In the previous note—the first in this pre-Pentecost series on the Old Testament references to the Spirit of God—we saw how the spirit or “breath” (j^Wr) of God was central to the entire Creation account in Genesis 1, the activity of the spirit/breath preceding the spoken word that brings the ordered universe into existence:
“And the earth was emptiness and confusion, and darkness (was) upon the face of the deep, and (the) breath [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] was hovering upon the face of the waters” (1:2)
While the account in chapter 1 relates to the creation of the universe (“the heavens and the earth”) as a whole, the focus in chapter 2 is specifically on the creation of humankind. Some would refer to this as a second creation account, which perhaps states the matter too broadly; however, 2:4b-24 does draw on a separate line of tradition, and represents a narrative quite distinct from 1:1-2:4a. The role of God’s “breath” in the creation of humankind is narrated simply in verse 7:
“And YHWH (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] formed the man [<d*a*h*] (out of) dust from the ground [hm*d*a&h*] and blew in his nostrils (the) breath [hm*v*n+] of life, and the man came to be a living soul [vp#n#].”
The word hm*v*n+ is used instead of j^Wr, however the basic idea is the same—the breath of God creates life. Here hm*v*n+ refers more properly to the breath (of life) that comes to exist within the human being. Much the same creation tradition is expressed in Job 33:4, this time using the noun j^Wr (parallel with hm*v*n+):
“(The) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mighty (One) made me,
and (the) breath [hm*v*n+] of (the) Mountainous (One) gives me life.”
The parallelism of this (3+3) couplet is synonymous, and precisely so:
Mighty One [la@]
made me [yn]t=v*u*]
Mountainous One [yD~v^]
gives me life [yn]Y@j^T=]
The most plausible explanation for the rather enigmatic title yD~v* (šadday) would seem to be “the (One) of the mountain (peak)”, “He of the mountain”, “Mountain(ous) One”. Conceptually, it derives from the idea of the abode/manifestation of God as being (on top of) a great mountain—which could be realized locally in any specific mountain (such as Sinai/Horeb). It connotes the idea of loftiness, greatness, etc, of God exalted high above the earth and humankind. It can also be related specifically to the storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm). For a good discussion, cf. F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973), pp. 52-60.
Here, in the book of Job, Elihu is the speaker, and his allusion to the creation tradition serves several purposes in context. For one thing, as a considerably younger man (32:4), his advice was less likely to be heard or accepted. At several points in his speech, he emphasizes that he is equal to his older companions, and that this equality is fundamentally based on the common creation of all human beings by God. Verse 6 makes this same point, but by highlighting the fact that all human beings are equally made of “clay” (rm#j)), parallel to the “dust” (rp*u*) of Gen 2:7, etc (cf. above). This is a common physiological motif, found in many myths and traditions worldwide; the close affinity of human bodies with the ground/soil is indicated by the basic wordplay (seen in Gen 2:7) between “man” (<d*a*°¹¼¹m) and “ground” (hm*d*a&°¦¼¹mâ). Similarly, the life-breath of all people comes from the life-giving breath or spirit (par j^Wr / hm*v*n+) of God (cf. Gen 6:3; 7:22; Psalm 104:30; Isa 42:5, etc).
By this creation-motif, Elihu also implies that he is at least equal to the others in terms of wisdom and understanding. Here the creation tradition is extended, from the life-breath in a person to the wisdom that is also present as part of God’s life-giving spirit/breath. This was stated clearly earlier in 32:8, and follows a basic line of wisdom tradition:
“But (surely) it [i.e. wisdom] is a spirit [j^Wr] in (the) human (being), and a breath [hm*v*n+] of (the) Mountainous (One) gives discernment.”
Here is the same synonymous parallel of j^Wr / hm*v*n+ (spirit / breath) as in 33:4, only applied specifically to the wisdom/understanding that is present in a person. This does not necessarily imply a special kind of inspiration (such as in a prophet/oracle), though certain individuals may be (or seem) more gifted than others. Rather, this wisdom is basic to all humankind, and available to all, as long as they remain pure in thought and upright in conduct. A fundamental exhortation throughout Wisdom literature is that people need continually to seek after wisdom, to hear and pay attention to its voice. It is a divine voice, as it stems from the spirit [j^Wr] of God. This close association between the Spirit and Wisdom will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.
In the next daily note, we will discuss briefly several passages which demonstrate the ancient (Israelite) understanding of the interaction between God’s Spirit and the soul/spirit of an individual. We may regard this as early evidence for a doctrine of inspiration.
For the daily notes leading up to Pentecost this year, I will be exploring the most relevant Old Testament passages dealing with the Spirit—that is, the Spirit of God or Holy Spirit. Study of such passages is complicated by the fact that the word typically translated “spirit” (j^Wr, rûaµ), like the corresponding Greek pneu=ma, can also mean “wind” or “breath”. Indeed, “wind/breath” is the more proper, fundamental meaning.
The noun j^Wr is a common word, occurring some 378 times in the Old Testament. In a few instances, the consonantal jwr may have been mispointed in place of a similar noun (vocalized jw~r#) meaning something like “a wide space”. There would seem to be two different weak roots jwr which go back to an original biconsonantal Semitic root jr. The fundamental meaning of the first root jwr apparently has to do with air that is in motion, i.e. something blowing. In this regard, it is similar in meaning to Greek pne/w (“blow”). In addition to the concrete sense of the blowing of the wind, it can denote the “breath” of a living being, as well as the wafting of a scent/aroma in the air. The first two fundamental meanings— “wind” and “breath” —are closely connected, especially as, in the ancient world, the wind could be seen as the “breath” of God (even as the thunder is his “voice”, and so forth).
From this idea of the “breath” of a living being comes the more developed concept of j^Wr as signifying the “life-breath” that animates a person, and dwells/lives within the body. It is parallel is some respects with two other Hebrew words—vp#n# (ne¸eš) and hm*v*n+ (n®š¹mâ)—each of which can be used to refer to the life-force or essence within a person (“soul”, etc). Conceptually, this use of j^Wr would lead to the idea of a personified life-breath—i.e. the breath itself as a living being—most fitting when referring to divine/heavenly beings (such as God [El-Yahweh] Himself). Thus j^Wr, like Greek pneu=ma, could subsequently signify a living spirit-being.
The ambiguity surrounding the precise meaning of j^Wr, and how properly to translate the word in context, is evident from the opening verses of the Creation narrative in the book of Genesis. It will be worth considering briefly the use of the word in Gen 1:2.
