And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse.  And it was so.  And God called the expanse Heaven. - GENESIS 1:6-8

I adore the world of Middle Earth, but on the rare occasions that I venture into The Silmarillion I pass through the first chapter pretty quickly.  Its topic is the “music” of the dieties in the void of preexistence, and how divine singing created hills and waters soon to be peopled with mortal creatures.  It’s an elegant idea.  It strips our reality down to some of its most basic elements: light, dark, water, earth, plants, animals.  This is the kind of storytelling that some people could revel in as they let their imaginations run freely through a new, perfect, solitary universe.

I’m not quite that kind of person.  What I most look forward to in The Silmarillion is reading about the first elves and men and dwarves, and their foibles and errors and migrations within terrestrial creation.  What I look forward to in Genesis is the exile of humanity from its perfect, wilderness birthplace and the personalities that emerge as humankind perpetuates its own, less idyllic version of creation: the creation of human civilization.

The most excited I felt during the first two chapters of Genesis was when the Tigris and Euphrates were named as two of the four rivers that branch off from the river that runs out of Eden.  I don’t think I was excited just because I recognize Tigris and Euphrates as the names of actual rivers in the real world.  As I indicated, I am a fan of high fantasy, and I don’t need stories to take place in this world in order to enjoy them.  But perhaps, for me, the Tigris and Euphrates occupy an ideal in-between state between reality and imagination.  I’ve never been to Mesopotamia, and I would need some time and luck to locate the Tigris or the Euphrates on a map.  I think their appearance in the text appeals to me because of what they represent in my mind: ancient and distance places, the dawn of civilization, the exoticism of the near East.  I have a feeling the Old Testament will provide more than a few of these Indiana Jones sensations as I get further along.

That’s not to say that the creation story was uninteresting.  The passage I quoted at the top of this post prompted some reflection and puzzlement.  Are there now two separate waters (worlds?) that we cannot travel between because to do so we would need to traverse heaven?  Surely that can’t be what it’s saying, can it?  I didn’t spend very long pondering it, but it struck me as a prime example of world-building.  We’re dealing with big concepts like earth, water, and heaven, and we’re using these giant concepts as landmarks on a mental map of a universe, a planet, and a garden.  It’s a tricky geographic and cosmological balancing act, but I’m content to leave it to the consideration of others and move on to more corporeal matters.

Views: 151

Tags: Genesis, Silmarillion, Tolkien, fantasy, review, waters, world-building

Comment by David Conrad on June 26, 2012 at 1:44am

That question about how morality worked in Paradise is something that I think was in the back of my mind as I read it (and perhaps has been in the back of my mind ever since I first heard this creation story as a child.)  I suspect you're right to suggest that this early created universe was, in the minds of the writers and tellers and listeners, supposed to exist pre-morality or beyond morality as humanity would come to understand it.  After all, it's made fairly explicit that Adam and Eve were virtually blank slates, with very little actual knowledge in their heads, and that that's how God wanted it.  Morality for post-exile, fallen humans seems to operate on an almost fully cerebral level, in that it is a choice to overcome degraded human nature.  But in almost total contrast, morality seems to be an unavoidable state of being for Adam and Eve as long as they do not become aware of it.

By the time we get to Leviticus and Numbers, and even as early as mid-Genesis, we're given excrutiatingly exact details about the minutest doings, so such portions are clearly intended as literal, historical accounts.  But you're right, Genesis 1 is nothing like that stylistically.  It's much hazier, intentionally and artfully hazy (with some exceptions such as the fleeting geographic details, which I enjoyed more than the poetry), so that raises the question of whether the writers themselves thought of it as a literal story or a metaphor or a blend of the two.  I hadn't thought of that before.  Thanks for the comment!

Comment by Kyle Bates on June 26, 2012 at 5:22pm

There is some very interesting information here so I'd like to thank everyone who has added to the discussion.

My own interest in the first couple chapters in Genesis is from a different perspective.  I see most of the OT as a diary of the early civilization builders.  While it is important to understand understand the texts as described above, I think it is also important to try to figure out the story the authors (and editors) were trying to tell by writing and compiling these stories in this way.

Genesis 1 was not about creation.  If it was intended to describe how things came to be, it would have been far more detailed and far more, well, accurate.  As it is, the story is flat out wrong.  Modern Christian theology seems intent on doing all sorts of odd mental gymnastics to try to claim that these events happened spiritually or metaphorically but there is a far simpler explanation of where these stories came from.  

There are two parts to Genesis 1.  There are two possible reasons to make a statement like "God created the earth."  Either you are making a statement about how the earth was formed or you're making a statement about 'God.'  The story doesn't tell us anything at all about how the earth came to be so that isn't it.  What then is the story telling us about 'God?'  I think the story tells us a great deal about this "God" character.  It tells us that this "God" created everything and is basically the most powerful entity imaginable.  The most authoritative of all possible authorities imaginable.  The alpha and the omega.  To me, this makes it obvious that the story is about establishing a deity character and not actually describing creation.

I think the 'point' of the second half of Genesis 1 is even more clear.  When humans are introduced to the story, it is very clear that this deity holds us in high regard.  In fact, this deity goes so far as to put us in charge "so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

And not only are we in charge, but we were given another special edict, to "be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. (Gen 1:28)

In my research, I have never encountered any indigenous peoples who have held similar attitudes.  This attitude only seems to be held by agriculturalists and only those with cultural ties to the Fertile Crescent.  

So if that is the point of the second half -- to give us the authority -- then the first half suddenly makes perfect sense.  Only a creator of the world could possibly give us the authority to take over and rule the world.  We invented the idea of gods to justify agriculture and living outside the laws of nature by seeing ourselves as distinct from the environment.

The theme continues with the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve and elsewhere in the OT.

This interpretation just makes a heck of a lot of sense to me.  

Thanks again for the discussion.

Comment by Kyle Bates on June 26, 2012 at 6:44pm

I'd sooner assume incompetence over conspiracy though your point is well taken.

Of course, when a story was written isn't necessarily when the story was conceived of.  Surely many of these stories -- or at least elements of the stories -- were passed down through oral tradition long before they were eventually written down.

I wouldn't say I see poetry as the story being told is a rather nefarious one.  What I see is why it is so important to believe in a god to justify this kind of human exceptionalism.

I doubt those writers in the first millennium BCE invented the ideas from scratch.  Very little is ever new.  Even an invention as revolutionary as the automobile couldn't have happened without first inventing the wheel and learning how to harness fire.  I'm thinking... memetically here and looking at what is new and what environmental needs might have encouraged the innovation.

Comment by David Conrad on June 27, 2012 at 7:47pm

That's a lot more comments than I expected -- thanks all!  I don't mind admitting that I haven't done much background research on this material, and that what I'm going for with my reviews is something a lot more simplistic (and easier, and more enjoyable in my opinion), but this has been interesting.  I can't say I picked up on any manipulative, conspiratorial overtones in Genesis 1-2.  As I said, this portion seemed to me like classic world-building, subsequent rewrites notwithstanding.  On the other hand, Moses's actions in Leviticus (I've already written reviews through Numbers, and will post them here a little at a time) frequently reminded me of manipulative religious leaders, even cult leaders.  Not that I wrote about that; personally, I have to stay mostly positive or else I'll never have the energy to get through this thing, and I think it's worth getting through it.

I do, though, get the feeling (and again, I've done no research to back this up) that Moses was based on an actual person.  I'll try to remember to touch on that in the comments when I post my Exodus and Leviticus reviews, and give archaeopteryx a chance to argue the converse.

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