Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Creation from Nothing

One of the cardinal doctrines of historical Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that God created all that exists—both visible and invisible—from nothing. This doctrine is called creation ex nihilio (from nothing). The primary implication of this doctrine is that God literally produced all things as an act of will. A secondary implication of this doctrine is that God therefore has complete power over all of creation.

The primary "proof text" for creation ex nihilio is Genesis 1:1 which in traditional English translations reads.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

From as early as the late second Temple era (c. 50 BCE) it can be documented that Jewish readers began to find in this verse the basis for the assertion that God created all things from nothing. This doctrine became the heritage of Christians and of Muslims in the generations that followed. However, Genesis 1:1-2 do not support the idea that God created all things from nothing—in fact, they express the opposite: that God created from pre-existing chaos.

The Cosmic Battle Motif

Nahum Sarna, in describing the available ancient Near Eastern creation accounts states,

"…polytheistic accounts of creation always begin with the predominance of the powers of nature, and invariably describe in detail a titanic struggle between two opposing forces" (21).
This statement from Sarna is of immense importance. Variously the forces of watery chaos are presented as the primordial state and are personified as a dragon or deity against which the hero-creator god gains victory. This mytheme is not only present in Genesis 1:1-3 but is also expressed variably in the cosmic ordeal between Yahweh and Levianthan, Rahab, Tannin, and Yam (see Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-10; Job 26:12-13).

Into the cultural context the cosmic battle between the forces of nature or chaos against the hero-god enters Genesis 1:1-3. The ancient readers of this text would have immediately recognized the thematic correlation with the primordial chaos and the various gods of chaos (e.g., Tiamat, Rahab, Leviathan, etc.) against whom God (Elohim) enters as the hero and victor.

Corrected Translation

Jewish scholar of Hebrew and Bible translator Everett Fox, in accordance with the majority understanding of this verse in Hebrew scholarship today, translates Genesis 1:1-2 as follows:

At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness was over the face of the Ocean, rushing-spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters…

Everett comments on the above passage, "Gen. 1 describes God's bringing order out of chaos, not creation from nothingness" (p. 13). Note also that he capitalizes "Ocean," adding the following comment: "The primeval waters, a common (and usually divine) image in ancient Near Eastern mythology" (p. 13). Everett here makes it clear that the ancient reading of this text saw not creation from nothing but rather the act of creation as the bringing of order out of chaos. This understanding militates heavily against the classical theistic doctrine of creation ex nihilio


Though brief, this post is intended to at least introduce the reader to this important study. Genesis 1:1 does not teach creation from nothing. If Christians and others desire to be true to the text of the Bible, they need to become current with what Hebrew linguists and what the ancient Near Eastern literature are telling us.

Everett, Fox. The Shocken Bible: Volume I: the Five Books of Moses. Random House: New York, 1995.

Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis: the Heritage of Biblical Israel. Melton Research Center, New York, 1966.


Andrew T. said...

Interestingly, the Artscroll Stone Edition Tanach translates, in following Rashi, translates be-Reishit 1:1 as "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth".

Peter said...

Hey Andrew,

Rashi and Ibn Ezra both agreed on that sense. They were not, however, aware of the discoveries from ANE mythology made since the mid-1800's. Knowing what we know from the context in which Gen 1 was written, it is clear that Gen 1 was working from within its context and assumes that matter existed before the "creation."