And now for something completely different. I’m not going to say this on behalf of anybody, I’m speaking for no one but myself. Particularly, I’m not saying any of the things I’m going to say in order to proselytise – whether you believe in God or not, or what God you believe in is neither here nor there for me.
I could care less, though we will come to the terms and conditions later, I suppose.
For now, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. As many of you may still remember – despite the BBC’s best efforts to the contrary – the first book of the Bible starts with a creation myth. Creation myths are of course a mainstay of many human civilisations but this one is somewhat special. And not only because it’s our creation myth.
Unlike most of its genre, it’s not about some sort of chicken laying an egg, a snake regurgitating a fish, or masses of turtles all stacked on top of each other in a harmony finely balanced to the nth degree. It’s all about a single and rather unique entity.
An entity, that is also extremely removed from the corporeal sphere from the outset: as far as Genesis is concerned, in the beginning there was the word. And the word was God’s. Which may be an elaborate way of saying someone had an idea – neither more, nor less.
Now, why do we have creation myths at all? Probably because humans have a penchant for asking questions they cannot (yet) answer, I suppose. It’s also called intellectual curiosity and something the BBC know just enough about to ignore it, or fight it but that’s not what I’m here to tell you about.
I guess in a way it must have been rather gratifying for our ancestors to wile away the while with long tales around the campfires on the windswept plains of the Middle East. Someone had to do it, it might as well have been the Hebrews.
So how did it all start, story teller? Notably, Genesis in the original language starts with “bereshit”, in the beginning.
In the Hebrew idiom, the letter “bet” in “bereshit” is the second letter of the alphabet and it is no coincidence that Genesis starts with the second letter and not the first one: it is a stark and obvious reminder that there is something before the beginning. Something that preceded it. Aleph, obviously, the first letter of the alphabet. But it would have been imposing upon creation to start with the first letter, so they started with the second. At least that’s what some Hebrew sages say.
Again, I’m not saying this in any official function on behalf of anyone or anything. It’s just things I gleaned because I have a curious mind and find these things intriguing.
The “resh” in “bereshit” by the way is a little verb (all words go back to verbs in Hebrew). It appears in many things from permission or licence as in “reshut”, authority and ownership (“rashut”), domaine (“rishut”). Even the music channel on the radio, “reshet hashidur” (kingdom of music). It also figures prominently in driving licence, which is “rishion nehigà”, and of course in “rosh” (head) and “rosh hashannah” (New Year’s Eve – the beginning of the year).
It’s a tricky little thing, this “resh” in “bereshit”. I don’t know whether it helps you or not, but I find it rather fascinating that you can’t quite put your finger on what “resh” actually means, only very generally in a round about way. We can’t say or see to the last degree of accuracy what or who was or is “in the beginning”. The mystery of creation is built in the word that created this world, you see, and it could lead to profound insight or drive you mad to think this through. Whatever happens first, really.
Now, what we do know for certain (because Genesis tells us), is that in the beginning, there was the word and the word was God. Again, not a very clear answer to our question: what actually, factually was the beginning? But at least we now know the protagonist, chap called God, and so are one step closer to enjoying a good plot, hopefully.
There are many misconceptions about God. One of them is looking at the word from the outside in, it is quite common to endow the one and only being entity with some sort of corporeal attributes. This, I’m afraid I have to tell you now, is not God as he was originally intended by the human authors of the Holy Writ, as it later became to be called.
More particularly, the idea of a corporeal God is expressly not what the authors of Genesis had in mind. For them, a being entity that transcends all space and time cannot be made of flesh and bone, and all the other aspects of human bodily functions (feeding, fornicating, defecating) that go along with, er: being (dying, decaying) are rather not conducive to purity.
If you strive for the purest abstraction, because holiness to you means purity, nothing but the most abstract, incorporeal God will make do. Because evidently, nothing can be holier. The body and its functions are anathema to any abstraction which could be identified with the hallmarks of this holiness. That’s why the innermost sanctum of the Jewish temple contained nothing but empty space – because space, after all, is something. And nothing could be purer than emptiness.
Men and women do make their own Gods, and the ancient Hebrews were no exception to this rule. But they had some attributes of pure abstraction figured out quite early on, when other peoples still believed in a somewhat soap-operatic pantheon residing on a not very remarkable hilltop in remote Greece for instance.
