Ktismatics

31 October 2006

The Creation of History

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 12:11 pm

[Another in the Genesis 1 series, as I try to finish off this book. This post excerpts two pages from the exegesis: The Interval and Day One.]

In the Beginning

The Bible doesn’t show us a continually unfolding creation, a perpetual work in progress, with the creator content simply to stay in the flow. The writer describes a process of creation which after six days is finished. The creation narrative comprises only a couple of pages in a very, very long book. From then on it’s a story devoted largely to God’s ongoing engagement with the already-completed creation. Process is important for God, but it’s a process that occurs inside the creation after it’s already been installed. Again and again God would intervene in subsequent human affairs, but as for the creative task at hand? Done, end of day six.

For now we resist the temptation to concern ourselves unduly with the length of those six days. What concerns us here is the bounded duration of time during which God brought the creation into being. Together, days one through six comprise the first recorded interval in history. The Creation was wrought by God over the course of an extended but delimited period of time set aside specifically for that purpose. The writer of the creation narrative even brackets the interval for us. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth marks the front end of the interval; Thus the heavens and the earth were completed is posted at the back end. Not only do the writer’s brackets announce the beginning and the end of the interval; they also pronounce the meaning of the interval: it’s a time set aside for God to create the heavens and the earth, from start to finish. The Genesis creation narrative begins with the single Hebrew word that translates into English as in the beginning. The very first word of the Bible refers to time, to the beginning of an interval of time. One could go so far as to say that, even before creating the heavens and the earth, God created the interval as a duration of time, with a beginning and an end, during which something meaningful happens.

The interval of creation might be short, but it’s not instantaneous. Elohim may well have started things off with a big bang, but his creation didn’t come into the fullness of its existence in that first instant. Perhaps he could have brought forth the Creation fully formed literally in no time at all: first there was no universe, then there was, with no time in between. Elohim didn’t do it like that; he took some time – but he didn’t take forever. Just as we can imagine God creating the universe in an instant, so can we imagine him perpetually engaged in the ongoing bringing forth of the Creation. Things change all the time in our universe: isn’t this continuous transformation of the world – its evolution – rightly to be regarded as an activity directed by the steady hand of God? Maybe, maybe not: what we’re told is that, as far as God is concerned, his job of creating the universe is over and done with.

What happens before the beginning? We don’t know; we aren’t told. Maybe it’s the eternal now, the perpetually present instant, unlimited by past and future. Maybe it’s a timeless time that persists forever, coexisting somehow with what we humans know as linear time. Maybe there is no time at all. Augustine couldn’t accept the idea of an eternal God creating within linear time; Aquinas couldn’t either. Still, in parsing the text as a straightforward narrative, we’ve discovered that in the beginning God opened an interval, a temporal window inside eternity, during which something different could come into being.

Day One, Two, Three…

The interval of creation is divided into six segments, during each of which God creates certain specific things. At the end of each segment the narrator invokes yet a formulaic expression: And there was evening and there was morning, followed by a number: one day, a second day, a third day, and so on. Proponents of Day-Age Theory contend that the “days” of creation refer not to the 24-hour rotation of the earth but to much longer creative eras lasting perhaps thousands, even billions of years. We see an early example of Day-Age Theory in the Epistle of Barnabas. For a thousand years in Thy sight are like yesterday when it passes by, the Psalmist says of God, while in his second epistle Peter reminds his readers that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. In 250 AD Cyprian assured his readers that the first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years (Treatises 11:11). Augustine believed that God’s days might not even refer to the passing of linear time:

Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them. (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 408, 4:27).

The work accomplished on day one – separating the light from the darkness, naming the day and the night – sets the stage specifically for the passage of time as successive day-night cycles. To interpret the interval of creation as anything other than the elapsing of six successive mornings and evenings seems to dismiss the very first day’s work as allegorical. If in Genesis 1 day and night don’t mean what we think they do, then what about evening and morning, the earth and the seas and the heavens, the sun and the moon and the stars, the seed-bearing plants and the fruit trees, the flying and swarming and swimming things, mankind – is everything else in the creation allegorical too?

In our exegesis of day one we proposed that God created the idea of light as a way of making sense of natural phenomena. As an abstract property light binds together otherwise very different things; in oscillation with darkness it marks the division of days from one another. Now we see that it’s possible to interpret the other days of the creation interval along similar lines. The precative mood persists throughout – “Let there be,” “Let the waters be gathered,” “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” and so on – supporting the idea of elohim as a kind of philosopher or scientist seeking agreement with a series of propositions that he’s putting forth. The witness verifies the reality of each precative construction, just as he did on day one.

We aren’t told explicitly that God created time during Genesis 1. Certainly God harnesses time during the first interval: light is separated from darkness, day from night, day one from day two; the sun and moon are assigned as markers of time passing. Perhaps time was chaotic at the beginning, and God organized it. I suppose it’s asking a lot of the writer of Genesis to contemplate time quite so abstractly, as a created thing – after all, clocks weren’t even invented until around the tenth century AD.

A spectacle acquires an added richness by the introduction of plot, which requires the passage of time. Day one opens the passage through which the story of creation emerges. In the beginning: the passage that is linear time opens new aesthetic possibilities for the witness. Besides, if the rest of the Bible is any indication, then God likes a good story too. The Bible isn’t a timeless metaphysical treatise or a static manual of rules. For the most part it’s a history book, recounting the ebbs and flows in the turbulent relationship between God and his people, a relationship founded on God’s promises, on his memory of those promises, and on the expectation that one day the promises will be fulfilled. In the continuing reality created by elohim, every present moment is deeply embedded in the past and the future, its meaning defined by the forward movement of time

LATER: Why this interpretation too is doomed to obscurity.

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