05 May 2012

In the Beginning...


First Day of Creation (Sistine Chapel) - Michellangelo - 1509


 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
And the evening and the morning were the first day.
-- Genesis (1:1-5) KJV 




God As Creator - Bible Moralisee - 1220


Ancient Of Days - William Blake - 1794


Creation's First Day - Ivory panel at the Cathedral of Salerno -  c. 1084


And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters,
and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven
And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.





The Separation of Land and Water - Rafaello - 1519


The Garden of Earthly Delights - Hyeronimous Bosch - 1510


And God said: 'Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place,
 and let the dry land appear' And it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called He Seas;
and God saw that it was good.
And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth' And it was so.
And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
-- Bereshit (1:9-13) Tanakh




The Creation of the Animals - Tintoretto -  1551



The Creation of The Animals - Rafaello - 1519


And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature in its kind, cattle and creeping things, and beasts of the earth, according to their kinds. And it was so done.
And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and every thing that creepeth on the earth after its kind. And God saw that it was good.
-- Genesis (1:24-25) Douay-Rehims 1899


Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena - Jean-Simon Berthélemy - 1802

About 3,000 years ago, Jewish desert dwellers in what is present-day southern Israel told a story around campfires about the creation of the first man and first woman.  The story they told, and passed on to generations of future desert dwellers, described a pre-creation scene much like the desert landscape in which they daily struggled for existence.  From the dry desert dust the Creator forms a man and breaths life into him, and then places him in a beautiful oasis-like garden, abundant with fruits.  The Creator takes a personal interest in this first man, and sets about trying to find him a suitable companion.  When none of the creatures He first forms provides the man the comfort He had hoped, the Creator makes the first woman.  Everything goes well for a spell, in the story told in the desert, but then the Creator is disobeyed and bad things start to happen.



The Creation of Adam (Detail) - Michelangelo - 1511


And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness:
and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air,
and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.
And God created man to his own image:
to the image of God he created him:
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth,
and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air,
and all living creatures that move upon the earth.
-- Genesis (1:26-28) Douay-Rehims 1899




The Creation of Adam (Detail) - Michelangelo - 1511



Four or five centuries later, more than five hundred miles to the east, in what is most likely present-day Iraq, a remarkable Jewish writer, whose name we do not know, set about the ambitious task of constructing a primary history of his people. Evil Merodach reigned in this dark time of Jewish exile, around 560 B.C., and the writer hoped that his history would help his people endure their many trials. The writer was most likely a priest, and might have been assisted in his work by other priests and scribes.  To accomplish his mission, he acquired at least two pre-existing writings on Jewish history.  The prior writings came from different places and different times.  One set of writings used the Canaanite term, “Elohim,” as the name of the creator god. A second set of writings, more ancient than the first, used a Judean term, “YHWH” (translated “Jehovah” in English), to describe its deity.  

The priest wove the two texts together, trying to avoid repetition and altering them where necessary to avoid blatant inconsistencies.  The priest confronted an additional problem: the two texts originally reflected views about two different gods in a time of polytheism, but by the time he compiled his history, belief in a single god had become prevalent among Jews.   The priest, therefore, sought to remove passages supporting the polytheism of an earlier age—and, except for a few hints here and there, he succeeded.  Finally, he added some writing of his own, or of his priestly contemporaries, that reflected the ideas of his own, more mature, period of Judaism.


This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created,
in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,
before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown.
For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth,
and there was no man to till the ground;
but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being
-- Genesis (2:4-7) NKJV



Creation of Adam - Jan Brueghel the Younger - 17th C.


The story the writer put together from the various texts is a compelling one.  “The greatest story ever told,” it is now often called.  Without question, it is the most significant history, if that term is appropriate for such a blend of real events and legends, ever written.  Some of the events he described are consistent with other historical records, but many others, generally those before the time of Saul and David, or about 1000 B.C., cannot be tested for accuracy, and are no doubt shaped to reflect the priest’s religious and political goals.  

