“Nihil pulchrius Genesi, nihil utilius.” Nothing more beautiful than Genesis, nothing more useful.
Genesis 1 is the most newsworthy chapter in the Bible. There can never be more fundamental news than that all depends on God because he made all, indeed the all, or the universe. This news did not come from any of the sages of ancient cultures. Genesis 1 is the most memorable source of that news, though in a way which has been all too often taken for a confrontation with news science seems to provide about the origin of the universe. Legion is the number of exegetes and theologians who in modern scientific times wanted to appear more newsworthy by showing that there is an agreement, a concordance, between the majestic diction of Genesis 1 and the science of the day.
The latest frenzy along these lines was sparked by the news, disclosed at the Spring 1992 meeting of the American Physical Society, that irregularities were discovered in the 2.7°K cosmic background radiation through a satellite in charge of COBE, or “COsmic Background Experiment.” The discovery merely filled a gap in an already impressive evidence about the so-called Big Bang theory of cosmic development.
The term Big Bang may mistakenly suggest that it is about the absolute origin or beginning of things. Rather, it is merely about the fact that science can trace cosmic processes to 15 or so billion years back in the past and that the farther back into the past those processes are traced, the more crowded upon one another they are found to be. At that distant point all matter existed in the form of an extremely condensed radiation. Does this mean that Moses, or whoever wrote Genesis 1, received an early revelation about the 2.7°K cosmic background radiation or about Maxwell’s equations of electro magnetics?
However, really serious questions arise. If one gives a scientific twist to “Let there be light,” then consistency demands that the same be done through the rest of Genesis 1. One should then answer scientifically the following questions: How could the earth, a planet, come before the sun? How could plants, which live on photosynthesis, thrive prior to the sun’s appearance? What constituted the outer confines of the upper and lower waters? Last but not least, in what sense can the firmament, produced on the second day, be an object of science?
All too often it was that firmament which ruined the exegesis of Genesis 1 as given by the Church Fathers and the Scholastics. Even the greatest among them, such as St. Basil, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas cut a very perplexing figure in this respect. The source of the perplexity is that they had formulated and emphasized a very sound precept: Whenever well-established scientific evidence stands in contradiction to this or that statement of the Bible about the physical world, it is the Bible that should be given an appropriate reinterpretation. Among other things they stated that since science had established the sphericity of the earth, the contrary statements of the Bible must not be taken for oracles of truth. Nor should they be twisted so that the Bible’s flat earth may appear spherical.
But already St. Basil argued that Genesis 1 was concordant with the very spherical earth and world of Aristotelian and Ptolemaic astronomy and cosmology. Worse, when Basil and Augustine discussed the firmament, they forgot their sound precepts. Augustine in particular went to great lengths in claiming that since the Bible spoke in a realist way about the firmament, it had to be real. Then he identified as the firmament an allegedly humid layer of air beyond the orbit of Saturn. All his proofs came from astrology where Saturn is connected with humidity and coldness.
Thomas Aquinas did not get out of this concordist trap by saying with Augustine that all was created instantaneously. He still took the sequence of things in Genesis 1 for a logical or natural sequence. This meant that Genesis 1 was taken to be concordant with nature and with natural philosophy. That Aquinas was indeed guilty of concordism is admitted in the latest French translation of his complete works.
Just as much of Patristic exegesis of Genesis 1 was a cavorting in metaphorical poetry, much of Scholastic exegesis was an exercise in at times mind-boggling hair-splitting. This was all the more tragic because both the Fathers and the Scholastics offered in the context of their exegesis of Genesis 1 a series of important statements: God is absolutely transcendent; God is absolutely free to create; God is in no need of a pre-existing matter; God creates everything out of nothing; God created only once; God created a fully consistent realm of matter; God created for his own glory; God created man in his own image and as his own steward in the world; and, finally, just as God worked six days and rested on the seventh, so man too should work, but rest on the seventh day. All these statements could only be threatened in a concordist context. For concordism is a radical misunderstanding and as such it can only bring discredit to very sound philosophical and theological doctrines set forth, or intimated, in Genesis 1.
