A Post-Barthian Attempt at Genesis 1: vv 6–10

Okay, so where was I? Oh, yes: the creature was still only the nothing, a singular abyssal deep that had not yet been internally differentiated—but now it has a full day–night cycle consisting of the periodic alternation between light and darkness, with fades in between, even without there being celestial bodies involved.

I've already significantly departed from Barth's analysis, because he thinks that the nothing is a primordial chaos that God chooses against in creating something. The text, on the other hand, clearly imagines the nothing as a created something, even if it isn't yet anything in particular. The singular abyssal deep of the təhom cannot be chaos, as I have said, because true χάος is the yawning void between things—which requires there to be more than one thing. And that's important, because in the coming text God is about to create just such a χάσμα, which in English we know as the word "chasm."

Genesis 1:6–10
wayomer 'elohīm yəhī raqīa` bətok hamayim
wiyhī mabədīl bēn mayim lamayim
waya`aś 'elohīm et-haraqīa`
wayabədēl bēn hamayim 'ašer mitaḥat laraqīa` ubēn hamayim 'ašer mē`al laraqīa`
wayiqəra' 'elohīm laraqīa` šamayim
wayəhī-`ereb wayəhī-boqer yom šēnī

wayomer 'elohīm yiqawu hamayim mitaḥat hašamayim 'el-maqom eḥad
wətēra'eh hayabašā
wayiqəra 'elohīm layabašā 'ereṣ
uləmiqwēh hamayim qara' yamīm
wayarə 'elohīm kī-ṭob

And God said, "Would that there were an expanse amid the waters,
that would distinguish among the waters."
And God made the expanse,
and God distinguished between the waters that were under the expanse and the waters that were above the expanse,
and it was so.
And God gave to the expanse the name, "skies/heavens,"
and there was evening and there was dawning: a second day.

And God said, "Let the waters below the skies/heavens bind themselves to one place,
and let dryness appear."
And it was so.
And God gave to the dryness the name, "land/earth,"
and to the reservoir of the waters, "seas,"
and God saw that it was good.

A Nature God Respects, but to which God is not Bound

Much like the last section, God begins with the jussive, politely suggesting that it would be nice if there were a thing. But unlike God's wish for light, the creature cannot oblige today's wish. If God wants internal differentiation, if God wants difference in the creature, God must make that differentiation Godself. The creature does not self-differentiate.

We saw this with light as well: it was good that there was light, as well as darkness, but God is the one who provided the definition necessary to differentiate light and darkness from one another and produce a cycle of alternation between them, creating time and sequence and plurality. And, as we see today, when God produces difference in the creature, that difference sticks. In this text in Genesis, God is the one who makes there to be meaningful difference in the creature, and sets that difference into patterns that become its nature.

Now, I could have bound this pericope at the day marker in verse 8, as those are where we commonly divide this text. Creation happens on successive days, and since the Patristic era we have been talking about this story in those divisions as the hexæmeron, from the Greek ἑξα-ήμερον: the six-day creation. But there's something different about this set of actions vis-à-vis the day marker. Every day that follows, from here on out, the day's actions will be so, the result will be good, and then night will fall. But here, it's only halfway-so on the second day, and two separate sets of things-being-so will be good successively on the third day.

God does not make the cycle of day and night, evening and dawning, to govern God's own actions. Nor does it flex around those actions, as though it was light for however long God was working, and dark only when God finished. And we know that this is so because God is only halfway through actually (rather than proleptically) making the heavens and the earth out of the nothing when night falls a second time.

Only the heavens, only the sky half of the chasm in which we will come to exist, has been finished at that point. But neither does God choose to work straight through the night, ignoring the cycles of the nature being created here. God chose for there to be light in which to work, and that light should be ordered to a cycle of alternation; and God chooses to perform this creative work during the day-times so created. Nothing binds God to this; God who is other than the creature freely chooses what the creature will be like, choosing the patterns of the creature's existence in ways God deems good and so respects in moving forward with its further definition.

