Human beings have always been curious about the creation of the universe, and have come up with a variety of myths in order to explain it. We find a number of them in the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts, like Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian as well as in our Hebrew Bible. Even medieval Kabbalah has one of its own.
How did the ancients imagine our world’s creation?
1. They thought that it was placed at the center of the universe.
2. They believed that it was stationary and everything else moved around it.
3. They claimed that the earth, appearing flat, was covered by a canopy called “firmament” over which the sun and the moon rolled. The “holes” in it allowed the rain to come through. Underneath the earth, they maintained, existed an undifferentiated underground called Sheol to which the dead went down but lived a shadowy kind of existence. At times, some people came back to earth, but mostly they remained there forever.
The ancient Egyptians honored the god Ra as the creator and ruler of the people. They believed that he recreates Egypt every day. Ra (also called Atum), “who came into being by himself” (ANET, p. 4), also formed the other gods. Some creation myths of the past had a political agenda. Thus, for instance, the main purpose of the Babylonian story of creation (the so called enuma elish, “When on high”) was to show why and how Marduk became the patron god of Babylon. According to this very popular myth, after a conflagration among the various gods, Marduk volunteered to fight on behalf some of them. Consequently, he killed Tiamat (the salt water god), and by cutting her into two, created the heavens and the earth:
“Then the lord [Marduk] paused to view her dead body,
That he might divide the monster and do artful works.
He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky.” (ANET, p.67)
After the creation the world, Marduk had Ea, ( the god of wisdom) formed a human being out of the blood of Tiamat’s divine husband, whose name Kingu.
As of today, no Canaanite creation story has emerged. It appears that the Hebrew Bible, influenced by the Babylonian story, proposed its own creation myth by providing two different models, one in Gen. 1 and the other in Gen. 2. The first story in Gen. 1 follows a pattern of creation that spans over seven different days; Gen. 2 does not know this format and is more flowing in its narration.
There are significant differences between the biblical stories and the ancient Near Eastern equivalents, all of them deriving from a debate between ANE polytheism and Israelite monotheism:
1. Whereas in the ANE we have various gods involved in the forming of the universe, in the Bible the entire process is assigned to one God.
2. In the ANE, humanity is created from the blood of a fallen god, but in the Bible, Adam and Eve are formed by God alone.
3. In the ANE, the main purpose is to show the ascendency of Marduk to a high position among the gods. The story in the Bible, on the other hand, is not a central event but only an introduction to a process that will culminate with the revelation of Torah at Sinai.
The Biblical creation story is not the only one in the Jewish sacred literature. The medieval Lurianic Kabbalah proposes a very different one based on the assumption that creation took place in three consecutive phases:
1. Tzimtzum: Contraction of all existence into God’s self;
2. Shevirat Ha-kelim: The breaking of the vessels that resulted by God sending into the new vacuum of the world rays of divine light;
3. Tikkun Olam: And finally, the hope that at the end of time, these sparks of light will once again be collected and harmonized through Tikkun Olam, the fixing the universe.
THE BIG BANG THEORY
How does the scientific community of our time deal with the creation of the universe? It supports what is called “The Big Bang Theory.” The idea was first suggested by a Belgian priest and astronomer, George Lemaitre (d. 1966) in the 1920’s. Today many scientists offer a few changes to it.
In essence, the theory is based on the observation that other galaxies appear to be moving away from our own at a greater speed, in all directions, as if they had been propelled by a former explosive force. It assumes that about 13 billion years ago, our universe emerged, perhaps through this explosion, out of a “singularity” which combines various fundamental particles, such as neutrons, electrons, and protons. As the universe began to inflate and decay, it started to cool off and expand. It continues to do so even in our time.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE BIBLICAL CREATION STORY?
Even though the Genesis story is primitive and certainly nonscientific, it still has some lessons to teach us:
1. There is an order in the universe, and we need to preserve it even in our lives.
2. Humanity is the pinnacle of creation and every human being need to be considered as sacred.
3. Just as we need to work, we also need to rest (“the Sabbath idea”); we are not animals.
4. God created the universe, not only by a “word” (“God said, let there be light, and there was light” Gen. 1: 3), but also through personal involvement (“God made the two great lights” Gen. 1: 16). Therefore, just as the word has power and needs to be respected in our inter-human relations, we need to dedicate ourselves to “creating” , through individual commitment, something new that would benefit humanity.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.