Bereshith: Judeo-Christian Genesis

Bereshith: Judeo-Christian Genesis

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For the Judeo-Christian view of cosmogenesis we go to the opening chapter of the Bible, known in English as The Book of Moses, Called Genesis. Its original Hebrew title was simply Bereshith which means “In the Beginning.” When translated into Greek, it became simply Genesis: coming into being.  Here it is stated that the world arose because God willed it so, or, if we refer to the original, because the Gods willed it, since there the word is Elohim which is in the plural. In any event, the view expressed here is that the universe is a consequence of God’s fiat (let there be!). In other words, the world did not just come to be: It came about because it was God’s will.

This is a crucial idea, and has become a matter of controversy between the scientific and the Abrahamic interpretation of the origin of the world. It must be recalled that this became a problem only when Aristotle was re-introduced in the West. However, the great philosopher-theologian Thomas of Aquinas successfully interpreted Aristotle without accepting his view that the universe had existed for ever, i.e. without having been created by God. For more than three centuries after the rise of modern science, most scientists were quite comfortable with the notion that the universe had indeed been created by God. Even Darwin’s theory cast some doubt, not about the divine origin of the universe, but only about the emergence of humankind. Most scientific thinkers until the twentieth century, from Kepler and Galileo through Boyle, Descartes and Newton, to Faraday, Maxwell and  more accepted the world as a creation of God. To them, what science studies are the details of that creation. Laplace’s famous response to Napoleon that he did not see any need for the hypothesis of God in his work on celestial mechanics was not a denial of God as Creator, but of the needlessness, hence the irrelevance, of invoking God in the mathematical study of planetary motions.

In the Book of Genesis we also read: “And God said, ‘Let there be Light; and there was light.’” This is a remarkable insight in that it recognizes the primacy of all-pervading radiation in the physical universe. It also emphasizes the fact that knowledge about the world is gained through light.  Religiously inclined physicists might say that what God meant was electromagnetic waves, and that it was only when God made Man that there was light. In any event, it is God’s word that is significant here. Word implies meaning, and so one might interpret the Biblical vision as saying that the universe has been imbued with meaning right from the start.

Then we read that God separated light from darkness. One may give many interpretations to this. My own is that dichotomies became an intrinsic feature of the created universe. Furthermore, light and darkness complement, and also contradict each other. Both kinds of dichotomies arise in the world and in human life also. Then God made sun and the moon, the earth and  land and the waters, had life develop from the waters, grass and green from the land, and other animals too. All these were preparations for the emergence of Homo sapiens, as indeed they seem to have been as per current evolutionary biology.

At last, in a second Genesis, God made Man in His image. This too is another profound vision of the intrinsic nature of human beings.  For it implies that  there is divinity in the human spirit: that is to say, the Divine is the highest concentration of the finest potential for the good and the noble, for love and compassion, for power and perfection. In this sense, we are all pale and modest reflections of the Divine, as the Upanishadic seers of India said. Then, it says in Genesis II, woman too was created by God. This again can be meaningfully interpreted as referring to an important aspect of the human condition:  that in solitude and  without the bonds of love and friendship, human life is empty and not worth the experience at all. 

All this creation happened, if one adopts simplistic literalism, in a span of six days. Some have seen the roots of this view in Babylonian astronomy which initiated the seven-day week on the basis of the seven (ancient science) planets in the sky, and on Mesopotamian myths about Marduk. Others contend that the Judeo-Christian assertion is an authentic report of what actually happened, relegating the more ancient ones to  mere hymns to a primitive pseudo-God. The God of the other always strikes one as a pseudo-God.