Creation - Elohim: The Creator
What is God?
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“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It doesn’t get more famous than this. It doesn’t get more all-encompassing, more all-explanatory, more ‘that’s all there is to it’, than this simple verse. It contains the essence of the Big Bang. It anticipated all future inquiries concerning our existence, the nature of time, and the arena of physical reality. It may not be anything that anybody along the long path of human thought couldn’t have come up with on his or her own, but somehow it just says it all.
This verse, of course, opens up the ‘creation narrative’ which comprises the first chapter of the Bible. The Bible critics consider this narrative to be a contribution of ‘P’, the ‘Priestly’ document, possibly the latest of the documents and the supposed source of most of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). This is among the hazier of the conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis since there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly ‘priestly’ or cultic about the story. To everybody else, it is simply the Bible in all its glory, or all its primitive simplicity.
This narrative has probably been analyzed and criticized more than any other work in the literary history of the world. To the scientifically oriented modern mind it is mind-bogglingly antiquated and cannot possibly be true. Anybody who takes it as literal truth is hopelessly naïve and living in the Dark Ages. But to most religious Jews and religious Christians it is the truth and nothing but the truth. This was how it all happened, no matter what the Greek philosophers or the Gnostic heretics or modern scientists may say. If it states that the heavenly bodies were made on the fourth day and not the third, it means that they were made on the fourth day and not the third.
We shall not analyze this narrative in the usual sense. We are looking for specific pointers in the story that clue us in on the image of God that is portrayed. The first clue we have is the name given to God – Elohim. Technically speaking, this is not a name at all but a description of divine power. Even more technically speaking, the word Elohim is not singular but plural. The ‘im’ ending is almost exclusively used for plural nouns, verbs, and adjectives. There are exceptions, but they are rare. How are we to understand this in light of the monotheism of the Bible?
The verb associated with this name is ‘created’ (in singular form), so one entity is doing the creating, but that one entity is made up of a plurality of influences, the sum total of which constitutes the being that the Bible calls Elohim. This confusing inconsistency may be one of the vital clues we seek. God is the Creator. This is the first of God’s many roles, and perhaps, but not necessarily, the most important. Creation is the process of bringing things into being - things that didn’t exist, now exist. This process, though it ultimately is the work of a single entity, is in reality a complex composite of many factors, without any of which the final product would be lacking.
To gain an understanding of how this works we have to look into the mysterious notion of creation. What exactly does it mean to create something? The Torah is very exacting in its use of several verbs in the narrative that all suggest producing or transforming something in creation. There is a verb for ‘make’, a verb for ‘form’, and a verb for ‘let there be’, all of which describe parts of the process. Sometimes an existing creation is called upon to produce something else, such as the earth bringing forth vegetation or swarming with life. All of these processes, as essential as they may be to the great scheme of creation, are not described as true ‘creations’.
But in three places only, the verb ‘created’ (Bara in Hebrew) is used in the creation narrative. These three places are:
The creation of the heavens and the earth (verse 1)
The creation of animals (v. 21)
The creation of human beings (verse 27)
Why this verb is used only in these three places may help us understand the process of creation.
Judaism has long described the process of creation as ‘yesh m’ayin’ - something from nothing. Yesh m’ayin means that there was nothing and then there was something. There is absolutely no naturally describable bridge that somehow transforms the nothingness into somethingness. It is simply the miraculous act of creation. Scientists, of course, struggle with the very process, and go to great contortions to avoid it at all costs when dealing with the creation/formation of the universe (the Big Bang). As of this writing, they still haven’t succeeded.
What are the implications of this approach and what does it tell us about God? It tells us that God’s primary image is that of Creator. God is given this role from the outset with no prior introduction, almost as if we expected it. God simply is the Creator. This is a highly significant clue thrown our way. Creation is God’s most fundamental quality, God’s most basic image. It is a divine ability, the miraculous nature of which cannot be overstated. To create is to grant existence to something else. There is nothing in our reality that defies explanation more than this ability. The human mind is so baffled by this ability that it treats it in one of two ways – either by denying it as impossible or by taking it for granted.