Following the initial statement of God’s creation of the universe (“the heavens and the earth”) in verse 1—a statement which has its own difficulties of interpretation—the state or condition of the primeval universe is described, movingly and powerfully, in verse 2. There are three descriptive components to this verse; let us consider the first two:
“and the earth was emptiness and confusion” Whb)w~ Wht) hT*y+h* Jr#a*h*w+
“and darkness (was) upon the face of (the) deep” <oht= yn@P=-lu^ Ev#j)w+
The universe, here designated simply as “the earth” (Jr#a*h*), is in a chaotic and unformed state, indicated by the hendiadys Whb)w` Wht) (tœhû w¹bœhû). The alliterative rhyme-pair, taken together, strikingly depicts this chaos. The rather literal translation above (“emptiness and confusion”), while accurate enough (based on what we can discern of the etymology of each word), is pedantic, and cannot quite capture the force of the original. The same pair occurs in Jer 4:23 (cf. also Isa 34:11), and certainly refers to the same Creation tradition as Gen 1:2.
The second descriptive component involves the nouns Ev#j) (“darkness”) and <ohT= (“deep, depths”). The latter word, occurring frequently in poetry and wisdom traditions (12 times in the Psalms, and 8 in Job-Proverbs; cf. also the 8 occurrences in the poetry of the Prophets), refers primarily to the depths of the sea, and also to the ancient waters which can be tapped in the depths below the earth. Here it unquestionably alludes to the primeval waters at the beginning of Creation, characterized as being shrouded by darkness (“…upon the face of the deep”).
Thus these two components, taken together, describe the primeval condition as a dark, watery mass, within which the universe exists in only an unformed state. This corresponds generally with the basic cosmology (and cosmogony) attested variously throughout the ancient Near East (for more on this, cf. my article in the “Ancient Parallels” series). God’s action, in relation to this watery mass, is indicated in the third part of the verse:
“and (the) j^Wr of (the) Mightiest was hovering upon (the) face of the waters”
Here the “face” refers to the surface, but only in a general sense. The brief notice in the text here offers no further visual indicator regarding the shape or appearance of this watery mass—indeed, the basic idea seems to be that it is essentially formless. Even so, the j^Wr of God is apparently covering it, no less than does the darkness itself.
The term j^Wr can be understood here three different ways:
“and the wind of the Mightiest was hovering…”
“and the breath of the Mightiest was hovering…”
“and the spirit of the Mightiest was hovering…”
The first is the more naturalistic rendering, indicating a wind sent from God, or even understood qualitatively as “a mighty [i.e. great/powerful] wind”. This seems to have been a common rabbinic interpretation (cf. Talmud „agigah 12a), and is shared by many commentators today. We might compare, for example, the great Exodus scene in 14:21ff, where j^Wr clearly refers to a powerful wind (sent by God).
The second option is more appropriate to the theme, throughout the chapter, of creation occurring through the mouth—i.e. the spoken word—of God. The activity of the breath would naturally precede that of speech (beginning in verse 3). The third option is essentially a development of this same idea, more properly reflecting the life-giving power of God (i.e. His “spirit”, or “Spirit”). This aspect of God’s “breath” is clearly indicated in Job 33:4, part of the same set of ancient Creation traditions (cp. Gen. 2:7); this will be discussed further in the next daily note.
The action of the j^Wr here is described with the verb [j^r* (r¹µa¸), which apparently has the basic meaning “shake, quiver”. It is extremely rare in the Old Testament (occurring only two other times, Deut 32:11; Jer 23:9), but is attested in Ugaritic, used in a similar sense as in Deut 32:11 (cp. Aqhat Tablet III, col. i. lines 32-3)—the idiom of a “fluttering” bird (i.e. its wings). That is probably the same image alluded to here, reflecting by the typical translation of the participle tp#j#r&m= as “(was) hovering”. The winged characteristic was part of the typical depiction of divine/heavenly beings in the ancient Near East—indicating the heavenly aspect of flight through the sky (freedom, dominion, power), as well as the motif of protection. The Israelite and Old Testament tradition made use of this same line of imagery in describing El-Yahweh (Deut 32:11, and many other passages). In a different, though perhaps related way, the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) came to be depicted as a hovering/descending bird (dove) in Christian tradition, largely by way of the early Gospel tradition of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par).
In recent notes on the Book of Revelation (the visions of chapters 13-17), we have had occasion to explore the “Sea” as a symbol. In my view, within the visionary language of Revelation, it rather clearly represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil that are at work in the world. This symbolism derives largely, and primarily, from ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth. The ancient cosmology, widespread throughout the Near East, extending to Greece in the West and India in the East, can be summarized as follows:
In the beginning there was only a great (and dark) mass of water. The universe came to take shape within the midst of these primeval waters, like a bubble surrounded by water. This space effectively separated the water ‘above’ from the water ‘below’, even as the heaven/sky above would be separated from the earth (and underworld) below in the developing universe. The universe itself was geocentric (very different from our modern understanding of the universe) and spherical (or hemispherical) in shape; only the spherical shape of the upper half is definite, since it was much harder to be sure of the shape of things below the earth. The “earth” in its narrow sense was generally viewed as a flat disc or cylinder, with a hemispheric ‘dome’ above, and a similar (or roughly comparable) space below. The waters above manifested themselves primarily through rain and snow, etc, while the waters below by way of underground springs, and so forth. There were also waters (rivers, lakes, etc) on the surface of the earth. In some cosmologies, the earth/universe was also surrounded by a ring of water, related to primitive conceptions of the great oceans. Only a few brave souls would have ventured out into the oceans far enough to realize the lands and peoples beyond; for most the oceans represented the boundary of the known world.
Thus the “Sea”, as the primeval waters, was central to the ancient cosmology. An important related concept had to do with the creation of the universe in terms of establishing an order within the natural world. This order is reflected and expressed several ways, one of the most fundamental being that of separation—dividing and arranging the universe into distinct shapes, regions, livable domains, etc. By contrast, the primeval waters represent the opposite of order—the condition of things before the natural order of creation was established. The waters are now generally outside of the created order, manifest and breaking through only at its boundaries (above, below, and the oceans beyond). When it does ‘break through’ often chaos and destruction is the result (i.e. through rain-storms, flooding, tidal waves, etc), endangering life on earth. To make human life, in particular, sustainable requires that these primeval forces be controlled and regulated—i.e. rain and flooding in its proper season, and limited in scope.
