentions, for the first and only time, the matter from which God created: he made man of »dust from the ground«, breathed into him »the breath of life [nešama hajjim]« – »and man became a living being [nefeš hajja]« (2,7). And God created still other living beings and brought them to the man »so as to name them and so that every living being named by a man would have its own name [šemo]« (2,19).
The word for »name«, šem, appears for the first time in the second chapter of Genesis. According to Yahwist, man is the lord of living beings only inasmuch as he is not subordinated to God’s naming, but is himself capable of naming. Inasmuch as he is lord of their name. Where does this ability of man come from? It is not narrated in the original. But it is revealed – traduttore traditore – in the translation, perhaps even by its own saying. Targum Onkelos, the official Arameic translation of the Torah, which had already been used in the liturgy of the sinagogue in the period before Christ, translates – after God had breathed life into man – that man »became a speaking spirit«. In Jewish mysticism this translation served as a basis for speculations as to whether God’s breathing of life was in reality a breathing of language element.
Whatever the case may be, the biblical narrative presents, and leaves us and our ancestors, who read it before us, to reflect on two namings, that of God and of man, leading us to the idea of two languages. Some extremely witty thoughts on this topic are, in my opinion, expressed by a late heir of the old tradition, Walter Benjamin, in his essay Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen (1916).
As already mentioned, all the things created by God’s word of creation in their own names and overseen in them, known in their abysmal dimension as good or beautiful, are, says Benjamin, knowable to man precisely in these names. Their own knowability is given in their names:

… God made things knowable in their names. And man names them according to knowing.

That is why man’s naming is a translation, proportional to knowing, which is not absolute as it is with God. God’s knowing is, as the seeing of all things in their entirety and down to the abyss, at the same time an endless knowledge, a preservation of the seen in a continuous, all-overviewing prospect. However, man’s knowing cannot completely perceive what God has overseen. And man’s naming is not a pure translation of God’s naming, of the names themselves, but a translation from these names, in which things are – if and as much as they are – knowable, into the names of the human language in which their knowability acquires an echo.
A name originating from man is a call of knowing, a call to a thing known in God’s name. Since the sexual relation of a man and woman as an intimate, innermost relation reaching into the deepest inwardness is, according to the Bible, knowing (e.g. 1 Mz 4,1), one could perhaps say that this name derives from abysmal intimacy with a thing. Yet to name in the language of man does not mean to give a name in the absolute sense, but to translate into the language of man. It means to translate that which, on the basis of names given from God, is knowable in things, the »residuum of God’s creative word«, as Benjamin explains. And this means to translate that which already has a language structure – not a structure of the human, but the structure of a language which, as man’s language, originates from God’s lógos – in brief, that which has language. »Man’s language of names and the anonymous language of things« or, as Meister Eckhart says, the language of »created words«, are »related in God, dismissed from the same creative word«. Man’s naming is a translation of the language of things, the voicing of this language, which is not spoken, at least not out loud, in the names of the human language. The language of names – Adamic language, the language of a man from earth, an earth-man – is therefore nothing other than the voicing of a mute language of things, a language which simultaneously is and isn’t anonymous; it is, because things are only voiced in the name of the human language, and it isn’t, because things are, inasmuch as they are and since they have been, in the name of the word of creation.
I may only add that the language of things into which silenced God’s voice at work in the beginning will, according to the Bible, stop being mute in the end. The voice that will open up things will be the voice of joy, a shout of joy: »The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,« says the Second Isaiah (55,12) in the messianic vision. Far from being only a naive anthropomorphic picture, the shouting of nature will be a messianic actualization, the realization of an original possibility given through creation in the very last of redemption.

Translated by Suzana Stančič