A Post-Barthian Attempt at Genesis 1: vv 1-2

Barth is (in)famous for beginning his doctrine of creation with an exegesis of the Genesis creation stories, widely viewed by his peers as archaic and inappropriate for Christian doctrine—though as for that, he did it in the only respectable way a Modern can, and in far superior fashion to the Biblicist fetish for Genesis as literal history. He did it, that is to say, using critical hermeneutics carefully, even if he didn't do precisely what a professional OT scholar would have done either then or now, and even as he did it without much of the knowledge we have built up about these texts and their likely histories.

And Barth managed some brilliant insights into the texts, even as they are also the sources of some of his most profoundly objectionable and systematically unnecessary thoughts—particularly on gender and sexuality. Today we are obliged to attempt the same kind of work, but to do better than Barth managed to do. I can't guarantee that here, but I'm going to take a swing at Genesis 1 today because it's still a worthwhile thing to do. Because above all a Barthian doing Sachkritik must hear the text with its worldviews, and seek to understand what they are doing! The text als Sage tells a coherent tale by its own standards, and if we would tell any such tale by ours, it will help if we know what this one is doing.

Of course, if I'm really going to do this text justice in the equivalent of small-print excurses, it's not going to happen in one blog post! Genesis 1 is a packed text, deeply encoded with meaning, and this generates still more meaning when interpreted out of an alien context—because it surely is an alien text! We have never been ancient Hebrews, we have never lived in the source contexts for this text any more than we lived in its redactional contexts, and so we must face up to the reality that we—and not the "primitive" authors and editors of Genesis—are the ones behind the curve needing to catch up. What we know of the world does not tell us anything about Genesis, nor do the creation stories tell us of the world we know until we reach the Fall and its consequences. Those pieces of the story tell our origins; these first texts speak instead of our criteria.

So: on we go, into the first two verses!

Genesis 1:1–2
bəre'šīt bara' 'elohīm et hašamayim wəet ha'areṣ
wəha'areṣ hayətā tohu wabohu
wəḥošek `al-pənē təhom
wəruaḥ 'elohīm məraḥefet `al-pənē hamayim

"To start with, God made the sky/heavens and the land/earth
and the land/earth was completely empty
and darkness was over the surface of the abyssal deep
and the spirit of God rested over the surface of the waters."

The Nothing that was before Anything Else

Prolepsis is going to be thematic throughout this text, because it's not clear that there is in fact "land" at this point. Something will be called "land" later, but it isn't yet in evidence. The only thing there is (and there's plenty of it) is the vacuum of space—or the closest thing ancient Hebrews could imagine to it: everything covered with water to an unimaginable depth. Which also means an unimaginable height! The surface of the abyssal deep is not at this point what we would think of as the surface of the earth. There is no livable surface here, no sea teeming with its own life; just the empty waters of there-is-nothing-else stretching out as far as the mind can imagine. The only surface there is belongs to the abyssal deep, which in its undifferentiated state is just as much the surface of the heavens as of the earth.

This means that I'm going to reject the notion of "chaos" in any common English sense of the word, because when we think this word we think of disordered, unruly, random stuff. We think of it as a negation of order, of law, of sense and meaning—but it only suggests this on the basis of the assumption that positively ordered things simply exist. At this point, only nothing simply exists, as the very first thing. This idea of "chaos" descends from primordial order, which is not the case here. There will have to be anything at all other than the nothing, and then it will have to be arranged, before invocation of primordial nothingness can be destructive and disordering and regenerative of new things God did not intend—which is what Barth will mean by his invocation of das Nichtige in CD III.3. To will the nothing against God's somethings is a wrong, is the root of evil even as it is a root of order because we then go on to will other somethings of our own. But this is not the fault of the nothing! Nothing isn't a bad thing; God proceeds to construct the cosmos over and within this nothing, not against it.