Now, I don’t want to descend into “my button is bigger than yours” territory just yet, but the ancient world had a saying that the Hebrews are bonkers because they have a sea in which you can’t drown, a day on which they don’t work and a temple without a single statue. I mostly agree with the sentiment but I’m still unsure what’s more insane: there being something or there being nothing.
This of course cuts to the chase of all creation myths: why is there something – when there could also be nothing?
Now, the answer as given in Genesis is that there was a word. Not much of a thing and a rather abstract one too, unless you have a fetish for ink or would like to count pixels. This word comes into the world and it becomes the world – but where does it originate?
From some other, rather abstract entity called God, the one and only being entity that transcends all time and space because it is utterly abstract – or at least that’s how the theory goes. Whether you believe in it or not is entirely up to you but in its most reduced form I can’t spot any contradiction between an abstract God and our current big bang theory yet (and I don’t mean the television show, of course).
So what Genesis is saying is that the world unfolds out of an abstraction originating from another abstraction? How does this even work? What’s the beginning’s beginning? Fair question.
With plenty of time on their hands (no television!), Hebrew sages solved the dilemma quite elegantly and rather efficiently, dare I say, by stating that when there was nothing, or rather, before there was something, there was actually God.
Tricky! And what he did was take one step back so that into the little void created by his absence, something could spring into action, move about and unfold. Creation out of nothing? Not quite, because even the nothingness is God’s creation – as far as the exegesis of scripture goes, I’d like to remind you.
Again, the idea of creation (out) of nothing doesn’t hinge on God. That’s only a name given to an idea. Could be any other word too. Actually, in Hebrew the word is God and God is the word. Because “hashem”, which means the word, or the name, also means God.
We do not know and cannot for all our best (or worst) efforts even remotely fathom or understand what this one and only being entity is. We’ll have to leave it there, I’m afraid. We can only be thankful for there being something that can create nothing in order to create something. Whether you accept this infinite regress or reject it is only a very personal and subjective decision and I wouldn’t want to force it on anybody.
Now, with the creation of Genesis, the ancient Hebrews not only created their own creation myth, they also invented the serial novel. Some of you are old of enough to remember the times before the Lefty Reign of Terror, thus knowing that the whole creation thing doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages. The Hebrew God isn’t a chicken laying an egg, or a snake regurgitating his supper, or a cow emptying her bowels. No, no, no, no, no.
The Hebrew God is a tinkerer. He does it in stages. The dry land, the deep seas, the vast skies, the birds and the trees and all the rest that goes along with it. He takes his time to create it. And you know why? Because he likes what he’s doing. The first chapter of Genesis is an ode to the living world – and not to the dead one, as is so often the case in ancient mythologies. It’s an epic portrayal that speaks profoundly of the love for life, and its creation.
It’s all penned down in epic detail and each improvement upon his creation is rounded of with “and he saw it was good”. Which after a while may sound a bit redundant, but can’t be stressed enough when true, I suppose.
Now, I can hear some of you saying, “yeah right, he did it all in a week when we know it took ages, billions of years literally”.
This of course is quite true, but a false contradiction that can be easily resolved. Because what appears like eons to a human being is only a day for God. After all, the important bit about creation is not how long it took in days and minutes, but that it happens in stages. In a rational, structured way, not haphazardly because of muhfeelz.
So he loved what he was doing, but he also knew when it was enough. Which is more than could be said of some other gods. He could have improved, mind, upon his creation infinitely, after all, what’s the point of being God if you can’t do as you please. But perfection wasn’t really the point of it all. No, not at all: he was not doing this to please himself, he was creating this world for other people.
You are, after all, remembered for the things you do for others.
Namely, Adam and Eve, or “body” and “soul”, if again you like to take the Hebrew meaning a little bit more liberally. The world created didn’t have to be good enough for God – it had to be good enough for them. And with this, he took a day off because he saw “that it was good”. And a bit later, people would see that they could do without him, at least most of the time.
Which again was fine by him, because he must be quite a busy fellow. It would be up to mankind to make something out of his creation – or not.
© Guardian Council 2018