Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Before Creation

| By Shelley Emling

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Over the past few weeks we have seen some examples of how ancient interpreters read Genesis. They were very “active” readers; they would dialogue with the text, ask it questions, and seek clarification. They would ask questions like “Why doesn’t Genesis talk about the creation of angels?” or “Why doesn’t Genesis mention Wisdom’s role like we see in Proverbs?”

These kinds of questions were not threatening to ancient interpreters. Quite the opposite: instead they thought of them as invitations by God to engage the text more carefully.

To remind our readers, I would like to review why these ancient interpreters are worth taking the time to look at.

  1. Ancient interpreters regularly pick up on real interpretive problems and challenges in the biblical text that tend to pass us by. We benefit from their close reading by becoming close readers ourselves.

  2. Paying attention to the interpretive challenges of Genesis corrects the notion that the meaning of the creation story is “obvious” and that debates over what it means is nothing or than making obscure what is plain.

In other words, watching ancient interpreters helps us read more closely and to do so more humbly. It hopefully opens up conversations about what the Bible is saying rather than closing them down.

This week we continue looking at Genesis 1 from an ancient point of view. An issue that has long attracted attention is whether anything already existed before the creation of the world. Again, from a modern point of view, knowing what we know about creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia, Genesis 1 is a story of ordering chaos, which is depicted in Genesis 1:2 as a dark, watery mass. There was “something” there where God began forming the cosmos in Genesis 1.

Don’t get sidetracked on this point. Ancient Jewish interpreters could not have been expected to pick up on this specific point. But they were still wondering whether there was anything around before the vents described in Genesis 1. Many seemed to think there was.

For example, things like Torah and the Temple—those central elements of Israelite and later Jewish identity—were surely not merely “creations” like everything else. Law and worship existed somehow before mundane things like mountains and beasts of the field.

This “had” to be so, as early interpreters picked up on some passages in the Old Testament that helped them establish their case.

For example, Psalm 11:4 speaks of Yahweh’s “holy temple” in heaven. In fact, according to Exodus 25:9, the tabernacle (the moveable precursor to the Temple) was to be made according to the “pattern” that God would show Moses. The conclusion to be drawn is that there is a Temple up there somewhere, a Temple that is not mentioned among the creative acts of God in Genesis 1 because it existed beforehand.

Hence, you had ancient interpreters making explicit what is implicit. The Wisdom of Solomon, a book we have met already in previous weeks, refers to the tabernacle as a “copy” of what God had prepared “from the beginning” (9:8), before God made Paradise (according to 2 Baruch 4:3).

Even though Genesis makes no mention of such a heavenly, pre-existent Temple/tabernacle, early interpreters picked up on other biblical clues such as Psalm 11:4 and Exodus 25:9, which speak of aheavenly sanctuary and concluded that it was a preexistent sanctuary.

Some early interpreters even thought the Garden of Eden existed before the world’s creation. As with the sanctuary, the reason for drawing this conclusion seems to be a verse in the Old Testament, but this time it seems to be based on a misunderstanding of a verse.

Genesis 2:8 says that God planted a garden in Eden miqqedem. That is the Hebrew phrase, and it is normally (and correctly) understood today as “in the east.” The Greek Septuagint, Philo, and Josephus took it that way, too. However, one possible meaning of this phrase is “of old,” which is how other interpreters took it, for example one of the Targums (Aramaic translations) and the Vulgate, and so translated the verse something like “a garden in Eden previously” or “from the beginning.” This led other interpreters to make more explicit comments, that the garden was planted “before the earth appeared” (2 Esdras 3:6), or “2000 years before the world was created” (Targum Neophyti to Genesis 3:24).

It all came down to a verse that was misunderstood.

Another type of example concerns the Law of Moses, the Torah. God gave the law to Moses, but surely something so central to Israel was not an afterthought. Rather, it was a reflection of God’s will—his character—and so to know the law was to know the mind of God. Hence, some reasoned that it was in God’s mind long before, even before the creation of the world.

The Bible does not actually say that the Law of Moses preexisted creation, but one can see why early Jewish interpreters would have thought it to be important. So, the second century B.C. apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus handles it this way: that author equates Wisdom, which existed before creation according to Proverbs 8, with “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us” (Ecclesiasticus 24:23). In other words, law is a form of wisdom, and so is preexistent. Similarly the first century Jewish philosopher Philo equated the word by which God created in Genesis 1 with Torah.

What these examples show at the very least is that the story told in Genesis 1 was not considered a complete story that accounted for all there is. There were gaps that needed to be filled. Things that were important to faithful Jews—like law, sanctuary, not to mention wisdom and angels (which we have looked at in previous posts)—are not mentioned but still need to be accounted for somehow, whether as part of creation (as with angels) or prior to creation (law, sanctuary, and Eden). These were questions ancient interpreters were asking, and they searched for answers in scripture.


About the Author

Shelley Emling

  Shelley Emling is a freelance writer for the International Herald Tribune and a former foreign correspondent based in London. Her new book The Fossil Hunter tells the real-life story of Mary Anning, a poor 19th century girl whose fossil discoveries helped change our view of the Earth's history.


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