To the ancient mind, there were many powers and forces in the universe, easily observable and manifest to human beings. Simply put, this is the basis for the widespread polytheism in the ancient world (and still characteristic of many traditional societies even today). Creator deities established the initial order of the universe, controlling and regulating its processes, which are also governed by many local “gods” or intelligent powers. Stories were told in an attempt to describe all of this, and we may refer to these as cosmological myths—tales meant to explain how the universe came to be, and how/why it operates as it does.
The religion of ancient Israel represented a distinctive break from this common polytheistic worldview. The earliest forms of Israelite monotheism were not as stark or absolute as its later, more developed forms, but still required a very different way of expressing the ancient cosmology. Vestiges of ancient cosmological myth are preserved in the Old Testament, but sublimated under the idea of the Creator El-Yahweh as sovereign over all things.
This brings us back to the primeval waters, the “Sea”, in ancient Near Eastern myth. In establishing the natural order of the universe, the Creator deity was seen as having to gain control over the waters. This was often expressed in stories of conflict, military action or battle by a great hero-figure—i.e. conflict with the Sea. This was a mythic story-pattern that was truly widespread, with variations and versions of it as far afield as Greece and India. Some scholars theorize that these specific conflict-myths—especially those which involve a heroic deity doing battle with a sea-creature—derive from the Semitic world.
Marduk and the Babylonian Creation Epic
Perhaps the best known of the surviving texts is the Babylonian “Epic of Creation” (also known by a transliteration of its opening words En¥ma eliš). The tablets date from the time of the great Babylonian and Assyrian empires in the 1st millennium B.C., but they doubtless contain traditions and poetic elements that are centuries earlier, into the 2nd millennium, perhaps as far back as the kingdom of Hammurabi (mid/late-19th century). At some point, the epic poem was recited at the New Year’s festival in Babylon, ritually signifying the ‘renewal’ of creation (and the created order).
Following the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above), in the beginning there was a great mass of water, depicted as a pair of beings joined together—Apsu (male, fresh water) and Tiamat (female, salt water). The creation of the universe within this water is narrated in terms of a great family conflict that turns into a military battle, pitting children against their parents. It begins with a disturbance in the belly of the ‘mother’ Tiamat; eventually the ‘father’ Apsu is slain by one of ‘sons’ (Ea)—this is a common feature in ancient theogonic myths, in which a new generation must take the place of the old as the universe develops and comes into being. With the ‘death’ of Apsu, the gods come into prominence. Tiamat then rages against them, producing monstrous beings (including a horned serpent and fierce dragons) to fight for her. Ultimately the gods choose Marduk as their champion, who will lead the battle against Tiamat on their behalf. The great battle ends with the ‘death’ and dismemberment of Tiamat, and the establishment of Marduk’s rule as supreme deity; out of Tiamat’s ‘body’ (i.e. the primeval waters), the universe as we know it is formed, along with the natural order of the world. This is all narrated in the first four tablets (I-IV) of the standard imperial version of the Epic.
Marduk was the patron deity of the city of Babylon, who gained in prominence when the city-state became a larger regional empire. He was primarily associated with farming and the establishment of agriculture; this, of course, meant the need to control and regulate the waters—rain in its season (and in the right amounts), flooding of the rivers, etc. Marduk appears to have been more or less identified (and assimilated) with the Sumerian deity Ninurta, who played a similar role in governing agriculture, including control of storms, etc. Ninurta was considered the “son” of En-lil, one of the supreme deities in Sumerian religious thought. The name En-lil is usually translated as “Lord Wind” or “Lord Air”, indicating a domain that governs the ‘world’, the atmosphere, etc, that comes in contact with the earth below (governed by a different deity En-ki). The precise etymology is disputed (in terms of the meaning of the word lil); however, Ninurta as the “son” of “Lord Wind/Air” would certainly fit his association with the storm and the fertility of the land that results from rainstorms, etc. Marduk’s battle against Tiamat is similar in many respects to that narrated of Ninurta in the Anzu epic. Ninurta battles Anzu, a hybrid bird-figure (also known as Imdugud), associated with the winds and storms and a guardian for En-lil. By conquering the Anzu, Ninurta establishes control over the storms; he is also said to have slain a seven-headed Serpent (cf. below) and the “bull-man” of the Sea.
Other Ancient Versions of the Conflict-Myth
There are other Near Eastern myths in which a heroic deity, associated with the storms (wind and rain, etc), battles a hybrid monster who represents, in some fashion, the Sea and its primeval waters. There are, for example, relatively simple myths from Hittite (or Hattian) sources in Anatolia (Asia Minor), in which the “Storm God” battles (and kills) the Serpent-being Illuyanka, usually connected with the Sea, though this is not always clearly indicated in the tale. The episode played a role in the Purulli festival (about which little is known), even as the Epic of Creation featured in the Babylonian New Year festival.
These stories contain clear ritual elements in them, much more so than we find in the developed Epics. In particular, the Storm deity (Hittite Tar—una, Hurran Teshub) requires the assistance of a human being to defeat the Serpent. Similarly, in tales of the “disappearance of the Storm God”, ritual formulae are included within the narrative, performed by a human priest-figure, to appease the deity and bring him back, thus restoring/ensuring the fertility of the land. In all likelihood these Serpent-conflict myths spread westward into Anatolia, where they were inherited (and adapted) by the Indo-European Hittites.
The mythic-pattern spread even further west, among the Greeks, where there are several notable examples, such as Apollo’s slaying of the Python-figure at Delphi; however, in that tradition the Serpent is more of a chthonic Earth-being, rather than connected to the Sea. Closer to the Near Eastern cosmological myth is the episode made famous in the Theogony of Hesiod. Dating from c. 700 B.C., Hesiod’s work is a compendium of ancient Greek cosmological tradition, some of which, almost certainly, was inherited from the Near East (via the Greek colonies on the Anatolian coast, etc). The poem begins with the initial creation—which does not follow the Near Eastern cosmology (cf. above)—and climaxes with the establishment of Zeus’ rule over the universe as king of the gods. His battle with the Typhoeus (Tufweu/$, also called Typhon, Typhos), a multi-headed Serpent-creature, is narrated in lines 820-885, after which Zeus is declared “king” of the gods (886). Zeus (Zeu/$) is the Greek reflex of the Indo-European high deity associated with the Sky (dyeus), especially in its bright and shining aspect; the ancient derivation is preserved in the form Dio/$ (in Latin as Deus). Zeus took on traditional characteristics of the storm theophany—i.e. the deity manifest in storms—making use of thunder and lightning, winds and rain, etc, especially when exercising his authority or engaged in battle.
