William P. Brown, Ph.D.,
Columbia Theological Seminary 701 S. Columbia Drive Decatur, Georgia, USA
Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the most “natural” and carefully crafted account of creation in the Hebrew Bible. This “report” proceeds methodically to outline a sophisticated cosmology whose chronological framework reflects the structural features of a typical Syro-Palestinian temple in antiquity and whose spatial contours suggest a three-tiered astrodome. The account begins not with God creating ex nihilo, as is commonly assumed, but with the deity working with undifferentiated matter, a cosmic mishmash. Primordial light, the first act of creation, is distinguished temporally from the light transmitted by the sun and stars. As a whole, the Genesis account charts the progressive differentiation of the cosmos from a formless chaos to an intricate structure that supports the diversity of life.
Written in the 6th century BCE, Genesis 1:1-2:3 (hereafter referred to as “Genesis 1”) is the most cosmically oriented and carefully crafted text of the Hebrew Bible. It is also the Bible’s closest thing to a “natural” account of creation. Compared to the rough-and-tumble drama of the Babylonian myth of creation, the Enūma Elish (late 2nd millennium BCE), Genesis 1 reads like a dispassionate treatise. Through the near-monotonous repetition of literary motifs and structural devices, the Bible’s first account of creation resembles more a report than a story, more an itemized list than a flowing narrative. It reflects a literary austerity, an abstractness that rigorously avoids the fray of mythic conflict, on the one hand, and eschews the pathos of ancient poetry, on the other. Its closest intellectual cousins are found among the cuneiform astronomical diaries of ancient Mesopotamia. This would include the Sumerian and Akkadian versions of the Enūma Anu Enlil (usually dated around the mid-second millennium BCE), a vast compendium of omens that includes precise astronomical observations, as well as the later MUL.APIN (“Plow Star”), around the beginning of the first millennium BCE (Evans, 1988, pp. 5-17; for a general discussion of the relationship between Mesopotamian astronomy and science, see Rochberg, 2004).
In this brief essay, I examine the ancient cosmology of Genesis 1, the best known, but by no means the only, creation account in the Bible (see Brown, 2010). I do so not to argue for its relevance for contemporary readers of science. As a biblical scholar, I fully acknowledge the religious, indeed mythic, dimensions of this ancient account. Genesis is not science. Rather, I examine this cosmogonic text in the hope that scientists, and particularly historians of science, continue to hold an abiding interest in how the ancients accounted for the origins of the universe.
2. Primordial Soup
In Genesis 1, the curtain rises to reveal a cosmic mishmash. I offer my own translation of the Hebrew the first two verses. (For the host of translation issues, see Brown, 1993, pp. 62-72; Smith, 2010, pp. 50-51.) 1:1When God began to create the heavens and the earth, 1:2the earth was void and vacuum, and darkness was upon the surface of the deep while the breath of God hovered over the watery surface.
This initial state of creation is described in verse 2 as tōhû wābōhû, here translated as “void and vacuum,” but typically rendered as “formless void” (so NRSV). The Hebrew, however, is more vivid. The phrase is what grammarians call a “farrago,” an alliterative meshing of words or syllables whose overall semantic sense transcends its individual components, such as in “topsy-turvy,” “vice versa,” “mishmash,” or “hodgepodge.” In fact, the French Le tohu-bohu, meaning “hubbub,” is a Hebrew loanword that captures well the biblical sense, a dynamic undifferentiated condition that lacks both substance and form. Such was the “soupy” state of the universe in the beginning according to the biblical cosmologist. One could call it chaos, but not in any mythically threatening sense. Darkness, water, and emptiness do not make a monster. Neither do they constitute mere “nothing” (nihil). To find the deity creating from nothing (ex nihilo), one must look elsewhere in the biblical tradition (e.g., 2 Maccabees 7:28; see May, 1994). The chaos described in Genesis 1:2 designates a state of dynamic disorder poised for order. For whatever reason, the ancient cosmologists surmised that creation commenced in extremis, amid the “chaos” of turbulent tōhû wābōhû, a state of cosmic potential or readiness for creation. God’s breath suspended over the dark waters sets the stage for a generative fluctuation of astronomical or (I can’t resist) biblical proportions.
3. The Temple and the Astrodome
So begins the Genesis report. The text recounts God’s fashioning form out of formlessness. The end result is a cosmos replete with variety and structure, a fully differentiated universe. To achieve this, God goes about “separating out” creation: light from darkness (1:4), waters above from waters below (vv. 6-7), day from night (vv. 14, 18). The cosmos began in “chaotic” unity and proceeded to be structured in the course of creation. Through separation, discrete domains are established during the first three “days”: light, water, sky, and land, each accommodating various entities, living and otherwise. In the course of the Genesis narration, both the domains and the “members” of these domains reveal an overarching symmetry as the following table illustrates.
