Parashat Bereshit

The Two Creation Stories

An attempt to reconcile two opposing views of nature.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from the website of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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.

two creation storiesI 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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.