In the beginning

In the beginning

27 Oct 2016

Rabbi Howard Cooper

Just after Simchat Torah, as we commence with the Torah readings anew, it seems only right to start things off with an in-depth reading of the very first lines...

‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth...’

This week Jews around the world begin again the weekly cycle of readings from the Torah.

The great mythic drama of Western consciousness, the Bible, opens with a portrait of a Creator: a mysterious force giving purposeful form and imaginative shape to creation. An artist-designer-choreographer shaping and ordering a world which comes into being moment by moment.

Remarkably, we are now living in an age that knows that the universe is 13.82 billion years old - but the Judaic cultural imagination was never as interested in the question ‘when did it begin?’ as the question ‘what is it for?’ In this ancient text, in an act of extraordinary creative thinking, the Jewish people gave birth to the idea of something giving birth to the idea of us – in this narrative drama, humanity is the purpose of creation.

But this portrait is fraught with ambiguity. For how are we to read the opening sentences of the Torah?

We immediately have a problem.


The translation I offered above does not seem quite right: the influential Biblical commentator, the medieval scholar Rashi, looked at the grammatical form of the first word of this poetic text -- B’reshit -- and saw that it was not free-standing, but introduces a dependent clause: ‘In the beginning of ...’ .

Rashi is reading close to the grain of the original Hebrew text, where there are no verse divisions: he suggests that the opening of the Bible should be read at one stretch, as a continuous thought. Something like:

‘In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the deep and an energy from God sweeping over the water -- God said: “Let there be light” and there was light’.

So how did creation begin? According to this translation (and remember that every translation is an interpretation), the original creative process begins with God ‘speaking’: “Let there be...” Rashi’s reading is thus in agreement with the author of the Fourth Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the word’. Existence is formed out of language.

Here the Hebrew Bible distances itself from other contemporary Near Eastern creation myths. There are no divine genealogies or battles between the gods, no rituals to be re-enacted to ensure the supremacy of the national god. All of that is abandoned in favour of the ‘word’, the logos of John’s Greek text, the logic of the beginning - a beginning through speech.

In this view of creation, time and chronology are subservient to language.

‘Time...worships language’, as the poet W. H. Auden once wrote.

This view of creation as an ongoing act of articulation by ‘God’ resonates with the Jewish mystical tradition, which pictures the universe as being created out of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: their continuing combination and re-combination makes up the substance of our being and that of the world. All of matter, including ourselves (our human ‘being’), flow from the original speech-act that emerged from the divine ‘Being’. Existence is the sum of the ongoing echoes, responses, reverberations from that original “Let there be light...” (Genesis1:3).

With the same simple mystery in which one of our own thoughts becomes transformed into speech, the Biblical storytellers imagined a divine speech-act in which “Let there be light” (y’hi or) flows into ‘and there was light’ (va-y’hi or). In Hebrew the two phrases are identical. The intention “ Let there be...” is joined by the single Hebrew letter ‘vav’ (‘and’) to the deed, “and there was...”. One whole, undivided event in which thought, word and deed are a single creative moment.

This is akin to the popular view of artistic creativity as occurring in a flash of inspiration, a moment of revelation. Suddenly everything is just there: the whole poem, the complete melody, the entire story. Yet although there are artists’ accounts which reinforce this view, they are in the minority. More frequent are accounts of the creative process which suggest something very different takes place in the struggle to produce something out of nothing. And this takes us to a second, and radically different, reading of our creation story.

The King James Translation

Those who have come to the Bible through translations into English will perhaps be most familiar with the 1611 King James ‘Authorized’ Version. It begins with that familiar and bold declaration:

1) In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. End of sentence.

That English punctuation – not there in the Hebrew – creates a statement that stands as a kind of prologue, a headline, for the subsequent events. As if it were staying: ‘The following is the story of how, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’

And then verse 2 provides, quite literally, a pro-logue: what existed before the logic of God’s speaking-the-world-into-being. This is not a creation out of nothing (ex nihilo), but creation out of the midst of a dark, primeval void:

2) 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.
3) And God said: “Let there be light”. And there was light.’

What in our first reading was relegated to a sub-clause as the main narrative moved commandingly on, is here given its full weight. And suddenly we see the huge reservoir of potentially destructive forces that exist before God speaks. We have the ‘unformed and void’: tohu va’vohu (‘chaos and confusion’ is perhaps a better translation). And ‘darkness’. And ‘the deep’ (or ‘the chasm’, ‘the abyss’). In our second reading we discover - with surprise? with anxiety? - that God does not create everything. For example, the ‘darkness’ exists independently, before the light. In this reading of creation there is drama, struggle, even a sense of improvisation. There is a deep insecurity about the whole enterprise.

Genesis Rabbah

According to one fifth-century rabbinic homiletic commentary (Genesis Rabbah 9:4), the world did not spring forth all at once from God’s omnipotent will, but 26 attempts preceded the creation. All of them were doomed to failure. The world as we now have it came out of the chaotic midst of this earlier wreckage. Does this sound like the stuff of primitive science-fiction? Perhaps. But this midrashic tradition of the fragility and impermanence of the creative process is spiritually and psychologically significant.

For here humanity is an experiment. There is always the risk of failure and the return to chaos and nothingness.

The uncertainty of every aspiring artist reverberates within this stream of mythic thinking. God’s anxious cry of hope at the end of the midrash - ‘If only this time it will last!’ - accompanies human history, and our own lives within in.

Our first reading of the opening of Genesis invited us into a harmonious world of language, logic and ordered inevitability. Our second reading opens up the possibility that insecurity and impermanence is built into the makeup of the world and the fabric of our consciousness. Our first reading offers us a world where things should make sense; where there is order and security. Our second reading offers us a world of ‘chaos and confusion’ – a world in which ‘darkness’ is the starting point and a sense of provisionality accompanies the unfolding of everyday life.

The genius of the Biblical narrators lies in how they manage to suggest - in the few opening verses of their story, in the guise of an evocation of Creation - such diverse readings, interpretations, of life.
They somehow intuited that we would spend our lives, individually and collectively, stretched out between our wish for order, rhythm, logic, security – and our awareness of how close is the ‘abyss’, how powerful are the forces of ‘chaos and confusion’, how ‘darkness’ is part of the fabric of life, how near we always are to a collapse back into tohu va’vohu.

That midrash is deeply subversive: the rabbis saw deeply into the ambiguity in the text and gave us a God that isn’t omnipotent or omniscient. Their God is a participant with us in the not-knowing how things will turn out. Is life on earth a doomed project? We don’t know, we can’t know, nobody knows. This is a picture filled with fear and trembling, with hope and wishfulness - but no certainty. It is suggesting that in regard to the world we live in, it could all end in failure. It could all – our so-called civilisation, and us, and this fragile planet – be sucked back into the depths of tohu va’vohu.

When at the end of the midrash God is allowed a voice and looks around and cries out, in hope, in anxiety, ‘If only this time it will last!’, of course this is our hope, and our anxiety that the rabbis are giving voice to, projected onto the Holy One of Israel. The hope that our lives, and the life of humanity, are part of a scheme of things that will last.

So this is how the Torah begins – opening up for us existential insecurity inside a supposedly ordered creation.

Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at

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