Grayswandir (_grayswandir_) wrote,

How many gods does it take to screw in a lightbulb? (1/100)

Okay, so. Yeah. I'm actually going to try this. 100 posts -- sometime over the course of the indefinite future -- about Judeo-Christian traditions.

And while I don’t promise to keep to any kind of chronological or thematic order, there’s probably no better place to start than in the beginning.

So here are some thoughts on the creation of the world.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. (Gen 1:1)

The first problem with the Hebrew creation myth is that it tells a completely different story now from the story it told when it was written. If you want to get philosophical about it, it also tells a different story depending on what kind of God you already believe in—if Gandhi was right that there are as many religions as there are people, we can assume there are at least as many versions of God as there are believers in him, and probably a lot of unbelievers’ versions, too. But at any rate it’s obvious that the Creation will read differently depending on what kind of world you think God is creating—which will depend on what world you happen to think exists.

The modern worldview describes a vast universe—more or less infinite, depending on how you feel about curved space—full of stars and galaxies and superclusters, with this little blue planet whirling around in the midst of it all. I know for me that’s always been the primary and even the natural worldview; I learned about planets and space long before I heard the opening lines of Genesis. So if I try to picture God creating the world, I picture it like that: God, an invisible presence out there in that vast bare infinity, forming black holes and hydrogen-burning stars and comets and space debris. Which is obviously not the world the ancient people of Israel thought God was creating.

The same goes for our modern picture of “the heavens.” Either we imagine that heavens just means space—a sky that extends indefinitely, where the “heavenly bodies” keep their courses—or else we picture some otherworldly paradise full of angels, where we know Satan stops in for a chat whenever he wants to gamble on Job. This picture is also new, if not quite as new as our picture of the space between stars.

The “heavens” in ancient cosmology described a dome stretched over the flat disk of the world. The disk was surrounded by the sea, and pillars formed like mountains supported the dome. There were gates beyond the mountains, and every morning the sun passed through the eastern gate and climbed up across the dome, then sank down through the gate beyond the pillars of the west. Rain, snow, and wind were kept in storehouses above the dome, and could be released (as clouds, presumably) through the “windows of the heavens.” There was no heavenly afterlife, either. Spirits of the dead lived under the earth-disk, in the netherworld of Sheol.

So when we read that God “divided the waters from the waters” and placed a firmament between them, we’re not talking primordial “unformed matter” floating in space (as Milton, for one, thought we were). We’re really talking about water. The firmament is the dome, the waters above are rain, and the waters below are seas and rivers.

Here’s an outline of the creation:
day 1: God creates light and separates it from darkness, making “day” and “night.”
day 2: God divides the waters and places a firmament, “heaven,” between them.
day 3: God gathers the lower waters and creates the sea, dry land, and plants.
day 4: God creates the sun, moon, and stars in the firmament of Heaven.
day 5: God creates fish, animals, and birds, and tells them to multiply.
day 6: God creates man, and tells him to rule over all the other creatures.
day 7: God rests.
Notice there’s no mention of God creating the angels, which left Milton in a bit of a quandary, since the fall of Satan obviously had to happen sometime before the temptation of Eve, and yet if God created the heavens on the second day—well, that didn’t leave much of a timeframe for the epic war of the angels. In fact, there is no canonical war of angels; the whole myth of Satan’s fall was derived from a mistranslation of a line in Isaiah in the Latin Vulgate. But let’s not get into that now. The point is, a lot of ideas that later tradition takes for granted simply don’t exist in the beginning. Heaven, hell, angels, demons—the whole notion of a battle between “good” and “evil” came much later, probably straight from Zoroastrianism, when Israel was under Persian rule. We might say that Milton’s God doesn’t even belong in Genesis, the same way our solar system doesn’t belong there. These are different worlds.

What did exist in the beginning, evidently, was water. “Darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” A lot of Near Eastern creation stories start this way, with the gods or the world itself being born out of some watery abyss—a kind of primeval womb. (Maybe we can picture God as the primeval sperm. >_>) In the usual myths, the watery abyss is identified with Chaos, or gives birth to Chaos—and the idea that Chaos ruled before God seems implicit even in the Hebrew creation story. (Milton evidently thought so; for him Chaos is usurped by God, but his formless realm remains “the womb of nature, and perhaps her grave.”) God isn’t absolutely primary.

