Course on the Pentateuch – Exegesis of Gen 1:1-2 – Creator or Demiurge?

earth_from_spaceIn the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The question is: we speak here of the creation out of nothing? Or, God is simply a Demiurge, ordering a pre-existing matter? (Click here for the Hebrew text of Genesis 1)

From a philological point of view, these two verses could be read as a set of isolated phrases, or united by a complex syntax, whose main proposition is present at v.3: “In the beginning … when God created the heavens and the earth … He said …. “. Moreover, the first word – bereshit – can be understood as united to what follows: “When in the beginning God created …” or as a word in its own right (because there is a disjunctive accent placed by Masoretes under the word: “In beginning God created … “). Some people, to support the first interpretation – i.e. in the beginning grammatically united to the following words – quote the beginning of Enuma elish. The phrase corresponds instead to the Hebrew phrase “in the day” and not to “in the beginning”. It is better to take the two verses as a set of phrases not linked to one another. Therefore, the author is talking about the beginning of everything. But you can not yet speak of creation from nothing, because that’s a concept belonging to the hellenistic culture, as well as partially reflected in the books of the Maccabees (2 Macc 7:28).

Eshmun Temple – Sidon – VII cent. BC

The verb bara’ – “to create”. Bara’ is found 48 times in the Hebrew Bible and God is always the subject of this verb. Usually the verb is not followed by a complement that introduces the tools with which God acts. There are five cases (1 Sam 2:23; Ez 21:24; Ez 23:47) where bara’ means rather “to cut, to separate”. However, these verses belong to the creation account too.

Heaven and earth: this is jewish rhetoric to indicate that God created everything that exists.

And the earth was without form, and void. This is the rough translation of the mysterious phrase tohu wabohu. Tohu (= ‘without form’) occurs 20 times in the Hebrew Bible and indicates a desert place (Deut 32:10). In other cases, it is the opposite of creation (Is 45:18). Bohu (= ‘void’) occurs three times in the Hebrew Bible (Jer 4:23) and it is always presented in pairs with tohu, indicating a desolate landscape, gray and lifeless. The Greek version of the LXX, translates this phrase with aoratos kai akataskeuatos (literally “invisible and bare”) echoing the concept of chaos in Greek mythology.

Darkness was upon the face of the deep. Darkness occur both in Phoenician mythology and in the Greek representation of chaos. Darkness was above the abyss, in Hebrew tehom. This is a name without article, i.e. a proper name. Therefore, it is quite possible that there is here a reminiscence of tiamat, the epic chaos of Enuma elish defeated by the chief of the gods, Marduk. However, in the text of Genesis, tehom is in parallel with majim – water – at the end of verse two.

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. The central and most controversial point is the verb merachefet translated with ‘to move upon’. The Sumerian god Enlil was depicted as a large bird that separated heaven from earth. The spirit of God could be also a kind of strong wind – ruach – that stirred the primordial waters of creation in a chaotic condition.

And so we come now to outline the complete picture that emerges from these two verses. The land, considered as a platform, was completely submerged by dark waters. The spirit of God was moving – like a bird – on the water throwing in it the seeds that will settle on the sea bottom … waiting for the earth to emerge so to sprout.

Simone Venturini


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