According to their thematic correspondences, the first six days of creation line up to form two parallel columns (see McBride, 2000, pp. 12-15; Middleton, 2005, pp. 74-76). Their chronological ordering gives rise to a thematic symmetry. Days 1-3 establish the cosmic domains, which are subsequently populated by various entities or agencies (Days 4-6). Read vertically, the two columns address the two abject conditions of lack described in Genesis 1:2, formlessness and emptiness. The left column (Days 1-3) gives form to creation, with Day 3 climactically depicting the growth of vegetation. This concluding act vividly changes the earth’s primordial condition from its formless state of barrenness: the earth is no longer a “void” (tōhû) but a fructified land, providing the means for sustaining life on the land. Covering Days 4-6, the right column reports the filling of these domains with their respective inhabitants, from the celestial bodies, which “rule” both day and night, to human bodies, who exercise “dominion.” The creative acts on Days 5 and 6 specifically change creation’s primordial condition from “vacuum” or emptiness (bōhû) to fullness (Tsumura, 2005, p. 354). Genesis 1, in short, describes the systematic differentiation of the cosmos that accommodates and sustains the plethora of life.
While the six-day schema exhibits a well-calibrated correspondence, the symmetry is not perfect. Within its literary patterning, Genesis 1 features a number of “nonpredictable variations” (Middleton, 2005, p. 278). Vegetation, for example, occurs on the third day, concluding the left column, even though plants, like the animals, populate the land. The sixth day would have been a better fit for the creation of plants. Days 5 and 6, moreover, are one-sidedly weighted with the language of blessing (see verses 22, 28), which bears no correspondence to Days 2 and 3. Structurally, certain literary building blocks such as the fulfillment report (“God made . . .”) and the transition formula (“and it was so”) either do not appear in a consistent order or, in certain cases, are entirely absent. Finally, of all the days enumerated in the account, only “the sixth day” and “the seventh day” bear definite articles in Hebrew. The text, in short, manifests an overarching symmetry that allows for and accommodates variation. These small variations, however, pale in comparison to the most significant case of dissymmetry in the text, namely, Day 7. Having no corresponding partner, the seventh day is unique. By its presence, the tight six-day symmetry of the Genesis account is broken. Nevertheless, this distinctly odd day does establish a vertical correspondence to creation’s initial condition, as described in 1:2, which one could call paradoxically “Day 0.” Together these two “days” form a subtle correspondence, the static “day” of non-creation and the “theo-static” seventh day. The timeless character of “Day 0” shares an implicit affinity with Day 7: the final day lacks the temporal formula “evening came and then morning.” It, too, is a day somehow suspended above temporal regularities. Yet these two “days” could not be more different: “Day 0” refers to creation’s empty formlessness; Day 7 marks creation formed and filled (2:1). The final day serves as the capstone for the entire structure, for it shares something of God’s holiness.
Without this symmetry-breaking seventh day, the creation pattern would lose a distinction that remains hidden to modern readers not acquainted with the ancient architecture of sacred space. Many temples of the ancient Near East, particularly in the Syro-Palestinian region, exhibited a threefold or tripartite structure, which can also be found in the literary symmetry of the Genesis text.
For example, Solomon’s temple as described in 1 Kings 6 consists of three parts: an outer vestibule or portico, the nave or main room, and an inner sanctuary or holy of holies (dĕbîr), as diagramed below.
This threefold arrangement of sacred space corresponds to the way in which the various days of creation are distributed both chronologically and thematically. The first six days, by virtue of their correspondence, establish the architectural boundaries of sacred space. The last day, given its uniqueness, is lodged in the most holy space.
The universe, it turns out, is a cosmic temple in time. Its “entrance” is demarcated by Days 1 and 4, together designating the creation of light and lights, respectively. Not coincidentally, the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem faced eastward to welcome the rising sun.
Such is the temporal ordering of the cosmos according to Genesis. On the spatial level, the world according to Genesis is a three-tiered universe: the celestial waters above are held aloft by a dome or “firmament” (1:6-8), constituting the sky, and the waters below are bounded by the land (1:9-10). The stars interspersed across the celestial vault on the fourth day transmit the primordial light created on the first day. In between the firmament above and the waters below lies a band of space within which terrestrial life flourishes. What we call the atmosphere, the ancients viewed as a protective vault, a sort of glass ceiling that separates the transcendent realm from down-to-earth creation.
There are, thus, two complementary frameworks that characterize creation in Genesis 1: the temple framework that defines the chronological contours of creation and the “astrodome” model that characterizes creation’s spatial structure. Both serve as templates that highlight the critical significance of creation’s primordial beginnings, particularly the “creation” of light, the first act of creation.
4. The Big Flash
Among the various acts of creation described in Genesis, the “creation” of light is special: light is only spoken into being (1:3). More typically, throughout Genesis 1 creation involves the pairing of God’s speech and act (see 1:14-16, 20-21, 24-25, 26-27). The “creation” of light marks the first day:
1:3Then God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. 1:4And God saw that the light was good, and God divided between the light and the darkness. 1:5God named the light “Day,” and the darkness he named “Night.” Evening came and then morning, day one.
