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.