And in any case, none of that is what the relevant Greek term χάος means! Like this primordial nothing, the yawning void—which Zeno also etymologized as watery from χέω rather than χάσκω/χαίνω—is empty. Both are void states. However, χάος is not functionally the word for the abyssal deep, but rather for the expanse that will later open between the waters above and the waters below. Χάος, the chasm, is an emptiness between things—but as yet there is only one thing and no "between" at all.

The Limits of the Nothing

And yet this one thing that is not yet anything else is not unbounded; it has a "face," a limit, a definitional surface by which it can be said to be, and to be here and not there. It has edges beyond which it is not, even more than in the sense that its being is the substance of things-not-yet-being. It has a shape from the outside, beyond which is only God. It has, in the sense of bara' derived from its cognates, been "carved out" in this shape as a new thing. Of course, the incision of these limits is another dangerous metaphor built on our inability to really imagine there not being anything. God posits this existence in distinction from Godself, as a thing God can meaningfully be outside of.

However, the creature—which is for the moment only the abyssal deep—was not carved out of the being of God, made of part of God's substance. We are not made of God, but rather by God, and now there are these two things—God and the non-God creature—where before there had only been God. God has inscribed these limits by making there be a non-God thing in the first place, and so limiting God's being relative to it—even as there can be no preventing God from overflowing those limits non-destructively, and being entirely in and with this new creature. Incommensurability, as George Lindbeck pointed out, is itself a kind of compatibility! Things that do not have to be reconciled because of competition for the same identity can be related to one another without conflict. And, as we will see, this is God's desire: not to be without the creature and in conflict with it, but to be with it in relationship.

The Presence of God

For the moment, the story tells us God rests outside of the creature, in relation to it. The abyssal deep has a face, and that face is unlit, and God rests over it. Now, there's obviously a Christian concern that has to be cleared, here. It's all well and good to speak of "creator spiritus," and to remember the Spirit into the act of creation just as we do the Son. But let us not take the poetics to imply that the ruaḥ 'elohīm is a separate entity, as though our trinitarian rubrics were part of this text. God's spirit is not a part of Godself, among other parts, but a mode of God's own being, the presence of God without conflicting remainder. The Spirit does indeed "brood over the waters," but not as though without the Father or the Son, as we ought to say using our good trinitarian grammar.

Of course, this is not at all what the text says, as though it admitted of other modes of God's being that had to be held in tension! This is an alien grammar to Genesis, and we use it only to ensure that we say what the text also says: that God, Godself, is present here. The word ruaḥ is not a personal substantive; when it is substantive, it is impersonal. When it is a personal referent, it is metonymy! Even as the breath of the wind, it may be metonymy, and a figure referring to a cardinal direction from which the wind blows—but when it is the breath of a person, it is never disembodied. There is always a person from whom it cannot be separated. It may be the breath in or out of one's mouth or nose. It may be a figure for empty words that are no better than windy silence, or for words that on the other hand carry the force of command, as they are blown forth. It may be a figure for the simple breath of one still alive when thought to be dead, or generally for the breath of living, breathing things.

But most often ruaḥ is a figure for anger or exertion, for our animation through vigorous exertion or strong emotion and the increased force of breath that entails. It is a figure we use in English, to speak of someone as "spirited," or "in high spirits," whether brave or temperamental. It is spirit in this sense and not soul, even as both are breathing words in Hebrew. As such it is a metonym that commonly indicates emotional state—and here God's emotional state is relaxed. Raḥaf in the Piel may be to hover over something, but this intensification of the verb simply shows an active relaxation, an active softening, as when a mother hen "broods" over her young. It is to float gently over something rather than to land with any force upon it—although the use of that concept in a realm without literal levitation tends to imply light resting force rather than heavy impact.

So: here we are, at the end of two verses, with the singular created nothing that God has defined in order to make everything else, and with respect to which God's active intention is gentle. All is dark at the moment, but that won't last long. Things aren't bad—or, I suppose, good for that matter—but they're about to get better, just the same.