Before the First Day of Creation

ImageIn the great debate between creationism and evolution, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the notion that God created the world in seven days with the power of his word, which would preclude a billions-year-long process of evolution.

This notion seems to come from two misunderstandings – 1, how the key text of Genesis 1 actually describes creation, and 2, how creation narratives work in ancient texts like the Old Testament. Clearing up these misunderstandings could help creationists come to grips with evolution – in fact, I would argue the creation texts of the Old Testament fit the world described by science quite well. There is, in fact, much less contradiction between the Bible and science than many assume.

The first problem is that of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. This tends to be the default assumption for readers of Genesis 1, but the text does not in fact say God created the world from nothing. It’s a problem of interpretation; most Bibles reflect what the NIV says in Gen 1:1-2:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This phrasing leads us to the possibility that

  1. There was nothing
  2. God created
  3. The earth was formless and empty

As a result, many conservatives have formed theories – no more scriptural than evolution, by the way – that try to reconcile some scientific evidence, such as an old earth or the dinosaurs’ seeming humanless existence, with the literal text of Genesis 1. But what if the NIV and its compatriots are doing a disservice? Consider the CEB:

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters

In this translation, the earth is without shape or form (“without form and void”) at the moment God begins to create. That’s significant; in the cosmology of Genesis 1, something already existed. God did not create from nothing.

How do we know this is the correct interpretation? I’ll leave the textual analysis to those who actually know Hebrew, but when we look at the other creation stories in the Old Testament, Genesis 1 fits better with them when we remove the assumption of creatio ex nihilo. 

I should step aside here and note that I understand even the notion of “other” creation stories will be problematic for some, but I don’t know what else to call them. Genesis 2:4bff. simply tells a completely different story with different vocabulary and a different order of events than Genesis 1-2:4a, and the various descriptions of creation I’ll discuss below do not bear much similarity to that passage either.

One of those is Psalm 74:12-17, perhaps the oldest creation narrative in the Old Testament:

Yet God has been my king from ancient days—
God, who makes salvation happen in the heart of the earth!
13         You split the sea with your power.
You shattered the heads of the sea monsters on the water.
14         You crushed Leviathan’s heads.
You gave it to the desert dwellers for food!
15         You split open springs and streams;
you made strong-flowing rivers dry right up.
16         The day belongs to you! The night too!
You established both the moon and the sun.
17         You set all the boundaries of the earth in place.
Summer and winter? You made them!

Once again, translation is the key, as we have hidden here an ancient Ugaritic creation myth. In the Ugaritic myth, the god Baal-Hadad battles four primordial gods of chaos for control of the world – and they all make an appearance in Psalm 74 as adapted Hebrew nouns:

  1. Yamm, god of the sea (yam, “sea,” in v. 13)
  2. Tunnan, the twisted serpent (tannin, “monster,” v. 13)
  3. Litanu, (liwyatan, “Leviathan,” v. 14)
  4. Nhr, god of the river (nahar, “river,” v. 15)

It’s not terribly surprising that as Hebrew evolved out of Ugaritic that proper names would become common words – but it would be quite the coincidence indeed for Psalm 74 to just happen to describe creation using words that correspond to the four gods Baal-Hadad battles in the Ugaritic myth.

In fact, Psalm 74 is not the only creation story in which Yahweh battles primordial forces of chaos in the creation of the world. We see the same thing in Job 38:4-11, although here the power of the sea is much reduced from the earlier version in Psalm 74:

Who enclosed the Sea[a] behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
    when I made the clouds its garment,
the dense clouds its wrap,
10     when I imposed[b] my limit for it,
put on a bar and doors
11     and said, “You may come this far, no farther;
here your proud waves stop”?

Rather than an all-out battle with the sea and Leviathan, Yahweh in Job 38-41 controls and limits their destructive power. We see, then, that Genesis 1 continues this trajectory in which Israel’s understanding of Yahweh evolves and ascribes to him more and more power over creation. The primordial chaos now is nameless and perfunctory, and the sea is no longer an adversary to be conquered but a part of the creation Yahweh speaks into existence.

Jon D. Levenson, in his terrific book Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, points out that this trajectory, while affirming Yahweh’s preeminence over creation, does not necessarily ascribe to him complete victory over the forces of chaos.

In Psalm 74, a story of Yahweh’s victory over these forces, the author places it within a lament psalm, in which these forces seem to have reasserted their control in the world.

God’s mythic victory must be interpreted in the light of the historical experience of the torching of his cult sites, the absence of miracles, the blaspheming of his sacred name, the defeat of his partners in covenant, and the general collapse of his mastery in the world. In short, the composition of Psalm 74 expresses a theology that is reluctant to accept the hymnic language of primordial creation as a given, but instead honestly and courageously draws attention to the painful and yawning gap between the liturgical affirmation of God’s absolute sovereignty and the empirical reality of evil triumphant and unchecked. (19)

The tale these stories tell us is that God did not necessary create out of nothing (he very well might have, but that’s not what these passages say) – but that he fought the forces of chaos to order the world. This notion of order out of chaos is rather, well, evolutionary. Evolutionary biologists would argue that the theory of evolution does not in fact call for the world to continually improve – the system of random mutation and survival of the fittest does not itself place value judgments on whether the result is “better” or more ordered. But those of us who believe God set the process in motion are not bound by such studied neutrality; we can argue without reservation that however he has chosen to do it, God has brought order to chaos.

That said, the chaos clearly still exists. The events in Boston and West, Texas, this week bear that out. Which is why creation stories such as the one in Psalm 74 can provide such comfort: The forces of chaos might be confined, Levenson writes, but they are not eliminated:

The confinement of chaos rather than its elimination is the essence of creation, and the survival of ordered reality hangs only upon God’s vigilance in ensuring that those cosmic dikes do not fail, that the bars of the Sea’s jail cell do not give way, that the great fish does not slip his hook. That vigilance is simply a variant of God’s covenantal pledge in Genesis 9 never to flood the world again. Whatever form the warranty takes, it testifies both to the precariousness of life, its absolute dependence on God, and to the sureness and firmness of life under the protection of the faithful master. The world is not inherently safe; it is inherently unsafe. Only the magisterial intervention of God and his eternal vigilance prevent the cataclysm. (14)

In this case, these “other” creation stories not only can help show a way between the warring camps in the debate over creation and evolution but also provide a message of solace in a world in which chaos too often seems to have the upper hand.


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