From Scholastic times on increasing emphasis was laid on the use of Hebrew in interpreting Genesis 1. This did not help the Scholastics to avoid the trap of concordism. Nor were the Reformers helped through their insistence on the plain, and often very literal, meaning of the text. In the long run, Protestant exegesis of Genesis 1 fell in line with the concordist trend which found new lures and challenges in Newtonian science, in the rise of scientific geology, and in Laplace’s cosmogenesis, to say nothing of Darwinian evolution. Throughout the 19th century Catholic exegetes too became swayed by the concordist trend which, by the late 1800s, should have revealed enough of its total fallacy to anyone ready to keep his eyes open.
In fact, shortly before 1900, the status of exegesis of Genesis 1 appeared hopeless to two major Catholic exegetes. One of them was the Jesuit Hummelauer, coeditor of the famed Cursus Scripturae Sacrae series. In its volume on Genesis 1, written by him, he exclaims after surveying the history of exegesis of Genesis 1: “Let there be light at long last!” In desperation he proposed that the six-day story was a set of six visions given to Moses. But even if Genesis 1 contained a hint, however slight, that it was a series of visions, the question still remained: Did those visions relate to the, real universe? If they did, one had to explain why they were at safe remove from the trap of concordism.
The other leading Catholic exegete was the Père Lagrange, a Dominican. He revealed an eyeful about the hopeless situation in which the exegesis of Genesis 1 was around 1900 by beginning his essay as follows: “On seeing this essay, people would ask in dismay: Still another explanation of Genesis 1?” Clearly, there were more than enough of them. The explanation Lagrange gave was a rehash of what Thomas Aquinas had already codified, the explanation based on the distinction between the opus distinctionis and the opus ornatus. Lagrange certainly showed that Genesis 1 could not be taken for a rehash of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma elish. But he failed to make it clear how Genesis 1 conveyed its theological message about creation without being in bondage to the physical universe as understood in it.
Another aspect of the hopeless situation in which the exegesis of Genesis 1 found itself around 1900 can be noticed in the Protestant H. Gunkel’s efforts to explain Genesis 1 as a legend. The gist of his explanation was that one had to rely heavily on one’s aesthetic abilities in order to get the true message of a legend. Aesthetic abilities are, however, very difficult to specify. Indeed, Gunkel found in legends, taken for literary genre, a subject that did not lend itself to clear definition.
This fact foreshadowed the gist of the exegesis of Genesis 1 that has prevailed for the past fifty years or so, both in Catholic and in Protestant circles. The exegesis contains many details about Hebrew terms, a great deal of reading into them, and an even greater deal of imprecise discourse. In that exegesis one encounters time and again the claim that, for instance, the author of Genesis 1 used his material “freely.” Such an exegetical handwaving is best left aside even though it involves very prominent figures.
Part of this trend, by now “legendary” in more than one sense, is the wishful thinking about an epistemology-free exegesis. Its champions remain blissfully unaware of the fact that any text which is to be understood becomes thereby an epistemological text. For episteme means understanding, nothing more and nothing less. That episteme can be had without rules will remain an ideal only for those, not a few in these days of deconstructionism, who hold high the idea of an unruly understanding. With them no debate is possible. All they want is the opportunity to pocket rebates to no end for having paid nothing at all.
But even the champions of Genesis 1 as a legend must come to terms in the end with the fact that Genesis 1 is about a real universe. Otherwise Genesis 1 is not about the genesis of everything, but the occasion to generate idle speculations that can only bring discredit to that easily unique chapter.
Genesis 1 is certainly unique inasmuch as in the Bible, which for the most part is either narrative or exhortational, it is a particularly didactic treatise, with an almost scholastic touch. The expression “scholastic” was first used in this connection by that memorable Catholic modernist, Alfred Loisy, who certainly wished it to be otherwise. Genesis 1 also combines three messages in a single recital or form, a further proof of the unusual literary mastery it embodies.
