When we read an ancient text, we tend to read it through the eyes of our contemporary culture, but that does a disservice to the original material written under different assumptions. A good example is the famous Creation story in the Bible.
When medieval thinkers discussed the biblical story of creation, they maintained that this had to be “ex nihilo,” namely “[creation] from nothing.” Otherwise, God would have to compete with another divinity that is eternal, negating the belief in monotheism. However, when ancient people thought of creation, they did not worry whether creation had to be “out of nothing,” because that was not the way in which they usually conceived of “creation.” For people in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, creation was more like assigning a function to an already existing matter. In fact, in ancient Egypt, creation was thought of taking place daily! This reminds me of the Midrash that tells us that God went on creating other worlds and destroying them until God created the one in which we live (Gen. R. 3: 7) as well as the rabbinic prayer that praises God for renewing the works of creation daily: “In Your goodness, You daily renew creation” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 228).
In the Bible, there are two parallel creation stories: In the first (Gen. 1: 1-2:4a), God creates the world by uttering a word: “God said,’ Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1: 3),” whereas in the second (Gen 2:4b-24), God, working like a potter (yotzer), creates (yatzar) Adam (see, Gen. 2: 8) by giving shape to matter, as if it were, with his hands . The editor/s of these stories did not consider the issue of creation out of nothing. It is only modern translators who, reflecting the medieval debate, rendered the very first verse of Genesis as: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is a wrong translation, as some medieval rabbinic commentators, Rashi included, already pointed out. In Hebrew bereshit is not “In the beginning,” but “in the beginning of” [creation]. Thus, the new Jewish Publication Society correctly translates, “When God began to create heaven and earth..….God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Therefore, the first created item was “light.” This approach seems to be more in line with modern scientific explanations of the “creation” of the universe, the “big bang,” when billions of years ago, a huge molecular cloud collapsed and fell under the influence of gravity; ever since, the universe appears to be expanding.
“Light” --This is what we need in our time: not medieval assumptions or superstitions, but a scholarly and critical study of ancient texts that would give justice to the editors’ intention, whether we agree with them or not.