Even further afield, from the Indo-Aryan regions of India, are mythic traditions associated with the figure of Indra, a deity similarly connected with the storm (he had the title “wielder of the thunderbolt”). In one set of ancient tales, Indra slew the serpent being Vr¤tra (“restrainer”), who holds back (“restrains”) the waters need for the fertility of the earth. In slaying Vr¤tra, Indra releases the waters (locked up on the mountains, presumably in the form of snow). In other tales it is the demon Vala who had held back the waters (“seven rivers”, also depicted as cows). These traditions are clearly quite ancient, as they go back to the Rg¤ Veda (c. 1200-900 B.C.)—cf. 1.32; 2.12; 10.124.6ff.
The Canaanite Epic of Baal
Perhaps the clearest ancient version of this conflict-myth, and the one most relevant to the Old Testament and Israelite tradition, is the so-called Baal Epic. This work is preserved on six tablets (and other fragments) uncovered at the site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit). They date from the mid-14th century B.C.; however, as an extended epic poem, the Baal Epic is almost certainly the product of centuries of development, during which time various traditions, poetic elements, and even shorter individual tales, were brought together to give shape to the text as we have it. There is still some question whether all six tablets belong to a single composition; in particular, the place of the first tablet (CAT 1.1) is quite uncertain. Due to the fragmentary nature of the tablets, requiring reconstruction based on parallel passages, it is not possible to discern all the details of the narrative, but the basic outline is clear enough.
The central character is Baal-Haddu—the deity Haddu (Hadad/Adad) who controlled the weather and personified the storms needed to give life and fertility to the land. He was thus the prominent deity among farming societies in Palestine and Syria, in many ways supplanting the Creator god °El in importance. The title “Baal” (Heb lu^B^) means “lord, master” (cf. my earlier article), and is thus an honorific that could be applied to any deity. There is some indication that this title had once been used for YHWH in Israel; however, in the face of the danger of syncretic assimilation of Canaanite religious elements (esp. worship of Haddu), such use soon disappeared, the title being reserved for the pagan/false deity Baal-Haddu. In Israel, YHWH was more or less identified with the Creator °El (“Mighty One”), though very different in character than the °El portrayed in many of the Canaanite myths. With Baal-Haddu, the situation was different; a sharp conflict arose between adherents of exclusive worship of the Creator El-Yahweh (i.e. Yahwists), and those willing to adopt (and assimilate) Canaanite religious beliefs and practices (e.g. “Baal-worship”). The agricultural fertility rites practiced among Canaanites (and devoted to Baal-Haddu) were especially problematic for devout Yahwists. This conflict is well-attested in the earlier Old Testament Prophets and the Deuteronomic History (Samuel–Kings), as also in the book of Judges.
The Baal Epic itself is clearly cosmological—that is to say, it deals with the universe and the natural order established in creation. As with the other myths cited above, the Epic centers around a conflict; actually there are two great conflicts which serve to structure the poem: (1) between Baal and the Sea (Yamm = Heb <y`), and (2) between Baal and Death (Mot = Heb tom). The first conflict relates to the establishment of the created order; the second relates to the cyclical nature of the current order (i.e. life-death-rebirth). As in the Babylonian Creation Epic (cf. above), the storm-bringing deity (Marduk / Baal-Haddu), following his conquest of the Sea (the primeval Waters), becomes king and ruler over the created order. The “Sea” is conquered and dismembered (or cut up), which allows for the waters to enter into the natural world safely, on a limited basis (i.e. scattered as rain), and in different locations (rivers, with local flooding, etc). Baal’s rule (over these waters) is marked by the construction of a great palace—the palace symbolizing his domain over the natural world.
The conflict between Baal and the Sea is narrated in the second tablet (II, CAT 1.2), the construction of his palace extends over the third and fourth tablets (III-IV, CAT 1.3-4). At the end of tablet IV (column 8) Baal’s kingship is announced to Mot (i.e. Death personified), which sets the stage for the conflict in tablets V and VI. Interestingly, in III.3.38-40, the deity Anat (= Heb tn`u&) speaks as though she were the one who defeated the Sea (Yamm), contrary to what is narrated in II.4.11-31. This can perhaps be explained by the complex relationship between Baal and Anat, who are said to be brother and sister. As a deity-figure Anat is difficult to define; she is depicted as an adolescent (virginal) maiden, but also as a fierce warrior. It is probably best to view her as a kind of personification ofbattle. This makes her similar in many respects to the Greek Athena, the Hindu Kali/Durga, and the savage hilds of Germanic myth. The episode in III.2, where Anat ‘hosts’ a bloody battle between two (human) armies, does not appear to be integral to the narrative; rather, it is a symbolic scene that establishes the setting for her character (conflict/battle), along with the peace that must follow warfare (III.3.4-31). Thus, in Baal’s doing battle with Yamm, his ‘sister’ Anat is also present; after the battle, he comes to her directly to set forth peace in the world (cf. the beautiful lines III.3.14-31, repeated as a refrain throughout the poem).
Along with the defeat of the Sea by Baal/Anat, mention is made of the defeat of other monstrous creatures which apparently were allies of the Sea (like the creatures of Tiamat, cf. above). In III.3.38ff, these include a great serpentine Sea-monster (tnn), a similar being called “Twisting Serpent” (b¾n ±qltn), and another referred to as “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm). The last two are also mentioned in V.1.1-3, along with Litan (ltn) also called “Fleeing Serpent” (b¾n brµ). All four of these mythic beings are mentioned in the Old Testament, but in conflict with YHWH, rather than Baal-Haddu (cf. below).
The Old Testament and Israelite Tradition
Only vestiges of the conflict-myth are preserved in the Old Testament, the Canaanite-style myths being generally incompatible with Israelite monotheism. The ancient cosmology (cf. above) is quite clearly present in the Genesis 1 creation narrative, but shorn of nearly all mythological features. The primeval waters are divided and the created order established simply by the command of God, without the slightest sense of conflict. The situation is different in Old Testament poetry, where the mythic language and imagery is better preserved. However, even in those passages, they have been detached from their earlier (mythological) context, floating as vivid and colorful references to El-Yahweh’s sovereign power and control over the created order.
First, it must be noted that YHWH is often described in storm-theophany imagery that would similarly be associated with Baal-Haddu in Canaanite tradition. This includes all aspects of control over meteorological phenomena—wind, rain, thunder, lightning. The “voice” (loq) of YHWH is thunder (cf. above). YHWH’s control over the ancient, primeval waters is clearly expressed in poetic declarations such as Psalm 29:3 and 93:3-4; He is seated above the flood-waters, signifying His dominion over them (Ps 29:10), and exercises control over them at will (Job 26:5ff; 28:25; Psalm 33:7; 104:3; 136:6; Prov 8:29; 30:4, etc). This cosmological imagery was applied to the episode at the Reed Sea in the Exodus narrative (cf. especially the poetic references in Psalm 77:16ff; 78:13).