One message, and possibly the chief message, is about the respect due to the Sabbath. It is well to recall that the observance of the Sabbath was a standing or falling proposition throughout the Old Testament. It was that observance that set aside the Jewish week from the equally seven-day weeks of neighboring cultures. Throughout the Old Testament, faithfulness to ritual observance was a chief means of preserving the Jewish people as a depository of revelation. This faithfulness was particularly threatened in the Babylonian captivity and through a total lack of Jewish rule in the Holy Land proper at the same time.
Genesis 1, as composed in those terms, can therefore be taken for a renewed emphasis on the precept that Jews had to separate themselves, especially on weekends, from the careening and carousing Babylonian and Canaanite crowds. This didactic purpose could powerfully be achieved by portraying God as one who himself rested on the seventh day. This in turn necessitated the presentation of God as one who had done a six-day work. With that picture of God who worked for six days and rested on the seventh the Jews were given a pattern to follow, a pattern supreme in two respects. The work was done by God himself, and the work in itself was the greatest conceivable work, the making of the universe. Additional appeal of the pattern rested in the special place accorded in that work to man himself.
To Jews, who were strictly forbidden to carve images of God, lest they take God for another man, however superhuman, the image of a working God had to appear just as metaphorical as the reference to God in Genesis 3 as one walking and talking in Paradise. Metaphorical in the sense of being totally superhuman. This was conveyed by the three times repeated use of the verb bara in Genesis 1.
Few words in the entire Bible have been more misunderstood. Etymologically, bara means to cut and to slash. By the time of the Exile the verb bara had been restricted (with three important exceptions) to acts performed by God. Why was the action of cutting or slashing found appropriate to convey a divine action? The answer may seem to be the fact that any divine action should have at least one characteristic that differentiates it from human actions: Unlike humans, who work and perform laboriously, God does everything with supreme ease. It was precisely that ease which the verb bara could readily convey to those for whom Hebrew was still a spoken or a quasi-spoken (in Aramaic times) language.
That touch of ease was eroded in subsequent rabbinical tradition and certainly in Christian theological tradition in which bara became equated with “created” and with “created out of nothing.” The basic meaning of creare was to grow, hardly a word to convey ease. Of course, when God creates, He creates out of nothing. But neither in Genesis 1 nor elsewhere in the Bible can bara be taken in that sense, however sound that sense may be dogmatically, though having no etymological connection with bara.
In order to do etymological justice to bara, without doing theological injustice to it, it may be best to see it as a means of conveying an action of God who does something with the greatest ease, as if with a flourish. This English idiom is all the more appropriate because it implies a slashing motion with one’s hand and arm. In other words, one should read verse 1 in Genesis 1 as “In the beginning God made with the greatest ease, as if with a flourish, the heaven and earth, or the entire totality of things.” For “heaven and earth” means, as will be seen shortly, precisely that totality.
God works with the greatest ease
A further confirmation of this is provided by dating Genesis 1 as a post-Exilic document. Weighty reasons for doing so are not discussed here, only the advantages for the interpretation of Genesis 1. By immediately post-Exilic times dime a dozen were biblical affirmations that God performs everything with the greatest ease and he can do so instantaneously. The very learned author of Genesis 1 must have been conscious of all this. It would have therefore been a most unbiblical procedure on his part to create the impression that God needed literally six days (or six epochs, for which there is no biblical evidence at all) for making the universe.
Six days were indeed a very brief span of time for doing the greatest imaginable work. In this respect too Genesis 1 contrasts sharply with the gory laboriousness of world-making in Enuma elfish, often alleged to be its Babylonian pattern. Similar is the contrast between the two in the second message of Genesis 1, about man as steward of the universe. In Enuma elfish humans are produced to serve as so many beasts of burden the leisure of gods. In Genesis 1, the close connection between man and animals (both produced on the sixth day) serves the enhancement of man (and woman). God gives man the command to pass in review all the animals and name them, an act of superiority. Thus the stage is set for the creation of woman as being as superior to animals as man (Adam) is.
