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3. Creation in the Old Testament

The second lecture was devoted to cosmogonical myths. I hope you still hear their wild and wonderful poetry ringing in your ears, and still keep in your minds the drama of the slaughter of gods by which in their view the world came about.

Now I beg you to listen to a text which you all know well and which I nevertheless want to read to you in its completeness:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

And the evening and the morning were the third day.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.

And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.

And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.

How does this report compare with the cosmogonical myths?

Here, too, a mythos, a tale is told. We are still in the realm of mythology. Science has not yet broken the firmament of the heaven. Still a god acts as human beings act; still he speaks to man in human words.

Yet, how great is the difference! Not an infinite epic, but a limited, well-ordered report. No slaughter of the gods, no dragons of the sea, no building of the world out of the slain body of the enemy. A god who has no adversary builds the world like a house, he tends the earth like a garden. The language is not poetry but prose. It is precise and condensed. We should not be deceived by the sound of solemn antiquity with which we inevitably hear it. This language is in fact solemn, but it is solemn in the way of full and sincere lucidity. The age of reason is in the ascendancy.

The contents show the same features as the style.

The world is now seen as an understandable whole. The plan is laid out for completeness. The six days are precisely not naive mythology; they are a means of classification, precursors of Linnaeus’ system. No doubt the writer believed in them literally; who would not believe in his own system? The writer really believed that God had created those categories which we use in describing living and dead things. How characteristic of the interest in classification is the repeated phrase “of his kind”, “of their kind”.

No doubt the elements of the mythical epic are used in several places. But there the myth suffers precisely what it describes as being the fate of the ancient gods: it is slain and its parts are used as materials in a new edifice. Some details of the Biblical report even seem to indicate a conscious polemic against the Babylonian myth. Thus the chaos of the beginning is still remembered: “the earth was without form and void”; tehóm, the deep waters of the same verse, is the same word as Tiâmat. But it is not Chaos which has borne the God; no: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” God was there first and you cannot ask whence he came. That sun and moon are made on the fourth day, long after the creation of light, is most certainly not due to the naive ideas of one who would not have known that daylight comes from the sun. One should rather think that thereby light in its own essence is distinguished from the many sources of light of which sun and moon are but the greatest ones. Here the implicit polemic against the Babylonian astral religion seems evident. Old Testament scholars have told me that the omission of the names Sun and Moon for the great lights is not accidental. These names are the names of gods, but the two lights are no gods; they are lamps made to light the world and to count the days and the seasons.

In spite of these differences the narrative is a holy tale, perhaps even in a stricter sense than the myths. If it is a work of scholarship, it belongs to theology. Its centre is God, not the world. It explains the order of the world by telling how it was made by God.

Who can have written such a story? Modern scholarship has found out that this first chapter of Genesis is to be ascribed to the so-called Priestly Code. This is the youngest of the three main sources of what later times called the Books of Moses. There are very good reasons for assuming that it was written down during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, in the 6th century BC. Certainly centuries of slow formation can have preceded this final redaction. But the text as we have it seems to have been written in knowledge of, and in opposition to the Babylonian myth.

Probably the intellectual atmosphere of educated circles in Nebuchadnezzar’s repristinated Babylonian empire was far more rational, far more “modern” than the state of mind expressed in that time-honoured festival hymn which was then still celebrated by the priests. But the hypothetical influence of the rationality of an ageing culture would, I think, be insufficient to explain that solemn lucidity of Genesis 1. I am inclined to think that even the enlightened rationality of a nation grows under the shadow of its gods and passes away with them. Our text does not seem to mirror the restlessness of rational refinement but rather an unbroken peace with those deep powers in the soul which find no adequate expression in abstract concepts but which are reached by the image and the voice of the gods. The Jews have been able to interpret the world in a new, non-Babylonian way, because they believed in another god than the Babylonians. The God of the Jews has become the God of the Christians, and nobody will really understand modern Europe who knows nothing about the God of the Jews.

However these historical influences may have been, to the author of Genesis 1 the world seems understandable precisely because God has made it. Who is this God?

To the pious Jew for whom this tale is written his God is known from his childhood, just as all nations know their gods under whose protection they live. But Yahve, the God of the Jews, is different from the gods of other nations. If I am to express it in the very words of the Jewish tradition, the Jews knew him as the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of the Prophets. We now have to interpret these three names. Abraham stands for faith, Moses for the law, the Prophets for judgment. All of them stand for God’s covenant with his people, they stand for God’s promise. What does this mean?

