When we read Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we picture the origin of the atmosphere, space, solar systems, and galaxies. We think of the creation of the planet in our solar system named “Earth,” whose shape is an oblate spheroid or a rotationally symmetric ellipsoid. This mental picture is natural, because the English term “Earth” is the name of the planet in this solar system on which humans reside. But in Genesis 1 “earth” does not mean the planet Earth. Genesis reports the origin of the “heavens and earth” as such terms meant in the author’s time and within his worldview, which did not include a twenty-first century acquaintance with astronomy. What does “earth” mean in Genesis 1? The answer is provided in the text itself. — Dr. Karen Winslow
It is rare to find such an accurately and succinctly put introduction to the textual problem at hand that I had to borrow this one to serve as my own introduction. This is even more shocking since it comes from a theologian in the Wesleyan tradition who has very different beliefs than myself. In fact it could be said we stand at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Nonetheless, this exemplifies something that I have repeatedly voiced here, that biblical scholarship proper is not about the reader’s beliefs or non-beliefs, not about finding our beliefs or scientific truths in these ancient documents, but about understanding and faithfully reproducing their beliefs. Dr. Winslow and I can agree on the point expressed above, because that the Hebrew eretz did not and does not signify the planet earth is a fact borne from reading the text on its own terms and in its own historical and literary contexts, regardless of the beliefs or non-beliefs of its readers.
What does eretz mean then according to our ancient scribe? What exactly does he portray God creating?
At the end of verses 6-8, we are left with an image of two parted bodies of water, the waters above (ha-mayim meal) and the waters below (ha-mayim mitahat), in the midst of which is open air. This open space was created by the domed barrier (raqî‘a) which God made and set in place to keep the waters above from falling and rejoining the waters below (Something that actually does happen in this writer’s flood narrative (#14-18)). This solid domed barrier is then called “the skies” (sha-mayim), so that in the end it is the skies which hold back the waters above, they themselves giving the sky its blue color.
After the waters above have been set and tamed by boundaries, the skies, the text then turns to the waters below the skies. These waters are collected together and subdued to form “seas.” It is from this body of water that we are informed dry land (yabbashah) appears.
And God said, “Let the waters under the skies be gathered to one place and let the dry land be seen.” And it was so. And God called the dry land “earth” and he called the collection of waters “seas.” And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:9-10)
There are several things to observe in these verses. First, we are informed that from the gathered waters below the skies, which are named “the seas,” dry land appears. The Hebrew verb here is ra’ah, “to see,” and it is the same verb used in verse 10 when our author writes, “and God saw that it was good.” In verse 9, this verb appears in a passive imperative construction: “let be seen the dry land.” Thus in no manner of speaking does verse 9 speak of the creation of earth, that is of dry land (yabbashah). This is a significant detail in the text. Rather, dry land emerges from the collected waters below. It is commanded to appear, to become visible. “Let the dry land be seen.” In other words, it was already there!
This narrative detail draws us back to verse 2, where yet to be created earth/land already preexisted in a state of formlessness and desolation (tohu wabohu), itself immersed in the surging waters of the primeval deep (tehom). Again, it is best to understand “earth” in verse 2 as the material substance earth, which has as of yet not been created, that is as dry habitable life-supporting land. This is yet another example of God subduing the primeval elements rather than creating matter out of nothing. In verses 6-8, the creator god is presented creating a solid domed barrier not only to separate the primeval surging waters, but to subdue half of them by defining their limits and setting their boundaries. Likewise, the waters below are now subdued by commanding them to gather together in delimited spaces and to form seas. We should furthermore note that the order of creation is not earth then water, but in accord with ancient cosmological hierarchies, water is the more primordial element and it is from the watery abyss that earth, that is dry land, appears. In other words, the waters recede and are tamed to expose the dry ground. They are subdued to the point that the formless, desolate, and void piece of earth that it once used to cover can now emerge from its depths as dry habitable life-bearing land. We have therefore seen this creator god subdue, separate, place boundaries upon, and name the original primordial waters. And now we see him command into the light of day life-sustaining dry land from an original formless, vacuous piece of earth once immersed in the depths of these waters below.
Finally, this dry land (yabbashah) which emerges from the now tamed waters below and is called “earth” (eretz) is not to be equated with our notion of Earth, that is the planet Earth. Although the Hebrew eretz means “earth,” its translation as “earth” is misleading because the English word almost invariable means the planet Earth. Such a concept, or such knowledge, did not exist in ancient Israel. The Hebrew Bible as a whole knows of no planet earth, and no where does eretz refer to a planet! Rather, ertez most always refers to the material substance earth, and means the land or ground, as it does in Gen 1:9.
Thus far from presenting God creating Earth, a spherical planet orbiting a sun in one of many galaxies in infinite space (none of whose ideas existed to the authors of these texts and the God they portrayed in them), the text of Genesis presents its god forming the substance earth, that is dry habitable and flat land, from an initial formless, vacuous, and desolate piece of earth that now rests on the waters below and is encased within a finite area of space itself enclosed and defined by a solid domed barrier called the sky, which further functions to hold back the waters above! In short, what the god of Genesis creates is this:1
In other words, our author’s presentation and imagination of how God created the stuff of his world was shaped by his own subjective and culturally defined perceptions and beliefs about his world. These beliefs, which were accorded as “truths” for these ancient cultures, were deduced from what ancient man (mis)perceived on an empirical level: rain fell from water which existed above the skies; whereas natural springs, deltas, and flooding led to the belief that the earth “floated” on and was supported by waters that existed below the earth, the dry ground beneath their feet. This belief, which for all intents and purposes functioned as a truth-bearer for our author and his culture was then legitimated by presenting the creator deity creating the world as he himself, the author, perceived it to be! In the end, what God creates in Genesis 1:1-10 miraculously conforms to ancient Near Eastern man’s perceptions and beliefs about the world, and not what we today know the world, the cosmos, to be.
Thus any modern day Creationist who professes belief in the creation account of Genesis is just being plain ignorant about what these texts actual say and do not say, as well as being disingenuous toward these texts and the beliefs of their authors. This again exemplifies the problem at hand as well as our modern educational malaise; it is one of ignorance and neglect: No so-called Creationist believes the creation account in Genesis 1, but rather feigns belief out of ignorance. Why? Because these so-called Creationists are in truth not interested in the beliefs and views of these ancient authors and the texts they wrote; if they were they would educate themselves about these texts, their authors, the historical circumstances that produced them, their historical and literary contexts, audiences, etc. Instead, they are more interested in and concerned about their own beliefs and how they can manipulate what has come to be deemed an authoritative text to fit their views and beliefs in order to confirm their own modern beliefs. Again, as a biblical scholar whose goal is to understand these texts and their authors on their terms, not ours, in their historical and literary contexts, not ours or those of later readers, and to faithfully reproduce their beliefs, not ours, I find the whole interpretive enterprise of Creationists, and fundamentalists in general, damaging, dishonest, and negligent of these ancient texts, their authors, and their beliefs.
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