The third message of Genesis 1 relates to the very thing or the all produced by God with the greatest ease. The notion of that all is conveyed in reference to the Hebrew world picture. Within that picture the world looks like a huge tent-like edifice, whose essentials are a roof (the heavens) and a floor (the earth), surrounded by waters.
The reference to all is done in two major steps. The first is a general declaration that the “heaven and earth,” a Hebrew idiom for everything or universe, were made by God as if with a flourish. (Introductory to the second major step is the production of light, specified as the 1st day work. It is an obvious precondition so that the actual steps of construction may get under way.) The second major step consists in stating, in two phases, the same in terms of the particulars. In the first phase comes a reaffirmation of the all with an eye on the principle particulars: the upper and lower parts of the tent-like all. Such is the topic of the 2nd and 3rd days that witness the formation of the firmament (with the separation of the upper and lower waters) and the emergence of the dry land (with the plants as its natural parts). In the second phase comes the affirmation of the all by listing the major particulars or chief decors of the upper and lower parts, the theme of the 4th and 5th days (with the exception of animals). And because all of them come out from the hands of God, the all, is declared to be very good!
Two remarks are in order here. The first point to note is that to convey the notion of all, the author of Genesis 1 relied on a by then hallowed biblical device. It is the device of stating the whole in terms of its constituent parts. Herein lies the key to the literary genre of Genesis 1. (It is also a universally used device as witnessed, for instance, by the effectiveness of conveying the idea of the entire fishing gear by listing only its main parts, “hook, line, and sinker.”) Thus in Psalm 113 the total deadness of idols is conveyed by listing, one after another, the insensitivity of their sensory organs. In Psalm 49 the breaking of all commandments is stated by listing the breaking of the principal commandments. One could quote many other scriptural examples which are, however, still to be taken up in systematic study by biblical scholars, especially the ones barking up sundry wrong trees in their avid pursuit of the literary genre of Genesis 1.
Here let us concentrate on Psalm 148. It deals with the praise which all creatures owe to God. In fact the entire Psalm is structured so clearly on that device of stating the whole in terms of the parts that its thirty or so lines are a mere amplification of the seven parts of the following short phrase: In the heavens / everybody / everything // on the earth / everything / everybody / praise the Lord.
The second point to note is the apparent identity of this exegesis with the one based on the opus distinctionis and opus ornatus. In fact our explanation also implies the word decoration, a word used at the very end of Genesis 1. There is, however, a crucial difference. This is indicated by the fact that the perspective of opus distinctionis and opus ornatus has invariably led into concordism. Our explanation is, however, directing attention away from the lures of concordism by emphasizing the notion of all. Moreover, our explanation naturally fits in with two prerogatives of God. One is that he alone can handle and create the all with the utmost ease. The other is that he alone knows specifically that all which for a mere human always remains a mere, though indispensable, inference.
Once more the dating of Genesis 1 as an Exilic or immediately post-Exilic document may be of great help. By then there had been numerous references in the parts of the Bible already on hand that God can create the all with the utmost ease. Suffice it to think of that encomium of God’s power in chapter 10 of Isaiah where, in a warning against the king of Assyria, God is described as seizing the riches of nations as if they were a mere bird’s nest to be picked up by anyone. But God is far more powerful if this were not enough: “As people pick up deserted eggs I have picked up the whole earth, with not a wing fluttering, not a beak opening, not a chirp.”
Equally, by the Exile numerous were the biblical statements concerning the all that man can only surmise whereas God truly knows it. Psalm 144 is particularly telling in this respect. The same idea is dramatically put in the Book of Esther, almost contemporaneous with Genesis 1, where Mordecai and Esther (ch. 4C, verses 5 and 25) turn to God by exclaiming: “You know all things!” Both imply that God knows infinitely much more than the particulars listed by them. This connection is explicitly made in ch. 40 of Isaiah, again a document of those times, where God is spoken of as one who did not get tired or weary by creating the all represented by “the boundaries of the earth” and who knows much more than that all because “his understanding is beyond fathoming” (verse 28).
