Creation But Not Ex Nihilo

Cosmology-01cr1

My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

How did the world get here?

That question didn’t start with the ancient Israelites and it probably won’t end with us. Our scientific attempts to explain the origin of the universe are speculative and mostly unverifiable. The field of cosmology has made some progress, but it’s still more philosophy than science.1

Since we’re stuck with philosophy anyway, what does the Bible say about the origin of the universe?

Everyone knows the answer by heart:

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

That’s a literal translation of Genesis 1:1: Bereshit bara Elohim et ha shamayim ve et ha aretz. It’s perfectly respectable. The Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 English-language edition of the Tanakh used it.

The phrasing suggests God created the world ex nihilo — that is, out of nothing. At first there was nothing, then God waved His hand and poof!, the universe appeared out of nowhere. That’s our traditional belief. The Jewish sage Saadia Gaon devoted a whole chapter of his Book of Beliefs and Opinions to defending it.2

However, the historical context of the story suggests a different phrasing, used in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1962 English translation:

“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 … “3

That makes it sound like God did not create the world out of nothing. Something already existed, but it was unformed and void. God simply imposed order on a pre-existing chaos.

That interpretation has several things going for it.

First, it gets God off the hook for the existence of evil. If He created everything ex nihilo, then God created evil as well as good. The wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The innocent get sick and die. People of conscience have agonized for millennia about it.

However, if God only imposed order on a pre-existing chaos, then evil already existed when God created the world.

That’s more than just a convenient solution to the problem of evil: It’s consistent with the text. Genesis describes the primordial world as unformed and void, containing “darkness” and “the deep,” all of which symbolized evil to cultures around the time and place of the Biblical writers. An alternative translation of “unformed and void” (tohu ve bohu) is “welter and waste,” connoting emptiness and futility, also evil.4

Second, it’s consistent with other ancient creation stories such as the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, which was known to ancient Israelites. Most such stories have a deity imposing order on chaos.

In the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats the sea goddess Tiamat and splits her body into pieces, forming the waters above and below the sky. That clearly corresponds to the Genesis story, in which:

“God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.’ God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. God called the expanse Sky.”5

Many ancient peoples, including the Israelites, seemed to think of the primordial world as a vast amount of water.6 Moreover, contrary to what we know now, they believed that the sky was solid: for example, Exodus 24:10 refers to it as a “pavement of sapphire.” Because the sky was solid, it could separate the waters above it from the waters below it.

A lot of God’s creative activity in Genesis consists of separating things from each other and then naming them. That agrees with ancient ideas of what it meant to create things and what it meant for them to exist:

“In the ancient world something came into existence when it was separated out as a distinct entity, given a function, and given a name.”7

In the Enuma Elish, Marduk acquires 50 different names when he becomes king of the gods — one name for each function that would have been performed by a separate god. Likewise in the Bible, God has somewhere between 18 and 72 names, depending on who’s counting. That might be a remnant of an earlier polytheism.

So when God separates light from darkness, water above the sky from water below the sky, and names all of those things, the ancient Israelites would have considered it equivalent to creating them.

None of this means, of course, that the Genesis creation stories aren’t true in the way that foundational stories can be true. But the Biblical text doesn’t interpret itself. Knowing the intellectual and historical context in which the stories were first conceived and written down helps a lot when we try to understand their significance.

Works Cited

Alter, R., translator (2004), The Five Books of Moses. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. Kindle edition.

Brettler, M. et al, editors (2014), The Jewish Study Bible, second edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Kindle edition.

Rosenblatt, S., translator (1948), The Book of Beliefs and Opinions. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Walton, J. (2006), Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Footnotes


  1. There is some evidence that ultimate cosmological explanations are impossible, but it’s beyond the scope of this blog post. 
  2. Rosenblatt, S. (1948), pp. 40-46. 
  3. Brettler, M. et al (2014), loc. 1230. 
  4. Alter, R. (2004), loc. 1007. 
  5. Brettler, op cit, loc. 1246. 
  6. It is interesting, though probably coincidental, that land mammals including humans evolved from earlier aquatic species. From an evolutionary perspective, our primordial world was indeed made of water. 
  7. Walton, J. (2006), loc. 1470. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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4 Responses to Creation But Not Ex Nihilo

  1. If evil precedes G_d and he lacks the power to completely eliminate it then He is not omnipotent.

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    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Probably. The whole idea of omnipotence is tricky, subject to simple paradoxes like “Can God tie a knot that He can’t untie?” Fortunately for me, I’m not His publicist, only a humble blogger. 🙂

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  2. Travis Perry says:

    I don’t care for the comparison that I’ve personally seen promoted mostly by what are accurately called “theologically liberal” Christians between the Babylonian creation myth and Genesis. The two accounts are related, certainly, but even though the oldest copy we have of the Babylonian version is much older than the oldest extant copy of Hebrew Scriptures, the Babylonian account could have just as logically derived from the Hebrew rather than the other way around. Since I think the Creator was One and actually created the world in a way that would be known through various Middle Eastern cultures, it makes sense to me that the Hebrew account and the Babylonian have their origins in the same basic truth–one the Hebrew version gets right, but the Babylonian “sexes up” with a battle between a god and a primordial dragon.

    While it may be that Genesis points to pre-existing materials in the universe, nothing in Genesis 1 itself suggests the pre-existence of evil. The Creator puts the universe in order and it OFFERS NO RESISTANCE WHATSOEVER in the text, in sharp contrast to the Babylonian version.

    As for the idea that the Ancient One did not create evil, while that may be intellectually appealing, such a concept does not match what the Bible actually says. Hebrew Scriptures portray Him as the Creator of all things. Including, yes, evil. Please reference Isaiah 45:7.

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    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Travis, thank you for another thoughtful and informed comment. I agree with your first paragraph. All people, created in the image of God, might have some access to Divine insight, even if we see the Biblical authors as having more access to that insight than other people. I was a little worried that some readers might take me as implying that the Genesis story was derived from the Babylonian. I don’t know to what extent they influenced each other, though the Bible certainly has a uniquely moral viewpoint among religious literature of that era. Not on the creation issue, but Noah’s flood story tracks Gilgamesh (that is, Utnapishtim) point by point, so some connection seems likely there.

      As for Genesis and the problem of evil, I wasn’t trying to argue for a specific solution. I was trying only to present some interesting reflections about the material. Personally, I think that God did create everything ex nihilo, though to say that He did is to speak in metaphor of things that I, at least, don’t fully understand. My personal suspicion, which I cannot prove of course, is that we see “evil” things as evil simply because of our limited viewpoint. That doesn’t make them any more pleasant for us, but from God’s totally comprehensive viewpoint, they are good, and we would recognize them as good if we could understand as fully as God does. I suspect that this world isn’t what we think it is, nor are we, ourselves, what we appear to ourselves to be. But, it’s just speculation.

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