An Unbeliever Explains Creation (Part 4)
There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.
We're now in a position to experience something of how an ancient Israelite would have experienced the first chapter of Genesis. Imagine that you have been raised in a culture that doesn't use rhyme. You didn't learn to listen for the similarity of sounds at your mother's knee with nursery rhymes. There's a good chance that if you heard a limerick or a sonnet you wouldn't even notice the rhymes—wouldn't hear them.
On the other hand, your ear is intensely tuned to parallelism. You hear parallels that would require elaborate explanations for a twentieth century American as automatically and as naturally as that American hears rhymes.
You unroll your scroll, and you begin to meditate on the poem:
In the beginning
The very first word is a surprise, and immediately, you are delighted at the poet's skill. You recognize that the poet has used an unusual sentence order—a phrase of this type should normally come at the end of the sentence, not the beginning. But, of course, there's an obvious appropriateness to putting the phrase "in the beginning" at the beginning.
Beyond that, you are aware that the poem you are reading is a creation poem, which is, itself, about beginnings. In addition, this poem is the beginning of the Torah. How fitting, how brilliant, that the author has used the phrase (actually a single word in Hebrew) "in the beginning" at this place of beginnings.
gods has created
"Gods." The poet is making a bold move here. You're perfectly aware that every nation has its gods, and that every nation's state mythology assigns to one or more of those gods the creation of the world. You know that Israel has only one god, Yahweh, who is traditionally assigned this roll.
But the poet is doing something new. The poet is referencing all of those gods, including Yahweh, rather than just referencing Yahweh. At the same time, the verb is singular, not plural. So the idea must be to think of all of the gods as one, in some way—to imply some unity in the world of gods, which goes beyond the separate, political, concepts of the divine in various nations and points to something common to them all.
the heavens and the earth.
The poet has, in the space of one short sentence, provided a brilliant poetic stroke, with the word "in the beginning", a troubling and exciting new train of thought with the words "gods has created", and brought you full circle, into the traditional realm of creation stories with "the heavens and the earth". These are the traditional components of many creation stories you have heard. They ground this surprising first sentence in the forms you are familiar with, giving you the comfort that this strange approach is connected to what you already know.
The earth was formless and empty,
You recognize the way the poet has paralleled the end of the first line with the beginning of the second without even thinking about it—the way a modern would hear a rhyme. The next two ideas—formlessness and emptiness—refer to an idea you are already familiar with, the voice model (though you don't think of it as a model, of course) of personality and creativity.
Everything consists of form and content, form and energy. But here the poet has put a spin on the idea by using it to talk about chaos, about the great nothingness that preceded creation. Nothingness is broken down, analyzed, into its components: formlessness and emptiness. Fascinating. It ties the traditional idea of chaos into the word/spirit model.
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
The poet weaves in two, more concrete, images of chaos—skillfully balancing the first two by reversing the order. Again, you feel this rather than notice it, the way we would feel a rhyme, without thinking about it. Darkness is a kind of emptiness—emptiness of light—and the deep is an old symbol of the formlessness of chaos—the churning, unstructured, and dangerous sea, which threatens to cross boundaries and swallow up the dry land which your life depends upon.
The picture, as a whole, stands in stark contrast to the first sentence. You are drawn to contemplate the complete absence of everything, of structure, of content, of light, of boundaries or order. But the next line brings a ray of hope:
And the spirit of gods moved restlessly over the waters,
This line is rich with implications. First, the structure of parallels is complex and interesting. "Waters" parallels "deep" by simply providing a synonym. But "spirit" parallels "darkness" by providing the opposite. Spirit is the essence of content and energy; darkness, of emptiness and lack of energy. So there is the beginning of something new here, the possibility of change.
But, once again, the poet doesn't call this spirit the spirit of "Yahweh", but rather the spirit of "gods"—that strange new concept that was introduced in the first verse.
And gods said...
Now you are getting the feel of the pattern the poet is weaving:
Remember, recognizing parallel patterns is something you do instinctively. You can no more avoid it than we can avoid anticipating a rhyme. "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm schizophrenic, and so..." We know what's coming, in large part because of the rhyme. We can't help it. Likewise, if you put yourself in the head of the ancient reader, you can't help seeing the overall pattern, and where it's leading.
Spirit, in the third line above, is the opposite of darkness (a symbol of emptiness), and is followed by the waters (a symbol of formlessness).
Word, in the forth line, is the opposite of the deep (a symbol of formlessness). The obvious way to complete the pattern is to invoke a symbol of emptiness.
But the poet surprises you again:
And gods said... let there be light.
"Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm schizophrenic, and so am I." The poet has set up an expectation, but has provided the opposite of what you expected: a symbol of energy and content, instead of a symbol of emptiness. The difference, in the creation poem, is that this surprise also "rhymes", but in a different way. It makes the first act of creation stand out from the background of chaos with an explosion of dramatic effect.
This poet is good.
Next time, day one.