Wednesday, 5 May 2010


These superbly overfamiliar lines:
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2: 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.
3: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
OK: the dominant interpretive tradition here, I suppose, is that God takes chaos and manipulates it into order. Gerhard von Rad [p.48] insists that v.1 must be separated syntactically from vs 2-3, not run on with them as some translations suggest (which is to say: we shouldn't translate that first verse, 'at the beginning when God created heaven and earth ...'):
If one considers 1-2 or 1-3 as the syntactic unit, then the word about chaos would stand logically and temporally before the word about creation. To be sure, the notion of a created chaos is itself a contradiction; nevertheless, one must remember that the text touches on things which in any case lie beyond human imagination.
The excellently-named von Rad makes the point that where the creation myths of Israel's surrounding cultures tended to posit a preexisting chaos afterwards shaped and ordered by a deity, Israel 'sharply ... demarcated herself' from such stories, and imagined a Creator who Creates absolutely; not a god who moves around preexistent building blocks.

That's all fair enough, I suppose. But reading this, it struck me how wrongheaded is the persistent notion of a Creator who 'broods' on Chaos and generates order. 'Brooding', as a hen does on an egg (or more usually, I suppose, in the modern sense, as a thinker does with an idea, behind her creased brow) itself helps shape a narrative on the imposition of steady order on formlessness and void. But that's not it at all. The creation narrative of Genesis is something much more interesting. Here's von Rad again:
The much disputed m(e)rahepet ('hovered') is not to be translated by 'brood', but, according to Deut. 32.11 and Jer 23.9, the verb appears to have the meaning of 'vibrate', 'tremble', 'move', 'stir.' ... Ruah (e)lohim, ('Spirit of God') is better translated 'storm of God', ie terrible storm. [49]
Now, von Rad thinks this Ruah (e)lohim took 'no more active part in creation'. But I'd like to think otherwise: that the creative act was the storm stirring the formless void, the action of chaos upon chaos. There's something counterintuitively right-seeming about that, something suitably Nietzschean, that order is actually the action of disorder upon disorder. The nature of Apollo is the thrashing of Dionysis through the chaotic medium. I'd also like to see an edition of the Bible that translated this text according to von Radian precepts: 'And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the sea of chaos. And the Typhoon of God vexed the waters.'


Rich Puchalsky said...

I think that there's an even better reading (for my personal aethetic preferences, at any rate). "Without form, and void" doesn't to me imply chaos, because the typical idea of chaos involves movement. Rather, it implies placidity and vastness, like a calm ocean. In that reading, God creates a sort of ocean of material that, by itself, would just sit there, and then shakes it into a storm from which emerges everything in existence.

Sean B said...

The "typhoon of God"! Very nice - it would seem to evoke the whirlwind that appears at the end of Job. Plus, the idea of a creation in which chaos lies at the heart of order fits pretty well with God's big speech in Job. (Nonetheless I would still hesitate to back too far away from a reading of Gen 1 as an "imposition of steady order", especially given the methodical nature of the rest of the chapter).