World creation in Gen 1 - ex nihilo or from preexisting matter?

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Nov 2016
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The first three verses of ´Genesis´ (Gen 1:1-3) are in the Hebrew original:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. ב וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. 2 And / now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר. 3 And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light

More exactly:

1 )
2 In the beginning (be´reschit) God (singular: bara) created (plural: elohim) heaven (plural: ha´schamajim) and (we) earth (ha´aräz).

2 )
3 Now / and (we) the earth (ha´aräz) was (hajetah) unformed / desolate (tohu) and (wa) void / empty (bohu) and (we) darkness (choschäk) over the face (al´pene) of the deep / abyss (tehom) and (we) the spirit (without article: ruach) of God (plural: elohim) hovering / brooding / fluttering (merachäpät) upon the face (al´pene) of the waters (plural: ha´majim).

3 )
4 And (wa) said (jomär) God (plural: elohim): Let there be (jehi) light (or), and (wa) it became (jehi) light (or).

There are two ways of assigning the first two verses to each other:

A.
The conventional interpretation: verse 1 describes the absolute beginning of creation, the result of which is described in more detail in verse 2 with regard to the state of the earth. In verse 3 the creative design of the initial state then begins.

B.
The unconventional interpretation, which has become increasingly accepted in recent decades: The state of the world described in verse 2 is pre-existent and precedes the process of creation in time. Verse 1 therefore gives a summary of the events of chapter Gen 1. Verse 2 accordingly describes a pre-existent initial state of the world, without any statement being made as to whether this state itself once had a beginning or whether it is beginningless.

The advocates of the conventional interpretation A assume, as I said, that verse 1 begins with a chronological report of the world creation. Elohim (= God) suddenly brings forth - possibly ex nihilo - heaven (plural form: shamajim) and the still imperfect earth. They further assume that the perfection of the ´desert´ earth and the creation of a second physical heaven (vault, firmament) will be described in the further course, which is added to the (thus interpreted) supreme ´divine´ heaven of verse 1.

The following arguments, among others, speak against the interpretation A:

1)
A creation ´through the word´ (plagiarized from the older Egyptian myth about the world creation by god Ptah), as it takes place up to the sixth ´day´, is not recognizable in verse 1. What is directly created by ´the word´ is the light, the firmament (heaven), the celestial bodies, the animals and possibly also the humans. When other acts of creation are performed, the ´Earth´ functions as mediating organ of the divine will.

What concerns the human creation in Gen 1:27, it is not clear whether it takes place as formation process from already existing material as in Gen 2 or ´through the word´ as with the light, the sky, the heavenly bodies and the animals. It means "And God spoke: Let us make humans" and then in the next sentence: "And God created humans". That it concerns thereby a material formation process, is the usual view, can however only from Gen 2 be opened up, which is questionable inasmuch as the respective passages of different authors originate with possibly different perspectives on humans creation. Since both passages were subject to a joint final editing, however, it is permissible to interpret Gen 1:27 from Gen 2, even if the wording speaks against it.

For representatives of Interpretation B, the nonmentioning of a creation ´through the word´ in verse 1 thus proves the preexistence of the imperfect earth described in verse 2, which only reaches perfection in the further process of creation ´through the word´ in verse 1. According to Interpretation B, verse 1 refers to this perfection and thus to a final state, which only occurs after the sixth ´day´ - instead of an imperfect initial state, as claimed by Interpretation A, which is burdened with the additional assumption of a divine heaven.

2)
That a heaven is created not only in verse 1, but also in verse 7 - there as ´vault´ (raqia) - raises the question of the relationship between these two ´heavens´ (identical or different, and if the latter, in what way). In the ancient oriental religions, also in Judaism, as a rule a plurality of heavens were assumed, which stand in a hierarchical relation to each other.

Only in passing: both in verse 1 and in verse 8 (where the vault is called ´heaven´) the Hebrew ´schamajim´ (plural without possible singular) appears, in verse 1 with article ´ha´, in verse 8, because as proper name, without the article. The Hebrew word appearing in Gen 1 for ´water´ (plural: majim) is conspicuously contained in ´schamajim´. In the Talmud, this composition is recognized either as sham + majim (place of water) or as esh + majim (fire and water). The former is more likely.

However, a differentiation between different skies is not explicitly stated in Gen 1 and therefore cannot be proven. Arguably, the doubly mentioned creation of ´heaven´ in verses 1 and 7 can therefore not be used by advocates of either interpretation. But it tends to strengthen the unconventional interpretation B (pre-existent matter), because it does not require the additional assumption of a hierarchy of heavens (Ockham's razor), which is unprovable for Gen 1.

3)
Another argument requires a look at the original Hebrew text. Verse 2 begins with a ´now / and´ = ´wa´, which precedes the word for ´earth´ without a space (as is usual for ´wa´ in Hebrew). To be read from the right:

והארץ ("and the earth")

In the common English translations, ´and / now´ gives the impression that it leads to a statement about the preceding sentence (verse 1) sequentially. This corresponds to Interpretation A, which interprets verse 2 as the explanatory continuation of verse 1. However, the syntactic nature of verse 2 in the Hebrew original contradicts this. There are two uses of ´wa´, if it is at the beginning of the sentence:

1)
If the sentence position is ´wa + verb + subjekt´, then it is a sequential construction, i.e. the sentence introduced with ´wa´ follows the preceding sentence.

2)
If, however, the proposition is ´wa + subject + verb´, then the proposition is not a sequence, but a circumstance determination of the proposition following it.

In verse 2, ´und´=´wa´ is followed by the subject ´Earth´ and only then by the verb ´was´. It thus provides background information for verse 3, in which Elohim speaks "´": "Let there be light´", etc.

Verse 3, on the other hand, is an example of a sequential use of ´wa´: There the verb ´spoke´ follows the original Hebrew verb for ´and´ and then the subject ´elohim´.

From this follows: Verse 1 does not precede verse 2 chronologically, from which it follows again that it is most likely a chapter heading or chapter summary.
 
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