“In the beginning, (the) Mightiest created the heavens and the earth.”
Jr#a*h^ ta@w+ <y]m^V*h^ ta@ <yh!l)a$ ar*B* tyv!ar@B=
The format of this series (at least initially) will be to begin with a verse from the Genesis Creation account (1:1-2:4a). Before relating the verse to the polytheism of the ancient Near East, it will be examined on its own terms. Each word or phrase will be considered as part of this exegesis.
tyv!ar@B= “in (the) beginning” —The opening word of Gen 1:1 is the feminine noun tyv!ar@, and related to the root noun var) I (“head”). The idea of the head can also be understood in the more figurative sense of “top”, and from there to the more abstract concepts of “first, chief,” as well as its use in the temporal sense of “beginning, start”. The feminine noun tyv!ar@ properly captures this abstract usage, especially the temporal or foundational aspect of a beginning.
Some commentators read the noun here as being in the construct state (i.e., “in the beginning of…”), and that verse 1 should be understood, not as an independent sentence, but as a temporal clause, subordinate to what follows in verses 2-3: “In the beginning (when) God created the heavens and the earth…” Cassuto (pp. 19-20) argues that, if this were the intended syntax, then the verb would precede the noun at the start of verse 2. The examples he cites (Jer 26:1; 27:1; 28:1; Hos 1:2) do, in fact, provide the closest grammatical parallels to our verse.
Overall, it is best to understand the opening word (with prefixed preposition), tyv!ar@B=, as a subordinate temporal phrase: “In the beginning, God created…”. It was specifically, at the very beginning—i.e., before anything had yet come to be in the universe—that God created.
ar*B* (“created”)—This is a common verb, similar in meaning to rx^y` (“form, fashion, shape”), with the basic meaning “make,” or, in the case of an artist or artisan, “create”. God thus makes (creates) the universe, and all of the Creation account (1:1-2:4a) is essentially a declaration of YHWH as the Creator (cf. below).
<yh!ýa$ (“[the] Mightiest”)—I translate the plural form <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm, “mighty [one]s”) as an intensive plural (i.e., “mightiest”). It is related to the common Semitic word for deity la@ (°¢l, “mighty [one]”). On El as the Creator deity for the ancient Semitic peoples, cf. below. I discuss the names/titles El and Elohim in more detail in prior articles.
Jr#a*h^ ta@w+ <y]m^V*h^ ta@ (“the heavens and the earth”)—The direct object of the sentence, and the thing that God creates, is represented by this pair of nouns (“the heavens” and “the earth”). This will be discussed further in the next study. Here, I wish to focus on the first three words of the verse only:
<yh!l)a$ ar*B* tyv!ar@B=
“In (the) beginning, (the) Mightiest created”
The Creator in Near Eastern Polytheism
Let us begin with the Semitic-speaking world, since it is closest to ancient Israel, both linguistically and culturally. The word la@ (°¢l), which generally corresponds to “God” in English, is an ancient Semitic word which was well-established and in wide use by at least the early Bronze Age (third millennium B.C.), attested in every part of the Semitic-speaking world—in Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, south into Arabia and N. Africa, as well as in the Phoenician (Punic) colonies much further afield. It doubtless belongs to the earliest Proto-Semitic vocabulary, and has a basic meaning and usage similar to the early terms dingir () in Sumer and netjer (n¾r, ) in Egypt. The precise etymology remains uncertain, but the fundamental meaning of la@ would seem to be “mighty” or possibly “great, exalted”. It is often thought to be derived from the root lwa (°awl), but it seems more likely that it stems from a primitive biconsonantal root la.
