Bob Schwartz

Tag: Genesis

Beresheet: The Beginning

bereshit

Today the annual Torah reading cycle begins again with the portion Beresheet (also transliterated as Bereshit, Genesis 1:1-6:8).

It is a big Torah, a bigger Jewish Bible (Tanakh), and an even bigger Christian Bible. In all that expanse, nothing compares to the way it begins.

Bereshit: “When God Created …” This first word of the first book of the Bible serves both as the Hebrew name for the book Genesis and as an idiom for “Creation.” Because of its pride of position at the “start” of creation, as well as its uniqueness (the word never appears again in Scriptures), the word is subjected to intensive and varied exegetical analysis. Many, many meanings are derived from this one six-letter word….Jewish tradition has also held the six letters contain secrets that the wise will understand. (The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, Geoffrey W. Dennis)

In English, it goes like this:

When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God. (New Jewish Publication Society translation)

Or this:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (New Revised Standard Version translation)

Or this:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, 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. (Robert Alter translation)

Unformed. Void. Darkness. Wind. Welter. Waste. Light. When God began to create.

Maybe you once read or studied the Bible, in any of its versions. Maybe you still do. Maybe you don’t anymore or maybe you never did. Maybe you had deep discussions about God, about creation, and about whether there was something out of which creation was made or whether there was nothing and then there was something (ex nihilo). Then again, maybe not.

No matter your beliefs, consider this first portion, the first words, and the very first of the first words consisting of six Hebrew letters. Are there “secrets the wise will understand”? Are you that wise one?

 

 

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Poem: Between the Waters

Hexagram 29 - Theresa Blanding

Between the Waters

Let there be an expanse that it may separate water from water.
Genesis 1:6

It is a bottomless pit
The waters above
The waters below.
An abyss
A sea without boats.
No ground to stand.
Just falling.

If there is space between
How vast must it be
To contain hope?
Could it be so small
And still be heaven?

Chaos and Order in the Bible

The most important section of the Old Testament, even for non-readers and non-believers, is the beginning, the stories of creation up to the appearance of people. (Stories plural, because there are two different versions of creation in Genesis.)

The second thing that happens in the Bible is that God brings order. But the first thing is the chaos from which that order is brought, chaos presumably also created, and created first.

For most of our religions and their histories, this task of putting matters in good order has been a primary mission. Protocols, hierarchies, calendars, rules. In imitation of God. Orderliness is next to godliness. Order, though, in religion and in our lives, can take on the color of compulsion.

Chaos not only preceded order in the Bible, it became a continuing theme. People are constantly getting lost and tossed around, in floods, in deserts. Being found or finding a way is presumed to be the highest value. And yet the very first moment is not just chaos, but created chaos. Not just a necessary predicate, but a necessary ongoing and perpetual element. No lost, no found.

The Tower of Babel and Technological Humility

Tower of Babel - Bruegel the Elder

This week’s Torah reading, Genesis 6:9-11:32, includes two very different STEM achievements.

The first is the story of Noah, with a boat big enough to hold representatives of everything that lives (but does not swim). The ark’s purpose is to save all life in the face of an ultimate disaster. It works.

The other story is the Tower of Babel, with an immensely tall structure that has no obvious or express practical purpose. It is an early and elegant literary example of “because we can” philosophy. Think of it as a giant cosmic finger by some very arrogant builders.

Giving the finger is always rude and dangerous. Here, though, there is no violent retribution and no smiting by flood or fire. Instead, the result of that technological arrogance is eternal confusion and failure to communicate.

The Hebrew Bible has lots to say about human behavior, psychology, and spirituality. But no story may have more to tell us about life today than the Tower of Babel, especially when read in conjunction with Noah.

If we think we can build a boat big enough to save us from a particular catastrophe, maybe we can. But even then, as the rest of the post-Noah biblical stories and the rest of world history demonstrate, staying dry in the flood is just the beginning of our problems.

And if we think we can just show how smart we are by concocting a bunch of oversized technological wonders, monuments of pride, we may find ourselves, as the saying goes, too clever by half.

Consequences are inevitable. Purposes are necessary. Really big towers are awesomely cool. Just be sure you know, more or less, what you’re doing and why.


And all the earth was one language, oe set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
Robert Alter

In the Beginning, Again

Genesis Illustrated Cover

This Sabbath, the annual cycle of Torah readings starts all over again. Again. Back to the beginning. Genesis (Breisheit), Chapter 1.

In the beginning….Well, you probably know how it goes. But don’t be jaded by familiarity. And don’t avoid it or be put off by belief that this and all the Genesis stories that follow are neither history nor science. So what? These are big stories and we need big stories. Not to be used as clubs to beat us up (though there is that), but as invitations and portals to bigger things. If not, then why are so many watching Hunger Games or Downtown Abbey?

Instead of learned discourse, here is something much more fun. R. Crumb, one of the great comic artists (beginning with his classic underground comics in the 1960s—Mr. Natural, etc.), published his Book of Genesis Illustrated in 2010.

Genesis Illustrated Back Cover

(If you don’t like pictures or Crumb’s illustrations, you might just try the excellent translation of Genesis that Crumb used, by Robert Alter)

Take a moment, whatever your inclinations, and allow yourself to be awed. Whatever you think is awesome, the sudden appearance of everything is more awesome than that, however you explain it. And for those who are waiting to see the Big Guy with the long beard–you know you’ve just gotta have it–here it is.

Genesis Illustrated Page 1