Abraham stands for faith. He has been called by God: “Ge thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.” That was not easily done in a time when the family and the clan were the only protection to a man. But Abraham listens and does what God tells him, he does it then and there. That is precisely what is called fides, faith. God promises him: “And I will make of thee a great nation … and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” The promise is in the future. I must live my faith without seeing the fulfilment of the promise. In all that has been written by man I know no more terrifying example of what faith demands than the offering of Isaac. But the promise is not broken and Isaac may live. “Abraham believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for. righteousness.”

Moses stands for the law. From the days of Abraham we see the Jews separated from the nations. Moses unites them to be a nation themselves by the law that God dictated him. God has created a nation by his covenant. From that time on this nation will not be able to live unless it keeps God’s covenant. Thereby God is seen to be a God of separation. He severs his people, who have the other from the other nations who do not have it. In his people he severs those who keep the covenant from those who violate it. Thus originates the opposition of good and evil, an opposition which cannot exist in the same strictness in polytheism where different deities rightly demand different acts. This opposition is not yet an abstract morality. To be good means to keep the covenant, and that means life. To be evil means to break the covenant, and that means death.

The prophets stand for judgment. To be good means life, to be evil means death. But the appearance of life is different. The prophets open the eyes of those who are willing to see the deeper truth. They do it, as everything relevant that is ever done, in and for a well-defined historical situation. Their teaching accompanies the political breakdown of the nation. They teach their nation to understand this event as God’s chastisement. This is not to be understood as their cheap outward causality: God will do you good if you obey his laws. Even if the prophets had to use such language in order to be heard by the many, they really understand that to leave the law of God is the deadly thing in itself, not its outward consequences. To leave God s law means to leave the source of life. Hence precisely the judgment makes clear the meaning of the promise: if you stay in faith you will live with God. I think this promise has been fulfilled. Like every state the Jewish state has finally broken down. Like no other nation the Jewish nation has survived the end of its political framework.

How is Genesis 1 connected with all this? The Old Testament is the history of God’s covenant, written down for his people. How must a nation that understands itself in this manner understand the surrounding world? He who has the God of this covenant cannot have other gods before him. The first commandment is the condition under which Jewish life is alone possible. Thereby the existence of other gods is not at all denied. To a nation living in the time of Moses or of David such an idea would have been impossible. We see with our eyes every day how the gods of the heathen live and act in their nations. Just for this reason Yahve is a jealous god. But as the Jews cannot be separated completely from other nations and particularly since the Exile mixed them with one of the greatest nations they cannot just disregard their gods. Our god is the god of good and evil, of life and death; our god is the only true god. This development is not only historically inevitable, it means a great step forward in religious cognition. The Jew cannot but realize that the other nations do not have the same understanding of life and death and thereby of good and evil which is given him by his covenant with God. The terrifying demand of a faith in one god has taken the Jew out of the relativities as well as of the monstrosities of polytheism; he has learnt now a moral lesson which he might not have been able to learn in any other way.

But if this is so, the Jews must understand everything in the world in the light of the true God. He is the god of a historical covenant. Therefore everything in the world must in fact belong to the history of this covenant. Thus the Jews have been the first people to understand the world as history. The book of Genesis weaves every memorable tradition of ancient times into this theology of history. Before the covenant with Abraham it places the covenants with Noah and with Adam, both of which include not just the Jews but all mankind. And before all these covenants it places finally that description of cosmogony which is compatible with the idea of the one true God. The history of creation tells how the stage was set for the history of God’s covenant with man.

Hence its concise form, hence its contents. Yahve may well have originally been a thundering wind-god of the desert; now even the rôle of the Lord of Heaven in a Pantheon, the role of a Marduk, Zeus, or Odin is too low for him. He cannot have grown out of the world, else there would have been other gods before him. No doubt historians of religion may place him at the side of the deities of light; yet he is not the light, but light was his first work. The history of creation which I read to you is followed, from Genesis 2.4 on, by an older one, which scholars ascribe to the so-called Yahvist source; there God still forms man like an artisan out of the dust of the ground. In our younger text God creates in the same way in which alone he acts in Jewish life: by his word. “And God said, Let there be … And there was …”

Since God now is so highly exalted above the whole world, everything in the world is of the same nature: it is a creature of God, it is not God. Thus God himself has deprived the world of its divinity. De-mythologizing has become a common word in our century. If mythology means that our thought is under the domination of the gods, it is precisely the faith in God which has de-mythologized our thinking from the time when the Old Testament was written. That is why I called this history of creation an anti-mythical myth. We will have to watch this process through Christianity till our time.

Everything in the world is God’s creature. But one creature is distinguished above all others: man. He is made in the image of God.