As applied to the power (or powers, i.e. deities) which were thought to govern the universe, the term would literally mean “mighty (one)”, with plural <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) as “mighty (one)s” —that is to say, “God” or “gods”. The main difference between °¢l and the corresponding terms from Sumer and Egypt is that °¢l was commonly used as the name of the chief (Creator) Deity of the Semitic-speaking peoples. The range of usage does generally match that of “God” in English:
- of Deity generally—”God”
- to refer to any particular deity (or deities)—”god(s)”
- as a name when addressing or referring to the Creator Deity—as “God”
There is reasonably well documented evidence for the chief Creator God being named °E~l (“Mighty [One]”), for both the Amorites in Mesopotamia and Canaanites in Syria-Palestine. As pronounced (vocalized) at the time (c. 2000-1400 B.C.) it would have been °Il(u). The most extensive information comes from the religious texts and myths uncovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria.
The principal role of °E~l was as Father—both of gods and human beings—or, more concretely, as Creator. This is seen in the famous episode in Genesis 14, in which Abraham encounters Melchi-Zedek, the (Canaanite) priest-king of Salem. There °E~l (using the compound name °E~l ±Elyôn) is referred to with the formula-title “creator [hn@q)] of heaven and earth” (v. 19). This passage will be discussed further in upcoming studies.
One aspect of ancient polytheism that can be perplexing to modern readers and students is the overlapping attributes and characteristics of certain deities. Sometimes more than one deity will share the same basic role, and have (in many respects) the same fundamental identity. In part, this has to do with the nature of deity itself, as understood within a polytheistic framework.
For example, consider the idea of a “fertility deity”. There are many parts of the natural world where we see fertility taking place—in the fields and trees, among the animals and human beings, and so forth. Since there were deities who were thought to embody and govern each of these parts, there were thus many different “fertility deities”. The same may be said of “Creator deities”, since creation—the production and generation of life—takes place in many different parts of the natural world.
It is perhaps helpful to distinguish between this common sense of creation and that performed “at the beginning” (as in Gen 1:1). A deity who existed “at the beginning”, and who brought into being the other deities, can be referred to as a Primeval Creator. Clearly, El-Yahweh is a Primeval Creator; indeed, as a whole this characterizes the Semitic °E~l, who was understood to be “father of (all the other) deities”. It is important to remember that, from the polytheistic standpoint, the God who creates the universe, creates (at the same time) all of the powers (i.e., deities) that are manifest in the universe; the two cannot be separated.
Even so, there can be multiple Primeval Creators within certain developed polytheistic systems of thought. While this may seem completely contradictory, we can begin to explain it once we have clearly in mind the nature of ancient polytheism. The complexity of the universe (and how it is understood) means that there can be multiple aspects to the same basic phenomenon; and these different aspects can be conceived as distinct deities. With regard to the Creation, let us consider these illustrative examples from human experience, where a creator can be understood in terms of: an artisan or craftsman, a speaker, a planner/designer, a father bearing seed, a mother giving birth, and so forth. In addition to this, there are the various syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in ancient polytheism; these will be discussed at various points throughout this series.
Sumer and Mesopotamia
As noted above, the Sumerian term for deity was dingir (), the precised meaning and derivation of which remains uncertain. By all accounts, it was never used as the name or title of a specific High Deity, such as °¢l / °il(u) was by the Semitic peoples. These Semitic-speakers include the eastern territories extending into Mesopotamia. The Amorites certainly worshiped the Creator God °E~l, while the Akkadians were more directly influenced by the Sumerians, inheriting and adapting many of their fundamental religious beliefs and conceptions of deity.
Among the Sumerians, the deity An held a place comparable to °E~l. The word essentially means “heaven, sky”, referring to the entire upper half of the universe. He was the great High God of the Sumerians, and generally regarded as the Creator of the deities. An (“heaven”) coupled with Ki (“earth”) to produce the various other deities. The universe as a whole was called an-ki (“heaven-earth”), much as we see in Genesis 1:1 and 14:19 (cf. above). This will be discussed further in the next study.
However, the role of Primeval Creator more properly belongs to the goddess Nammu, a name written with the ideogram for “sea”. Embodying the primeval waters which were thought to have preceded the creation of the universe, Nammu was conceived of as a great Mother who gives birth to An-Ki (Heaven and Earth). On a tablet that gives a list of Sumerian deities, Nammu is specifically described as “the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth” (Kramer, p. 39). Thus, while An and Ki created the deities, they themselves were first created by Nammu. The ancient Near Eastern cosmology, upon which these beliefs are based, will be discussed in the upcoming studies; the primeval waters, especially, will be discussed in association with Gen 1:2.
