Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat B'reishit 5762
Genesis 1:1 - 6:8
October 13, 2001 26 Tishrei 5762
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. This commentary originally appeared in 1999
The opening chapter of a book is often the last to be written. At the outset, the author may still lack a clear vision of the whole. Writing is the final stage of thinking, and many a change in order, emphasis, and interpretation is the product of wrestling with an unruly body of material. Only after all is in place does it become apparent what kind of introduction the work calls for.
I often think that is how the Torah came to open with its austere and majestic portrait of the creation of the cosmos. An act of hindsight appended a second account of creation. One, in the form of chapter two which begins more narrowly with the history of the earth and its first human inhabitants, would surely have been sufficient, especially since it argues graphically that evil springs from human weakness. All else is really quite secondary. I should like to suggest that the inclusion of a second creation story from a cosmic perspective, with all its inelegant redundancy and contradictions, was prompted by a need to address a deep rift that had appeared within the expanding legacy of sacred texts that would eventually crystallize as the Hebrew Bible. The unfolding canon spoke with many voices. Chapter one of Genesis was intended to reconcile conflicting views toward the natural world. Does reverence for nature lead to idolatry or monotheism?
The first position is identified with the Torah, the five books of Moses, which exhibits a pervasive and deep-seated suspicion toward the natural world. God who is transcendent is neither to be sought nor experienced amid the wonders of nature. That is the cautionary message of the second of the Ten Commandments. The sweeping prohibition against the making of images of natural phenomena is a hedge against idolatry, against coming to worship the symbol itself instead of what it points to. In a long discourse on the public revelation at Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy insists that the experience was wholly auditory. God had assumed no visible form and hence, "When you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the Lord your God allotted to the other peoples everywhere under heaven (4:19)." Indeed as Deuteronomy makes clear later on, the worship of any astral deity was to be punished by stoning (17:3-7).
With nature off limits, the domain of pagan religion, the Torah privileged history as the only valid realm for discovering the power and compassion of God. The first of the Ten Commandments affirms resoundingly God's existence by reference to the redemption from Egypt, an event which, not accidentally, would become the core of Israelite religious consciousness. In the same vein, the Exodus and journey in the wilderness were made to provide a layer of historical validation for the ancient agricultural festivals of Passover and Sukkot. Most strikingly, the annual bringing of first fruits to the central sanctuary by grateful farmers became the occasion not for a prayer of thanksgiving for the bounty of the earth, but rather a creedal synopsis of early Israelite history culminating in the fulfillment of God's promise for "a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 26:1-10, now part of the Passover Haggadah)." In sum, the wondrous deeds of God (niflaot) manifest themselves not in sublime works of nature but miracles that punctuate the course of history (for example Exodus 3:20, 15:12, 34:10, Judges 6:13, Psalms 96:3, 98:1, 106:7, 107:8).
However, the second position, with its fondness for nature as a licit path to the God of Israel, is not utterly vanquished by the preference for history. It takes refuge in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, where it dares to celebrate the ubiquitous grandeur and mystery of God's handiwork in nature. In direct contravention of the admonition of Deuteronomy, the author of Psalm 8 exclaims: "When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him (verse 5)?" Similarly, the author of Psalm 19 exults: "The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims His handiwork (verse 2)." In these sentiments there is no trace of angst that the contemplation of nature might beguile one to abandon pure monotheism (Job 31:26-27).
By the same token, the book of Job is the most extended articulation of radical amazement at the God of nature in the Hebrew Bible. The theme is introduced early when Job depicts God as the one "who makes things great beyond man's grasp, and wonders beyond any numbering" (translation by Raymond P. Scheindlin, W.W. Norton, 1998, p.63), where the word "wonders (niflaot)" is now expanded to include natural wonders (as it also does in Psalm 136:3). Above all, it is the utter sublimity of nature unfurled by God in a grand finale that humbles Job into awed silence. Human suffering without end is not the result of sheer chaos but of a degree of order that will forever exceed human comprehension.
Given this polarity of views on the natural world, as either dangerous or edifying, I see in the opening chapter of Genesis an anticipatory attempt at reconciliation. The ambivalence toward nature is overcome by imagining a supreme act of divine will. A created universe is a miracle because it originates at a specific point in time and good because it is the handiwork of God. By shifting nature into the realm of history, creation points to a Lord of Wonders (adon ha-niflaot, a rabbinic name for God which appears in the siddur) whose care animates both the worlds of nature and humanity. To be sure, the first chapter of Genesis is but a fleeting and precarious reconciliation that would require periodic renewal throughout Judaism's long subsequent history, and never more than in our day.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,