I should not doubt, looking at the question historically, that man-shaped idols have made this idea possible. But then, how did man-shaped idols come about and what did they express? A fetish is divine, being the thing it is; it does not need a human face. Animal powers of the soul may incorporate themselves in animal-shaped deities. But man, learning to understand himself as a responsible person, has seen a man-like person in the god who made him such. The God of the Old Testament speaks to me. He says “thou” to me and hence I can say “thou” to him. The personal God is the God who made man to be a person. “I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine.”1 The Jewish religion has finally reduced all our relations with God to this speaking and hearing. Even his likeness could no longer be made by hands. The man-like image of God was hidden or forbidden; he who sees God must die.

Thus we, mankind, who can say “I” and “you” and “we”, are made in the image of God just in this personal quality. Hence it is meaningful that God should tell man to subdue the earth. Expressing the same thought less mythologically we may say: if we have faith in God we are no longer the slaves of the gods. The gods are the powers of the world, within and without ourselves. If we have faith in God we are free in the world. This is why Jews and Christians have martyrs, witnesses of this freedom. The same freedom from the gods enables man to a re-shaping dominion of nature. In this sense I think even modern secularization, even scientism cannot be understood without the background of which I am speaking now. I shall come back to this point in later lectures.

But now we approach a dangerous possible misunderstanding. We have now so clearly distinguished the God of the Jews and the Christians from all pagan gods that we may have come close to the concept called the God of the philosophers by Pascal. The God of the philosophers is a pure spirit, the highest entity, the first cause of the world, all-knowing, almighty, all-bountiful. Wherever in later times we read about God in Jewish, Christian or Mohammedan philosophy and even theology, we find a concept of God that can somehow be described by the attributes just mentioned. It is very important to see that this is not the God of the Old Testament.

Let us begin by one particular attribute, God’s spirituality. It is true that the Old Testament speaks of the Spirit of God. But then it does not mean an immaterial principle as opposed to matter. The very concept of matter is foreign in the Bible. Spirit in the Old Testament is breath. Some modern interpreters who know that have even been tempted to translate the ruach Elohim of the second verse of our text not by “the Spirit of God” but by “a storm of God”. But the sounding voice, the word itself is breath, too. Every animal lives only as long as it breathes. Thus my breath is my life, it is myself as a person, appearing to the senses. Hence the Spirit of God is the Divine Life by which men or women at times can speak God’s word and do God’s deeds.

Later theologians who were usually spiritualists have read their spiritualism into the Old Testament, thinking that the Bible, being the truth, could only contain what seemed to be truth to them. Even if we take a more critical view we may feel tempted to think that by eliminating all that is mythical from the Old Testament’s understanding of God we would arrive at the Most Perfect Being of metaphysical theology. This is not so. In pursuing such an argument we do not arrive at a consistent concept of God but at a paradox.

We can illustrate this by returning once more to the history of the creation in Genesis 1. It is one of the most rationally consistent parts of the Bible. I have tried to explain the line of argument that seems to have led to its rather late addition to the body of Biblical tales. Just this consistency has made it a possible starting point of the metaphysical theology of which we will speak in later lectures. But the very same consistency makes it no more than an outpost position of the Bible. I said it was the setting of the stage for the covenant. But the setting is not complete before the serpent has appeared. In fact the tale of the fall is older and theologically more important than the history of creation. For where would we find ourselves if we had only the history of creation? It seems to teach the making of all existing things by an almighty, good God. Later theologians were able to interpret it as teaching the creation of the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). All that God made was very good. What else could thence be expected but a history which would be the sheer fulfilment of God’s will? But not even philosophers have dared to interpret the real world in such terms; and most definitely this is not the view of the Bible.

To the Bible God is the God who divides good from evil. The good is his work. The evil is not his work; it is rejected by him. Yet the evil is real. Man goes on doing the evil. This is the true picture of the world. Therefore the myth of creation had to be followed by the myth of man’s fall. The great poet who wrote this myth in Genesis 3 showed a deep understanding by not saying whence the serpent’s subtlety originated. He said precisely as much as he could say and kept silent about the unknowable. In any case only with Adam’s and Eve’s fall could the real history of the world begin, that history which is a struggle between God and man from the outset. Man has deserted God and deserts him daily. The dialogue between God and man which is the moving force of history has no other theme but to redeem man from his desertion. The covenant is an action in this battle, the desertion from God is death, and God calls me to life whenever he speaks to me. Faith means nothing but the trust in this call.

In the last sentences I have tried to express the true meaning of the Bible on this point. Perhaps this meaning has up to this day never been expressed without the use of some myth; we do not know whether it will ever be possible to express it otherwise. But one thing is certain: whoever for the sake of consistency or of harmony removes this battle from the centre of the picture, will exclude precisely that experience of God from his thought, on which Judaism and Christianity rest.

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    Isaiah 43. 1.

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