As far as depicting YHWH’s control in terms of the conflict-myth pattern, there are two main passages where this is preserved: Psalm 74:13-14 and Isaiah 27:1. Consider each of these:
Psalm 74:13-14: “You broke apart the Sea [<y`] with your strength, you broke in pieces the monsters [<yn]yN]t^] upon the waters; you crushed (completely) the heads of Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!], you gave him as (something) eaten by the people (dwell)ing in (the) desert!”
Isaiah 27:1: “In that day YHWH will oversee (the judgment) with His sword, great and hard, upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) fleeing [j^r!B*] serpent, even upon Liwyatan [/t*y`w+l!] (the) twisting [/otL*q^u&] serpent, and He shall slay the monster [/yN]T^h^] that (is) in/on the sea [<y`].”
“With His power He stilled the (raging) Sea, with His skillfulness He shattered Rahab; with His breath He made the Sea clear, with His hand He pierced the fleeing Serpent.”
The italicized words all refer to mythic beings, associated with the Sea, that also were mentioned in the Baal Epic (cf. above). Clearly we are dealing with very ancient cosmological traditions, which survived even in the context of Israelite monotheism. Isaiah 27:1 brings together four of the names and expressions; though, in all likelihood, they are meant to refer to a single mythological creature, the Liwy¹t¹n (/t*y`w+l!, “Leviathan”), Caananite L£t¹n¥, a serpentine Sea-monster also called by the more general term tannîn (/yN]T^). This creature has the parallel labels “fleeing serpent” (j^r!B* vj*n`) and “twisting serpent” (/otL*q^u& vj*n`), just as in the Baal Epic. The reference to the “heads” (plural) of Liwy¹t¹n in Psalm 74:14 suggests that a seven-headed creature may be in view, corresponding to the “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm) in the Baal Epic, and similar ancient traditions (cf. above). It is probably best to see all of these expressions as relating to a single multi-headed serpentine Sea-creature—the very image that is utilized in the book of Revelation for the Dragon and its Creature from the Sea.
Isaiah 27:1 is also significant for the way it utilizes these elements of ancient cosmological myth—the conflict with the Sea—in an eschatological setting. Apocalyptic literature, with its colorful imagery, tended to recycle older/archaic elements, setting them within a new context. The immediate precursors of Jewish apocalyptic lie in the Old Testament Prophets, with passages such as Isa 27:1. In a way, the use of cosmological myth was appropriate for eschatological narrative, to express the end of things in terms of their beginning. Just as a battle with the Sea marked the beginning of creation, the start of the current Age, so another kind of conflict with the “Sea” would characterize the end of the Age. This is very much the dynamic we see at work in the book of Revelation.
Today we will be looking at two verses in the Genesis Creation narratives which have proven challenging for commentators over the centuries. Both passages are instructive for us, in that they demonstrate the importance of careful study, with sensitivity to the nuances of the ancient Hebrew language. The first of these examples comes from the Creation account in chapter 1—the famous account of the creation of humankind at the climax of the sixth day (i.e., at the climax of God’s creative work), verses 24-31.
The distinction which introduces God’s creation of humankind (“man”, °¹d¹m, <d*a*) is well-known to most students of Scripture. While the divine directives throughout the “days” of creation are third-person jussives (imperfect verb forms with the force of a command, “there shall be…”, “let there be…”, etc), the creation of humankind begins with a first-person cohortative of the verb ±´h—na±¦´eh, “We shall make”, “Let us make…” This use of the first-person plural has been the source of much discussion by commentators and theologians, in light of the strong monotheistic view of God which is fundamental for nearly all Jews and Christians. The plural continues in the directive:
“We shall [i.e. let us] make man in our image (and) according to our likeness, and they shall [i.e. let them] rule…”
The expression “image (and) likeness” will be discussed briefly below; but, as to the use of the plural, there have been a number of attempts to explain this. The most notable include:
It reflects a genuine plurality in God (or the Godhead), in which various elements (including ‘persons’ or personifications) may be distinguished. For Christians, it has been popular to read the Trinity into the use of the plural here. Jewish mystics have recognized a different sort of multiplicity in the Godhead (e.g., the Sefirot traditions in the Kabbalah).
It is a vestige of an ancient polytheistic view of God (and the Divine Council), especially preserved in the majestic poetry-prosody of the Creation account, much as we see echoes of Semitic (Canaanite) mythology in the earliest Psalms, etc.
The scene is that of the heavenly (royal) court, and God is depicted as taking counsel with other heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”); in some versions of this view, the heavenly beings specifically take part in the process of creating humankind.
It is the plural of majesty, in which the king or ruler speaks on behalf of the people whom he represents, and in a majestic fashion, using the plural (“we, us”), though it is he himself who gives the directive.
It is the plural of exhortation, in which a person may use the plural to exhort him/herself to do something.
It is a simple grammatical agreement with the plural noun °§lœhîm (see below).
The first two options are, on the whole, most unlikely. Despite the popularity of the Trinitarian interpretation among Christians, there is really no evidence supporting the idea of plurality in the ancient Israelite view of God, nor do we see anything of the sort expressed in the Old Testament. The third and fourth views are more plausible, the third generally favored by many scholars, going back to the medieval Rabbinic commentators (including Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides). In my view, however, the last two options are the simplest explanations and relate directly to the grammar and syntax of the passage.
The word (and name) used for “God” in chapter 1 is °§lœhîm (<yh!ýa$), a plural noun related to the fundamental Semitic word °¢l (la@), which, as I discussed last week (and elsewhere), most likely originally meant something like “Mighty (One)”. The best explanation of the plural °§lœhîm, more or less equivalent to the simpler form °¢lîm, is an intensive plural. In the Semitic languages (including ancient Hebrew), the grammatical plural does not always indicate numeric plural; it can be used to express other aspects, including use as an intensive. The plural form, which normally would mean “mighty (one)s”, would, in the case of the Divine, actually mean something like “Mightiest (One)”. It is also possible to understand it as a comprehensive collective plural, perhaps meant to reflect the idea of all of the divine ‘beings’ (i.e. all Deity) embodied in one God—the one true Creator God. This would have special significance in the context of Israelite monotheism, in contrast to the polytheism of the surrounding peoples.
