I began to think that the paneling structure and repetition of Genesis 1 must have had its origin in the education of children in ancient Israel. It seems to me to have the ring of instruction rather than of formal worship. It is, of course, instruction through the medium of a story. And this is the way best suited to children. Father Sean McEvenue compared the chapter with several well-known nursery rhymes and fairy tales of modern pieces which imitate their way of doing things. In a very large number of these a pattered repetition is one of the favorite techniques of the story-teller.
Many of our so-called fairy tales are in fact folk tales of early Europe that used to be enjoyed by adults. They cultivate the sense of wonder and accustom the mind to symbolic language. This means not only entering imaginatively into the greatest of all mysteries, but also paradoxically by using the language of symbols we reveal both ourselves and our construction of the world as one consisting of multiple and competing discourses.
I wonder, however, if the story of Genesis 1 might not have been intended not simply for Israel’s children but for a childlike Israel. The priestly author of this chapter could have composed the story for the unlettered majority of Hebrews with his patterns of repetition making use of a device which is familiar from the oral tales of many societies in ancient times. These stories were told by their story-tellers at the various social gatherings, particularly perhaps during the festivities at the great seasonal pilgrimages like Passover or Tabernacles. Genesis as we have it must be based on much older original texts.
The Cosmic Egg
In the beginning, Hesiod says, there was Chaos, vast and dark. Before earth and sea and heaven were created, all things wore one aspect: a confused and shapeless mass, nothing but dead weight, in which, however, slumbered the seeds of all things. Stephen Hawking has asked, somewhat poetically, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Prior to the existence of all space, time, matter, and energy there was no universe to describe and there were no physical laws or initial conditions that could have played a role in its genesis. Needless to say, quantum field theory describes matter as propping out of the quantum vacuum; neither mathematical construction provides an explanation, let alone an efficient cause, for these events.
Among the first words of the Bible (Genesis 1: 2) we have: "And the earth was without form and void." Earth, sea, and air were all mixed up together; so the earth was not solid, the sea was not fluid, and the air was not transparent. The Hebrew expression "Tohu" (without form) has a more extensive meaning in the writings of the Kabbalah, where it denotes the world of chaos or original substance and energy that preceded Genesis. It was only with the collapse of this world of Tohu that our world, the world of Tikun (Restitution), could come into existence. But the confrontation between the primal disorder and the amended order continues as a fundamental feature of reality.
Within this void, according to the Greek myth, was a bird called Nyx that laid a golden egg, out of which came Eros the god of love. Here Eros has only a metaphysical significance: he represents the force of attraction which causes beings to come together. In China a myth tells of the god P’an Ku, also born from an egg. Thus far, then, both myths fit well enough into the early version of the Big Bang theory that had everything starting from a cosmic egg.
The embryonic god/universe was in the egg for many ages. When “he” was born, the top part of the egg, being the lightest, sprang up and formed Uranus, the sky crowned with starts; the air was next in weight and place. The bottom part of the egg, being heavier, sank below, and formed Gaia, the Earth. And the water took the lowest place, and buoyed up the earth.
From Chaos were born Erebus and Night who uniting gave birth in their turn to Ether and Hemera, the day. The universe had been formed. On his part, Uranus fertilized Gaia and she gave birth to the next generation of gods, the Titans, notably Kronos, who fathered the lesser gods we are familiar with such as Zeus.
The Babylonian myth of Creation tells us of a victorious rebellion of male gods against Tiamat, the great-mother who ruled the universe. They formed an alliance against her and chose Marduk to be their leader in this fight. After a bitter war Tiamat is slain, from her body heaven and earth are formed, and Marduk rules as supreme God.
To determine whether Marduk will be able to defeat Tiamat, he has to pass a test, which is the key to understanding the myth.
Then they placed a garment in their midst;
To Marduk, their first born, they said:
“Verily, O Lord, your destiny is supreme among the gods,
Command “to destroy and to create and it shall be!
By the word of your mouth let the garment be destroyed;
Command again, and let the garment be whole.”
When the great Mother is challenged by the male sons, the mole – who does not have the gift to procreate (the sperm is as indispensable for the formation of the child as the female egg but this knowledge is not an obvious recognizable fact like pregnancy or child-birth) must prove that he is not inferior. If he cannot produce with a womb, he produces with his mouth, his word, his thought. That is when we understand the meaning of the test: Marduck can defeat Tiamat only if he can prove that he can also create, out of sheer nothing, by the fiat of divine will, all that is beginning to be.
The Harmony of Creation
It is not difficult to see why the Hebrew priestly authors scorned the matriarchal principles of social organization and mocked its religion orientation. They were well aware of what they were doing. In the Bible’s version of Creation there is no union of earth god and sky goddess, no more analogy with procreation. The supremacy of a male god is established and hardly any trace of a previous matriarchal stage is left.
God alone, whose unutterable majesty created the world by his word, makes the woman and her creative powers no longer necessary. God spoke from out of the shroud of mystery and said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Before even there was a sun or a moon there was light.
“God made the dome and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome "the sky." Evening came, and morning followed--the second day. Then God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear." And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin, and the dry land appeared. God called the dry land "the earth," and the basin of the water he called "the sea." God saw how good it was.” (Genesis 1: 7 – 11)
It would be odd not to recognize a common source for all myths of Creation. From now on, Greeks and Hebrews have almost the same script although the Genesis account is a little but more lyric. To the Greeks, some god – it is not known which – gave his good offices in arranging and disposing the earth. In the Hebrew tale, the author’s arrangement of the story is the repetitions, which sounds out like hammer blows all through the chapter.
“Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it." And so it happened: the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed – the third day.” (Genesis 1: 11 – 13)
Their cumulative and patently intentional effect is to place God, not the world, squarely in the centre of the stage. Each act of creation begins, continues, and ends with him. He is there before any of it. Everything is planned by him, and everything works out in accordance with his plan. For the Greeks God also appointed rivers and bays their places, raised mountains, scooped out valleys, distributed woods, fountains, fertile fields, and story plains. The air being cleared, the starts began to appear, fishes took possession of the sea, birds of the air, and four-footed beasts of the land.
“Then God said, "Let the water teem with abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky." And so it happened: God created the great sea monsters and all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds. God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying, "Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth." Evening came, and morning followed –the fifth day. (Genesis 1: 14 – 23)
For all its scientific primitiveness we still need this old chapter because, in a way that by its very nature science is incapable of matching, it takes us right to the heart of the matter. Although many myths involved a creator god, the Hebrew God was distinct and separate from creation: before any beginning and beyond any end, God, the unmanifest simply is. The Chinese myth makes god the immediate source of matter, forming the aspects of the universe from his being. Most dramatically of all, P’an Ku himself became much of the rest of creation.
Insofar as betweenness is constituted, one human myth is connected to another. But this approach puts Yahweh in a totally different class from the African and Chinese myths of creation. In the ancient African beliefs, the sky gods are creations of the Mother Earth. She breathes them out, and can breathe them back again. Africans believed that the earth is ultimately more powerful than the sky and its gods; the sky can withhold rain, but earth is the source of the life force itself. The sky, with all its dramatic life-giving movement, is in fact created by the earth – the envelope of air and moisture surrounding us is really the earth’s “breathing.”
According to Hesiod it seems likely that Gaea, from whom all things issued, had been the great deity of the primitive Greeks. Like the people of Africa, the Greeks must doubtless have originally worshipped the Earth in whom they beheld the mother-goddess. This is again confirmed by the Homeric hymn in which the poet says: “I shall sing of Gaea, universal mother, firmly founded, the oldest of divinities.”