Monday, November 16, 2009

Variations of Creation in Genesis 1

Years ago, Moshe Weinfeld argued (convincingly in my view) that Gen. 1:1-2:3 was originally a temple liturgy. It does come across as a tightly constructed--highly structured--hymn with, in fact, some passages that almost seem designed for antiphonal choruses. Yet, upon a close reading, there are a great many variations within this structure. Just when the structure seems established on day one, there is some literary riffing by the great artist (or group of artists--perhaps from generation to generation) that put this hymn together.

Firstly, let is take care of general organization. Gen. 1:1-2 serves as a nice prologue, or introduction to the main sections of the hymn. The "In the Beginning" or "When God began" with the famous problematic first word בראשית with a shava under the first letter already sets us off into the realm of literary labyrinths of impossibilities and possibilities. Right on the heels of it is the famous rhymed pairing of תהו ובהו. It is after this, after meeting the primordial waters and formless abyss and the spirit or Spirit hovering over the waters that we find the well-known central portion that is highly structured in a day-to-day sequence of "And God said, 'Let there be...' and there was.... And God saw that it was good...And there was evening and there was morning," The finishing touch, the conclusion of completeness comes in 2:1-3 when God completed all his work, and rests on the Seventh day, which he hallows. From this pattern of six days of work plus a seventh of rest comes the week-in and week-out pattern of life as we know it, and yet it brings meaning to our lives since by working six days and resting on the seventh, we imitate God's creating and resting on a weekly basis. We sanctify our time and lives through this imitatio dei.

But the point of this post is to look more closely at the middle sections. They may seem uniform at first glance, but a second look shows them to be quite variable in the day-to-day presentation. The first day of the creation of light already sets the basic framework that will be embroidered from day-to-day (all the following quotes will be from the RSV--not for any particular reason other than that I teach in class using the RSV and perhaps one of my students will stumble onto this and find it useful):

And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And 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, one day.

All the elements I mentioned as basic to the structure are here. God speaking things into existence, them coming into existence, God seeing that it is good, and evening and morning. The notion of divine utterance as a mode of creation is quite old. It can be found in the Enuma Elish, with which this passage has so much in common--a topic well-worn by scholars. In the Babylonian creation story, Marduk creates, destroys, and then recreates the constellations by his most effective utterance. In return, he is given sovereignty by this display of verbal power. It occurs only once in the Enuma Elish, but in Genesis 1 has become the primary mode of creation: God's speech itself becomes most effective and creative.

The very next day, however, shows a riff on this very element. While the effective utterance is still present--"And God said, 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters..."--there is a new mode of creation or, if not a new mode, a new way to discuss it: "And God made the firmament." Instead of God speaking and then those elements coming directly into existence from speech, on the second day, God speaks and then makes. He may make by speaking, but the "making" is a new element introduced. At the same time, however, there is no instance of it "being good." Why is "good" omitted here?

The third day, however, is much more extensive in its variations. Here the literary variation is doubling. Instead of only one "God said....and it was so...and God saw that it was good" there are two instances of it (1:9, 11-12). The first is the gathering of the waters, and the second is the vegetation on the newly uncovered land. Yet it returns to the first day's mode of creation: only speaking and no making.

The fourth day works by rearrangement of Day two--the day with speaking and making--with additional riffs on the act of creation. Day 2's pattern can be set as follows: speaking, making, and it was so, evening and morning. Day four, however, switches the second and third elements: speaking, and it was so, making [and setting], [it was good], and evening and morning. Unlike day 2 and like all of the other days, however, there is the element of calling these creations (the lights in the firmament) good. Moreover, there is a new element of creation: setting. Not only does God speak and make, but God "sets" the lights in firmament. (I just got a mental image of God hanging stars in the sky like we do Christmas ornaments on a tree.)

The fifth day introduces an entirely new element. On this day when the sea and sky creatures are made, God not only speaks them into creation and "creates" (same word as in Gen. 1:1), but for the first time in the narrative God blesses something: "And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas and let birds multiple on the earth.'" (Gen. 1:22). These are commands that will not come about again until the creation of humans--not even the land animals receive such blessings and commands of multiplication.

Nonetheless, the sixth day is even more interesting for another fact: the creation of land animals almost seems like an appendix. It seems to happen on the sixth day, since it occurs after the "and there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day." So just like the third day, this day also is doubled. There are two instances of God said (1:24, 26), two instances of "and it was so" (1:24, 30), and two "it was good" (1:25, 31). The two elements here are the land animals and one particular land animal, the human being. The first element shows very good balance in its repetitious phrasing that suggests antiphonal elements. If I put it in strophe/antistrophe terms, one might show it was follows:

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds:
cattle and creeping things and beasts according to their kinds."
And it was so.

And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds.
And the cattle according to their kinds,
and everything that creeps upon the earth according to its kind.
And God saw that it was good.

In these terms, the third-person narration of the antistrophe repeats and elaborates the the second-person divine speech of the strophe. Whereas the first takes "according to their kinds" twice, the second takes it three times, applying it to cattle (where it was omitted in the first part).

The second part of day six, however, is the most elaborate and, in fact, for the creation days is the climax: it is the creation of the human. It is the only day to use the plural forms. Instead of God directly uttering something into existence, the text uses the first-person plural hortatory subjunctive: "Let us." The question of who "us" is has given a wide-ranging speculation throughout the ages. Perhaps God spoke with the "royal we," or angels helped. Or perhaps this is a vestige of an older polytheism that has not yet been fully monotheized out of the tradition. Again, the human is not simply uttered into creation, but is "made," like the firmament and the sun and the moon. But the human is made in "our" image and "our" likeness. Again the plural remains, but unlike the rest of creation, the human resembles God or the Gods. This particular creation will have dominion over the rest of the created animals. In 1:27, the language is "creating" as in the water and flying creatures and the general discussion in Gen. 1:1. While there have been repetitions in the text, there has not been anything quite as rapid-fire and succinct as what follows:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Gen. 1:27)

Most repetitions in the text are two-fold and lengthy (two or three lines are then repeated for another two or three lines). Here a short, pointed line is repeated three times with variations. The first variation is a matter of word order, but the second variation elaborates the creation of the human: it is male and female, and unlike the Adam and Eve story that follows, they are created at the same time as the zenith of creation. The three-fold repetition of a short line packs a stronger punch than the earlier lengthier repetitions. It is a literary exclamation point. It emphasizes the importance of this moment of the creature who participates in the image and likeness of the creator. Like the sea and flying creatures, the human is then blessed and told to multiply. Then the earlier third-person narration of the human dominating all of creation is repeated in God's own second-person direct speech to the human. Only at this moment is the creation "very good."

In terms of formal characteristics and content there are some patterns:

Day 1 and Day 4 seem to correlate in terms of content: one is light and four is the day of specific aspects of light.

Day 2 and 5: day 2 establishes the creation of sky and sea (the two waters); day 5 is the creation of sea and sky animals.

Day 3 and 6: Day 3 establishes the creation of earth from the waters; day 6 is the creation of land animals. Formally, as well, Day 3 and day 6 use doubling of the creation pattern.

In sum, while Gen. 1:1-2:3 shows a tightly organized sequence of days of creation, the passage indicates great literary artistry in its ability to riff on the structure it had established. Each day is unique, in fact, not just in its content, but in its formal characteristics as it embroiders a seemingly strict framework established on day 1. This formal variation sorts, emphasizes, highlights different aspects of creation: those that are not just uttered, but made, created, and set--perhaps more intimate activities of the creator; those that are singled out and blessed; those that show different types of repetition to make antiphonal callings back and forth or an exclamatory emphasis.

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