|Let there be light.|
If you haven’t yet done so, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, produced by the Jewish Publication Society and used in conservative Jewish synagogue worship. The commentary includes rabbinic interpretation(s) of the text of the Torah as well as modern critical notes.
Here are a few of the critical notes by Nahum M. Sarna on Genesis 1.
- Concerning the verb bara in Genesis 1:1 – “The Hebrew stem of the word translated as ‘create’ (ברא) is used in the Bible only for divine creativity. . . . The verb never means ‘to create out of nothing.'”
- Concerning the Hebrew word tehom in Genesis 1:2 – “The Hebrew word for ‘the deep’ (t’hom) refers to the subterranean waters that ancient humans believed were beneath the earth. The text says nothing about how or when this body of water came into existence. In Proverbs (8:22–24) it is one of God’s creations. The word is related etymologically to Tiamat, the maritime goddess in the Babylonian creation story. In all of the ancient Near Eastern creation stories, the primal element is water. To the ancients, the formless nature of water seemed to represent a state of affairs before chaos was transformed to order.”
- Concerning the Hebrew phrase tohu wa-bohu – “The Hebrew for this phrase (tohu wa-vohu) means ‘desert waste.’ The point of the narrative is the idea of order that results from divine intent. There is no suggestion here that God made the world out of nothing, which is a much later conception.”
- Concerning the presence of the Tanninim (“sea monsters”) in Genesis 1:21 – “Both the Hebrew word for these creatures (tannin) and the word ‘Leviathan’ appear in Canaanite myths from the ancient city of Ugarit, as the name of a dragon god from earliest times who assisted Yam (god of the sea) in a battle against Baal (Canaanite god of fertility). Fragments of an Israelite version of this myth are present in several biblical poetic texts in which the forces of evil in this world are figuratively identified with ‘Tannin,’ the embodiment of the chaos that God had vanquished in earliest times. By stating that they were part of God’s creation, the narrative deprives them of divinity.”
- Concerning the plurals in Genesis 1:26–27 – “The extraordinary use of the first person plural here evokes the image of a heavenly court in which God is surrounded by an angelic multitude. This is the Israelite version of the assemblies of pagan deities prevalent in the mythologies of the ancient world.”
So, according to at least one authoritative Jewish commentary on Genesis 1, the biblical creation account includes the divine council, God fashioning order out of preexisting chaos, and the absence of creation ex nihilo.
No wonder I’ve always had a strong affinity for conservative Judaism.