Bereishit - The Beginning
© 2014 S.H. Parker

For the attentive reader, Sedrah Bereishit poses a number of fascinating study questions.

Is the opening phrase בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים to be understood as "In the beginning, God created..." or as "When God began creating..." ("In the beginning of God's creation")?

Is the correct rendering of הָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ "the earth was without form and void" (or "astonishingly empty" as Rashi would render it) or "the earth had been shapeless and formless," as Richard Elliot Friedman renders it, indicating matter was pre-existent (as Ben Kappara asserts in the Midrash)?

If God ceased the work of creation on the seventh day, as it is written:

And God completed on the seventh day His work that He did, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work that He did.   ויְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
Bereishit 2:2

did God indeed (do at least a little) work on Shabbat? (Rashi feels a need to chime in on this particular subject.)

Was woman created from the "man's" side (noting, of course, that the word אָדָם - adam - is not accurately rendered as "man," male person) or were man and woman created like all the other creatures, male and female together?

Is the sequence of events starting in Chapter 2 a new creation story or somehow part of the six days discussed in Chapter 1? Or is Chapter 1 a "top down" view and Chapter 2 a "bottom up" view?

If Torah is the story of Israel or if Torah is the story of Israel's encounter with God or if Torah is about the commandments, why do we even have these creation texts?

Chava first ate of the fruit. Why is it called "Adam's sin?" (Well, actually, that's easy; it's always the husband's fault!)

Why does God not, as promised, kill man when they eat of the fruit?


Sedrah Bereishit starts shortly after the big bang1 and ends after introducing us to Noah. "The beginning." It contains what are without doubt the most discussed and the least understood passages in the entire Bible, the "six days of creation." (These passages may well also be the least read passages in the entire Bible.)

But one thing the first two chapters of Bereishit are absolutely not is an account of how the world was created.

No less an authority than Rashi teaches that the sequence of creation, as written, is not and cannot be an account of the order of creation. The text itself requires (Rashi actually says that it "calls out for") midrash. Rashi offers droshim of his own. But the important fact is that 1000 years ago Rashi is reporting that the normative understanding of the creation texts was "non-literal," either as or as requiring drosh, homiletics.

Rashi also understands Torah's beginning with "the beginning" ... uh, "zionisticly." Interesting but ultimately irrelevant.

That Torah, in beginning well before the events in which it is most interested, is a typical Mesopotamian document - numerous ancient Mesopotamian documents begin with a "pre-history" on the thesis that beginnings tell us about the essence of things and, even in the modern world, James Mitchner used the same literary model, for the same reason - is interesting. But, this too is ultimately irrelevant.

That the creation stories, indeed the whole book of Bereishit, resemble the typical preamble to a Mesopotamian suzerainty treaty - a statement of the authority of the party authoring the treaty - is somewhat more illuminating.

To rephrase the last question: if the creation myths in Chapters One and Two of Bereishit are not and were never intended as a description of how the world was created, then why indeed are they even presented?-Why do we have these creation texts?-What do they teach us about the suzerain?

The creation stories exist to answer two questions. Two questions that weighed heavily on the Mesopotamian mind. Indeed, these same questions have plagued mankind for as long as mankind has been able to record its tzuris.

First, our creation stories - which are not in the least concerned with "how did it happen" (there is a drosh on Torah beginning with the letter בִ which is closed at the top, closed at the bottom and closed at the front - to teach us that man cannot know what is above him, man cannot know what is below and man cannot know what came before; therefore, he shouldn't make himself meshuggie trying to figure it out) - our creation stories answer a much more fundamental question. Chapters One and Two of Torah answer the question "Why is there a world at all?"

Why is there a world? Because God said so.

Second, our creation stories answer the question "who or what controls the universe?" Who is the "master of nature?" Specifically, "Where does the apparent order of the world come from?"

This notion of "mastery of nature" comes back forcefully in the exodus cycle; there are scholars who argue that the 10 Plagues and the 10 Utterances of Creation are self-consciously parallel voices.

The pagan world view recognized the observable world, the "realm of man." It also understood that the gods, the (observable) embodiment of the powers of nature, occupied a distinct realm. The realm of man had no power over the realm of the gods. But, the pagan mind also understood that their gods also seemed to be subject to powers that were beyond even them. There was a realm that seemed to have power over the gods.

This was the primordial realm, the inexplicable and secret source of power that controlled even the gods. (Indeed pagan religious practices need to be understood as magical rites intent on affecting this primordial realm, affecting it in such as way as to bend the gods to the will of man.)

In this metaphysic, there is no master of nature or, at least, not an accessible one. Nature, by default, becomes capricious. Or, more accurately, the various gods controlling the forces of nature could do pretty much as they pleased with man and with specific forces of nature (wind and rain are special concerns of man), provided there was no primordial imperative. And no one understood why the gods were or how they were controlled by a power still greater, a power without personification and, therefore, unobservable. Therefore, it was without known propitiation rituals. Either way, from the human perspective, nature was unpredictable and, therefore, unreliable.

But mankind has always wanted, desperately, to believe that nature was orderly and no one was "play[ing] dice with the universe."

The Torah has a different answer, a simple answer, an answer which is really the logical conclusion of the pagan trinitarian metaphysic. Torah's answer is "Adonai is the master of nature;" even more importantly, "The One is the author of order; The One brings order from chaos" ("chaos" - being shapeless and formless) and  being in both the pagan mind and in our texts, the initial state of the universe and a terrifying perceived feature of the observable world).

To ancients, the opposite of the created order was something much worse than "nothing." It was an active, malevolent force we can best term "chaos." - The Jewish Study Bible, p. 13

And that is all we need to know about "the six days."

The inordinate attention paid "the six days" is a travesty. A travesty because, lost in the inordinate attention paid to "the six days," lost in the utter ignorance (as in "the act of ignoring" ... well, also the other meaning), lost in the ignorance of the context and meaning of these passages is the single most profound, the single most important, the single most revolutionary pasuk in all Torah.... This pasuk is both the source and the conclusion of all Israelite philosophy:

God created the human in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.   . וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם

Bereishit 1:27

Everything in our philosophy, everything, follows from this single statement. Everything intends to guide us toward being the kind of person who understands this and treats all persons as instances of the image of God, as embodiments of God.

Why must we deal with the stranger in righteousness? Because s/he (too) is created in the image of God.

Why may we not hold the wages of the workman until the morning? Because s/he (too) is created in the image of God.

Why must we not hate an Egyptian? Because s/he (too) is created in the image of God.

Why may we not put a stumbling block in the path of the blind or oppress a widow or orphan? Because s/he (too) is created in the image of God.

"Love me, love my creation; despise my creation, despise me" is the great principle of, the whole of, Torah.

[1] Was Nachmanides ("Commentary on the Torah," Genesis 1:1, quoted in Gerald Schroeder “Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony Between modern Science and the Bible”) the first to describe the big bang? Consider his description of creation:

At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was very thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin non-corporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudosubstance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is, and will be formed