Even though °§lœhîm is plural, when used of the one Creator God (El-Yahweh), it typically agrees with the singular (“he, his, him”, etc). Indeed, the plural is only used here in verse 26; when the corresponding narration occurs in verse 27, we find the singular:
“And God [°§lœhîm] created man in his image…”
This makes it far more likely that the plural in verse 26 is a plural of exhortation. Normally, in such a plural cohortative, a person is attempting to exhort his audience to take a course of action, etc. However, on occasion, it is used in reference to the person himself, as self-encouragement. Here, too, we may understand this as an intensive plural, i.e. spurring oneself to take action, or envisioning a specific outcome. Consider the example in 2 Samuel 24:14 (Cassuto, p. 55): “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord…but into the hand of man let me not fall”. In such a case, “let us…” is clearly the same as “let me…”.
Another point of difficulty in verse 26 is the use of the words ƒelem (“image, figure, shape”) and d®mû¾ (“likeness, resemblance”). The two words make for a synonymous pairing, and occur together in an extra-biblical (Assyrian-Aramaic) inscription from the 9th century B.C. The noun ƒelem tends to refer to a concrete physical shape, as of a solid object (such as a statue) cut out or formed in a pattern-mold. It was used specifically for statues and likenesses of deities in the Ancient Near East. More importantly, in ancient royal theology, the king (in his person) was often viewed as the “image” of God. The ancient Israelites certainly would have been aware of this tendency, and it informs the account in Genesis. What applied primarily to the ruler, as God’s image and representative on earth, is here viewed as applying to all humankind, at the point of our very creation. Even so, there have been numerous ways of understanding human beings as made “in God’s image”:
It is related to the physical shape, which resembles that of the Deity (anthropomorphic)
It is to be understood in an intellectual and/or spiritual sense—i.e. we resemble God in the uniqueness of the human mind, reasoning, moral and religious awareness, etc
It refers specifically to the human soul
It relates primarily to humankind as God’s representative (“image”) on earth.
It is meant to express the special exalted status of human beings in the order of creation (see Psalm 8:4-7)
The last two views best fit the context of the passage. According to vv. 27-31, God created humankind to have dominion and rule on earth; this is the primary emphasis given in the passage for the role of human beings, and it fits the idea that we function as God’s representatives on earth. The climactic position of the account of the creation of humankind, and in the exalted language that is used to describe it, confirms the nobility of human beings in relation to God. This semi-divine status is confirmed by the famous hymn on humankind in Psalm 8.
When we turn to Gen 2:4, we find a different sort of critical question—one which typically has been thought to relate to the composition of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and the sources (or source documents) used in its composition. While somewhat obscured in translation, the Creation account in 1:1-2:3 uses the word (or “name”) °§lœhîm throughout. As I noted above, this plural noun, probably should be understood as “(the) Mightiest (One)”, and it is used by the ancient Israelites, and throughout the Old Testament, as the common designation for “God”—that is, the one true God (El-Yahweh). Only infrequently is it used as a genuine plural “mighty ones” (i.e. “gods”, etc). We typically translate °§lœhîm in the Old Testament, and here in Genesis 1ff, as “God”.
However, in 2:4 the nomenclature changes, with the introduction of the divine name hw`hy+, the so-called tetragrammaton (YHWH), usually vocalized as Yahweh. The origins and meaning of this name remain uncertain, and debated by scholars, though there is general agreement that it derives from the root hyh/hwh (“to be, exist, live”). This is confirmed by the tradition in Exod 3. One line of interpretation reads the name itself as a verbal form, probably as a causative—”he causes to be, he makes live”, etc. As such, it would be a fundamental designation of the Creator God, otherwise known as °¢l in ancient Semitic language, both in Mesopotamia and Canaan. Abraham and the Patriarchs would have spoken of “God” as °E~l. Subsequently, as narrated in Exodus 3:11-15, the divine name was declared to be Yahweh, and, from at least the time of Moses on, Israelites identified Yahweh with the one Creator God El. For more on this dynamic, see my earlier discussions of the names El, Elohim, and Yahweh.
The names Yahweh and Elohim are joined together in 2:4, and are used this way throughout chapters 2 and 3 (twenty times); only in the dialogue with the serpent (3:1b-5) is Elohim used alone. In chapter 4, following the Creation narratives of chaps 1-3, Yahweh begins to be used alone as the name of God.
The varying usage of Yahweh and Elohim throughout the Pentateuch (and other portions of the Old Testament) spurred the critical hypotheses, beginning in the early 18th century, that the Pentateuch was at least partially composed from two earlier documents which primarily used the names Yahweh and Elohim, respectively. The supposed documents, labeled “J” (Jahwist/Yahwist) and “E” (Elohist), became part of the so-called “Documentary Hypothesis” for the composition of the Pentateuch. Some variation of this hypothesis is accepted by most critical scholars and commentators today, though by no means drawn and defined so sharply as it has been in the past. While many traditional-conservative commentators continue to accept, on the whole, the traditional authorship of Moses, only rarely have critical scholars seriously questioned the basic approach underlying the Documentary hypothesis. One such scholar is the Jewish commentator Umberto Cassuto, who discusses the matter at length in his Commentary on Genesis (Part One), and his work The Documentary Hypothesis (both available in highly readable English translations). While I do not find his treatment of the matter entirely convincing, he offers a valuable reminder of the importance of studying the use of the divine names from the standpoint of the Hebrew language itself. These names had a particular meaning and significance for Israelites in the period c. 1200-500, when the Pentateuch received its final shape and began to be transmitted to later generations.
Of special significance is the way that Yahweh and Elohim are joined together in chapters 2-3, beginning with 2:4, which serves as a transition between 1:1-2:3 and the narrative in 2:5ff:
“These are the (period)s of giving birth [i.e. generations] of the heavens and the earth in their being created [i.e. when they were created], in (the) day when YHWH Elohim made (the) earth and (the) heavens.”
