The Ancient Meaning of Create
BECOMING HUMAN, Part Five
Part 1: The Story Behind Everything
Up Next: The Gardener in the Cosmic Temple
so the beginning of the Bible is strange. We explored a little taste of that last post, but we’re about to crack it wide open.
We’ve established that the first sentence of the Bible works more like a title for the following events than a first initial moment. If you need a refresher, hit the link above and check it out again.
All caught up? I know it can be a lot. Hang with me here.
What do you imagine when you read about God creating?
Here, read this:
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 —
Genesis 1:1 — 2, CEB
I think this translation is one of the most helpful I’ve found. Read it again. Do you catch the implication?
When God began to create…the earth was without shape or form…
This seems to imply, that at this point, the earth is already present. The author just skipped right over the something out of nothing creation.
We as modern people, living under the benefit of the scientific method and post-enlightenment, think of creation as bringing something out of nothing. But this is not how the ancient world imagined creating.
For the ancient world creating something out of nothing wasn’t what was so impressive about creation. The way in which the ancient world imagined creation was by bringing functionality and order to the world.
Brain getting fuzzy yet? Yeah, mine too.
Essentially, when we begin thinking of creation, we think of bringing something out of nothing. Once there was no thing and now there are all kinds of things. But here’s a weird thing: the concept of nothing is a relatively new idea. The ancient peoples didn’t even think in the realm of their being nothing before there was something. And why would they? How does that kind of thinking keep their family from starving to death?
Wait. What do you mean it’s a new concept?
It wasn’t that long ago that we even began to start thinking about what it could mean for there to be nothing. Nothing is a modern concept. The oldest known philosopher to consider a concept of nothing is from the 5th century and he argued that it couldn’t exist!
Trust me, I know. The problem is, we are modern people, so it is difficult for us to not think in realms of modernity. This isn’t to mean that God can’t create something out of nothing, but only that the creation account we are given isn’t concerned with that concept.
But, what do you mean they didn’t understand there being nothing before there was something?!
Well, before we talk about what the ancient Israelites thought, I want to begin by talking about her Ancient Near Eastern neighbors.
In a previous post, we explored an ancient Babylonian creation myth called The Enuma Elish (pronounce that how you wish). In it we saw a god named Marduk create the heavens and the earth by killing Tiamat, the goddess of the untamable sea.
Wait. How could there be a sea before there was earth? This is precisely the question that gets to the heart of where I’m going here.
For the ancient world (including the Babylonians), before there was something, there was, well…somethings — primordial waters teeming with chaos, untamable and monstrous. The problem was not the absence of existence. Rather there was an absence of function or order.
Only chaos. Only danger. No purpose.
The central concept of creation in the ancient world is not bringing something out of nothing. It’s bringing functionality and order to the chaotic everything around us.
This is why the ancient world feared the sea. It was still the untamed, un-created part of the world, and it was liable to kill you.
Alright, lets zoom back in.
…the Earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters…
My initial imagination tries to make sense of a planet not having form. What, is it like some kind of sloppy clay marble?
No. Stop. This is ancient remember?
When you read Earth, think land beneath my feet.
Okay, so the land beneath my feet is without form or shape. The Hebrew phrase used there is tohu-va-vohu. And yes, it is fun to say. The best translation I’ve heard of this phrase is actually “wild and waste” which retains some poetic nature by being an alliteration.
What we are seeing here is God hovering over the primordial waters, the “dark deep sea”, where there is no land, no purpose or function — only chaos.
Alright. ZOOM. ENHANCE. OR WHATEVER.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
— Genesis 1.3
Oh, yes, this is the part when God makes photons! Photons! The little particles representing a quantum of light emitted from the sun!
YEAH, PHOTONS! YEAH, SCIENCE!
you were thinking photons right?
Well, maybe not photons exactly (how would I know?), but at the very least, you are thinking of light itself. But that isn’t what is happening here. Keep reading.
God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light, “day,” and the darkness, “night.”
— Genesis 1.4–5a
Do you see what is happening? THIS IS SO GOOD! God isn’t creating photons, he’s bringing order to the dark and light — God is creating time by bringing order to the chaotic light and dark.
What’s going on in Genesis One? It’s becoming more clear that the author is making a worldview statement, rather than a detailed scientific account of how the world came to be. And we’re going to find there is more why’s than how’s.
And understanding the way in which the ancient world understood what it meant to create something is central to understanding what’s going on in the story behind everything.
Soon, we will be exploring how God created by bringing order to chaos. But until then, go reread Genesis One. See if you can’t see the strange ancient meaning of create going on there.
Until next time, keep living questionably everybody!