Genesis: A non-literal Creation story
Creation: the beginning of the Torah. A great time to reflect on how we read. Also, on what we may find when we read thoughtfully! For example, the creation story is supposed to provide a religious foundation. But when we read it carefully, we may question those very foundations.
We Jews don’t read our Torah only literally. Our early rabbinic teachers saw scripture as divine speech. Thus, as the fullest speech, the most meaningful. So deep it would take us lifetimes to decode it all. They liked to say: Torah has at least 70 faces.
Torah’s creation story tells us right away not to read it literally. On day one, God says, “Let there be light.” Most readers picture daylight, i.e., sunlight. But then, we read on to the fourth day. Only then does God create sun, moon, and stars—specifically in order to mark time. And then we realize: we completely misunderstood day one. The first created light was not light as we know it. Day one was not a day as we know it. So, maybe we also misunderstood what “beginning” means or who “God” is. Fortunately, Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, develops these hints about light, beginning, and God.
Beginning of Creation
The Torah’s first word is bereisheet. The King James Bible translates it as “In the beginning.” But this is not an accurate translation. The Hebrew language is rich in metaphor, so multiple translations are possible. Some good ones are “in a beginning” or “at the beginning of.” Thus, the Torah suggests, creation is not a unique event. It is, rather, an ongoing event. So, God continuously creates the universe. But how?
God is energy. (Yes, it’s a metaphor, designed to shift our understanding.) To create the universe, this energy simply emanates. “Light,” the first created being, is a first emanation of energy. First in the sense of most basic, not prior in time. Because on day one, there is no time. (If you want to read more about infinity outside of time, see the last chapter of The Infinity Inside.) Contemporary Kabbalist Art Green says we can learn to perceive emanation. In our everyday experience of reality, we see matter, feel emotions, think thoughts. But this is only a surface experience. Once we develop spiritual perception, we recognize a hidden level of divine energy continuously at play.
Creation of the Elements
Sefer Yetzirah, “The book of creation” (c. 10th century) gets specific about the energies of creation. Details can be found in the Torah’s metaphor, “God spoke.” When humans speak, we push breath through our throats and mouths. Their shapes form our sounds. When God “speaks,” creative divine energy flows through vessels. These shape energy into the building blocks of our universe: the elements air, water, and fire. When God speaks the letter aleph (“aaaah”), air comes into being. With God’s mem (“mmm”), mayim, water, appears. And God’s shin (“shhh”) gives rise to aysh, fire.
Creation of God
The Zohar (13th century) focuses on metaphors of light. First, a hidden spark of darkness flashed. Eventually, it appeared as a visible point of light. That point is called “beginning.” It’s as far back as our knowledge of creation can go. And it’s also as far back as our knowledge of God can go. The first words of Torah tell us so: bereisheet bara Elohim. Bereisheet = by way of beginning.” Bara = created. Elohim = God. The clearest English translation is, “by way of beginning God created.” But is that really what the Torah means?
Perhaps the correct reading follows the Hebrew word order. “By way of beginning created God.” In other words, the act of beginning brought God as we know It into being. Yes, the hidden, timeless, formless energy has always existed. But the specific God concepts of our religious traditions are quite new. They came into being when human life did.
Maybe you never saw these hints in the creation story. But now that you have, can you unsee them?
Originally prepared (in a more detailed form) for a presentation at Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver, October 17, 2020.