The distinctive feature of this exclusively verbal creation could suggest that the genesis of light according to Genesis 1 was not a matter of creation at all but that of light “emerging out of the darkness” (so Smith, 2010, pp. 73, 80). As a parallel creation account, Psalm 104 depicts light as the deity’s clothing, and thus as uncreated (verses 1-2). One could also cite a passage from 4 Ezra (dated ca. 100 CE), which depicts God commanding “that a ray of light be brought forth from your treasuries, so that your works might then appear” (6:40). Could it be that, according to the Genesis cosmogony, God commanded pre-existent light to separate itself from the darkness?
Perhaps, but doubtful. Verse 4 makes such a separation explicit, but only as a subsequent act. “Let there be light” refers within the larger narrative to a prior moment in which the appearance of light is called forth, and thus created, amid the darkness. But whether generated or emergent, light in Genesis 1:3 is unique among the other elements of creation. As the product of God’s first creative act, light bears a certain kinship to the divine. The ambiguity of light’s genesis reflects its mysterious yet primary role within the larger creation account. It is under the gleam of such light that everything else is created, including the celestial bodies (Day 4). The light of Day 1 is not reducible to the light emitted by the sun, moon, and the constellations, for they only transmit or reflect such light. By divine light, God “sees” all that is and declares it “very good” (1:31). Such light is, moreover, associated with the temple, wherein the lamp stands are symbolic of God’s eyes (Zechariah 4:2, 10; so Smith, 2010, pp. 83-84).
“[T]he most obvious and fundamental medium of our connection to the universe is light,” according to physicist Lee Smolin (1997, p. 27). More than a medium, the light of Day 1 in Genesis, like land on Day 3, is considered the primary domain of the cosmic temple. With the creation of light, and its subsequent separation from the darkness (verse 4), space itself is defined. So also time: evening and morning mark the first day (verse 5). By virtue of their common origin, Genesis regards space and time as fundamentally related; they are the foundational constituents of physical reality, hence their priority in cosmic history.
Remarkably, the biblical author(s) of Genesis discerned a significant temporal separation between the creation of primordial light (Day 1) and the light emitted by the stars ( Day 4). Modern cosmology also discerns at least a half-billion-year gap between the Big Bang and the formation of the first generation of stars. Absorbing visual and ultraviolet light, the growing dominance of neutral hydrogen gas engulfed the nascent cosmos in visual darkness in less than a million years after t=0. Visible light returned only through the widespread re-ionization of the universe nearly a billion years later. For the author(s) of Genesis 1, the realm of primordial light was created first, and it lay inaccessibly beyond the firmament or cosmic vault fashioned on the second day. Such transcendent light was transmitted, the ancients concluded, by the astral bodies that God set in the firmament, but not until the fourth day. “There was light,” but only thereafter—three “days” according to Genesis but actually a billion years—did stars make their luminous appearance to the naked eye.
The author(s) of Genesis regarded the celestial luminaries as agents serving a specific function: to establish special times throughout the year. In addition to regulating the rhythm of day and night as well as the seasons, the celestial bodies also determined the “appointed times” or “signs” for various religious festivals (1:14). The theo-logic is clear: by transmitting primordial light, the celestial luminaries bore the preeminent role of establishing the rhythm of worship on Earth.
To state the obvious, the Genesis account of creation is theological to the core. It begins with God creating (1:1) and concludes with God completing (2:1-3). Nevertheless, there is a certain naturalism that pervades the account. Between the preface and the conclusion, the account proceeds methodically and incrementally as cosmic domains are established and various forms of agency come to fill these domains: the stars populate the domain of light, aviary life fills the sky, the seas team with marine life, and the land is populated by animals, including human. The elements and agencies of nature lack any hint of deification, and yet they are recognized as active and productive. Water and land, for example, have a hand in the production of life (1:12, 20-21, 24). As “members” of the primordial domain of light, the astral bodies of the fourth day are analogous to the life forms that populate the domains of land and sea. Though not divine, the sun, moon, and the stars have their active roles to play in determining the times of worship but not as the objects of worship. Finally, the intricately wrought, symmetrical structure of the Genesis account reflects the integrity of creation as the ancients viewed it: a vibrant, intricately ordered world endowed with the natural capacities to bear life. From seeds (1:11-12) to reproduction (1:22, 28), creation’s temple is a living cosmos.
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Brown, W. P. (2010). The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford University Press, New York, US.
Evans, J. (1988). The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. Oxford University Press, New York, US.
May, G. (1994). Creatio ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation Out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought. Translated by A. S. Worrall. T & T Clark, Edinburgh.
McBride, S. D., Jr. (2000). Divine Protocol: Genesis 1:1-2:3 as Prologue to the Pentateuch. In: Brown, W.P., McBride, S.D., Jr. (Eds.), God Who Creates: Essays in Honor of W. Sibley Towner, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, pp. 3-41.
Middleton, J. R. (2005). The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Brazos, Grand Rapids, US.
Rochberg, F. (2004). The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Smith, M. S. (2010). The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. Fortress, Minneapolis, US.
Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. London, Phoenix Paperback, UK.
Tsumura, D. (2005). Creation and Destruction: A Reappraisal of the Chaoskampf Theory in the Old Testament. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, US.