As I mentioned in the Introduction, the polytheism of ancient Egypt was especially rich and complex. Its complexity is partly due to the fact that we have more information and knowledge about it, thanks to the wealth of surviving artifacts, texts, and inscriptions. At the same time, the Egyptian people also seem to have developed their polytheistic ideas and structures in ways that went beyond those of the surrounding cultures. The syncretic tendencies were especially elaborate and sophisticated, providing a highly detailed depiction of the phenomena of the natural world. It is like a painting that was made with 100 colors instead of 20. As a result, the names and forms of many more deities are known to us from ancient Egypt, than elsewhere.
Over the long history of ancient Egypt, a number of different Creator deities took on prominence. They were not mutually exclusive, but could exist in the religious thought and practice of the people simultaneously. To some extent, they were combined syncretistically, but they also can be seen as representing different aspects of Creation. The following deities can be characterized as (Primeval) Creator gods, and are the most prominent:
- Atum—the name means something like “the All” or “the undifferentiated [One]”; Atum is alone in the dark primeval waters (Nun) where he brings forth (creates) the first deities out of himself.
- Ra (R)—the precise derivation of this name remains in dispute, but could mean something like “(the) rising/ascending (one)”. Ra fundamentally represents the creative, life-giving power manifest in the sun; however, he came to be recognized as the Primeval Creator, especially through the syncretic combination Ra-Atum (i.e., Ra identified as the Creator Atum). The primary religious/cult center for Ra was the city of Iunu (On in the Old Testament, Heliopolis in Greek [“city of the sun”]).
- Amun (°mwn), “[the] Hidden [one]” —this deity may have represented the ‘hidden’ power in the sky (the air/atmosphere); however, in at least one line of cosmological tradition, he is associated with the primeval darkness that preceded the Creation, representing (together with a female consort) one of four deity-pairs embodying aspects of this Primeval state. He came into special prominence when the Egyptian capital was located at Wasit (Thebes), and he was identified (syncretically) with the Creator as Amun-Ra, the great High Deity throughout much of Egyptian history.
- Ptah—a Creator deity worshiped especially at the ancient capital Men-nefer (Memphis), and conceived primarily as a craftsman/artisan, who brought the world into existence as a work of art. In many ways, Ptah corresponds with our basic concept of God as Creator better than the other deities mentioned above. The famous cosmological text on the Shabaka Stone is an especially developed theological work (the so-called “Memphite Theology”) affirming Ptah as the supreme Deity and Creator of the world.
As Creator, YHWH (= Elohim in Genesis 1:1ff) holds a place in Israelite monotheism similar to that of the Primeval Creator-deities in ancient Near Eastern polytheism. The main difference is two-fold: (1) in creating the universe (heaven and earth), YHWH does not create any comparable deities; and (2) He proceeds to create all aspects and components of the universe Himself. Both of these points are fundamental to the distinction between monotheism and polytheism. Since the various “powers” (= deities) are related to the various parts of the universe, they come into being with the universe; this is essential to the polytheistic worldview. Similarly, as the universe takes shape, in stages, the first created deities, in turn, create more deities—the coming-to-be of world (cosmogony) is also a coming-to-be of all the deities in the world (theogony). This will be discussed in more detail in upcoming studies.
By contrast, in the Genesis Creation account, there is cosmogony, but no theogony. God (YHWH) alone creates all the different parts of the universe. To be sure, the Israelite and (later) Jewish worldview included other divine/heavenly beings (Angels, etc) who were created by God. This idea is comparable, in certain respects, with Near Eastern polytheism; however, there is not the slightest mention of it here in the Genesis Creation account.
References above marked “Cassuto” are to Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part I: From Adam to Noah (1944), transl. by Israel Abrahams (1961) (Magnes Press: 1989).
References marked “Kramer” are to Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. (1944) (Harper & Bros.: 1961).