This both concludes the prior account and introduces what follows. Indeed, many commentators view v. 4b as the start of a new sentence and the beginning of the next narrative. In this light, the joining of Yahweh with Elohim (typically rendered in English as “the LORD God”) is important in the fundamental way it identifies Yahweh with the one true Creator God (Elohim), much as the early Israelites identified him with El. This identification marks the Creation narratives of chapters 1-3 and is uniquely characteristic of them. The conjunction of Yahweh-Elohim is relatively rare elsewhere in the Old Testament, and is only found in the Pentateuch, outside of Gen 2-3, at Exod 9:30. Interestingly, while Yahweh does not occur in chapter 1, there may be an allusion to it in the use of the jussive y®hî (yh!y+, “there shall be, let there be…”). The name Yahweh, referring to God as the one who creates (causes to be) originally seems to have been associated with the creation of the heavenly realms/beings. This association was preserved in the fixed expression Yahweh ‚§»¹°ô¾, “He (who) causes the (heavenly) ‘armies’ to be”, translated conventionally as “Lord of Hosts”. It is perhaps significant that the jussive y®hî is specifically used in connection with the creation of the heavenly bodies in chapter 1 (vv. 3, 6, 14; Sarna/JPS, p. 7).
For next week, we will be looking further ahead in the book of Genesis, to the narratives in chapters 15 and 17 which describe the covenant established between God and Abraham. Read those, along with the surrounding Abraham narratives, and then turn and study the account in Exodus 24 of the establishment of the covenant with the people of Israel. The background and setting of the “covenant” idea and imagery is of great importance if one wishes to understand the ancient religious thought and expression of the Old Testament, and how it was interpreted and applied in the New Testament. Read these passages carefully, thinking and meditating upon them…and I will see you next Saturday.
References marked “Cassuto” above are to U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Part One): From Adam to Noah, translated by Israel Abrahams (Magnes Press [Jerusalem]: 1944/1961). For his work on the “Documentary Hypothesis”, cf. The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, transl. Israel Abrahams (Shalem Press [Jerusalem]: 2006).
References marked “Sarna/JPS” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesisty?arb, Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society [JPS]: 1989).
This week we begin shifting the focus to a study of the Old Testament. Many of the basic methods of critical analysis for the New Testament (introduced and demonstrated in the recent studies in the Gospel of John)—and of textual criticism, in particular—apply equally to the Old Testament. For the terminology and principles of New Testament textual criticism, see the article “Learning the Language”. However, there are some difficulties and challenges which are specific to a critical study of the Old Testament Scriptures; among these are:
1. The lack of manuscripts. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of the 20th century, there were no manuscripts or copies of the Old Testament, to speak of, any earlier than the 10th century A.D. This meant our earliest copies were, in most instances, at least 1,500 years later than the original composition (autograph) of the books in question. The Qumran and other Dead Sea Scripture scrolls (around 200, from the 1st centuries B.C./A.D.) have been immensely valuable in bridging this gap. However, even so, the Dead Sea manuscripts are still 500 or more years later in time than the original copies of most of the books. Scholars rely on the Greek versions (the Septuagint [LXX] and other Old Greek) to fill in some of the remaining gaps. The relative paucity of early and reliable manuscripts, compared with the situation for the New Testament with its wealth of MSS, makes it quite difficult, at times, to judge what the most likely original reading of passage might be.
2. The lack of extra-biblical Hebrew. Very little written Hebrew survives from the Old Testament period, covering the time when most of the Scripture texts were written (c. 1200-450 B.C.), and no literary products at all comparable to the Old Testament books. Even if we extend this to texts and inscriptions written in the related Canaanite languages and dialects (Phoenician, Moabite, early Aramaic, etc), the evidence is scant indeed. This means that, when there are difficult passages involving rare words or unusual phrasing, there is often little help to be found from contemporary extra-Biblical writing to decipher the meaning. By contrast, there are literally thousands of Hellenistic and Koine Greek texts from the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. to aid us in understanding the Greek of the New Testament. Old Testament scholars are often forced to look further afield to earlier (and more distant) examples from Canaan and Mesopotamia, or to the considerably later Hebrew and Aramaic of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Mishnah, and Targums, as well as examples from Arabic, etc. For the earliest Hebrew (c. 1200-950 B.C.), perhaps the best comparative evidence comes from the many valuable texts discovered at Ugarit (Ras Shamra) in Syria. Even so, in certain difficult passages, it can be difficult to decide whether an apparent peculiarity is the result of textual corruption or reflects a rare/unusual word for which there is little surviving evidence to make a comparison.
3. The position of the Masoretic Text. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light, scholars, as a practical necessity, were forced to work almost entirely with the so-called “Masoretic Text” (MT). This refers to the textual tradition preserved by generations of Jewish scholars and copyists (Masoretes) in the Middle Ages. It was enshrined as the “Received Text” (Textus Receptus) in the great Rabbinic Bibles printed and published in the 16th century, much as similar “Textus Receptus” editions of the New Testament began to be published by Christians around the same time. This Masoretic Text was the basis for later critical editions, such as the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), Westminster Leningrad Codex (WLC), and the Hebrew University Bible Project (HUBP). However, as noted above, these medieval manuscripts are about a thousand years later in time than the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Practical and doctrinal considerations have given an overly-exalted position to the Masoretic Text. Even critical scholars tended to regard differences between the MT and the Old Greek versions as examples of aberrant or “free” translation by the latter. Yet, as the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) have made clear, the Septuagint (LXX) and other Old Greek versions often reflect an underlying Hebrew text which differs in certain ways from the MT. In fact, the DSS demonstrate considerable textual diversity in the Scriptures during the 1st century B.C./A.D.—a point which could be confirmed by the various forms of the Old Testament cited in the New Testament. At the same time, the Scrolls have also established the general accuracy and reliability of the Masoretic text tradition. These two factors must be held in balance. In recent decades, scholars and textual critics have focused more on the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, rather than simply in relation to the MT as a ‘baseline’, attempting to form new models for analyzing the relationships between the various texts. In many ways, compared with the situation for the New Testament, textual criticism of the Old Testament is still in its infancy. This means that judgments regarding the “original” reading or form of the text must be made with considerable caution.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The label “Dead Sea Scrolls” applies, not only to the texts discovered in the caves near the site of Khirbet Qumrân, but also to the less well-known (and somewhat later) scrolls from the sites of Masada, the wadi Murabba±at, and Naµal „ever. There are around 200 distinct Old Testament manuscripts from the Qumran caves, in addition to copies of other extra-canonical writings which the Qumran Community seem to have regarded as authoritative Scripture (Book of Enoch, Jubilees, etc), at least at points in their history. Nearly all of the MSS are quite fragmentary, sometimes consisting only of tiny fragments of an individual book. This makes textual evaluation of the different copies of Scripture quite difficult, but there is enough evidence to allow scholars to make at least preliminary determinations about textual relationships and text-groupings. One finds, for example, MSS which reflect a Hebrew text that agrees with the Septuagint or the Samaritan Pentateuch against the Masoretic Text, at least at certain points. With other MSS or portions, the reverse is true.