A Vast, Plastic Expanse Amid the Waters

The ancient Hebrews had no concept of "plastic," but the nominal "vault of the heavens" is named for something similar: the ductility of soft metals that can be worked thin and stretched out into plates and sheets and foils using carefully directed force. This is the root concept for the raqīa`, which in English we most often call the "firmament" by reference to the Vulgate's notion that it holds up the heavens. There is no such notion of strong support in the Hebrew, though, nor is the raqīa` something underneath the heavens in this text—that notion develops elsewhere. Indeed, it will itself receive the name "heavens" in this text.

Instead of something strong, what the author gives the reader here is something flexible, something that has expanded through work applied to the material. These are not "heavens" as a series of celestial realms, spaces above this one, but rather the skies, open and unbounded—and, if you catch them in just the right lighting conditions, shining just like the worked metals involved in the root image. Nothing separates them from the earth; they are what separate the waters below from the waters above, just as the atmosphere is what separates the surface of our planet from the vacuum of space—which is, remember, what the abyssal təhom signifies as an image of nothingness.

Attending to the Other Side of the Expanse

Working that vast expanse of air out of the primordial waters seems to have taken all day, and so it is only on the next morning that God turns God's attention to what is below it. And this day's work is easier, because once again God can suggest to the creature that it participate in its own becoming. And so the third day begins with something much more like the first, in which a new thing is made because what exists has given place to it, and then the two become related to one another as new realities together.

It's not like the author imagines there's sea floor underneath the waters below the skies, and it just has to be exposed by moving the water somewhere else. The seafloor doesn't rise to become land masses in the midst of the waters. The waters do not all pile up in one place to make room for such land. All this imagines what we know to be the case today: that this stuff is already in existence, with finite limits, and those limits just have to be nudged around to rearrange what already exists into some different configuration.

But that simply isn't the case here. There are no limits to the waters below the skies, except the newly-formed skies themselves as a limit separating what had been one boundless abyss into two: above and below. Only the image of a globe, a planetary ball, suggests that the abyss below the skies is smaller and more naturally limited than the abyss above—and that image is, of course, an anachronism.

Imagine something more like this: the abyssal təhom is obviously wet. But that water can be squeezed out of parts of it, and made to saturate other parts of it. Imagine that parts of the abyss are now dry, and other parts very wet indeed. And why is this? Because the waters of the abyss have tied themselves to one part of it, created a boundary for themselves where they are, and on the other side are not. The verb qawah is grounded in an image of strands and cords and tension and binding, lining up and cordoning off, the restraint involved in waiting, and the mass of things so collected and held together. And with the reflexive nifal, this is what God asks the waters to do to themselves: become moored to just one place, and leave dryness everywhere else.

The word commonly used for ritual bathing pools, collected reservoirs of clean water for cleansing, is from the same root, commonly spelled mikvah (because SBL transliteration standards are based on American Protestant conventions drawn from German scholarship in which w is pronounced as v anyways). And, albeit without purpose, that is what the seas are: a reservoir, an artificial limitation of waters that could at any time be universal again. And this will be the action of the flood: a releasing of this artificial limitation by which there is anywhere dryness that is not part of the abyssal deep.

What God calls "land" and "seas," then, are simply two forms of what had been the one abyssal deep below the skies: the dry part now, the desert, and the wet part, the ocean. As with light and darkness, so with the dry and the wet: one of these things had already existed, had been the only thing, had been universal and so unnamed. The new thing called forth in difference from it is not better than the old to which it is added; when God calls it good, the verdict is upon the existence of a growing diversity that is better than the universal singularity that preceded it.

This is what God calls good: making a new thing that defines and recreates the old by giving it existence in new relationships. Supersessionist ideology here would be as foolish as it is among the peoples of God, or among the persons of the Trinity. The creature remains one creature, and it is upon this total creature that God bestows God's positive verdict.


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