The Myths of Creation

Bereishit By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 12, 2012 / 5773

With the celebration of this coming Shabbat, we return to the beginning—specifically, to the narrative of Creation. Counter to the way many of us were taught in our youth, the peshat (literal sense) of Torah demonstrates clearly that God does not create the world ex nihilo (out of nothing). God turns to the primordial building blocks, and from these materials crafts a world and all it contains. In fact, God’s essential act over the days of Creation involves separation, boundaries, and order. The Hebrew v-d-l (as in va’yavdil, [God separated]) is an expression that one finds repeatedly throughout the first chapter of Genesis. Of special significance is establishing the boundary between the water and dry land. On the third day, God declares, “‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:9). How may we better understand this gathering of waters?

Renowned biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951), professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1938–1951), writes that our chosen text

should be studied against the background of the myths current in the Orient, as well as . . . the ancient epic poems of the Israelites. The peoples of the East used to tell many stories about the battle waged by one of the great gods against the deity of the sea . . . Mesopotamian mythology described in detail the combat of the creative god against Tiamat and his ultimate victory over her . . . Similar myths were known to the Canaanites . . . As for the Israelites, it is clear from many allusions in the Bible, as well as from a number of legends in rabbinic literature, that there had existed among them an ancient poetic tradition that told of Rahav, the lord of the sea, who opposed the will of God and would not confine his waters within given limits, until the Holy One subdued him and slew him and fixed a boundary for the waters of the sea that they should never pass (see Isaiah li[nes] 9–10). Here there is no trace of war between the gods as related by the gentile myths, but only the revolt of one of the creatures against his Creator. [That said], the underlying thought of Torah is: “Far be it from you to think, as do the Gentiles, that the sea is endowed with an autonomous divine power that fought, as it were against the Creator of the Universe . . . ” (Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part One, 36–39)

Later biblical writings and rabbinic tradition preserve what is absent in Genesis. For instance, Psalms 74:13 declares, “You divided the sea by Your Might; You broke the heads of the dragons on the waters”; Tractate Hagigah 12a reads, “Resh Lekeish taught: ‘When the Holy One created the sea, it continued to expand until the Holy One rebuked it and caused it to dry up.’” Even though Torah, as Cassuto points out, makes a clear distinction in its narrative from Near Eastern myth, the true richness of our literary inheritance is that we were able and wise enough to preserve oral traditions. It is these traditions that enrich our understanding and enable us to experience the full texture of the written text. May Cassuto’s wisdom and God’s creative act inspire us all toward learning Torah in deeper, multidimensional ways.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.