The history includes dramatic accounts of persecution, escape, exile, sacrifice, and global devastation by a great flood.  It tells of a creator god who watches over his people, tests his people, and promises them great things if only they honor his commandments.  As any great story must, the history has villains and it has heroes.  No figure plays a more heroic and central role in the priest’s work than a prophet by the name of Moses, born in Egypt in the 13th century B.C. Remarkably, memory of Moses survived in the writer’s people through seven centuries—and was, in fact, the inspiration for the task he gave himself. 

The writer believed that his story would not be complete without an explanation of how things: the sun, the earth, the seas, and life: plants, animals, and humans, came to be.  For good measure, the writer decided to include two such explanations.  He did so even though the two stories contradicted each other on several points.



The Lord God said, 
“It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; 
and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 
So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 
-- Genesis (2:18-20) NKJV




The Creation of Eve (Sistine Chapel) - Michellangelo - 1510


The Creation of Eve - Jacopo Torriti - 1290


The priest opened his history with a creation story that might be his own, or one of his priestly contemporaries. The Creator in this story is impersonal, almost force-like.  The pre-creation setting is a watery chaos.  Creation takes place over six days.  He begins by creating the heaven and the earth.  Light comes next, followed by land rising from amidst the “gathered together” waters.  The creation of living things occupies parts of the next three days.  “Grass,” “fruit trees,” and “herbs” are created on the third day.  Curiously, the sun, moon, and stars come into existence the day after the plant kingdom is created.  On the fifth day, God brings forth fish, “great whales,” and “every winged fowl.”  Finally, on the sixth day, God creates “cattle, and creeping thing, and beasts of the earth.”  The creation story culminates with God bringing into existence his crowning creation: man made “in the image of God.”  Man, the priest explains, is “to have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over the earth, and over every thing that creepeth upon the earth.”



The Creation of Eve from Adam - Raffaello - 1483



The Creation Of Eve - George Frederic Watts - 1873



Immediately after the first creation account, the priest inserted a second story, a version of the ancient tale that was first told centuries earlier around desert campfires. The deity in this second story is a personal god with human-like emotions, the Lord of the Plantation.  The story opens on a barren landscape on which “no shrub of the field had yet appeared”.  God had not yet “caused it to rain upon the earth.” Creation begins in the form “a mist from the earth” that waters the parched plain.  God then forms from “the dust of the earth” the first man, Adam, and breathes “into his nostrils the breath of life.”  Finding a suitable home for Adam is God’s next concern. (This God takes a paternalistic interest in the first human, his very special creation.) God “plants” an oasis-like garden in Eden.  Proclaiming, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him," God forms “all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air.”  When none of the beasts proves to be on much comfort to Adam, God takes one of the first man’s ribs and makes the first woman, Eve.  Adam and Eve anger God by eating a forbidden fruit, but they are nonetheless permitted to have sex and reproduce.  From this first union of man and woman, the writer explained, have come all of us.



So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; 
and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs 
and then closed up the place with flesh. 
Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, 
and he brought her to the man.
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; 
she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man”.
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, 
and they become one flesh.
-- Genesis (2:21-24)




She Shall be Called Woman - George Frederic Watts - 1875-92


Later, of course, commentators noted that it was not possible for both creation stories to be literal history, but writing a literal history was never the priest’s goal anyway.  How could anyone not see the contradictions?  Most obviously, the order of creation is different in the two stories.  In the six-day creation story, the order of creation is plants, birds and fish, mammals and reptiles, and finally man to reign over all created before him, while in the Adam and Eve story, the creation order is reversed, with man coming first, then plants and animals. The two creation stories also have different narrative rhythms, different settings, and different names for God.  In the six-day story, the creation of humanity occurs through a single act and the creator, seeming more cosmic than human-like, is present only through a series of commands.  In the Adam and Eve story, on the other hand, man and woman are created through two separate acts and God is present in a hands-on, intimate way.  The pre-creation setting in the six-day story is a watery chaos, while in the Adam and Eve version, the setting before creation is a dry dessert.  Finally, in the six-day story, the creator is called “Elohim,” while in the other version of events, the creator is “the Lord God” (“Yahweh”).

-- by Doug Linder



The creation of Eve - Henry Fuseli - 1793


The Creation of Eve - William Blake - 1807






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