Daily Meditations

The Untamable Textbook and Its Handouts: Ruminations on Scripture—Tradition Relationship (Part III)


Just prior to the first powerful fiat (Genesis 1:3, “Let there be … “), we are informed rather abruptly of some enigmatic realities whose origins are unexplained.  “Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with God’s Spirit hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). According to the Priestly author, “darkness;’ “deep” and “water” were neither created by God nor had any existence of themselves. In both preeminent texts of the passage, Hebrew and Greek, verb “to be” is conspicuously absent, pointing to the “nonexistent” character of these ghostly yet menacing realities. This chaotic state of things before the starting moment of creation was kept under control only by God’s Spirit. The primordial chaos of Genesis 1:2 is almost impossible to describe in words. It is not created and it has no existence by itself. Then how could one express its “attending” status in the eve of the first day of creation?

This chaos cannot be described; nonetheless Genesis 1:2 generated a number of interpretations within the Old Testament itself. Thus, Yahweh declares through the exilic prophet that scholars label “Deutero-Isaiah” (the author of the second of three sections that comprise the book of Isaiah), “I form the light and I create the darkness (choshek), I make well-being, and I create evil (raj, I, Yahweh, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). Before the clear statement of 2 Maccabees 7:28 and its Christian interpretation in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the first attempt to reduce the biblical polyphony to one voice may be found in Isaiah 45. Yahweh’s emphatic statement was intended as an explicative gloss on the difficult and ambiguous locus (example) of Genesis 1:2. The use of participial forms in this text allows one to render the statements regarding the darkness and evil as, “I can create darkness …! can create evil.” As one may notice, the text does not state that God created the primordial darkness. It says only that God can create, namely, He has the absolute power over things whose origin is explained or unexplained (as with the “darkness” in Genesis 1:2). Isaiah 45:7 is also an illustration of what biblical scholars consider as “the Bible interpreting itself.”

Even this piece of “inner biblical exegesis” is unable to tame the untamable, however, and other biblical writings give alternative answers to the problems raised by the same Genesis 1:2. As time passed, this crux interpretum (torment of interpreters) was debated within a wider and more intricate context of questions regarding the origin of evil and suffering of the just—theodicy; note Jeremiah 12: 1-3 as a locus classicus (well-known example). With the primordial watery deep wrapped in a mysterious darkness (Genesis 1:2), two “sea-beasts” were associated, the Behemoth and Leviathan. These sea-beasts, or rather aquatic monsters, were considered as the very personification of evil and the primary source or cause of all the trials and sufferings human beings can bear.

In keeping with God’s mastery or lordship, theologically expressed in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, Yahweh dominated the “flood dragon” (mabbul; Psalm 29:10). Psalm 68:22-23 praises God who is victorious over the “deep sea” and the “serpent.” Psalm 74:13- 14 informs us that Yahweh defeated the seabeasts (tanninim) and the Leviathan. In Isaiah 27: 1, the Leviathan is depicted as a sea-beast (tannin) and a fleeing and twisting serpent. Yet the clearest testimony of God’s prowess over the primordial hostile powers is the hymn of Isaiah 51 :9-11: Yahweh is the one who “split Rahab;’ “pierced the sea-beast (tannin),” and “dried up the ‘Great Deep’ (tehom rabba).” The basic idea of these texts is that Yahweh is the one who defeated the primordial sea-beasts associated with chaos and established in place of them the order of creation.

Rev. Dr. Eugen J. Pentiuc is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He is a Senior Fulbright Scholar and Lilly Faculty Fellow. He has published several books and numerous articles in the areas of biblical studies and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. Fr. Pentiuc has just completed his latest book, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, to be published by Oxford University Press.

~Praxis, “Theology Matters,” Vol. 12, Issue 1, Fall 2012