But creation obviously happened, either through the work of God or by some other means. Saying everything was always here just moves the question over a few spaces but doesn’t really even attempt to answer it. We are here; the universe is here; things exist. How did they get here? This is the age old question and the Bible has the age old answer – God created them. This answer is so frustratingly simply and so lacking in detailed sophistication that the knee-jerk reaction to it is that it must be wrong in some way. While it is true that it may not have the complex depth of the latest theory of astrophysics, it does have something that those theories never will have. It has a starting point that goes beyond the understanding of the human mind. This simple verse, however much we want to believe it or to disregard it, is saying that in the end (or perhaps ‘in the beginning') it all boils down to God. There is a supernatural being whose existence is beyond the dimensions of time and space as we perceive them and whose essence we may never understand, that created everything out of nothing.
This is the first image that we have of God. God makes things exist. God creates. God does many other things but this is first. The Torah feels no need to introduce God to us in way other than this – God creates. When we think of being, of that great ultimate mystery – the mind-boggling reality that we exist – we must direct our minds to the source of being, which is nothing other than God. This image is so incredibly distant from us because it is so beyond us, yet at the same time it is so much a part of us because it is our own most basic awareness. The first and most basic image we have of God, the first way the human mind is able to perceive the being called God, is as the Creator of our reality and the source of our own being.
Let’s look at those three stages of ‘creation’ in the narrative. The ‘heavens’ are really what we call ‘space’, and the ‘earth’ is the material domain that enables life. Without them, nothing can exist and life cannot come into being. The next creation is the animals. It is interesting that plants don’t need the miracle of ‘creation’ but animals do, despite what we now know about the genetic similarity between the two evolutionary kingdoms. This stage of life development, the jump from plants to animals, needed a second quantum leap of creation, as opposed to the jump from inanimate to plants which merely required a tinkering with existing creation which the Torah calls ‘bringing forth’.
The final stage of creation is involved in the making of human beings. The Torah is very careful in its wording, introducing the process with the famous phrase, ‘And Elohim said: Let us make man in our image, as our likeness…’ Man is to be ‘made’ in the image of something described by the word ‘our’, though it isn’t clear what that was. There is an unquestionable plurality in this making, a rather puzzling feature of the creation story that has perplexed and inspired the greatest minds of Judaism. But when this suggestion is put into actuality the phrase is, ‘And Elohim created the man in His image, in the image of Elohim He created him, male and female He created them’. God originally proposed to ‘make’ man, but ultimately ‘created’ man. How is this to be understood?
It almost seems as if there are two different processes at work. There is the making of ‘man’ and the creation of the ‘the man’. Man is a species like any other animal. ‘The man’ is a specific individual. Perhaps the Torah is subtly hinting to us that it is in the individuality of human beings that the truly wondrous nature of their creation becomes evident. As a group we are really glorified apes – fighting over mates, struggling to survive, looking out for ourselves and those close to us. Under such a group identity we cannot really be said to share a unique image with God. We reflect the image of everything else in creation, for we are really a byproduct of all of them. Only when we emerge as individuals, as a man or a woman, each with a unique personality, with feelings, thoughts, and creativity, is our true image revealed. This image, of course, is the unique image of the Creator, Elohim.
Perceiving the Image
If we wish to get some idea of this first image of God, we need look no further than ourselves, for we reflect that image. We were created in that image, and we also create. We may not be able to duplicate God’s feat of creating a universe and all the amazing complexity within, but we can put up a pretty good imitation, at least on a human scale. When do we create? We create with our minds. We create when we think of something original, when we use the power of imagination to drum up an idea that hadn’t existed until we drummed it up. It could be almost anything – a new look, a new outlook, an insight into life, an imaginary place, a solution to a problem, a burst of enthusiasm, a motivation out of depression, a way of perceiving God.
This is what God does. God is the Creator, the Generator of our existence through divine thoughts and actions. God enables us to be, to live, to be a part of this wondrous process of creation, and to make our own vital contribution to that process. We are a thought in the mind of God and we, in turn, act as a god to our own version of the world. To see God as the Creator is to see our own existence as a creation of God. Conversely, to see the creative miracle of our own being is to see God in the most basic and fundamental divine guise – Elohim, the Creator.
Why is it that with precious exceptions, we rarely focus or even notice the miraculous nature of our own existence? Perhaps we all need to occasionally rest from our endless running around in a busy world and reflect on what it means to be, and maybe perceive a glimmer of our Creator.
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