Taken out of the context of modern Judeo-Christian worldviews, the myth is not really so different from a lot of poly- or pantheistic creation myths. And pantheons, incidentally, are one thing that emphatically did exist at Israel’s beginnings. Everybody had pantheons. Babylonian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Hittite—there were gods everywhere. And in the midst of them was the very curious pantheon of Israel, whose chief distinction, not perhaps a particularly enviable one, was that it consisted of exactly one God. Yahweh.

At least, that’s what it was supposed to do. But that brings us to the second major problem with Genesis, which is that it not only tells a different story to a modern audience than the story it told to the people of ancient Israel—it also, even in its original context, tells two separate and not-quite-compatible versions of the creation myth, performed by two slightly different versions of God.

The first version is the one we’ve been talking about, the one about a deity who preexisted everything except watery chaos and who created the world out of basically nothing. At Genesis 2:3, this God rests after his labor, and then Genesis 2:4 transitions into a new story, which focuses on the creation of mankind.

At a glance, the second story looks like a continuation of the first one. But the order in which God makes things is quite different. The story starts:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up... (Gen 2:4)
The day God made “the earth and the heavens” was day 2 of creation, according to Genesis 1. But here we also have dry land already—so perhaps it’s really day 3. Or is it later? The next thing God does is to create Adam, which shouldn’t happen until day 6. Only afterward does he apparently create vegetable life (which should happen on day 3), planting his garden in Eden; and later still, after warning Adam about that infamous tree, he finally gets around to making animals (day 5!) in order to give man a “helper.” (It takes God a little while to realize that the “helper” Adam needs is a woman, not a fish or a cow; but he finally does correct the oversight. Milton interpreted this as God playing a practical joke on Adam, which... well, doesn’t exactly set the reader up for a sympathetic view of the deity, much less help to “justify the ways of God to men.” :P)

There are a couple of other differences between the two versions of the creation story, one of which is God’s name. The first story always calls him “Elohim”; the second always calls him “Yahweh.” (English Bibles, following the King James Version, usually translate the first as “God” and the second as “the Lord God,” so it’s hard to notice this.) And the way God works to bring about creation in the two stories also seems quite different.

In the first story, God calls things into being by speaking their names: “Let there be light,” he says, and there is light. We needn’t take “God said” too literally (or interpret the “Word” which creates the world as identical with Christ, as the Gospel of John does) in order to see that there is a certain magic here which is much like the magic of incantation—words which have power—or even the plain magic of language itself: of signifying one thing by another. We don’t speak the name of Sauron or Voldemort, or take the name of the Lord in vain, for much the same reasons God was able to call the world into being by saying “let there be light”: a superstition that words have power over the things they name.

But in the second version of the creation story, God is a little less “magical.” He doesn’t bring things into being by naming them. He “forms” man out of the dust of the ground, and breathes life into his nostrils. He “plants” a garden in Eden, he “forms” the beasts, and he puts Adam to sleep so that he can take out one of his ribs to make Eve. The God in this second story seems to take a rather more hands-on approach to creation—one that resembles, for instance, the Babylonian account of Marduk’s forming man out of clay mixed with the blood of a sacrificed god. (And the fact that God needed to make Adam because there was “no man to till the ground” also recalls the Babylonian myth, since that’s exactly what Marduk made man for. The gods were tired of doing their own farmwork.)

And yet curiously enough, it’s the first version of the myth that says God made man in his own image. One can only wonder what sort of image could describe a God who created the whole ordered world out of a watery void—the sort of God who would later forbid any graven image of himself, because he was too ineffable to be depicted.

Maybe—and I speak here as an atheist, of course—precisely the sort of God who was, in fact, made in man’s image. At least, it certainly seems to be in his capacity for creation, and for interpreting chaos into order, that God most resembles man. We still have the power to say let there be God and believe we’ve illuminated something. And how clear an image do we really have, anyway, of superclusters, subatomic particles, and curved space?

The point is, the way you read Genesis will depend on what you know, what you believe, and what you want to believe. As an ancient creation myth, analogous to the myths of Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt, it’s a very different beast from, for example, the cosmology Milton finds in it. What you get is not just a different religion, not just a different God, but a different created world.

And we probably shouldn’t be too arrogant about that, since—even without descending to the madness of a quantum multiverse—there are a lot of different worlds walking around, even now.

...I have no idea if I have the stamina for 100, or even, like, three of these, but there you go.

(Also I may possibly be considering signing up for 100 Photos of My Little Ponies Doing Random Things. Or 100 posts about ancient Sumer/Babylon/Akkad/Assyria. Or both. >_>)
Tags: 100 things: judeo-christian traditions, god, john milton, religion
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