Last week, those who survived the dancing at Simchat Torah heard the first account of Creation in Torah. We are all familiar with the passage. How God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh
This week we continue the story, reading an altogether different account of how the world was created. Here, there is no seven days - no time scale given at all. Here, instead of a watery chaos there is an earth barren and dry. Here Man is created first and the vegetation and the animals after him. Here Woman is created last and not created equally.
The contrast of the two stories is neatly summarised in the first verses of each.
The first story begins:
Bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve’et h a’aretz.
- In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
But the second story begins:
Beyom asot elohim eretz veshamayim
On the day that God made earth and heaven
Genesis chapter one views creation from the heavens – God is pictured brooding over chaos. Slowly we see in the universe a world take shape.
Genesis chapter 2 views creation from earth. A dry dusty plain with no features at all it seems, till God set to work.
We would regard them as two distinct stories, creation myths prevalent in different parts of the Middles East that made their way into the consciousness of the people of Israel at different times. When describing theology, we always use the imagery of the culture with which we are familiar. Thus there are many parallels between the first creation story and the Babylonian epic ‘Enuma Elish’. The Babylonians had a great fascination with cosmology. They were famous as astronomers and astrologers, so for them to see the world from the viewpoint of the stars makes sense. That the universe pre creation was a watery mess suggests a luxurious overabundance of water, with God having to move back all this water to find dry land. The people who conceived of ‘tohu vevohu’ – the pre-existent aquatic mess - were familiar with floods.
By contrast, the second story is dry. Dry as a bone. Life comes in the form of water – a mist that rises up from the earth and falls as rain and irrigates the earth. This setting would appear more in keeping the geographical facts of the land of Israel. There since prehistoric times, life was only possible through the careful preservation of water. With no rivers to speak of the farmer depended totally on rain - ‘the first rains and the latter rains’ promised in the Shema. The only invention attributed to the people of ancient Israel is the water cistern; large underground pits in which quantities of water could be saved and stored and rationed out to maintain the agriculture upon which life was so dependent.
The two stories are legacies of our peoples’ history in Israel and in Babylon. It attests to our ability to adopt myths and adapt them to our particular view. But the greatest skill comes from combining the two seeming contradictory stories into one overarching whole. To understand this, we need to think, not ‘book’ but ‘film’ narrative. How many films have you seen where the opening scene has been a shot of the world, then a country, then a city? Then the camera zooms in on a street, then a house, then the figures in the house, which is where the story begins? This is how we should view the two stories of creation. We start in outer space. Space being the operative word. Then we see the earth emerging – see it from the viewpoint of the stars. Then we zoom in onto earth, onto a specific place on earth, the dry plain where we see the emergence of man. From then on and through the rest of Torah it is this particular man and his descendents that occupy our interest.
In combining the two accounts, the redactor of Torah created a myth that is universal. You don’t have to be a Babylonian, or an Israelite to understand it. It doesn’t matter if your personal experience is of flood or drought, we all share an interest in what it the purpose behind the combined story, the nature of humanity and our purpose in the world.
The first two chapters of Genesis set the scene for everything that is to come.
Rabbi Sybil Sheridan