This degree of fluidity can be disconcerting for Jews and Christians who prefer to think of a fixed and reliable line of text stretching from the original copies, down to the modern printed editions of the Masoretic Text. It is also uncertain the extent to which the texts in the Qumran “library” are standard for Judaism of the period, or reflect the sectarian interests of the Qumran Community. In the case of the Old Testament scrolls, the Qumran copies are probably representative of the various forms of the text which might have been accessible by Jews (and Christians) in the 1st century B.C./A.D. Generally speaking, the Scripture texts from Masada, Murabba±at and Naµal „ever (late 1st/early 2nd century) are consistently much closer to the Masoretic Text than are those from Qumran, but it is not clear whether this reflects development and standardization (toward the MT) or is simply an accident of survival.
In the upcoming studies in this series, we will be looking at selected passages as a way of seeing how Old Testament criticism (and textual criticism) works in action, and in the context of the Scriptures. Along the way, we will frequently be calling upon the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
By way of introduction, I wish to look briefly at the beginning of the book of the Old Testament entitled “In the beginning…” (B®r¢°šî¾, Bereshith, i.e. “Genesis”). We find difficulties of interpretation already in the very first words (and word) of Genesis. Let us examine these in turn.
[In the beginning of]—The Hebrew word is r¢°šî¾, related to rœ°š (“head”), understood in the more abstract sense of “top” or “start, beginning”. The temporal sense of the latter fits best here (i.e., “beginning”). The preposition b®– (B=), usually translated “with” or “in”, is prefixed to the noun—b®r¢°šî¾, “in the beginning” or “at the start”, etc. There is a grammatical difficulty here, in that the word is in the construct state—that is, it is connected to the word which follows as a sequence chain. In English, we would render this as “in the beginning of…”. However, this results in an awkward sequence with the verb which follows—i.e., “In the beginning of God created…”
[created]—The consonants of this Hebrew verb are arb (br°). A special problem related to ancient Hebrew (and other Semitic languages) is that it was typically transmitted without vocalization—that is, without indication of vowels. Scribes and readers, through basic use and practice, would have been able to recognize, in context, how a particular word should be pronounced. In Hebrew, however, the same letters, pronounced differently (i.e. with different vowels) can have a very different meaning or emphasis, sometimes indicating an entirely different word. The Masoretic tradition attempted to preserve the proper vocalization of the (consonantal) Hebrew text; but their work is not infallible, and many scholars today disagree with their vowel pointing in a number of places. We typically understand the verb here in Gen 1:1 to be vocalized as ar*b* (b¹r¹°, “he created”), following the Masoretic pointing. However, given the grammatical situation with the first word, noted above, some scholars over the years have felt the verb should be vocalized as an infinitive—ar)B= (b®rœ°, “[to] create, creating”). This would result in the following translation of vv. 1ff:
“In the beginning of God(‘s) creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was…”
According to this view, verses 1-3 essentially form a single statement, with vv. 1-2 serving as preliminary clauses which lead to “…and God said…” On the other hand, there are parallels in the Old Testament for keeping the traditional vocalization, and reading the construct form of the first word as a temporal phrase: “In the beginning of [i.e. of his creating], God created…” On this, see Leviticus 14:46; Isaiah 29:1; Hosea 1:2, and note Jeremiah 26:1; 27:1; 28:1.
[God]—This is one of the three primary “names” of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), presumably related to la@ (°¢l), an ancient and fundamental Semitic word which was used both to indicate deity (“God”) generally and also as the principal name of the Creator God (for more on this, see my article in the Christmas series “And you shall call his name…”). Its etymology remains uncertain, but it would appear to have the basic meaning “mighty, great”; thus the name/title would be something like “Mighty (One)”. The form °§lœhîm is a plural form, adapted it would seem, to a three-consonant pattern; it is essentially equivalent to °¢lîm (retaining the older, two-consonant pattern of °l). Based on the etymology assumed above, the word would mean, literally, “mighty ones”. The use of this plural form as a title for the one Creator God of ancient Israel has never been entirely explained. I will be discussing this point further in next week’s study. Suffice it to say that the distinctive use of different “names” for God in the Scriptures—El, Elohim, Yahweh, etc—has proven to be of considerable importance for Old Testament criticism.
[the heavens and the earth]—This expression is usually regarded as a hendiadys (two terms representing one thing) or a merism (two parts making up the whole)—that is, referring to the entire created universe. The noun š¹may (Akkadian šamû) represents the sky above the earth, particularly in relation to water (the rain, etc). The regular plural form š¹mayim (usually translated “heaven[s]”) perhaps reflects the ancient cosmology which viewed the ‘universe’ as a sphere, or hemisphere, surrounded by water (in the beginning, there was a great mass of water, as indicated here in v. 2). According to a developed form of this cosmology, there were at least two heavens—(1) the visible sky (underneath the “water above”), and (2) a realm above the water, which was the dwelling place of God. Similarly, I believe we can understand two aspects of “earth” (°ereƒ) here as well: (1) as the dwelling place of humankind, under God’s heaven, and (2) as the earth/ground, properly speaking, as a fundamental component of the created universe. The creation account which follows in vv. 2ff focuses on the “earth”, primarily, in the former cosmic sense (1) as the created universe. This is indicated by the initial wording of verse 2: “And (as for) the earth, it was…” Here earth does not refer to the ground, but to the physical universe. It is important to realize that the Scriptures are addressed primarily to the people at the time and make use of the language, ideas, and conceptions of the ancient Near East. This means that the creation account in Genesis must be read and understood first according to the ancient cosmology of the time, and not according to our modern views of cosmology. The Old Testament Scriptures derive from an older and more distant culture than, for example, the world of the New Testament and early Christianity, and also employ languages (Semitic: Hebrew/Aramaic) even more foreign to us than ancient Greek. This requires especially careful study for us today.
This is just a sample of the approach one might take in a critical study of the Old Testament. In the weeks that follow, I will be introducing and utilizing other examples—first, with selected verses from the Pentateuch, and then an examination of some key passages in the book of Isaiah.
For next week, I would ask that you read the Creation narrative(s) in chapters 1-2 closely. If you have knowledge of Hebrew, or can access tools to help you examine the original text (such as available to you in Biblesoft’s PC Study Bible), you will want to focus on two verses in particular: (a) the famous divine declaration, regarding the creation of humankind, in 1:26, and (b) the transitional narrative join in 2:4. Think and meditate on these carefully, noting any questions or thoughts you might have…and I will see you next Saturday.