Torah Portion of the Week: Beginning Again

Parashat Bereisheet: The process of Creation is the rearrangement and exposure of a new reality that is visible and vital, and which has emerged from a vague, dark, chaotic reality.

The 'Blessing of the Seventh Day,' a mosaic in Basilica di San Marco.
Wikimedia Commons

The Torah begins with Genesis. However, no title is given and there are many questions it does not answer – we do not know who wrote it and when, on what it is based and to whom it is directed. Nor does the Torah introduce its central protagonist, initially called “God” and later “the Lord God.” Furthermore, we are given scant information on the situation that existed prior to this narrative.

The information that can be derived from the story of Creation regarding the preexisting situation is found in Genesis 1:2: “Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” This verse describes the early materials that existed before Creation. However, we do not know what “the spirit of God” is, nor who God is and when he was born (if at all). Similarly, the Torah does not describe the water or state when it was created (if at all). Darkness is presented here as a separate entity; it is not simply the absence of light, as we read further on: “And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.” (Gen. 1:4).

Thus, the process of Creation is not ex nihilo; instead, it is a rearrangement of things, the rearrangement and exposure of a new reality that is visible and vital, and which has emerged from a vague, dark, chaotic reality.

Thus, in the depiction of the third day of Creation, readers learn that dry land existed under the water: “And God said: ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.” (Gen. 1:9). God does not create the land, but rather reveals it by draining off the water that covered it. Afterward, God causes grass and trees to sprout from the earth.

Previously, on the second day, God distributed the water above and below to create an intermediate dry zone where vegetation could grow. He did this by creating “a firmament in the midst of the waters” (Gen. 1:6), whose function is to divide “the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament” (Gen. 1:7). He called the expanse sky, or heaven (Gen. 1:8).

Regarding the second day, unlike the other days of Creation, the Torah does not state “and God saw that it was good” because the goal of separating the water above from the water below is achieved only on the third day, when the nether water is gathered and dry land is revealed. Only then does God see “that it was good.” He proceeds with his work and causes vegetation to emerge from the earth. He is pleased; thus the phrase “and God saw that it was good” appears twice in the depiction of the third day.

Largely based on previously existing ancient materials, this gradual process of Creation seems to contradict Genesis 1:1, which is frequently translated as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” – because God seems to be described as not having created the earth but simply as having revealed it through the draining of the water covering it. Similarly, heaven is presented as a space that God opens up in the midst of the water that existed previously. It seems more reasonable to assume that the terms “heaven” and “earth” in Genesis 1:1 refer not to specific components in the world, but rather symbolize the entire world. Thus, this verse is often read as “In the beginning God created the world” or “In the beginning God created everything.” However, this explanation does not solve the problem emerging from the following verses that tell us God does not create everything.

The solution lies in another interpretation of Genesis 1:1 that is suggested by the classical commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (better known as Rashi), who notes that the word “beginning” is always in the construct case and that the verse is really saying, “In the beginning of the Creation.” Thus, Genesis 1:1 is not describing a specific action, but is instead a time clause, explaining when and under what circumstances the world was created. According to Rashi, we should read Genesis’ first verses like this: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the world – the earth was unformed and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters – God said: ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Creation is not ex nihilo, but is instead the creation of the reality we all know from a previously existing reality. Thus, creation comprises a series of actions – the first of which is the declaration “Let there be light.”

Correcting the reality

The Torah also does not explain why, after the story of Creation, we are given another story of Creation that ignores the first and contradicts it almost completely. In any event, the second story also does not claim that God created the world ex nihilo. Its first sentence can be easily read as a time clause: “In the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (Gen. 2:4) – that is, when God created the world. As in the first story, the time clause leads onto the description of a reality that preceded God’s intervention: “No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground; but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground” (Gen. 2:5-6).

The two stories describe a reality that preceded Creation and present Creation as the correction of that reality. The first story focuses on the darkness, water and chaos that existed in the previous reality, describing God as the creator of light, divider of water and imposer of order in the world. Ultimately, he creates humankind in his image and likeness. The story does not see any need to tell us what material Adam is made from; perhaps he was created ex nihilo. God instructs Adam to rule all creation, apparently with the aim of ensuring the preservation of the new order.

However, the problem the second story tackles is the situation of the earth that lacks vegetation and has nobody to tend it. Thus, God’s first creation in this story is not light but Adam; then God plants a garden and causes trees to grow. In the second story, Adam is created from the earth and is made responsible for its cultivation. Thus, according to both stories, Creation is the correction of a previous reality and God creates humankind to preserve the new situation.