Parashat Bereshit

The Two Creation Stories

An attempt to reconcile two opposing views of nature.

Print this page Print this page

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).

The Grandeur & Mystery of Nature

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.

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.