This emphasis on the all (in addition to the utter ease with which God can handle it) is the saving grace, from the scientific viewpoint, of Genesis 1. In Genesis 1 the all, which is far more than the all that man knows, is conveyed in terms of a known all, or the tent model of the world as conceived by the Hebrews. That model stands in Genesis for far more than what it directly portrays. Had this been kept in mind, there would not have arisen agonizing problems as man’s knowledge of the universe outgrew by leaps and bounds its primitive picture as entertained by the Hebrews of old and other ancient peoples.
That some of the problems were really agonizing can be gathered from a well-meaning but basically mistaken exegesis which the Père Danielou, subsequently a Cardinal, gave on Genesis 1 in the early 1950s. His mistake was to follow Gunkel’s idea (as recast by von Rad) that Genesis 1 was a legend. He thought that in this way one could avoid a conflict between Genesis 1 and science. For Danielou had a keen awareness of the seriousness of that conflict. He recalled that according to the famed workerpriest, the Abbe Michonneau, many more workers lost their faith under the impact of an alleged conflict between Genesis 1 and science than under the impact of their being exploited. The hapless efforts of creationists (who take Genesis 1 for a science textbook) merely provide further grist to the enemies of that very faith which they want to promote so zealously.
Creationists should remind themselves that it remains the duty of all genuine Christians to make their faith, in the words of Paul, a logike latreia (Rom 13: 1), a fully reasoned worship. But this kind of worship also demands grounds more solid than legends may supply. Fortunately, those grounds can be recovered by keeping in mind an obvious method of the Bible even though it had not been explored by professional exegetes. Of course, a meticulous study of the entire history of the exegesis of Genesis 1 should be of help. Moreover, one has to realize that one lives not only in an age of science, but also in an age that becomes more and more scientific with every passing day. This does not mean that human existence becomes thereby less theologically loaded, the wishes of some prominent cosmologists to the contrary. But theologians and exegetes who ignore the impact of science on human life, to say nothing of the impact of pseudo-philosophies dressed in scientific garb, merely turn themselves into so many ostriches with their heads buried in the sand of at times overly learned but essentially hollow phrases.
Nothing more crucial than Genesis
Finally, one should muster plain common sense and no small courage to separate oneself, when necessary, from the popular bandwagon. Theologians and exegetes too are part of that wider academic world which, if and when it praises them, may merely implement the words of the Gospel: “Woe to you when all speak well of you!” But for Genesis 1 it is worth taking the risk of departing from a consensus that has provided no safe course around the shallows of concordism, if the old saying, recalled by a French exegete a century ago, is to retain its validity: “Nihil pulchrius Genesi, nihil utilius.” Nothing more beautiful than Genesis, nothing more useful.
One may add, nothing more crucial than Genesis and indeed its very first chapter. Four hundred years ago, Cardinal Bellarmine made the astute remark in his great book, De controverslis, that the temporal sequence of heresies followed the thematic sequence of dogmas as set forth in the Creeds. Citing this remark in an essay of his on patristic commentaries on Genesis 1, the Père Congar called attention to a crucial point: Today the principal Christian heresy is the practical denial of that eternal life for which the secularized world in its resolve not to look beyond nature has no use at all. Congar also noted that one cannot defend eternal life, centered on the immortality of the soul, without defending the proposition that all is created. That proposition too goes against the grain in this age of nature-worship. No theological defense of the strict createdness of all can, however, be made without a defense of Genesis 1. It should not be defended under any circumstances as a cosmogenesis, with any reference, indirect as it may be, to science. Its genuinely biblical meaning can, however, be fully defended by that reason whereby, as Genesis I tells us, man is created in the image of Almighty God.
The topic of this article is dealt with in its full historical perspective in Fr. Jaki’s recently published book, Genesis I Through the Ages (London: Thomas More Press, 1992). The book, which is distributed in the USA by Wethersfield Institute (Suite 1528, 230 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10169 Tel 212-949-0949) is the expanded version of eight lectures delivered in May 1992 at the Catholic Center, 86 Riverside Drive, New York, under the sponsorship of the same Institute.