Sunday, 11 October 2009

Creating God

God is not the Creator, Claims academic, ran the Telegraph headline. Which academic? Richard Dawkins claiming that God was not the Creator would scarcely be news, after all. In fact, the academic was Professor Ellen van Wolde, "a respected Old Testament scholar and author", and her scepticism about God's role in the act of creation turned out to be a quibble about the Hebrew verb used in the first book of Genesis, the standard translation of which is "created". She thinks it should be "separated": not "God created the heavens and the earth" but "God separated the heavens from the earth". "It meant to say that God did create humans and animals, but not the Earth itself," she added. As she explained:

There was already water. There were sea monsters. God did create some things, but not the Heaven and Earth. The usual idea of creating-out-of-nothing, creatio ex nihilo, is a big misunderstanding.

She expressed a hope that her finding would lead to a "robust debate" - but it's not clear about what. It is indeed a matter of historical interest what the writer(s) of these early passages intended to convey; but only to fundamentalists can it be said actually to matter. And yet the professor is quoted as saying that "the traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now" (presumably she means because of her findings, rather than because of the rather more significant findings of Charles Darwin, but it's slightly ambiguous). A spokesman for her university went almost as far, describing the discovery as "a complete shake up of the story of the Creation as we know it."

Somehow I doubt it. No text in history has been pored over in such minute detail as the Torah, and I can't believe that generations of rabbinical expertise have failed to grasp what the text actually means. I also notice that the concept (and therefore the verb) of separation comes in slightly later, when God "separated" the waters above the earth from the waters below. The opening words have traditionally posed translators with a headache, however, since the lines

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth
And the earth was without form and void

don't make much sense, unless you imagine God to have been in the business of creating formless voids. An alternative translation, which probably conveys the intended meaning, is something along these lines

At the beginning of the divine creation of the universe, everything was a gigantic mess.

This seems to be what Prof van Wolde is saying. The report explains that according to her "God came later and made the earth livable, separating the water from the land and brought light into the darkness." In the cultural context in which the Hebrew Bible was written the concept of creation out of nothing would indeed have been a strange one. Creator gods were usually depicted as craftsmen, taking primeval clay and fashioning it on a potter's wheel (as for example the Egyptian god Khnum) or out of the bodies of earlier gods (Marduk in Babylonian myth uses the primordial sea-monster Tiamat in this way) or from their own substance (Atum, in some Egyptian accounts, masturbates the universe into being). Yahweh (and before him Ptah) is altogether more intellectual, organising things by a series of declarative utterances.

What all this goes to show, of course, is that the account in the book of Genesis was not, in itself, a creation ex nihilo but was adapted from earlier myths. Rather like the creator God it describes, the writer of Genesis 1 took the inchoate jumble of creation stories from all over the ancient middle east and fashioned them into something rather more elegant and coherent. In fact, unlike the story of Adam and Eve that follows, it is scarcely a myth at all (still less the poetic "hymn to creation" that modern theologians often claim it as) but closer to being an early attempt at science. In place of the bloodthirsty, baroque narratives of other cultures (such as the gruesome saga of Uranus, Kronos and Zeus related by Hesiod) the Hebrew writers give us a rational if rather distant god working to a clearly thought-through six-day plan. Such a god, one feels, would have been able to give a good account of his universe-creating activities in a PowerPoint presentation.

It occurs to me that this may explain why modern Fundamentalists have become so fixated on the literal meaning of Genesis. If the story were an obvious myth, with a heroic Yahweh slicing up his primordial foe (an image that does occur in the Psalms, but obscurely) before fashioning the bleeding stumps into plants and animals, then even the most committed believer wouldn't attempt to claim it was literally true. As it is, the story reads as though it could be true, as though it does offer an alternative account of the origin of life to that provided by science, because providing such an explanation was its primary purpose. Most scholars think that the first chapter of Genesis was one of the last to be written, reaching its present form at a time when the Jews had had exposure not just to Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths, but to early Greek philosophy as well. It was a work of triangulation, explaining how the monotheistic God who was now being proclaimed was compatible with the earlier tribal god of Israel who was basically a local version of Marduk. The authors did the job so well that there are still people who find it scientifically convincing.

Yet it should be equally obvious that while Genesis may have provided a good description of a creator god in action for the time, the notion of a deity working with pre-existing stuff is hopelessly inadequate for believers in divine creation today. For creation ex nihilo is what a creator god is for. A being who simply worked out the details - the glowing colours and the tiny wings - wouldn't be God in the necessary philosophical sense, which is the source of everything there is. He would be a craftsman, a demiurge, merely the most powerful creature in the universe. Of course, that may well be what the Bible assumes him to be. Modern believers, however, tend to have higher expectations.